Artful Anorexia

Illustration by Katharina Davoudian

Artful Anorexia

Isabel Armiento

March 2, 2021

 

I was starving when I read Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” This is different than being hungry: where hunger pounds at your ribcage, loud and violent, starvation quietly settles across your body, resigned. Hunger motivates you toward action; starvation convinces you you’d be fine if you never ate again, as long as you don’t have to do anything else either.

During my struggle with eating disorder, everything became exhausting – and I mean everything, even watching Netflix from the comfort of my couch. Yet Kafka’s prose energized me. I found myself rereading “A Hunger Artist,” circling phrases that revealed some profound truth I had failed to articulate to my worried, uncomprehending friends: “He alone knew…how easy it was to starve,” Kafka writes of the titular hunger-artist, “It was the easiest thing in the world.” My excitement grew as I realized that this great writer had once starved himself, too, and in this moment I was connected to genius.

I leapt eagerly into the large body of scholarship arguing that Kafka, an artist so important that he has an adjective named after him, suffered from anorexia. His letters, his diaries, his fiction – all of it trembled with the weight of his affliction, our affliction. I reasoned that if Kafka had an eating disorder, then maybe I wasn’t suffering because I was “frivolous” or “vain” – words that are so often used to talk about traditionally female struggles.

I am ashamed to say that I grasped hungrily at “A Hunger Artist,” at Kafka’s depiction of a defeminized anorexia.

 

In Kafka’s story, a hunger artist is locked in a cage without food for forty days. His starvation is a public spectacle witnessed by fascinated crowds; his self-flagellation is lauded and rewarded. At the peak of his career, the hunger artist’s “magnificent productions” are “cheered by thousands;” the well-fed masses are enchanted by his fleshless frame, his poking button-ribs and sharp smile of a collarbone.

Kafka depicts the anorexic man as an artist who starves himself according to “the honour code of his art.” Even when his audience loses interest, he remains hopelessly devoted to his craft, giving new meaning to the phrase starving artist: “Try and explain the art of starving! It needs to be felt, it’s not something that can be explained,” the hunger-artist laments. Kafka does not see his hero as the “victim” of an “illness” – words I used to describe myself as I struggled to recover from my eating disorder. No, Kafka’s hunger artist does not want to be cured; to him, starvation is not a symptom, but a product. His body of work is literally his body.

“Kafka’s hunger artist does not want to be cured; to him, starvation is not a symptom, but a product. His body of work is literally his body.”

Kafka’s hunger artist starves himself in service of a lofty, even sacred vocation, creating a model of male anorexia tied to not only artistry but also spirituality and monastic discipline. The hunger artist starves for exactly forty days, Christ-like, as the “heavens” watch, casting down benevolent wishes to “this pitiable martyr.”

This discourse of male anorexia is wildly different than how we speak about female self-starvation, which is often hidden beneath dangerous pseudonyms like “dieting,” or worse, “self-care,” and is seen as a habit of privilege, even a luxury. A woman’s anorexia is often dismissed as upper-class malaise, rather than revered as “the lofty endeavour, the good will, the great self-denial” of Kafka’s hunger artist.

“A woman’s anorexia is often dismissed as upper-class malaise, rather than revered as ‘the lofty endeavour, the good will, the great self-denial’ of Kafka’s hunger artist.”

 

Notably, Kafka does not explicitly discuss female anorexia, yet the story’s gendered implications still exist, made even more evident by this ellipsis. At the time Kafka was writing, “fasting girls” were already a major phenomenon. The real-life female equivalent of Kafka’s hunger artist, a “fasting girl” could survive for extended periods of time without food, a feat which she claimed was due to religious fervor, not mental illness. Kafka’s decision to make his hunger artist a singularly male character although “fasting girls” were a fixture of Victorian culture feels strangely intentional. Clearly, Kafka depicts male anorexia as somehow separate from female anorexia.  

The intentions of “fasting girls” were a subject of much debate in the 19th century. Were these women fasting in service of a noble spiritual goal, or was their refusal to eat a womanly weakness, a symptom of hysteria? Fasting girls were given one of two diagnoses: anorexia mirabilis – in which fasting is seen as a divine miracle, a triumph of asceticism – or anorexia nervosa – in which fasting is a hysterical pathology, often present in particularly independent or stubborn women. Kafka’s male hunger artist emblematizes anorexia mirabilis, offering a neat answer to the “fasting girls” debate: a fasting woman was nervosa; a fasting man, mirabilis.

 

“A Hunger Artist” ends with the debasement of Kafka’s smaller-than-life hero: he is now locked in a neglected cage at the circus, where spectators stroll by without noticing his emaciated body buried in the hay. He is as close to nonexistence as a person can get; yet absurdly, he is empowered. He is exactly where he wants to be. This is a problematic ending for a character with a chronic mental illness, yet it also feels deeply unjust. My eating disorder made me feel trapped, while the hunger artist’s enables him to feel free. Even when suffering, he has agency. After all, he chose his cage, locked it himself.

An anorexic woman’s cage is not a choice: it is her birthright. She clings to the bright metal bars as they tighten around her; they are fashioned from a society that intuits thinness as an automatic marker of her social currency; from a multi-billion dollar diet industry; from a culture that told her that to gain value, she must shrink; from the majority of women who, at any given time, are actively trying to lose weight.

“An anorexic woman’s cage is not a choice: it is her birthright…from a culture that told her that to gain value, she must shrink.”

How to escape a cage gifted to us by our mothers, sisters, friends, mentors; a cage passed on like a legacy? Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” leaves no room for women and their complex history of fasting and fat-shaming – and for this, it fails profoundly.

Years later, I read the story again, no longer starving but still nursing a fraught relationship with my body. This time, it lost its appeal. What made me like it the first time around – it’s masculinization of eating disorder – now made it seem lustreless, simplistic, overly concerned with its own gravity.

“A Hunger Artist” may satisfy a very specific male reader. However, I think the average woman – who is wearied and disillusioned by a lifetime of celebrating starving bodies – will likely dismiss it as sparse and unnuanced. She will be left frustrated; hungry.

 

References

Fichter MM. “Franz Kafkas Magersucht [Franz Kafka’s anorexia nervosa]”. Fortschritte der Neurologie-Psychiatrie, 1988, 56(7):231-238.

Heywood, Leslie. “The Metaphysics of the Flame: Fasting Girls, Kafka’s Letters to Felice, and “A Hunger Artist”.” Dedication to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture, University of California Press, 1996.

Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015.

Martin, Crescent B.; Herrick, Kirsten A.; Sarafrazi, Neda; Ogden, Cynthia L. “Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016.” National Centre for Health Statistics, 2018, No. 313.

 

 

 

Isabel Armiento is an MA student of English literature at the University of Toronto, where she works at The Varsity newspaper and is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Mnerva Literary Journal. Her creative work can be found in Oyster River Pages, Lines + Stars, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.

Uliana Hlynchak in Windsor, Ontario

The author, Uliana Hlynchak, in Windsor.  Photo courtesy of Uliana Hlynchak

Road Trip to Windsor

Uliana Hlynchak

March 24, 2021

 

We travelled to the end of Canada’s 401 highway to Windsor. At least, that’s how I imagined it. The road was empty; hardly any cars. The landscapes bathing in the afternoon sun promised the velvet evening of an Indian summer. 

The Detroit River met us with a light chill breeze. Across the river, the urban landscape of Detroit glistened in the setting sun. Along the river’s Canadian side was a strip of hotels. We didn’t book any room ahead. During pandemics there’s no problem finding a room on arrival day. Or so we thought.

“Let’s check this one.”

We walked to the hotel entrance: Temporarily Closed. 

“Let’s go to this neighbouring one…”

After a short walk we met the same sign: Hotel temporarily closed for business. We walked further. Finally—an open hotel. But we didn’t go inside; all this room hunting made us hungry for dinner.

Behind the main street there were two patio restaurants. Italian was busy and French was empty. Italian had music and a lovely crowd. We took the last table on the patio.

The perfect dinner and slow service let us enjoy every moment of each other’s company. Our trip was long overdue. We love travelling and move easily without specific plans; before the pandemic, we explored cities in Europe or South America. Now, we were happy for the opportunity to travel locally.

Outside Café Amor & Art

Enjoying breakfast at Café Amor & Art. Photo courtesy of Uliana Hlynchak

The hotel registered us in a flash. My partner went to park the car while I enjoyed a bath.

“There’s no showercap in the room. Could you get one at the reception please?” I texted and smiled at the absurdity of my request. But I didn’t want to wet my covid haircut, since my hair had grown long and it took some time to manage. Tomorrow I had a livestream appearance.

“Disaster,” he texted. 

I laughed. He did bring me that showercap. I did save my hairdo.

 

“We love travelling and move easily without specific plans; before the pandemic, we explored cities in Europe or South America. Now, we were happy for the opportunity to travel locally.”

 

In the morning, the Detroit River lay in full beauty. The busy cityscape behind it was in its Sunday best. I imagined a time when this river was busied with boats and barges, with heavy smoke coming out from smokestacks.

“We need to rush to the unveiling ceremony, but first let’s find a nice breakfast place,”  he said.

And we did. On Ottawa Street. Café Amor & Art: where South American food, literature, and art are served. Their chef explained Latin American items on the menu: chicken or sweet corn tamales, pupusas, empanadas Colombianas, and many more. They proudly served our breakfast in South American style pottery with bright and beautiful ornamental decor. 

Café Amor & Art

Inside Café Amor & Art (top) and their patio breakfast (bottom). Photos courtesy of Uliana Hlynchak

We made it on time to our engagement as it was only a block away. The Ukrainian National Federation held a mural unveiling on the side of its building. The ceremony was heartfelt as most public events are online these days. Steve Romaniuk’s mural depicted two dancers whirling in Ukrainian dance costumes; I could almost hear the music. 

After the unveiling, I hoped to return back to Café Amor & Art for their Latin American soup dish, but our Ukrainian hosts didn’t let us go without welcoming us with a full buffet of Ukrainian dishes. What beautiful people of Windsor; we will be back.

Oh, yes. I brought the showercap with me. Not taking any chances to end up somewhere without it until I cut my hair. But again—where will I go?  For now, it’s a no to nonessential travel.

 

 

 

Uliana Hlynchak is a Toronto-based producer and journalist for KONTAKT TV, a weekly Ukrainian TV show. She works with young talents on developing the show Kontakt Next Gen. She is a member of the Board of Directors at the Canadian Ukrainian Art Foundation and volunteers for the Toronto Ukrainian Festival. Her most recent projects are interviews on the contemporary art scene Art Talk and the webinar series Contemporary Ukrainian Émigré and Diaspora Literature. Uliana writes articles, poetry, and short stories in Ukrainian and English. 

Mango Sorbet

Illustrated by Katharina Davoudian

Mango Sorbet

Enri Boshti

March 7, 2021

 

Tucked away in Toronto’s vibrant Kensington Market is Dolce Gelato—a café serving coffee, desserts, and of course, gelato. Their mango gelato is arguably the most wonderful treat on a hot summer day, which I was looking forward to indulging after a particularly chilly winter. Unfortunately, quarantine crushed my gelato dreams and I was left to improvise. I scoured the internet for an alternative to mango gelato to satiate my craving and realized I could make mango sorbet, where water substitutes dairy. As I don’t own an ice cream machine, a little manual mixing was involved during the freezing process, but the effort is worth it for delicious mango sorbet!

Recipe

 

 

Mango Sorbet

Ingredients

  • 3 mangoes cut up and cubed
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • lemon juice from one lemon

 

Mango Sorbet

Steps

1. Cut your mangoes into cubes and add to a blender.

2. Add sugar, water, and lemon juice to the blender.

3. Blend on high for a few minutes until smooth.

4. Transfer mixture to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in freezer.

5. To prevent the formation of a giant mango popsicle, remove mixture from freezer and stir well every half hour for 4 hours before placing back in freezer.

6. Remove from freezer and allow to thaw before serving and enjoying!

 

 

Enri Boshti is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, having studied neuroscience and biochemistry. Looking at the world through the lens of a vintage camera, she’s inspired by the simple pleasures in life like a warm mug of tea and a view of the moon on a clear night.

Gogh by Car

Illustration by Katharina Davoudian

Experiencing Gogh by Car

Katharina Davoudian

February 27, 2021

 

A spinning sunflower. A twinkling and shimmering starry night. Olive trees that grow and dance.

These are some of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. His colours, brushstrokes, and mood are reimagined in a large, white, industrial room that smells of fresh paint. Some ten cars are parked here; their windows rolled down and engines off. As the walls and floor transform into a selection of Van Gogh’s oeuvre, these cars become seats in a theatre and the entire room its stage.

Cars in a theatre? This car-friendly theatrical art exhibit is an innovative way to social distance at Immersive Van Gogh. No need to get out of your car; you literally drive into the exhibit and remain in your seat. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share this experience with fellow art enthusiasts, a way to stay connected while distant through art.

“Van Gogh’s art floods the room and becomes alive, as if he paints before your eyes. You can smell his oils, hear his brush stroke the canvas.”

Van Gogh’s genius, coupled with the “technical wizardry” of the exhibit, feels like rediscovering his art. The vivid colours, kaleidoscopic animations, eclectic music; it’s beyond a visual and auditory experience, but blurs into a dream. Van Gogh’s art floods the room and becomes alive, as if he paints before your eyes. You can smell his oils, hear his brush stroke the canvas. 

The exhibit re-opens on March 9th. “Gogh” there—it’s an unforgettable experience that can change how you see Vincent Van Gogh’s art.

 

 

 

Katharina Davoudian is a Toronto-based artist  and writer. She is the editor-in-chief of Vinci.