Hunger

by waxnwings

Some new thought about the nature of art is being proposed in Hunger [Knut Hamsun, 1890]. It is an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it […] an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself […] an art of hunger: an art of need, of necessity; of desire.

~ Paul Aster, ‘The Art of Hunger’

Hunger Artist

For days now, I have been unable to write.

By “unable”, I’m referring to a two-fold inability:

  1. In general, I tend not to start anything new over the weekend, only drafts and redrafts most due to time restraints (or, more accurately, my ill-prioritisation of time toward writing). I prefer to use company time. It makes me feel like I’m being paid for my writing, because I’m literally getting paid while I’m writing.
  2. More specifically, this weekend saw the third birthday of Frendzy, a local Cornish music festival. So as well as being physically battered from burrowing through bushes and clambering over fences due to tearing off my wristband in an illogical frendzy, my mind… well… let’s just say… Pixies said it best in ‘Where is My Mind’…where is my mind… where the fuck is my mind…

But I wanted to write. I had stuff to write; I needed to write.

Yet my brain failed me. My prioritisation failed me.

And now I find myself hungry.

Knut Hamsun - Hunger (1890)A while ago I came across an incredible find of a book called Hunger (1890) by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. At the time I was reading a lot of Bukowski and other American authors of that ilk (specifically John and Dan Fante) whose writing became synonymous with what, at this very moment, I’m finding extremely difficult to summarise without resorting to pulp cliché. Let’s settle with “an exploration of the raw guts of a reality experienced through the gritty realism of celebratory self-destruction”. Sorted.

What reminded me of Hunger specifically, however, was the novel’s explicit expression of the relationship between the physical production process of art and the human body as a visceral being subject to (for one reason or another) inevitable bouts of mental and/or physical incapability. Regardless of the Romantic ideology that Art exists “out there“, the fact remains that Art relies on the ability of a human body as both producer and receiver should it gain any substance whatsoever. However ridiculously elementary it might sound, I’ll say it anyway: If it doesn’t happen, it sure as hell doesn’t happen.

So, anyway. Bukowski said:

“Fante was my god”,

Fante said:

“Please God, please Knut Hamsun, don’t desert me now”

And Hamsun said:

“God Almighty sat and kept a watchful eye on me, and took heed that my destruction proceeded in accordance with all the rules of art, uniformly and gradually, without a break in the measure.”

Hunger, self-destruction; Art.

Whilst I have suggested that Art relies on a capable body in order to exist, Hunger takes us a step further with its exploration the art of expressive effort. For Hamsun, the effort to express oneself is not only a form of art in itself, but one that is irrevocably antecedent to any form of artistic production. And what is more, it is this very effort to expression which is responsible for the irrevocable relationship between the producer and the produced. Reading the following passage from Hunger not just as a literal description of physical hunger but also as an analogy of the hunger for artistic expression, we are presented with the ‘art of expressive effort’ in its a most visceral guise:

I was terribly hungry, and I did not know what to do with myself and my shameless appetite. I writhed from side to side on the seat, and bowed my chest right down to my knees; I was almost distracted […] I tore a pocket out of my coat and took to chewing it; not with any defined object, but with dour mien and unseeing eyes, staring straight into space. I could hear a group of little children playing around near me, and perceive, in an instinctive sort of way, some pedestrians pass me by; otherwise I observed nothing.

Here the artist is entirely unaware of the art in his expressive effort; the art in his hunger. Whilst he claims to have ‘observed nothing’, he has in fact observed everything: he has tasted, touched, seen and heard, but is blinded to the art of his expressive effort by the overwhelming reality of his visceral experience.

So, I am hungry. I’m mentally shagged. Whatever I did on the weekend has subtly fucked me for the week so far. Sitting on my forty minute bus commutes to and from work when I usually get most of my reading and writing done, I pull out a book or notepad, only to resign myself to day-dreaming into the cups of my headphones.

Quite clearly I’m full of distraction.

But, by hell, I’m still bloody hungry.

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