Four Stories: A Fasting-Artist

To perform the negative is what is still required of us, the positive is already ours.                                                                                                                Kafka

Self-mastery is a big, visible commodity today.  The ascetic belongs in the media circus.  Big Brother – in the cage of public opinion; The Biggest Loser – a much-publicised, oversized technology of the self.  Size matters. 

Without the panopticons – the eye of G_d who sees all, even into one’s innermost desires, without himself being seen – the suffering would be pointless.  In modern society, we are driven to seek out our pleasures, work for our living and play for the satisfaction it provides in itself.  The body is the site of pleasures.  To suffer alone – it makes no sense today.  It is absurd and sad.  At first, the absurdity is an attraction, a curiosity: “for the grown-ups he was no more than a joke.”  But in the end, one must feel pity for the poor fellow.

A fasting artist rushes up to the bars of his cage in a fury at the suggestion he is sad because of his fasting.  He would fast for much longer; it was easy for him to fast.  Even unto death.

“I could never find the nourishment I liked.  Had I found it, believe me, I would never have caused any stir, and would have eaten my fill just like you and everyone else.”  Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there still remained the firm, if no longer proud conviction that he was fasting on.

But the manager restricted his fast to forty days and nights.  It’s biblical – it’s written in the book: the Greatest Story Ever Told.  To hold the show over for any longer, provided no returns.  The crowds dwindles away, they grew bored with the spectacle of a skinny white man in a black leotard.  Even Jesus understood this.  He only spent forty days in the desert, for any longer and he would lose the crowds following him.  They would go off and follow some other Messiah, another son of man.  Jesus would have preferred to fast for longer but the manager told him, hey, that’s enough!  We start losing money if this goes on…

Up came the manager; silently – for the band made speech impossible – he raised his arms over the fasting-artist, as if he were calling on heaven to look on its handiwork down here on the straw, on this pitiable martyr.                       

With much fanfare, the fasting artist comes out of the cage.  The manager starts selling him: yes, the Devil tempted him and he resisted!  No one individual could have known for a certainty that he had actually fasted up there all this time, even though the cage was watched by butchers.  The fasting artist wanted the public eye on him, to prove himself as a true artist.  Other artists knew he was honour bound to his art and would never eat anything.  But the feat could never be fully recognised by a public who was never wholly present.  A military band started playing and two public intellectuals measured him – a psychiatrist and a medial doctor to ascertain his health.  Then two women would lift him from the straw yet one had to be helped by an attendant as she fainted clean away at the handling of his emaciated body.  He was photographed and the photos sold as evidence of his saddened state at the end of a period of fasting.  “This is my body which I give to thee in remembrance of me.”

The state of affairs was not of the fasting artist’s making.  The public mistook the consequence for the cause.  It was impossible to argue with the public’s “obtuseness.”  The misunderstanding implicit to the impossibility of the fact of the fasting artist’s resistance, gave grounds for a reversal in the popularity of his act.  The signs were always there.  It only became apparent over time when the manager tried to squeeze one last tour out of the act to no avail.  The fasting-artist joined the circus; “in order to spare his own feelings he did not even glance at the terms of the [social] contract.”

He did not object that he was not a star attraction but placed outside the main tent near the animals.  The stench of the animals and the raw meat fed to him, the masses trampling past, to and fro, all caused him great distress.  People would see him in passing on their way to the menagerie.  At first, brightly coloured placards advertised the meaning of the entertainment in the cage but the masses were pushed towards the main tent, to the cages of wild animals.  The fasting-artist had no longer any interest for them.  What can a body do? the fasting artist asked, sighing.  No one asked the question anymore unless it was as a means to pleasure.  The faith in a spiritual existence was no longer what it used to be.  The public sphere of language was all image (stock exchange), no word (why speak of the gift at all?).  Televangelism had taken over the old-time gospel preacher, the student of theology.  The art of fasting could no longer be practised without the attention of a public eye: obesity is becoming a national crisis.  A cause for visibility.  It is the barred animal we value today, the feline, the catty, the proud beast caged: the body of desire.

Not that the fasting-artist begrudged the public (intellectual), poring over Big Brother as an object for analysis.  It was not simply an issue of the Big versus the Small, the high culture versus the low.  He replied to the overseer – who was only trying to say the things he thought the fasting artist wanted to hear – he should not admire his art of fasting, even though he wanted the public to value his profession.  He couldn’t help his taste in culture.  In the end even Jesus resigned himself to public opinion. 

A fasting-artist, a private thinker, was not one to insist upon an audience for some ‘higher purpose,’ an ideology, though the unreason in morality – the mass mentality of the public intellectual – did cause him some measure of sadness for his ascetics too, was innate and according to his taste.  It could not be helped.  The fasting-artist shrunk into the straw in the cage until he was too small to be seen.  Why waste a perfectly good cage?  The overseer replaces a fasting-artist with a young panther.

That noble body, furnished almost to bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom itself around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to be hidden; and the joy of life glowed so fiercely from the furnace of his throat that the onlookers could scarcely stand up against it.  But they mastered their weakness, surrounded the cage, and simply refused to be dragged away.

 

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