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The Starving Artist Motif as a Life Philosophy: Literal and Psychological Starvation in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger
In Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, the author’s protagonist, who at least partially represents the author himself, reflects the Dionysian in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy through recognizing the intrinsic relation of suffering and joy in the creation of art in the quest for a unifying sense of oneness. The “Starving Artist” motif thus reflects not only a literal starved condition whereby art and the creation of it is privileged over sating the body, but a life philosophy through which the protagonist in the novel seeks, through the attempt to create beautiful literature, to cope with and understand an ultimately unsatisfying phenomenal reality that threatens to thwart his pursuit of the beautiful in art. Ultimately, Hamsun’s life philosophy has more to do with love and human relationships, as the works the protagonist attempts to write within the work we as readers read, are always supplanted by the longing and attempt to forge meaningful connections with others. It is the writing of these emotions and encounters that become the work itself, superseding the attempt of the protagonist to consciously produce a work of genius. The protagonist writes upon the canvas of his mind even when he does not literally write, constantly playing an internal game of creation that involves advocating a world view of unity and oneness through beauty, love, and art.
Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize winning Norwegian author of the late 19th and early 20th century, adhered to the principle that “Truth telling does not involve seeing both sides or objectivity; truth telling is unselfish inwardness” (Collins 126). This internal and psychological reflexivity characterizes Hamsun’s revolutionary novel Hunger, whose project strives for “an attempt to describe the strange, peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries and nerves of the starving body.” The internalized writing of Hamsun’s nameless narrator, a struggling writer who lives in abject poverty and starvation, adheres to the Nietzschean principle that “the aesthetically sensitive man stands in the same relation to the reality of dreams as the philosopher does to the reality of existence; he is a close and willing observer, for these pictures afford him an interpretation of life, and it is by these processes that he trains himself for life” (Nietzsche 2). The connectedness that the narrator of Hunger feels to his surroundings is palpable, though always tenuous because of the hallucinatory states that his hunger puts him in. Ever the observer who often fails to truly interact meaningfully with those around him, the narrator’s internal writing, which reflects Hamsun’s own philosophical outlook on the pitfalls and inadequacies of the modern world and its effect on an artist, demonstrates an attempt to recreate meaning and joy.
The narrator of Hunger’s desire for human connection and love through creation is elicited through the mythical princess Ylajali, whom he falls in love with:
“I hold her hand in mine and feel the wild beauty of enchantment race through my blood; I put my arm around her and she whispers, Not here, come further still! And we enter the red hall where all is of rubies, a foaming splendor in which I swoon. Then I feel her arms around me, she breathes upon my face and whispers, Welcome, my love! Kiss me! Again… again […] From my bench I see stars before my eyes, and my thoughts are swept in a hurricane of light….” (Hamsun 58)
One is immediately drawn to the tactile nature of this physical description, serving as a means to reflect the narrator’s dissatisfaction with the actual concrete world he has no place in. The narrator, upon waking from his musings, is immediately overcome by the magnitude of his creation through the dynamic description of being “swept up in a hurricane of light.” Hamsun, however, ultimately shows the phenomenal world to be inadequate as “There I was, mercilessly called back to life and my misery” (Hamsun 58). Hamsun’s life philosophy is further examined through the slips between a conscious and hallucinatory/psychological state. As the narrator, starving in his rooming house, utters, “There was no doubt that here I found myself before a special kind of darkness, a desperate element which no one had previously been aware of” as he imagines himself in a prison cell (Hamsun 65), the attempt to listen for signs of life, such as a patrolling policeman or pedestrian outside, suggests that a certain degree of comfort can potentially be found in the phenomenal world. Thus, “on the one hand, in the pictorial world of dreams, whose completeness is not dependent upon the intellectual attitude or the artistic culture of any single being; and, on the other hand, as drunken reality, which likewise does not heed the single unit, but even seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of Oneness” (Nietzsche 5), is the struggle reflected in Hamsun’s narrator. Just when he seems ready to reconnect with his surroundings in an attempt to seek comfort, he reverts back into his mind through the act of creating a completely unique word, “Kuboa,” which “stood out sharply against the darkness before me” (Hamsun 65). The act of creation, for Hamsun, stands as the potential force to mitigate internal and external suffering. The mind functions as a blank canvas upon which the meaningful can be created as “the word [Kuboa] was really suited to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind—couldn’t I understand that? And I try to jog my memory to come up with something spiritual” (Hamsun 66). Hamsun cautions his reader, however, suggesting that the psychological trappings of the mind that can create the sublime and beautiful, can equally destroy, negate, and thwart. If “The lexicon of language, then, is a finite set of terms that by metaphor is able to stretch out over an infinite set of circumstances, even to creating new circumstances thereby” (Jaynes 52), the narrator’s attempt to assign meaning to his word created in a moment of inspiration is futile. He negates meaning by saying everything it cannot mean, based on concepts inherent within him and their inferred connotations, yet cannot ascribe spiritual significance to his own creation.
It is at this impasse of the mind that Hamsun’s life philosophy shines through. The narrator’s desire to be loved and connect to someone provides the inspiration through which art can be created. After an unsuccessful attempt to borrow money from a stable boy, the narrator allows his thoughts to return to Ylajali: “The sun shone in through my window, downstairs I could hear the horses chomping their oats. I sat munching on my wood chip, in high spirits, happy as a child. I had been continually groping for my manuscript; it wasn’t even in my thoughts, but my instinct told me it was there, my blood reminded me of it. I pulled it out” (Hamsun 72). Here, the narrator is inspired to create art in the phenomenal world through his psychological creation. The tenuous nature of this serving as a genuine expression of emotion is rendered moot through the awareness of tactile surroundings and the essential impetus to grasp for the manuscript. Thus, it is in the moments of profound connection and creation that art is born. Starving for these things in the phenomenal world, Hamsun’s narrator privileges art by creating it vividly and “finds his highest pleasure in the process of a continuously successful unveiling effected through his own unaided efforts” (Nietzche 52). It is through suffering that Hamsun’s narrator is compelled to constantly create, searching for true essence and an end to the suffering that is paradoxically necessary for his brief moments of inspiration.
When Hamsun’s narrator tries to assign Ylajali a phenomenal equivalent, the importance of the continued search for meaning and connection is furthered, despite its inevitable failure. The narrator meets a woman, Marie, whom he begins to refer to as “Ylajali.” The excerpt,
“We started off; she walked on my right-hand side. A peculiar, lovely feeling took hold of me. The consciousness of being in the presence of a young girl. I didn’t take my eyes off her throughout our walk. The perfume in her hair, the warmth radiating from her body, this fragrance of woman that surrounded her, that sweet breath every time she turned her face towards me—all this streamed in upon me, penetrating irresistibly all my senses” (Hamsun 116)
clearly mirrors the earlier, exclusively psychological and internal creation of Ylajali out of nothingness through the emphasis on joint movement and the tactile sensations of their surroundings. His feelings are overwhelming, much like the sensation of having created a new word. However, the problem for Hamsun and his narrator is grounded in the fact that “Dionysian art, too, wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence: only we are to seek this joy not in phenomena, but behind them. We are to recognize that all that comes into being must be ready for a sorrowful end” (Nietzsche 60), and the destruction of phenomena is seen as a necessary thing. When physical intimacy with Ylajali presents itself she holds back, forcing the narrator to open up in an attempt to connect with her: “I seized the opportunity and told her everything, and I told nothing but the truth. I didn’t make anything worse than it was, it wasn’t my intention to arouse her compassion. I even said that I had walked off with five kroner one evening” (Hamsun 149). By attempting to explain and justify his condition of abject poverty and sorrow, the narrator attempts to forge a bond with Ylajali. Her disdain for him after his revelation is poignant and presents the inadequacy of Ylajali as Marie, who acts as her referent in the phenomenal world. Through this rejection and suffering, the narrator temporarily abandons his philosophy grounded in artistic creation because, as Heidegger suggests, “Thing concepts, whether determinate or indeterminate, obstruct the way toward the thingly character of the thing as well as toward the “equipmental character of equipment and all the more toward the workly character of the work” (660). Thus, the thing needs to rest upon its thingness so as to bring forth true essence. Ylajali’s essence is in her creation by the narrator, not through her manifestation in Marie. The spontaneous creation of Ylajali, indicative of Hamsun’s philosophy of connection and meaning through art, is rendered problematic because “consciousness is a witch beneath whose charms pure inspiration grasps and dies into invention… The Muses have become imaginary and invoked in their silence as part of man’s nostalgia for the bicameral mind” (Jaynes 374), which does not reflect. The brief moment when the narrator is able to be, and as such create, are always in tension with his overactive consciousness trying to make sense of his surroundings. The only pure or essential aspect of Ylajali is her creation.
This creates a constant hunger, or starving, for human connection, resulting in constant seeking. The sting of rejection allows the narrator to come to his most profound realization: “The poor individual looks around at every step, listens suspiciously to every word he hears from the people he meets; thus, every step he takes presents a problem, a task, for his thoughts and feelings. He is alert and sensitive, he is experienced, his soul has been burned….” (Hamsun 153). It is in these moments of intense feeling and sorrow that the creative impulse is maximized. It is for this reason that the narrator cannot finish his medieval allegory called The Sign of the Cross. His subject matter being too far removed from his direct emotional experience causes him to lash out: “I break my pencil between my teeth, jump up, tear my manuscript to bits, every single sheet, toss my hat in the gutter and trample it. ‘I’m lost!’ I whisper to myself. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m lost!’ I say nothing except these words as I stand there trampling my hat” (Hamsun 190). That this occurs after a final inability to connect with Ylajali is crucial. Only in moments of creation is the narrator temporarily relieved of his physical hunger and emotional turmoil. Hamsun suggests that this occurs in the pursuit of love. Thus, there is nothing left to do but board a steamship out of Kristiania “that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him…” (Hamsun 1).
Works Cited: Collins, Richard. John Fante: A Literary Portrait. Toronto: Guernica, 2000. Print. Hamsun, Knut. Hunger. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print. Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Philosophies of Art and Beauty. Eds Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuttns. New York: Modern Library, 1964. Print. Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990. Print. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995. Print.
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