– TO ACCOMPANY NAOMIE JEAN-PIERRE’S “THE PASSION ACCORDING TO THE PANTHER”
In the works of Franz Kafka, I have been struck by the various recurring themes concerning the ordinary man’s place in the industrial world. Kafka’s, “A Hunger Artist” is one such story. Many questions surface as the short story progresses through the life and the death of a nameless hunger artist. What does it mean to be human, lost in the labyrinth of agency, systems, rules, and/or bureaucracies? The Passion According to the Panther is a creative, but critical commentary on Kafka’s final words in “A Hunger Artist,” where I take liberties with what it would mean to be caged. More specifically, I wanted to experiment with cages and defamiliarize them as far the black woman, who too navigates a labyrinth of systems, goes. What would it mean to be an object, to be not caught in the deliberation of other people’s definitions, to be called black, or panther? To answer this, The Passion According to the Panther reimagines the voiceless panther at the end of “A Hunger Artist” and imagines her learning herself within a colonial and patriarchal prism. She must learn to understand herself, see herself,as an object of derision. She moves from environment to environment, learning of her alienation and derision, and not having it be defined to her in terms she may understand or negotiate.
One of the very poignant ways Kafka thematizes dehumanization is by using animals to show the alienation process human beings undergo in repressive societies. Can the lasting image of the panther be a sort of guide into the meaning of the text? Can it suggest something otherwise unseen in the original text? The Passion According to the Panther suggests so. The panther navigates an ambiguous imprisonment as well as clever cages of gender, empire, and race. The short story seeks to raise some questions about Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” that parallel the significant world events and trends leading up to 1922, namely the scramble for Africa, the exploitation and dehumanization of the subaltern, and other colonial era issues.
Finding ways to humanize the panther was not difficult. It was easy to take Kafka’s schema of the metamorphosis and consider the panther as woman, a “she” and not a “he” as Kafka originally wrote it. It was not difficult to imagine the panther’s transformation from woman to animal. Reading “A Hunger Artist” through a postcolonial lens empowered the text to create itself, recreating how the institutions of race, empire, and gender intersect. The dehumanization, alienation, oppression, and loss of agency that seem so familiar in Kafka’s works are re-historicized from the perspective of an otherwise ordinary woman: Sara “Sartjie” Baartman. In Baartman, the short story finds an uncanny representation of colonial exploitation and dehumanization and a historical representation of an “object of derision”. Thus, this piece is dedicated to the personage of the controversial life of Sara Baartman, who was captured or bartered (we don’t know) from the Khoisan people of what is now South Africa, only to tour England and France in a cage alongside animals. Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, but her exhibition continued well into the next century. Public interest in her exhibit would have peaked “during these last decades” when “the interest in professional fasting markedly diminished” (Kafka 1). Thus, the hunger artist’s decline in popularity can be attributed to the rise of a new trend of exhibits. After her death, Baartman’s brain, skeleton, and sexual organs were plaster casted and pickled. They remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried until 2002. For nearly a century, then, she remained in a kind of cage. The idea is that Baartman represents the subaltern, a group of colonized nations for whom exhibition is not an art, but oppression. They replace Europe’s starving, working poor as the economic base for European economic growth. This reading of “A Hunger Artist” does not mean to suggest that Kafka is in any way writing the short story to parallel the panther with colonized nations of the world. Rather, it is meant as a commentary on the last paragraph of the story. At the end of “A Hunger Artist,” the text presumes much about the panther which this creative piece now throws into conflict. The marginal epilogue on the panther leaves the narrative open for re-examination:
“Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not ever want to move away.”
Kafka’s impersonal gaze on the panther leaves it open for interpretation and humanization. The short paragraph on the panther contrasts sharply with Ntanda’s story, but in many ways, it is the artist’s story in a continuum. One object of derision replacing another. The working poor, in the eyes of the holders of the gaze, is replaced by the black woman as the object of derision. This postcolonial reading of the text works as a commentary on the dehumanization of black femininity and raises a kind of conversation of its own. The story is a kind of discourse between Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector, and post-colonial theorists. This response to Kafka’s work should be taken as not as a negative critique of his work, but as an extension. One must consider the origins of the panther. Consider the other things in the cages, the objects of our disdain, going in and out of trend under empire and conquest. The result is this historically symbolic, ironically familiar tale of woe.