KJ Hannah Greenberg

Hunger Artists

Starvation is a powerful drive. It has caused people to die, to emigrate, to embrace ludicrous demands to get jobs, to garner public attention, and much more. Most times, an ongoing deficit of calories has been unwelcome. Once in a while, people have intentionally starved.

Usually, people waste away because of natural calamities, poverty, or mental illness—they simply can’t access adequate resources for their needs. Other times, they go short of food because they calculatedly do so. The history of humanity is rife with accounts of both types of severe hunger.

On the one hand, famines have been recorded as far back as Avraham’s sojourn to an alien nation and the seven “lean years” endured under Pharaoh. In more contemporary times, there was the Great Famine in Ireland and the famine of Cuba’s War of Independence. Most recently, there was the Southern Somalian Famine. Insect infestations, plant diseases, droughts, and so on, have caused large numbers of people to be unable to meet their basic needs.

Correspondingly, poverty, even today, has led to large scale hunger. Big-ticket farming equipment, pricey seeds, and costly land, as well as inaccessible foodstuffs (think “urban food deserts”), adversely impact millions of people.

Furthermore, eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, rumination disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, cause countless individuals physical and psychological anguish. This unwellness almost always has a lasting, negative impact on its victims.

Amazingly, despite these sorts of unwished-for starvation, some persons elect to go hungry. “Hunger artists,” for instance, used famishment to make money. Roughly one to two hundred years ago, a handful of First World persons were incentivized to cease eating. Their antics were amusing to the hoity-toity and, accordingly, brought those foodless folks fame and limited fortune. Whether those “artists” “cheated” when they were not being observed is moot. Whether folks ought to have paid, let alone stood by, to see them waste away, however, is still relevant.

Whereas, it’s been argued that force-feeding some people, e.g. prisoners, who intentionally refrain from eating, is philosophically and corporeally problematic (some research indicates that force feeding can cause death sooner than self-starvation), we’ve allowed the complexity of politics to deter us from saving lives. There’s significant unwillingness, on behalf of eyewitnesses and officials, to do anything for/to persons who put themselves in such circumstances. Interpositions, in these instances, are difficult.

Nonetheless, פקוח נפש mandates that preserving life must unseat the effects of all activities except idolatry, murder, and incest (we’re instructed to let people involved in those three undertakings die.) For everyone else, we’re educated that it’s morally corrupt to let people calculatedly abstain from eating.

Weight, how, in the name of preserving life, we’re also required to: erect guardrails on our rooftops, teach our children how to swim, and engage in protective activities, e.g., refraining from smoking, not slicing food using our hands as platters, not traveling on unstable bridges or employing unsteady ladders, not owning dangerous dogs, etc.1 Moreover, when someone has a severe eating disorder, we typically run interventions.

To boot, we offer gastronomy tubes, either percutaneous or otherwise, to people with illnesses that prevent them from obtaining nutrition in the ordinary way. Withal, despite do-not-resuscitate orders, at times, we seek the legal right not only to intubate patients, but to hook them up to other life prolonging devices. While, too frequently, medical facilities “pull the plug” against families’ wishes and against religious codes, commonly, families bravely assemble court documents that prevent such violations.

Yet, we continue to buy “tickets” to pay-per-view suffering. On too many occasions, we look the other way when people are devastated by natural disasters, climate change, or poverty. News of nations’ losses becomes the sensationalized content that sells ad time/space and titillates the more fortunate.

Likewise, we deliberately ignore self-harm, or, worse, subtly or overtly it. For reasons of vanity, insecurity, or other things, we encourage our coteries, or require our employees to eat amounts that won’t sustain them. Stories of starvation among models, dancers, and the like are legendary.

Sure, we might engage in short fasts for religious or health reasons. There are, for instance, four minor fasts and two major ones on the Jewish calendar. Equally, folks with certain alimentary canal upsets (while under doctors’ care) might have to stop eating before being able to progress to clear liquids, then fiber free foods, and so forth. In these cases, fasting is considered  a means to refocus our souls or, apart from that, to save ourselves from death.

Although shattering events, both personal and communal, and health problems can bring on starvation, and although there are singular times when fasting is called for, it’s unfortunately expected that food can, has been, and will continue to be weaponized. Our response to famished populations needs to be compassionate aid in contrast, our response to persons who use extreme malnourishment as an armament, however, needs to be reinforced boundaries. There is nothing artful about food depravation.

  1. Rabbi Aryeh Citron. “Parshat Massei: Guard Your Life.” org. Guard Your Life – Parshat Massei – Accessed 21 May 2023.
About the Author
KJ Hannah Greenberg has been playing with words for an awfully long time. Initially a rhetoric professor and a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar, she shed her academic laurels to romp around with a prickle of imaginary hedgehogs. Thereafter, her writing has been nominated once for The Best of the Net in poetry, three times for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for poetry, once for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for fiction, once for the Million Writers Award for fiction, and once for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. To boot, Hannah’s had more than forty books published and has served as an editor for several literary journals.