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HUNGER AS A METAPHOR. OR NOT.

I once stole a piece of salami from an ashtray ...

Terry Durack’s confession: I once stole a piece of salami from an ashtray …

Hangry.”

That is, hungry + angry. As researcher Amanda Salis confirms, the physiology of hunger creates emotional effects.

The human brain, she writes, “is critically dependent on glucose to do its job.” Without glucose,

you may find it hard to concentrate, for instance, or you may make silly mistakes. Or you might have noticed that your words become muddled or slurred […] Another thing that can become more difficult when you’re hungry is behaving within socially acceptable norms.

As a result of brain chemicals triggered by hunger, some people “tend to show high levels of impulse aggression.”

That can certainly be unpleasant in the office at that dangerous period around 3:30pm, but imagine the impact of those physiological reactions in an extreme situation.

And few situations are more extreme than that faced by Douglas Mawson and his explorer companions as they trekked across Antarctica in 1912: one of the party, B. E. S. Ninnis—along with food-laden sled—disappeared into a ravine.

Mawson’s diary recorded the situation, and their only alternative food source:

December 13 1912

We had our sleeping bags, a week and a half [of the] food, the spare tent without poles, & our private bags and cooker & kerosene. The dogs in my team were very poorly & the worst, & no feed for them […] We considered it a possibility to get through to Winter Quarters by eating dogs, so 9 hours after the accident started back, but terribly handicapped. (p. 148)

The conditions demanded high quality calories, and plenty of them—which was exactly what they didn’t have. And, as their dogs died or were killed for food, the men themselves pulled the sleds, which made more demands on their famished bodies.

On Christmas day Mawson makes a pitiful entry:

Dreamt of a huge fancy cake last evening amidst weird surroundings […]

Up at 11pm making dog stew. The wind had risen, and low drift. 15 to 20mph wind.

We wished each other Merry Christmases in the future. I found two bits of biscuit in my bag, so we had a piece each […] Camped about 9.30am to make dog stew for Christmas dinner. (pp. 153-164)

By January 11, Mawson is alone, “nerve worn” and barely able to summon the energy to erect his tent. His physical symptoms are hideous:

My whole body is apparently rotting from want of proper nourishment—frost-bitten fingertips festering, mucous membrane of nose gone, saliva glands of mouth refusing duty, skin coming off whole body. (p. 159)

Mawson did survive. However, the diaries clearly reveal the unromantic realities of prolonged lack of food and its physical and emotional impacts—physical debilities like blindness, weakness, loss of bowel control; moral weakness, as some steal food; disappearing motivation, all degrading and unheroic characteristics. (Sarah Moss explores this in detail in Scott’s Last Biscuit, venturing into the ultimate anti-heroic behaviour: cannibalism.)

Even in less extreme situations, shame and indignity go hand-in-hand with hunger. Restaurant critic Terry Durack’s autobiographical book called Hunger begins with a confession:

I once stole a piece of salami from an ashtray in a laundromat. It was one of those grey metal shoebox ashtrays that sat on the floor, against the wall. There, at the bottom, was a half-eaten length of thin, semi-dried sausage […] (p. ix)

He was young and drifting and to some extent had created the situation himself. And while he was not “hungry in the extreme clinical sense of the word”, he did feel “hungry in an uncomfortable, empty, nagging, demanding, draining sense most of the time” (p. ix).

When he describes eating the ashtray salami—almost as jarring as Mawson eating dog—he paints a portrait of an alienated young man:

I chewed impatiently, without any pleasure, wanting it gone, swallowed and forgotten. I loathed myself more than I have every loathed anyone before or since. (p. xi)

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London gives another unromantic account of hunger’s effects. He too describes self-loathing:

You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed […] Only food can rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs. (p. 19)

Orwell captures the sense of disintegration as energy disappears. Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story “A Hunger Artist” approaches this from another direction, telling the disturbing tale of a man who embraces this self-obliteration, basing his whole identity on refusing food and displaying himself as a freak-show attraction.

After a long fast,

his head lolled on his breast as if it had landed there by chance; his body was hollowed out; his legs in a spasm of self-preservation clung close to each other at the knees, yet scraped on the ground as if it were not really solid ground, as if they were only trying to find solid ground […] (p. 304)

But even this spectacle of utter abjection didn’t hold people’s interest.

Here, as in many other literary works, hunger becomes a metaphor. For instance, Terry Durack’s chapter on the ashtray salami shifts gear, first displaying hunger’s humiliation, then concluding with a reference to his subsequent food-focussed career:

I want to eat more, learn more, taste more, and write more about food than anyone else, ever.

One hunger has replaced another. (p. xi)

Ernest Hemingway, too, uses “hunger” as a metaphor in his chapter “Hunger was a good discipline” from A Moveable Feast (see previous post Insatiable) (p. 53).

In these examples, both Durack and Hemingway use “hunger” to signify a clear-burning aesthetic flame. “Hunger” is often also used to signify “yearning” or “drive”.

But sometimes “hunger” is just hunger. Not the result of a heroic expedition; not an artistic yearning. Just unremarkable, everyday, even boring.

Foodbank, an Australian organization that redistributes good un-used food, reveals appalling statistics in its 2015 Hunger in the Classroom report:

  • On a typical day around three students in every class will arrive at school without having eaten breakfast.
  • On the basis of arriving at school hungry once a week, those students each lose in excess of a whole term of learning time over the course of a year.
  • Four out of five teachers (82%) report an increased workload due to hungry students as the children find it harder to concentrate (73%), are lethargic (66%) or demonstrate behavioural problems (52%).

Hunger, therefore, by undermining children’s concentration, energy levels and behaviour, exerts a life-long impact on those who can’t keep up with classes. With their sense of self worth disintegrating, they come to be seen as “troublesome” and “disruptive”.

There is no ennobling metaphor for this kind of hunger. And that’s precisely why we should not ignore it.

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Try This:

• See what Foodbank does.

• Find out more about the physiology of hunger in Sharman Apt Russell’s 2006 book Hunger: An Unnatural History, which looks at what happens in our body when we go without food for periods from eighteen hours to thirty days.

• Read Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize-winning 1890 novel Hunger, about a starving writer. I hadn’t heard of this book until I began writing this post. Now I wonder how it is possible to have gone all these years without reading it.

• Learn to recognize hunger signals and then how to eat in response to hunger rather than eating whether hungry or not. “How Does Hunger Feel?”, posted by Michelle on her blog The Fat Nutritionist, is an interesting exploration of hunger—not extreme South Pole-kind of hunger, but “normal” everyday cycles of full-hungry-full-hungry.

• For a typically light-hearted article on being “hangry”, see Ko Im’s “Why You Should Never Go Hungry on a Date”.

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Resources
Terry Durack, 2000, “Hunger”, in Hunger, Sue Hines: Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.
 d
Ernest Hemingway, 1966 (first ed. 1964), A Moveable Feast, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  d
Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist” (first published 1922), in The Complete Stories, Schocken Books, New York, 1971. Online: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/olli/class-materials/Franz_Kafka.pdf, pp. 300-310.
  d
Mawson’s diary quotes are from Fred Jacka and Eleanor Jacka, 1988, Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
d
Sarah Moss, Scott’s Last Biscuit: The Literature of Polar Exploration, 2006, Signal Books, Oxford, UK.
 d
George Orwell, 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London, on-line, http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Down-and-Out-in-Paris-and-London.pdf
 d
Amanda Salis, 2015, “The Science of ‘Hangry’: Why Some People Get Grumpy when They’re Hungry”, Canberra Times, July 21. Originally published on The Conversation.
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