Social Isolation of Hunger

“A society that doesn't offer its members the chance to act selflessly isn't a society; it's just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.”
Sebastian Junger

Hunger reduces a soul to a body, and a body to an immobile necessity-seeking thing. It is one of the most ruinous desires we can have as humans.

So what does the hungry man become in this vertiginous existence? He is more than impoverished; he is a human apart from human things.

As a community, how do we not simply protect and care for him, but understand him?

Kathe Kollwitz's "Worker Woman and Child" featured in Social Isolation of Hunger"
“Worker Woman with Sleeping Child” (Arbeiterfrau mit schlafendem Jungen) lithograph made by artist Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz was born in Russia in 1867, but lived and worked in Germany. Her work exemplified German Expressionism, art that focused on emotional purity rather than physical reality. This harrowing print is part of Kollwitz’ “Death” series, which depicted the secondhand victims of WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
In his study of tribal networks and modern communities, Sebastian Junger defines community as the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. And this benevolence is not for mere morality, but because we have always done such a thing as a species.1

Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. Other primates did very little of either, but, increasingly, hominids did, and those behaviors helped set them on an evolutionary path that produced the modern world. The earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you would both help feed, and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.

From Sebastian Junger’s Tribe

Junger’s identification of this communal connection based on physical nourishment and protection, is echoed by Erich Fromm’s sublime identification of the ways in which humans carry, express, and show love.

Of these many-splendored loves, the mutual admiration we share with our kin is imperative.

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

Even Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius makes a case for communal cooperation against all odds. More than than 2,000 years ago the former Emperor and philosopher used remarkable similar language to Fromm:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity.

Therefore, I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

When there is a strong community based on having one’s basic needs attended, then those outside of that relationship are not only hungry, but apart. (They are also unable to participate in the reciprocal action of resource sharing.)

"Two Chatting Woman" by Kathe Kollwitz featured in "Social Isolation of Hunger."
Käthe Kollwitz’ “Two Chatting Women with Two Children (Zwei schwatzende Frauen mit zwei Kindern) 1930. Kollwitz’ art bore witness to the destitute: “I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain high.” Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
Is there a more-poignant visual clarity for this concept than the last line in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a moment he called “the starving man and the last-scene”?

In these few lines, Rosasharn Joad, unable to feed her stillborn child, offers her full breast to a starving man. The novel concludes: “Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

An ancient communication between mother and child, is here between person and person.

No one will forget the dramatic symbolism of this bereaved mother tending to the dying man. Steinbeck’s long-time editor and great friend, Pascal Corvici questioned the ending’s suddenness, claiming there was no preamble to the scene. Steinbeck defended its inclusion and the ending remains unadulterated.2

If we collect these findings in our arms and hold them aloft – we ought to share our food with those in our community and understand that this action is the most basic of all human actions – it means this action not only creates a feeling of brotherhood within its members, but it also isolates those who are not included.

Perhaps more deeply than those who are included can ever possibly imagine.

It would mean feeling not only hunger – and all its bodily implications, but feeling unseen, and ultimately, unknown.

"The Mothers" by Kathe Kollwitz featured in "Social Isolation of Hunger."
“The Mothers (Die Mutter) from War (Krieg) from 1921-22 woodcut, published in 1923. Kollwitz’ War series showed the work focused on the vulnerable members of society, like widows, children and even the working class, as affected by social traumas, in particular WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
Fromm identifies human separateness as our primary psychological necessity. Put simply, we have a need to be seen by others, to be recognized as part of the tribe. Even if we decide to leave the tribe, or live apart, or exist fully-unto ourselves as is possible with modern life, even if, we still need to belong to something.

Our sinews of self, stretched to some scaffolding that holds us up, some bone structure of being, cannot exist apart from that structure.

Kathe Kollwitz' "Self-Portrait" featured in Social Isolation of Hunger"
Käthe Kollwitz’ “Self-Portrait en Face” (Selbstbildnis en face) c.1904. Kollwitz was 37 when she made this lithograph and already established in Berlin. The face is unadorned heeding Kollwitz’ demand for simplicity in work and life. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
Imagine it might happen to you. Squeeze your sweet body cavity and imagine it hollow. The expanding chaos under the skin that only you can feel and cannot escape.

Imagine someone came to you in abundance with food for the body and soul.

I imagine someone sang your pain these lines from the indominable poet, activist, and mentor to many, Maya Angelou’s poem “Starvation”

Hurray! Hurry!
Come through the keyhole.
Don’t mind the rotting
sashes, pass into the windows.
Come, good news.
I’m holding my apron to
catch your plumpness.
The largest pot shines
with happiness. The slack
walls of my purse, pulsing
pudenda, await you with
a new bride’s longing.
The bread bin gapes and
the oven holds its cold breath.
Hurry up! Hurry down!
Good tidings. Don’t wait
out my misery. Do not play
coy with my longing.
Hunger has grown old and
ugly with me. We hate from
too much knowing. Come. […]

From Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise

Imagine such fullness, warmth, connectedness.

Now let’s return to the initial question: As a community, how do we not simply protect and care for the indigent man, but understand him?

It is not a question of systems, or policy or measures and I claim no insight into such things. But to the question of action from one human to another. Actions compounded to a lifetime. Actions as simple as a few bucks – more than expected, a warm or cold drink depending, a hand to the arm if appropriate, and a resounding message: I see you.

The Absolute Annihilation of Hunger

“The bread, the soup – those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time.”
Elie Wiesel

Hunger reduces a soul to a body and a body to an immobile necessity-seeking thing. It is one of the most ruinous desires we can have as humans.

Or is it?

Surely appetite, or longing as hunger, is a motivator of human invention and adaptation. “One of the major pleasures in life is appetite,” wrote Laurie Lee, a literary master of memory and longing, “It is one of our major duties to preserve it.”

Appetite is the keenness of living; it is one of the senses that tells you that you are still curious to exist, that you still have an edge on your longings and want to bite into the world and taste its multitudinous flavours and juices. By appetite, of course, I don’t mean just the lust for food, but any condition of unsatisfied desire, any burning in the blood that proves you want more than you’ve got, and that you haven’t yet used up your life.

From Laurie Lee’s I Can’t Stay Long

Even poet Mary Oliver argued that “I am devoted to Nature too, and to consider Nature without this appetite – this other-creature-consuming appetite – is to look with shut eyes upon the miraculous interchange that makes things work, that causes one thing to nurture another.”1

Oliver’s and Lee’s take on appetite as a means of motivation and “keeping one’s expectations alive” is echoed in Ernest Hemingway’s journals of being a young writer in Paris. Although Hemingway called it “hunger;”

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg from the Place de L’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were bell-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.

From Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

"War (Krieg)," woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“War (Krieg),” woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who lived from 1867–1945. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

For both writers, appetite/hunger is a generator of human striving and learning, most efficiently run when the desired object is in plain view (but denied). What is extraordinary, then, is that while appetite and object-based hunger might enlighten and even expand our knowing, extreme hunger does the exact opposite.

In the late 1920s, George Orwell slipped off the comfort of society and lived “down and out” in Paris and London. With a desire to live amongst the poor and write what he saw, Orwell provides us an authentic experience without sacrificing the observant mind of a journalist/writer.

You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheese like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.

From George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell’s lines are reminiscent to Hemingway’s but lack the positive uplift. Perhaps because while Hemingway returned nightly to an apartment, a warming stove, and the generous aegis of friends like Gertrude Stein, Orwell lived the life of a truly impoverished: homeless, anonymous, and hopeless.2

"The Widow II" " woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“The Widow II” (Die Witwe II) woodcut, 1922. Kollwitz’ work focused on the vulnerable members of society, like widows, children and even the working class, as affected by social traumas, in particular WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Orwell’s point on the limiting nature of hunger is well-taken.

“When you are approaching poverty,” Orwell continues, “you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others… you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.”

Imagine being trapped not only in a body, a hungry body at that, but in the hideous, eternal present. An annihilated future means no agents of the future, like dreams, hope, even imagination — the comfort that comes from slices of abstract thought that brighten our mind’s daily log — simply do not exist.

What must it be like to exist as a person without hope, dreams, or any imagination?

“The stomach alone is measuring time,” writes Elie Wiesel in his horrifyingly true story of imprisonment in Auschwitz. Wiesel witnesses the limits of human suffering and humanity and, years later, was able to instruct the world on the nature of hunger and deprivation.

A few days after my visit, the dentist’s office was shut down. He had been thrown into prison and was about to be hanged. It appeared that he had been dealing in the prisoners’ gold teeth for his own benefit. I felt no pity for him. In fact, I was pleased with what was happening to him: my gold crown was safe. I could be useful to me one day, to buy something, some bread or even time to live. At that moment in time, all that mattered to me was my daily bowl of soup, my crust of stale bread. The bread, the soup – those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time.

From Elie Wiesel’s Night

The all-encompassing nature of extreme hunger is even more evident when Wiesel discusses Auschwitz’s liberation: “Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. That’s all we thought about. No thought of revenge, or of parents. Only of bread.”

"Woman Entrusts Herself to Death" lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“Woman Entrusts Herself to Death” lithograph, 1934. Kollwitz was born in Russia but lived and worked in Germany and her work exemplifies German Expressionism, art that focused on emotional purity rather than physical reality. This harrowing print is part of Kollwitz’ “Death” series, which depicted the secondhand victims of WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

“You’ve got to have something to eat…,” echoed singer Billie Holiday beautifully, who was scratching a barely sustainable living in Manhattan around the same time that Wiesel was forced into the form of a walking corpse.

I’ve been told that nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do. Or the word ‘love.’ Maybe I remember what those words are all about. Maybe I’m proud enough to want to remember Baltimore and Welfare Island, the Catholic institution and the Jefferson Market Court, the sheriff in front of our place in Harlem and the towns from coast to coast where I got my lumps and my scars, Philly and Alderson, Hollywood and San Francisco – every damn bit of it.

All the Cadillacs and minks in the world – and I’ve had a few – can’t make it up or make me forget it. All I’ve learned in all those places from all those people is wrapped in those two words. You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.

Everything I am and everything I want out of life goes smack back to that.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Holiday’s extraordinary life only stretched forty-four years, which suggests a literal meaning of Orwell’s “future annihilation.”

"Frontal Crouching Woman with Crossed Hands" lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“Frontal Crouching Woman with Crossed Hands” (Hockende Frau von vorne mit übereinander gelegten Händen), 1921. The lack of atmosphere in these prints suggests the totality and isolating nature of the individuals’ pain and suffering. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

What about the heart-crushing lines in David Wojnarowicz’s tender, sharp memoir where he suggests that in poverty he was at least able to sell his body as a means to sustain himself, whereas the individuals in extreme poverty couldn’t even do that.

There were times in my teens when I was living on the streets and selling my body to anyone interested. I hung around a neighborhood that was so crowded with homeless people that I can’t even remember what the architecture of the blocks looked like. Whereas I could at least spread my legs and gain a roof over my head, all those people down in those streets had reached the point where the commodity of their bodies and souls meant nothing more to anyone but themselves.

From David Wojnarowicz’s “In the Shadow of the American Dream” in Close to the Knives

If hunger subverts our intellect, renders our body a worthless commodity, destroys any temporary flight from our corporal self, then what remains?

Certainly not time; Wiesel showed us that.

Love, empathy, compassion? A person is not a person when he’s hungry, noted Orwell: “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.”

Remember Holiday: “Everything I am goes back to that…”

So, what does he become in this vertiginous existence? He is more than impoverished; he is a human deprived. And how do we not simply protect and care for him, how do we understand him?

A Rebellion of Joy

“Some nights we’d walk seven or eight hundred blocks practically the whole island of Manhattan. ... Picking up every wino bottle we found and throwing it ten feet into the air so the crash exploded inches away from the other’s feet. We slept good after a night of this.”
David Wojnarowicz

Perhaps it is the buds on the trees, the shoots from the earth, or the thump of tender heels on the street, walking for the first time, but I’ve been ruminating on the emotional depth of “breaking through and breaking free.”

What is this emotion – might it be called joy?

Illustration by Natasha Rauf for "A Rebellion of Joy"
“There Are No Wrong Seasons” Illustration by Natasha Rauf. Rauf is a Portland-based illustrator, whose work represents different aspects of womanhood, creating deeper connections with ourselves, moments of joyful levity in nature, and finding our place in the world after failure.
Poet David Whyte, who polishes a few tarnished words in his collection Consolations describes joy as “a meeting place of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting.”

Whyte instructs:

Joy is a meeting place, of deep intentionality and of self forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside, but is now neither, but become a living frontier, a voice speaking between us and the world: dance, laughter, affection, skin touching skin, singing in the car, music in the kitchen, the quiet irreplaceable and companionable presence of a daughter; the sheer intoxicating beauty of the world inhabited as an edge between what we previously thought was us and what we thought was other than us.

From David Whyte’s Consolations

Joy is certainly a daughter.

I watched just this morning my own daughter ran off across the patio, bare-bottomed as the day she was born, as I call her back and try to change her diaper. In her little rebellion, joy is released into the world and enters my heart.

Joy is a throwing-off and a breaking-free of conforming forces. It is an easement of weight. We fling ourselves open-armed upwards and outwards like flowers.

Illustration by Natasha Rauf for "A Rebellion of Joy"
“Turning tides, turning time.” Illustration by Natasha Rauf. This Pakistani-born, Texas-raised, Portland-based artist works in digital mediums utilizing intense color palettes and art as means to materialize emotions. She presents the kind of furrowed-brow thinking that runs (or should run) the world.
As we run naked on patios, so we also run wild in streets.

Like that tear-clear moment in the tender, sharp memoir of David Wojnarowicz when, in an otherwise staid, repressed existence as an openly gay artist in 1980s’ New York, Wojnarowicz seizes pure joy:1

Some nights we’d walk seven or eight hundred blocks practically the whole island of Manhattan crisscrossing east and west north and south each on opposite sides of the streets picking up every wino bottle we found and throwing it ten feet into the air so the crash exploded a couple of inches away from the other’s feet on nights that called for it every pane of glass in every phone-booth from here to south street would dissolve in a shower of light. We slept good after a night of this in some abandoned car, boiler room rooftop, or lonely drag queen’s palace.

From “Self-Portrait in Twenty-Three Rounds”

The breaking of glass, the rebellion of self, the resistance to things – I underlined vigorously and wrote Joy! Joy! Joy! in the pale margin.

Wojnarowicz’s individual self-sustaining act reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster – a study of individual response to catastrophic events like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Events beyond human control that destroyed traditional systems and let in light for growth of something new.

What entered in this space, Solnit found, was something cohesive, active, rebellious, agnostic, and above all, compassionate.

The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. […] We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell

Although she suggests the emotion is beyond words, Solnit selects the word “joy.” What word better sums up the love, energy, action, compassion, and brotherhood?

Illustration by Natasha Rauf for "A Rebellion of Joy"
“Sometimes, the only reaction I have to life is art” Rauf binds herself to the compassionate propulsion of creating, both in her own work and in enjoyment of the literature of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Oliver and Toni Morrison all of whom she has lovingly drawn.
Whyte, too, imagines joy a meeting of complex, oppositional forces.

If joy is a deep form of love, it is also the raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence, the fleeting presence of those we love understood as a gift, going in and out of our lives, faces, voices, memory, aromas of the first spring day or a wood fire in winter, the last breath of a dying parent as they create a rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence.

From David Whyte’s Consolations

I submit joy as an amalgam emotion, composed of parts that are less than their whole.

In 2015, two friends and Nobel Laureates, the Most Reverend Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama hugged, laughed, connected as long-time friends in Dharamshala, India, the home of the exiled Lama.

They also perched themselves next to the issue of joy. Ruminating, gently turning it around, and over in their minds until a robust picture of joy based on eight pillars of human nature emerged.

‘For every event in life,’ the Dalai Lama said, ‘there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.’ The Dalai Lama had discussed the importance of a wider perspective when he was telling us about how he was able to see the calamity of his losing his country as an opportunity. It was jaw-dropping to hear him ‘reframe more positively’ the last half century of exile. He had been able to see not only what he had lost but also what he had gained: wider contact and new relationships, less formality and more freedom to discover the world and learn from others. He had concluded, ‘So therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, Oh, how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.’

From Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s The Book of Joy

Illustration by Natasha Rauf for "A Rebellion of Joy"
“This has been one of those particularly restless winters for me, where my internal state barely matches the outward. With the endless pandemic reinforcing itself time and again, I felt like winter began long before it actually did. …This isn’t just about it being cold or being stuck inside. It’s a metaphor for the soul level transitions as well.” Illustration by Natasha Rauf.
Along with perspective, the two spiritual thought leaders proposed tenets of humility, laughter, gratitude and poignantly, self-forgiving.

’Now I don’t pretend that comes easily, but we do have a nobility of spirit. We’ve spoken of Nelson Mandela as an amazing icon of forgiveness,’ the Archbishop said, ‘but you and you and you and you have the potential to be instruments of incredible compassion and forgiveness. We cannot say of anyone at all that they are totally unable to forgive.’

Illustration by Natasha Rauf for "A Rebellion of Joy"
“I wanted to capture how I wanted to feel, sort of a la Whitman, but instead of sounding my yawp off a rooftop, I wanted to sound it off a tiny hill, apparently in the middle of the night.” Illustration by Natasha Rauf.
I mention self-forgiveness because it relates to Whyte’s idea of joy being self-forgetting. I think it’s more than that — in fact, it is self-forgiving and, thus, self-expanding.

Expanding is key. It is in expansion that we show kindness, run in the streets, and shirk off conformity.2

It is in the expanding that we turn happiness into joy.

It is in the expanding that we create art.

“There’s no one way to create,” says Yorkshire collage artist Mark Hearld in his absolutely wonderful Raucous Invention: The Joy of Making, an illustrated memoir.

“There are no rules, and that’s the rule.” Whatever is ultimately created, Hearld reminds us, the creative process is jumbled and anti-directional.3

Collages can begin in many different ways, there’s no one way to create – there are no rules, and that’s the rule. You’ve got to suspend disbelief and keep going, find your groove. That’s very much like making an image, because until the marks and the gestures begin to connect, they all seem unrelated, gauche, inarticulate.

From Mark Hearld’s Racuous Invention

To exist in joy, to create in that feeling of joy, you might need to throw something off.

You might need to fling something up in the air.

You might need to run, spiritually, emotionally, and literally.

However you find it, may your day, your season, and your life include actions that inculcate the love, compassion, anger, and pure, pure rebellion of joy.