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Christopher Cocca Headshot

Charlie Sheen Is Not a Dancing Bear: He's a Hunger Artist (and a Person)

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I'm not a medical professional or a mental health expert but, regarding Charlie Sheen, the possibilities are pretty clear: he either needs psychiatric counseling or is secretly one-upping Joaquin Phoenix and James Franco in a rather brilliant meta-stunt. Unfortunately, people who know much more about these things than I do are convinced we are witnessing the public self-destruction of fellow human being. Increasingly, I believe that many of us are also guilty of enabling and exploiting it.

Jonathan Storm writes a TV column for The Philadelphia Inquirer and has this to say:

"Charlie Sheen is not a dancing bear. If he were, and made the rounds on 20/20 or The Today Show, people would raise howls about animal cruelty."

Storm is right, of course. When the circus came to Philly last month, people protested. No one's picketing outside the studios picking from the ribs of what seems to be Sheen's complete and total breakdown. I know, I know, we're not supposed to sympathize with the rich kid, the Brat Packer, the guy who has everything and is, of his own volition, throwing it all away. The guy who makes a gazillion dollars a year playing a slightly bowdlerized version of himself on TV. But you know what? I do sympathize with him. And I also happen to believe that when it comes to things like addiction and mental illness, you go ahead and throw volition out the window. I'm not saying he has license to do whatever the hell he wants (he might say that), but I am questioning the callousness of those who would reject all gestures of empathy or compassion to a sick human being merely because said sickness contributes to piss-poor choices and indefensible behavior.

Storm's quote reminded me of a short story by Franz Kafka called "A Hunger Artist" wherein a caged performance artist fasts for days on end to the delight and initial sympathy of gathered, gawking crowds. It begins thusly:

During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one's own management, but today that is quite impossible. We live in a different world now. At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist; from day to day of his fast the excitement mounted; everybody wanted to see him at least once a day; there were people who bought season tickets for the last few days and sat from morning till night in front of his small barred cage; even in the nighttime there were visiting hours, when the whole effect was heightened by torch flares; on fine days the cage was set out in the open air, and then it was the children's special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion, but the children stood openmouthed, holding each other's hands for greater security, marveling at him as he sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently, not even on a seat but down among straw on the ground...

The hunger artist has handlers, keepers, and promoters, and these people attach or enforce certain rules to his performance. He must not eat while on display in his cage, and men are paid to ensure he does not eat in secret. Even so, any good crowd has its skeptics. Further, the artist is only allowed to fast for 40 days at a time, and is brought, gaunt and Christ-like, from his cage for a spectacular finale. The 40-day rule is not for the artist's health, mind you, but rather so that audiences don't lose interest or compassion. The artist hates the rule, as it prohibits him from perfecting his hunger art, from pushing himself to his absolute limit, from the total annihilation of need and self.

So he lived for many years, with small regular intervals of recuperation, in visible glory, honored by all the world, yet in spite of that troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no one would take his trouble seriously. What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish for? And if some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy was probably caused by fasting, it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that he reacted with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of the cage like a wild animal.Yet the impresario had a way of punishing these outbreaks which he rather enjoyed putting into operation. He would apologize publicly for the artist's behavior, which was only to be excused, he admitted, because of the irritability caused by fasting; a condition hardly to be understood by well-fed people; then by natural transition he went on to mention the artist's equally incomprehensible boast that he could fast for much longer than he was doing...and then quite simply countered it by bringing out photographs, which were also on sale to the public, showing the artist on the fortieth day of a fast lying in bed almost dead from exhaustion.

Eventually, public interest in fasting as an art form wanes. Compassionate crowds grow disaffected, hardened. The fascinated children embrace their forebears' ironic love of jokes in fashion. The artist is forgotten, starves to death. His cage goes to a panther:

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 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 round the cage, and did not want ever to move away.

About those fickle crowds, you might say Kafka's cheating about that anyway. Why should they have been made to care about the hunger artist in the first place? After all, here's a man destroying his body of his own volition. Ah, but that assumes we always pick our cages.

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