Against a narcotic culture whose primary desire is stupefaction
Andrea Scrima talks to Rainer J. Hanshe, founder of Contra Mundum Press
Contra Mundum Press, founded in New York in late 2011, is an unusual new press with a distinctive list of publications to date. It debuted with a new translation by Stuart Kendall of the ancient epic Gilgamesh, which unites recent scholarship and a spare poetic sensibility to capture the consciousness of the archaic mind in the early days of our civilization. Thereafter, in rapid succession, CMP went on to publish six more books, including Self-Shadowing Prey, one of the last works written by Romanian Surrealist poet Ghérasim Luca, a stunning linguistic achievement that, as Gilles Deleuze wrote, “makes stuttering an affect of language and not an affectation of speech.” Committed to publishing challenging and innovative writing, including texts that have either never been translated into English or have long since gone out of print, CMP defines itself as “dedicated to the value and the indispensable importance of the individual voice.” CMP champions innovative fiction, drama, poetry, philosophy, essays, and writings on the visual arts and cinema. Forthcoming this fall is the world premiere of Pessoa’s Philosophical Essays and the first English publication of director Elio Petri’s Writings on Cinema. In keeping with its international perspective on exceptional literature, CMP’s aspiration is to eventually publish books in languages other than English, and its founder, novelist Rainer J. Hanshe, has relocated to Berlin to facilitate this aim.
AS: How long were you thinking of founding your own press, and what was behind the impulse to do it now—in a time when the future of the printed book seems in danger?
CMP: It’s definitely a Quixotic gesture, but then I’m not sure how accurate the prevailing lament about the fate of the printed book is, let alone how particular to our era—recall Mallarmé’s far more exacting reflections on The Book, and later Blanchot’s, who extends Mallarmé’s thought when conceptualizing the book as an effect that is always already under erasure. Although brick and mortar stores are shuttering rather swiftly, even in Europe, the community of thoughtful, incisive, critically minded readers has always been a minority, but it has sustained presses like ours. And since Hegel, we’ve heard numerous repetitions of the ‘death lament’: the death of art, the death of theater, the death of cinema, and now the death of the book. What are these laments but variations on an eschatological view of phenomena, utterances that demand suspicion. Death is not final, but a process of mutation that carries us into new states.
We hope with Contra Mundum to persist in opposition to many prevailing forces, powers, and trends. The press is informed by a particular aesthetic and vision, as well as a desire for new horizons. A dominant presupposition of our epoch is that ‘everything’s’ been discovered (how can one know?), or is already known, but that’s hardly true—there are seminal writers such as MiklósSzentkuthy and others, whom even very cultivated people are hardly aware of. We, as other presses, can present writers in translation that remain little known to the Anglophone world, writers equal in stature, significance, and value to those who currently dominate the literary landscape. The 21st century can be one of entirely new discoveries.
AS: Although you’ve only just started Contra Mundum, you’ve already succeeded in drawing considerable attention to your press; the list of translators you work with (Stuart Kendall and Mary Ann Caws, among others) and the writers you’ve published (including Ghérasim Luca, Miklós Szentkuthy, and Pessoa) in a comparatively short period of time is impressive. You’ve already received an award from the Petofi Literary Museum for Tim Wilkinson’s translation of Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova, the first book of his multi-volume epic St. Orpheus Breviary. While Szentkuthy is regarded by some to be the Hungarian equivalent of Proust, Musil, and Joyce, and the wholly fragmented narrative of his work Prae is probably some of the most experimental writing of the 20th century, he is still largely unknown in the US. Could you talk about the importance of Szentkuthy’s writing for contemporary literature?
CMP: Other cultures, if not literature itself, have suffered a significant loss in not translating Szentkuthy during his lifetime. It wasn’t until two years after his death in 1988 that he was translated for the first time, into Slovakian. Thereafter he was translated into French in 1991, Portuguese in 1992, Romanian in 1999, Spanish in 2002, and now, finally, into English—it’s taken the Anglophone world over 20 years to catch up with the literary consciousness of Slovakia et al., though Tim Wilkinson did translate excerpts of his work, all of which were published in Hungarian literary journals starting in 2005. Imagine Ulysses not being read in translation until 1942 and the effect of that on world literature. The sciences don’t suffer from this problem—it would be unthinkable for the notion of relativity not to have been received during its time, but then, the promulgation of scientific ideas isn’t necessarily contingent upon translation.
AS: And so his publication in English necessitates a rewriting of literary history, in a sense.
CMP: We’re honestly countenancing a writer of Musil’s stature, if not of others, or a Hungarian Borges. Ferenc Takács compared him to Lucian, Rabelais, and Burton, so you have the testimony of others making similar assessments in addition to the work itself. And there is nothing more definitive than the actual text. With the proliferation of translations of Hungarian literature into English, most of which post-date Szentkuthy’s early work, it will be illuminating to read him within that continuum and for readers to see in what way he foregrounds, is a precursor of, or has significantly influenced other Hungarian writers. As different critics have observed, Szentkuthy uses techniques which were in advance of the modern novel: he was instrumental in undermining realism (Prae was called “an eerie attack on the Hungarian realist novel”), engages in a descriptive analysis of objects (as well as concepts and historical phenomena) akin to that employed in the nouveau roman, though 20 years prior to its development—in other words, he shatters traditional modes, an achievement that led to a certain literary revolution in Hungary. Linearity of time, coherent characterization, and plotline disappeared from his work and were replaced by something alien, a mysterious secret: authorial method.” In some ways, though, Szentkuthy is not really a “Hungarian” writer, not in any folkloric or nationalistic sense, for his work doesn’t deal with Hungarian reality or culture, except perhaps in extremely covert ways. “Homelessness,” said László Németh, “is one of his main distinguishing marks, as compared with kindred Western writers.”
AS: It’s interesting to think of Szentkuthy as a “homeless” writer when you consider the fact that he chose not to emigrate. In that sense, his “homelessness” was existential in nature, and his only true home was in literature.
CMP: One can be entirely alienated within one’s own country, especially if one’s politics are not in accord with a ruling regime, or one meets with paralyzing forms of silence. And Németh astutely described Szentkuthy’s homelessness as “a higher form of protection of the mind.” Considering the time he first began writing, such protection was vital. More than contemporary literature, he embodies Goethe’s notion of world literature and, not surprisingly, socialist critics condemned him as being “too cosmopolitan.” Consider what Burton Pike said of Musil, which was that, in comparison to Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, and Mann, whose primary works essentially remain statements about life, “The Man Without Qualities is more than that, it is an open rather than a closed system of thought, a search on the border of the impossible for new directions of moral development.” One can think of Szentkuthy similarly, especially his St. Orpheus Breviary, which is evident from how he himself described his epic: “It seeks the man beyond every version of culture, beyond every promise and failure of sciences and mythologies, beyond the remotest periods and furthest lands, beyond the countless yet nevertheless finite shades of psychology: what remains of all this mass of experience that he has left behind? What will usable in the future?” There is an enormity to gain from such writing, as well as just the sheer pleasure of reading his prose, following the arc and twist of his thought and how he cuts and shapes words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Once a readership for him develops in the Anglophone world, I believe he will come to be recognized as one of the most significant and important writers of the 20th century.
AS: As a wider awareness of your groundbreaking publications slowly but surely spreads, one can’t help but wonder about sales. It’s common knowledge that the commercial statistics on e-books are beginning to alarm traditional publishers. According to an article published on the Smashwords blog, in 2012 e-books in the US will likely approach 30% of trade book sales, up from 8% in 2010, 1% in 2008, and 0.5% in 2007. In view of these statistics, it seems likely that e-books will become an even more serious challenge to the bound book over the next few years.
CMP: Admiration is one thing, sales another, so whatever attention and accolades we may have received, sales do remain a serious pragmatic concern, especially in the decade of social media, which has engendered a sense of ‘community’ that is very facile and trite. ‘Liking’ something is not lending it any concrete support, let alone participating in a community—that has far more exigent obligations. We need more than ever to return to the incisive exhortations on community made by the Jena Romantics, Bataille, Blanchot et al. But what isn’t clear from those statistics is what kinds of books those numbers refer to; the data is vague and inconclusive—is it referring to self-help bibles, mass-market fiction, and whatever else the general public is gobbling up? At the risk of overgeneralizing, I don’t think those readers are our readers, nor the readers of similar presses, but people buying predominately disposable ‘books.’
E-books have their benefits, and they’re part of the wave of the future, that’s undeniable, but there are few to no instances of the medium being used as the entity that it is; it’s largely aping print culture, even to the point of simulating the sound of turning pages, or stultifying the imagination through providing maps, images, extraneous articles, etc., thereby turning a poem into a poem-cum-encyclopedia-picture-book that has nothing to do with its intrinsic form and how it was created.
Physical books, as the seemingly obsolete record, will always have their devotees and continue to be made, for those are specific forms which have qualities particular to them. No e-book will replace the kinds of books that Archipelago or Pushkin Press is making, for instance; they are two different beasts. We’ve considered publishing e-books, but I’d prefer to wait and not do that until we find artists actually creating works specifically for that medium, books capable of realizing something entirely new with it, in a manner intrinsic to it.
AS: Yes, there has to be an aspect of intrinsic necessity. I have just begun reading a book based on the compositional structure of traditional bagpipe music—Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music. It’s the first time I’ve felt I’m missing an essential dimension to a book—in this case, the sound of the actual instrument and what that communicates on its own. I can well imagine authors working on the borderline between disciplines, incorporating sound or visual material—not to illustrate the text, but to provide an additional, autonomous plane of meaning.
CMP: What the e-book can be, and the new type of writer or writer-designer that it calls for, is something we’ve not yet seen—the William Blake of e-culture has yet to arrive. Or maybe I’m just not aware of that new visionary. New types of hybrid texts such as you allude to would be the wave of the future. What for instance is our equivalent of Cendrars’ & Delaunay’s Prose of the Transsiberian? The very medium of the e-book demands an altogether new type of work, something created specifically for that form, as opposed to just taking an existing text and making a digital version of it—a strictly commerce-driven gesture.
AS: In any case, in view of the speed with which the publishing industry is changing, the size of your press provides you with a degree of flexibility and adaptability larger publishers could never hope for.
CMP: Whatever threat there might be is one that Contra Mundum may be able to escape, for, although we intend on producing books with traditional printers, we’re largely a print-on-demand company, and this enables us to take considerable risks and publish texts which may have a circumscribed audience, but which remain of fundamental importance. And if we only sell 50 copies of such a book, it remains in print, perpetually, as long as we as a press continue to exist, so with books that develop a readership slowly, there’s no risk of their vanishing. If it takes the Anglophone public five years or longer to recognize Ghérasim Luca, for instance, it won’t affect the availability of our book. The print-on-demand model significantly reduces expenses, too, which enables us to if not compete with the e-book explosion and larger publishers, to at least sustain our venture in the midst of such all-engulfing octopi. A more serious dilemma is gaining recognition in such an oversaturated age, which is a dilemma every small press faces, whether that means getting reviews, interviews, or simply devoted readers, and many prestigious publishing houses remain bound to models of the past, which makes acquiring rights often difficult, a barrier in fact. I don’t see how much longer they can continue to function according to 20th-century models.
AS: A recent statistic has shown that only three to five percent of all books published in the US are translations; only a handful of American presses like yours are dedicated to filling this frankly embarrassing gap. While we can only speculate on the effect literary isolationism has had on contemporary American perception and critical thinking, I wonder if you see a connection between these developments and the near-complete commercialization of what was once regarded as literary culture.
CMP: I always presumed different but was shocked into reality when Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books mentioned similar facts in an interview almost ten years ago, and her press is one of the many exceptional ones dedicated to ameliorating that lacuna. As for literary remoteness, in 1827, long before the sacrosanct paean about multiculturalism, Goethe sought to hasten the development of world literature, which was burgeoning at that moment. Yet while it took root in Europe, in America it never really did. Many American artists continue to exist in an aesthetic vacuum and don’t create within a larger continuum and lineage. Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Salinger, all highly over-celebrated, rather average writers, are absolute oddities, though not in a positive way. That they wrote what they did post-Huysmans, post-Musil, or post-Hofmannsthal is baffling.
AS: And yet Tim Parks, in his essay “America First?” (New York Review of Books, July 15, 2010), astonishingly questioned the necessity of translation in his discussion of the Best European Fiction anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon (Dalkey Archive Press): “It seems to me […] that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves. […] Across the globe, the literary frame of mind is growing more homogeneous.” Clearly, Parks seems to be forgetting a huge cross-section of what is being written today and what has been published over the past several decades. What is your view of this?
CMP: Although there are different forms of homogenization at work in the arts, there is scant validity in asserting that there’s a general global literary frame of mind. Would one say that Jelinek and Mathias Énard have homogeneous frames of mind? Or Howard Barker and Krasznahorkai? One could recite more examples but it would be tedious; it’s clear to the adventurous and idiosyncratic reader that Parks is mistaken. Art of any merit is unzeitgemäß in the sense of the term as it was conceptualized by Nietzsche. Whatever parallels or intersections there may be between writers of different cultures, a claim of increasing homogenization in literature elides what is different, alien, and foreign, even if it’s as subtle as nuances of perception. And to be similar in outlook is not in any way reassuring—that is one aspect of the universal humanistic disposition to be wary of, for it eschews or erases what is strange, unknown, and intractable in favor of a reactive idea of the human as some unchanging and permanently fixed monad. Thereby, anyone outside that concept of the human may be subject to ridicule, persecution, or worse, elimination.
AS: Essentially, it’s a political question.
CMP: Ultimately, yes, and the necessity of translation remains a fundamental cultural duty, but one hopefully informed by eros. It’s a philanthropic gesture, and more especially on the part of the translator than the publisher since the compensation is generally meager in comparison to the task and the time given to it. The translator’s art is sacrificial, more con amore than con i soldi. I as many other people rely on the gift of the translator for that encounter, and to be displaced or de-ranged, to have universal notions shattered is to recognize the fundamental ambiguity of the human, to see oneself as alien and mysterious and thus, hopefully, to welcome not being continuously reassured and to accept and embrace what is foreign.
AS: Another thing on my mind throughout this interview is the notion of ‘success’—in the US today, many assume they have a natural right to be successful, and they become disappointed and bitter when they’re not. But what is literature, if not adherence to the exigencies of the writing process—even when it doesn’t lead to the marketable work, but something that has the potential to pose entirely new questions about what putting words down on a page can mean. Could you talk a bit about Contra Mundum’s forthcoming publications this fall and winter?
CMP: What’s on the immediate horizon for us is the world premiere of Pessoa’s Philosophical Essays, a series of texts extracted from the Pessoa Archive that have essentially never seen the light of day. As a director who worked with some of the most renowned film artists of the 20th century, Elio Petri should need no introduction, but he remains a relative obscurity here in America. Our edition of his Writings on Cinema and Life should hopefully, at least in part, ameliorate that. To coincide with Richard Foreman’s forthcoming production at the Public Theater, we’ll be publishing his Plays with Films, and then there’s Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars, a book of essays by and on Robert Kelly, the selected poems of Emilio Villa, and a few surprises we’re working out—it’s the winter solstice, so we’d like to present our readers with whatever unexpected gifts we can.
A press’s survival is contingent upon the practical necessity of having current readers, and we certainly want a devoted readership for our books, which is more valuable than what is commonly understood by ‘success.’ What we have here is a certain absolutely vital force … Like any other craftsman, though, a writer should be able to survive and live from his or her work, especially if they are entirely devoted to it. Yet writing, as most art, is considered to be essentially superfluous. Who is an artist before a surgeon? Or a scientist? But the fact that tyrants and political forces of every age have been threatened by art again and again, condemned it as degenerate or poisonous, and have silenced, brutalized, or murdered artists because of their work only serves to illustrate how significant art is, that it is our one greatest power. I would even go so far as to say that the tyrant ‘understands’ art more than the devotee, for the latter is generally too ‘pious’ and adoring, almost like a simple-minded believer overwrought by faith who simply loves and finds everything ‘great,’ whereas the former suffers the transformative threat of art more, is even endangered by it, hence their terror. It is the Platonic fear of art’s power over the ‘soul.’ And the fear of the destruction of the polis, but destruction only leads to new creations. Art is the life force, the vital breath that sustains us in the midst of our most excruciating trials.
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More Articles by the AuthorAndrea Scrima
ANDREA SCRIMA is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil).