(EyeCorner Press, 2010)
The Acolytes, by Rainer J. Hanshe, depicts an entangled coterie of actors and authors in contemporary New York City. Terence and Gabriel are young actors at the start of their careers, Ivan is their controlling and compulsive director, and Amos is the clairvoyant author/playwright around whom the others gravitate. The novel is an experiment in free indirect discourse, a panoply of tones and voices, and above all, an exploration of art and its concomitant culture, demands, and ramifications. Rainer J. Hanshe is the founder of Contra Mundum Press, a co-founder of the Nietzsche Circle, and senior editor of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics.
Audrey Gray (Rail): Your novel examines the obstacles artists face, both external and internal, in trying to create the art they feel they are meant to create. Gabriel, the protagonist, is relieved to date someone who is “not afflicted with artistic impulses.” What obstacles did you face while writing this book and how do you regard your own artistic impulses?
Rainer J. Hanshe: When I first conceived the book, I felt incapable of writing Ivan and Amos, I thought I wouldn’t be able to convey such enigmatic characters. There are different forms of writing though, or different stages to writing, the most crucial being the incubatory period during which one fantasizes, freely ruminating over characters, events, etc. I call it “silent writing.” I engaged in it frequently, figuring that, eventually, I would be capable of articulating what I envisioned. That process led to a surprising eruption—the book struck me as unexpectedly as a lightning bolt. One summer, after writing two short stories subsequent to a significant loss I underwent, the opening sentence of the novel came to me exactly as it is now. Since I wasn’t then even thinking of writing the novel, I was startled by this “visitation,” but devotedly heeded it. I ended up writing the first half of the book in 90 days; the second half was written the following summer, while in Larache, Morocco, where Genet is buried. Although the structure of the novel is exactly as it was when first written, I significantly revised certain aspects of it. So the force of creation is for me comprised of logical and “alien” and illogical powers.
Rail: Ivan and Amos are certainly enigmatic. Amos is an especially ambitious character in that he is modeled after the mythic Tiresias. He brings foreboding and suspense into the landscape of the novel, yet he also brings lightheartedness and idiosyncrasy. At one point he says wryly, “Visions aren’t like instant oatmeal.” His writing is at the epicenter of the story, with the other main characters devoted to the work, its adaptation to the stage, or hermeneutics. Why do we never read his work?
Hanshe: I could have invented and included his work within the narrative, but that would’ve made for an entirely different novel, disrupting the mythos and altering the focus, which is the phenomenon of discipleship. Amos’s work is part of what makes him so bewitching, but it wasn’t necessary to elaborate what suggestion provokes each reader to imagine. And since Amos is in part forgotten, the acolytes are led to him through Ivan, his gatekeeper; although Amos’s outlaw stature is part of what captivates the acolytes and intensifies his cult status, they are also seduced by Ivan’s tales. What demanded narrative centrality, though, was the dynamic between Amos and Ivan and their respective disciples, with the main two discipleships illustrating different types of acolytes. Ivan is perhaps another type altogether: while a “master” with his own coterie of acolytes, he is as much a sacrificial (though combative and resistant) disciple himself.
Rail: Throughout the novel Ivan develops into something of a villain. His artistic inertia is linked to his sexual addiction and compulsive, hedonistic behavior. Is that a causal relationship? Ultimately he becomes an impediment to the artistic productivity of his coterie and a kind of antithesis to the artist. Does he embody a trend or a force you’ve encountered in the art world or the writing world, or is he simply an antagonist?
Hanshe: There is a fundamental connection between art and sex—the force expended in both is the same, and Ivan is certainly emblematic of someone whose artistic drives are sundered by near violent sexual excess. Perhaps his muse is Erato, however he doesn’t write poetry but is characterized as “poetry in the flesh.” I wonder, though, if he’s even an “artist,” which is a much maligned title far too many claim with such cavalier ease. In any case, Ivan is also majestically uninhibited, one who engages in limit experiences, some kind of exalted—if not decadent—Dionysian figure the acolytes uphold as a sublime archetype. But in pursuing such experiences so wholly and continually, that which is enduring—art—is sacrificed. In my view, Ivan’s various qualities make him more than a mere antagonist—he is indeed an incarnation of different destructive forces I’ve encountered, of those who not only expect uncritical obeisance but whom also wish to rule and consume others.
Rail: He’s certainly a fascinating character who prompts the reader to reexamine the “artist” as a prototype. I think it’s important to mention how many real artists you draw from in this novel as well. At one point Amos discusses Melville. We also hear Wagner, read Whitman, and see Manhattan as painted by Bosch. Which works were most important to you while writing the novel and what do they contribute to this discourse about who is or should identify as an artist?
Hanshe: Instead of speaking of specific artists or works, what is essential to me is a certain sensibility and vision and the notion of the tragic is central to that. But art can be as pernicious an illusion as metaphysics, so one must remain ever critical, yet criticism is not the antithesis of art as all too many believe, but an inherent element of it, certainly of modern art. If those who claim to be artists simply accept their role as something which automatically validates their existence, that is too convenient an expedient, as much a myopic comfort as religion. If one isn’t critical of one’s art one isn’t living up to art’s exigent demands, which involves questioning the value of art itself. A friend said to me that every form of expression has to be respected, but that’s a hell of an erroneous point of view, one my sensei would cut to the quick. In one scene, Amos and Terence speak of Rimbaud and the oft quoted—abused—passage of his about how le Poète se fait voyant par un long immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Amos elucidates how before that task of striving to become a “seer” is pursued, what is neglected in the counterculture appropriation of Rimbaud is his imperative that, first, one must acquire total self-knowledge. Although an impossible task, it must still be pursued, despite the inevitable failure; but as Rimbaud himself says, the failure of the innovator is of no consequence because he or she has made advancements; other “horrible workers” pick up the arrows where the previous seers left them and shoot them into new horizons, beginning where the others succumbed.
Rail: Let’s discuss religion since it figures so prominently in your novel. I observed in the book a construction of two simultaneous analogies about art as a process. On one hand, the creation of art is compared to religious worship, on the other, it is persistently compared to sex. In one analogy we find asceticism, decorum, and solitude, in the other we find indulgence, transgression, and intimacy. How did you come to employ this dual analogy and how do you see these two metaphors as interacting?
Hanshe: It’s surely a preexisting analogy, though envisioned in my own idiosyncratic way since it’s instrumental to the conception of the novel, if not a logical outgrowth of it. As for the interacting metaphors, I don’t see that dichotomy as strict—each mode infects and mutates the other; each contains elements of the other. Whereas each of the different characters fails at harmoniously uniting those forces, Amos—hopefully—represents the achievement of that harmonious unity. One of the hazards of discipleship is its invitation of obeisance and exploitation when it demands skepticism. My polemic is with monotheism and with the dynamics of monotheistic religion as manifested in art, politics, and philosophy. I’m not naïve enough to believe my book will lead to the disintegration of “discipleship,” and there are affirmative forms of it that warrant cultivation, but perhaps it can initiate an alternative way of thinking about this phenomenon, of provoking a renewed critical attitude towards it. What is now necessary is not art “as sex” or art “as religion”; the art of the future may instead need to be the hybrid of art and science that Nietzsche called for, but which we still have not fully achieved. A more mathematical and geometrical but still erotic art that is anti-human—an art of dark matter?—as the fundamental rubric, for how many more tales of revenge disguised as justice, how many invocations of pity, how many more redemption narratives can we stomach? Our culture is plagued with these hackneyed monotheistic thematics. Ergo the hybrid, but one must beware of deifying the truth and of sanctifying texts and their interpreters, which is to remain religious, albeit in a masked way, and masks have a terrifying power, and are capable of convincing even those who construct them that they’re not masks but reality itself. I’m all for festivals, but when we mistake our myths for reality, we become despotic beasts.