May 13th, 2010
The winner of Camera Obscura’s first story award goes to Kane X. Faucher and his story “Sanscript,” an intricate construction worthy of examination. I thought it might be interesting to have both Tim Horvath and Meredith Doench throw some questions at him, creating a sort of virtual round table. And, as his responses demonstrate, Kane is as prolific a thinker as he is a writer, who acknowledges that not enough credit is given to the asking of fantastic questions. If only this interview had been conducted in a café in Paris’ St-Germain. (web advisory: not a quick read)
MD: “Sanscript” reads almost as a caution tale to students about acquiring too much knowledge—knowledge that you can’t give back. What inspired you to write about this subject?
KXF: I’ve always been enamoured with book- and language-related enigmas, writing against the more blasé interpretation that there is nothing potentially dangerous in the act of reading or knowledge acquisition. There are always these troublesome, uncanny moments that emerge the more one delves into study. In this particular story, my attempt was to give an alternative perspective to what theologians call “anagogical reading”; namely, that state of mind one enters into while reading that immediately transports the reader to a mystical understanding of the text. This transport is usually quite violent, like a nervous breakdown. In the annals of mystical reading, we find the ecstatic experiences of those like St Francis of Assisi and Hildegaard von Bingen who both report having been removed from the usual flow of space and time and brought directly into a state of the divine. In this story, the mystical architecture of the narrative is quite blatant, yet intentionally misleading. We have the tenebrous cabal, the initiation rite, and the usual sacred mumbo-jumbo that every secret society reveres. However, instead of following the mystical explanation for Heinrich’s newfound literacy skills, I opted for a more terrestrial explanation; namely, that Heinrich learned how to read the purloined imaginary, or learned to perceive the subconscious writing that always occurs while we are writing consciously. A text is always double, in this sense, articulated according to the perspective we perceive, and one that we don’t. There are subconscious intentions in all writing that we may not be aware of, such as how we write journals and diaries in such a way that, although we insist that they are private and to be read by no one, textual analysis reveals that we are always writing to someone, even if that someone is nebulous and abstract. Another point of departure in this story was furnished to me by a relatively recent study of “thumbprinting” books to determine authenticity of who authored the text. In this study, it was found that every author has a kind of “signature” in their writing which can be discovered by their use of a working vocabulary, reliance on particular types of metaphor, and the like. So, when I was writing this – I believe I was seaside in Florida at the time – I thought to myself, well, why not attribute this “signature” to something even deeper, more personal, like the subconscious?
TH: “Sanscript” is a story about reading. Do you have any unusual memories about learning to read?
KXF: My love of reading began early. When I was in grade 2, the Ministry of Education ritually liked to herd us into the cafeteria to write tests as a report card on education and curriculum. When I was of legal age, I was able to see my school record and noticed to my shock that at grade 2 I had the reading comprehension and vocabulary level of grade 12.3. I certainly seemed to have an aptitude for language which I indulged by reading all I could get my hands on, including dictionaries and encyclopedias. It was a thrill for me at the time to be given special permission by the school librarian to browse the books in the senior elementary section, and I was voracious if not indiscriminate in my reading. Beyond my fascination with paleontology, numismatics, and the usual nerdy things, I also loved etymology. My memory of word origins lends much more richness to what I read, and is what I draw upon to construct neologisms. If I had a hero in that regard, it would be H.L. Mencken who was also an etymologophile. As a child, all my reading was eclectic, and I generally assigned myself bizarre research projects that came from I know not where.
MD: The character Tariq introduces to the narrator ideas about language and writing such as the issue of writing double and unwriting one’s own life. Tariq states “I inherit a world that is already a historical fiction, and I continue along to make ever more fictions that future generations will also inherit.” How does time play a role in Tariq’s views?
KXF: I freely admit that I’m cribbing here from a few sources. Most evidently, I am drawing from Foucault’s idea that what we call history is just an ever-changing discourse based on what we assigned as the truth at the time. To truly know history as truth would entail having access to all written (and unwritten!) documents during that period. There are also a few other subtle interventions, especially drawn from Bergson and Deleuze, but I wouldn’t want to give all my tricks away! Interestingly, though, the only method by which Tariq feels he can unwrite his life is through more writing. The entire story veers dangerously close to a view of textual idealism, something deconstruction has been charged with. In that view, which I confess a sentimentality for, all is text and there is nothing outside the text, no matter what.
TH: The relationship between the narrator and Tariq in the piece, at least at the outset, reminds me of certain intellectual friendships I’ve had. In reading it I’m reminded of one in particular with a math student while I was in grad school–endless conversations about literature while walking along the shoulders of roads, engrossed to the point of almost getting hit by traffic. Do you get to talk about these issues on a daily basis? Can the internet serve as the agora or is there something compelling about these face-to-face conversations (and do we need frenzied-exchange-of-idea lanes the way we have bike lanes)?
KXF: I, too, share those memories of the long discussions where the world seemed to be the backdrop to a marathon discussion on ontology or history, conjecture and literature, etc. Not to be too sentimental, but those were audacious days where I felt at liberty to spout forth from the basis of still having not completed the general figure or contour of the history of knowledge. When I think back, I am sometimes embarrassed by the sloppy reasoning I employed or the beliefs I espoused, but I do admire the brazen nature of those times, the feeling of courageous curiosity that compelled me in that kind of whirlwind of the new to conduct those conversations. Things have changed, and the idea-sharing in this new Agora has diminished in some ways, or at least changed registers. Now, in a faculty setting, my concerns are eaten up by research and teaching, and when I speak with colleagues it can be a bit exasperating to discuss our research and indulge in the free-flow of ideas. Instead, we talk about the rigors of teaching, we talk about taxes and benefits, we speak on the bureaucratic obligations of our positions. This came as a stark realization once I obtained my PhD that – crap! – I can’t get away with saying and doing the things I was anymore since I was expected to know better, that I was now suddenly burdened with the responsibility of what my degree meant. I’d say the conversations I have now are mostly in emails with colleagues in the writing and academe setting, but these are more careful, meticulous, and less inclined to make unsubstantiated claims. I do occasionally get wrapped up in the marathon discourse, but that now takes place on email.
MD: By the end of “Sanscript,” the narrator, Heinrich, is in complete despair and the reader is left with a horrific feeling regarding his emotional state. Is Heinrich’s final understanding of what Tariq has done to him a metaphor for the relationship between students and scholars? How so?
KXF: It could be read that way. It is a Lovecraftian twist: that the knowledge gained is so horrific that it can barely be expressed in language. Of course, that was Lovecraft’s trademark method for avoiding description he didn’t feel up to writing. But perhaps there is always the danger in the transmission of knowledge, especially between teacher and student. I don’t mean the obvious power relations, but more on the order of the gift, and the entire philosophical problems associated with the paradox of gift giving. For Heinrich, there is an obvious “end of innocence” climax, that innocence set up earlier in the story in his somewhat youthful listlessness, his sinecure lifestyle, his ambling courting of abstract ideas. It turns out that despite his literary predilections and voracious hunger for reading, he was enclosed in a limited literacy that Tariq redresses. Heinrich is left knowing what he does not want to know, and has been “ruined” for the rest of his reading life, condemned to seeing two different texts in the place of the one that most people are limited to seeing. The metaphor here may in fact be on the order of knowledge being something that, once acquired, we are condemned to, just as we are condemned to creating or finding meaning. One cannot unlearn how to read save by damage or disease to our linguistic portions of our brains. In the end, it is a kind of parable on our inability at selective forgetting.
MD: What writers have influenced your work?
KXF: Borges is most definitely the literary precedent for this story and a host of others I’ve written in this style, but I would also include Umberto Eco, Will Self, Primo Levi, H.P. Lovecraft, and Italo Calvino in the mix. This style of writing is perhaps more staid of the different styles or modes I write, which vary depending on what the subject demands. I will say that this particular short story is part of a larger collection that I’ve been secretly tooling with for a while, and the remainder of the stories have much of this bookish noir bent. But, yes, I consider this story – and the others that are similar to that in my collection – largely an homage to Borges.
TH: Borges is evidently a central influence on you. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that influence, in particular as it relates to this story.
KXF: I was introduced to Borges late, and by late I mean age 21 when I first attended university and was opened up to a whole world of recommendations from like-minded people. My tendency is if I like an author, I read absolutely everything they produce, and Borges was no exception. I had just finished a Henry Miller phase and was looking for a new obsession. I think in Borges there is always the uncanny element that plays throughout it, and he seems very well at home in writing a metafiction that blurs essay and short story, drawing from his own unmatched reading. Eventually, as we know, Borges succumbed to congenital blindness – perhaps the cruelest punishment for someone who was obsessed with reading. I suppose the link to Borges here is on the order of blindness, that we are all blind to text even though we can read and comprehend its surfaces.
TH: In addition to “Sanscript,” I read a piece of yours, “From /+!/ in the & Now Anthology which had a very different feel to it. If I had to summarize the difference, I’d say that “Sanscript” seems to usher us into an almost 19th century sensibility, to move at a pace that one finds rarely in contemporary fiction (I use “usher” advisedly, as it’s Poe I think of here). The story opens with “guttering fire” and phrases such as “undeniable truism” and “perform my own exegesis.” Split the screen and contrast with the & Now piece, which reads in clipped phrases, reveling in post-millennial computer “web(b)-flow.” It seems to embrace programming language and sensibilities. You seem equally comfortable in both past and future. Is that the case? Are these as disparate as they seem at first glance?
KXF: On a good, clear day, I like to think that I can do as Bergson suggests, which is to grasp the duration of time where the distinctions of time are erased. But, in more technically sincere terms, my writing practice is rather disparate, perhaps maverick in so far as I do feel comfortable in a variety of registers and linguistic periods (sometimes in just one piece). I feel right at home in just about any temporal or regional dialect, from the Elizabethan to 17th century nautical slang, from the politesse of the Baroque to blue-collar romanticism of the 1960s right up to today. This ability to extract the essence of dialects and styles has recently been put to the test in a collaborative novel written with Tom Bradley (due out perhaps this year) where I manage to write in the characteristic styles of Celine, Artaud, Pound, Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, and Bukowski. More particularly, my Celine and Thompson has been praised by a surprising number of others for its eerie resemblance. At the moment, I’m brushing up on my 1860s American slang on a piece that involves P.T. Barnum. The [+!] book (available through Calliope Nerve) was heavily inspired by code poets like Mezangelle and Alan Sondheim (with some conceptualist back-reach to Bok, Dutton et al), but is more a means of showing how codes decay, and giving me the ability to perform one of the tasks I enjoy most: generating a huge supply of neologisms (of which the title Sanscript can be counted among them). So, yes, they are disparate forms of writing, but I like to think of the act of writing as a multiplicity.
TH: You and I share some obsessions, among them reading, shadows, and obscure realms of study. In pieces of yours I noted references to silography and steganography. Do you enjoy learning about things that most would consider odd and highly specialized? Is there a particular field of study, real or invented, that you secretly fantasize about going into?
KXF: Ah, yes, I do adore the obscure and esoteric. Isn’t there a sense of secret satisfaction in acquiring knowledge from an unlikely or long neglected source? As for enjoying studying the obscure, I suppose it could not be any more obscure than what I trained in, which is continental philosophy. I’m a bit of a metaphysician at heart, or at least stumbling my way in that milieu. I have too many interests, almost all of them specialized and obscure. Two books I’d love to crack in terms of their code would be the Albigensian-reputed text, the Voynich Manuscript, and the more recent (and very trippy) Codex Seraphineanus by Luigi Serafini. I like how you pose this question of study real or invented since it does open up to a fantastical realm. I secretly adore speculative histories, and I would love one day to be able to pursue that as a ground for study.
MD: From your biography, I see you are a professor at the University of Western Ontario. How does your teaching influence your writing?
KXF: I am not entirely sure. There is a blurring of activity where I draw from experience and knowledge to bring both to bear on writing and teaching. I see teaching as a performative, theatrical event, and perhaps I view writing in a similar way. There is some course material that I lecture on that sparks a kind of fulguration in my brain. I teach an eclectic array of courses from propaganda, social media, to freak-shows and museum culture, and this also reflects my rather eclectic reading from continental philosophy, French literature, quantum theory, cryptography, etcetera. I recently gave a talk on what it means to be a “scholartist”, which is my portmanteau for how we can merge sometimes disparate practices – such as teaching and literary writing – and how to make their tension resonate for productive purposes.
TH: On your website you cite quite a few postmodern philosophers and theorists as central influences. Perhaps an unwieldy question for a brief interview, but how do you view the relationship between Theory and literature? Is this relationship in flux–is it evolving in any particular direction? Do they vie for dominance in your own sensibility/day, or do you manage to make them mesh?
KXF: That is a big question. I defer here to Derrida who says that all philosophy is essentially a form of literature since it uses literary devices like metaphor, analogy and so forth to disseminate its ideas. By the same token, all literature is philosophy since it is entrusted to be a carrier of ideas (if done well). In the day to day, scholarship is expected to conform to a style of academic writing that is not ornamental or can luxuriate in the same way literature can. I understand the limitations of both, and frequently find myself constrained by them. And by that I mean the limitations imposed by our expectation or commonly inherited prejudice that these genres should be kept divided. Borges freely mixed them together in his work, and that is something I like to do as well when I can get away with it. I think the tensions between theory and literature proper actually generate interesting hybridization, new ways of thinking and expressing.
TH: You seem to identify strongly with innovative writers–is there a “scene” that is distinctly Canadian of those with your bent?
KXF: Unfortunately. Canada’s literary scene is small and fragmentary compared to the US. The problem in being small is that the scene becomes dominated by the established few who seem only to open the door to fawning protégés. There seems to be a surreptitious project to nationalize our literature, not understanding that perhaps our literary identity is in not insisting on one. Canada was called by Wyndham Lewis a most parochial nationette, and there seems to be a consolidating trend towards conservative literature, which is hostile or indifferent to experimentation and innovation. Smaller presses that put out great authors are always on the risk of capsizing, and our media conglomerates do very little to promote the underground and alternative. It is for that reason that many of us – who are a little cold to the CanLit canon anyhow – publish in other countries. What happens is if we do receive acclaim elsewhere, then the country wants to embrace you. We are all ex-pats even if we live here. If I had to name off a few good presses and good Canadian authors, I would say presses like ECW, Coach House in its heyday, Enigmatic Ink, Gaspereau, Anvil, and BookThug. As for authors and naming names, Anthony Metivier, Rob Read, Clint Burnham, Asher Ghaffar, Jay MillAr, Martin Heavisides, and a smattering of others.
TH: What is something about you that someone might not expect if they only knew your work?
KXF: That I’m not as pretentious as I sound in some of my writing, nor am I some middle class kid parachuted into academia. To look at me, most people would assume that I’m some sort of labourer given my height and size, my miltiaresque attire. I’m one of those bizarre ironies for someone with my interests: someone more than capable of performing hard manual labour, yet with his head frequently lost in the clouds of metaphysical or literary contemplation. I embrace the contradiction as a conjunction rather than a disjunction, taking delight in the confusion of others who cannot reconcile this irony.
November 19th, 2009
Port is often referred to as the wine of philosophy, most likely because it is traditionally served after dinner, usually with a cigar, and this has historically led to much conversation, some of which might fall into the realm of philosophical.
The inaugural issue of the Camera Obscura Journal takes more shape with the addition of Kane X. Faucher’s remarkable Borgesian tale of intrigue, “Sanscript,” which is, in my estimation, the short story equivalent of a having a glass of Port and a fine cigar. Below is an excerpt:
“…It is an undeniable truism that any number divided against itself will always result in that single digit unity, just as any number subtracted from itself will result in the authority of null. It is into this binary silence I have read, and have since regretted it; and to this style of seeing and reading I have had to forcibly turn from. A one and a zero, a white space and a black one: this is the Manicheanism of reading, but of a hidden variety that was revealed to me at too unripe an age, in Lisbon.”
Kane X. Faucher is an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of 10 books and has published over 1000 poems, articles, short fiction, and reviews internationally. He currently lives and works in London, Canada. He is a recent recipient of the &Now Aware for Best Innovative Writing.
On the photography front, the competition is wide open. We are adding a select few sponsors to the journal. Check back in the next couple of weeks for details.
More updates as they are available.
M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal