We've Ruined the Silence

We've Ruined the Silence
The Sound and Fury of Latter-Day Cage

By George Leonard
San Francisco Review of Books, Winter 1990, p. 17-18

I-IV: MethodStructure
by John Cage
Harvard University Press
452 pages; fifteen illustrations
plus two cassette tapes; $34.95

Since the death last December of Samuel Beckett, John Cage is probably the most revered avant-garde figure living in the West; and even during Beckett's lifetime, Cage was more influential. PBS canonized him with an American Master show. Harvard University Press, in a blurb inside this magnificent edition of Cage's most recent lectures there, called him without a doubt the most influential composer of the last half-century.

Amazingly, that's too modest. Cage's influence was even stronger in the visual arts than in music, and he also left his mark on dance and poetry. Cage is the artist most people think Warhol was, the one who convinced the art world that every mundane object was worthy of our wondering contemplation. His influence on Warhol's work was indirect but real. In his own book, Popism, Warhol paints his younger self as a commercial artist pathetically idolizing the already-celebrated Rauschenberg and Johns, and longing for acceptance by their circle, whose spiritual leader was Cage.

"Spiritual" is the precise word here. Ultimately, Cage's greatest contribution may have been to American religious life. After studying at Columbia with D.T. Suzuki in the 1940's, Cage arguably did more than any other figure to introduce Zen to the American artworld, and through it, to the broad American culture.

Yet Cage's work since 1965, of which this book is representative, is at times almost a repudiation of the work before, and certainly a criticism of it. One of the most interesting things about Cage is that there are two Cages, and the second Cage is the best critic of the first.

In 1956, when the Merce Cunningham company had to dance before some midwestern college audiences, Cage warmed up the audience with some elementary remarks, later much reprinted:

Our intention is to affirm this life,
not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply
to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets
one's mind and one's desire out of its
way and lets it act of its own accord.

Calvin Tomkin's subsequent New Yorker piece on Cage, reprinted in both of Tomkins' influential books, pulled that quote forward to explain how Cage had united music and Zen. What Cage himself had described as "remarks" written for a presumably unsophisticated audience in Principia College, St. Louis, inflated gradually, first in the New Yorker and then in Tomkins' often-reprinted books, to the status of a manifesto. (The remarks do epitomize what Cage had long been writing in more considered works, like the 1952 Juilliard Lecture.)

During the 1960's when the most influential galleries and journals in New York were dedicated to Pop, and to what Arthur Danto later called "the transfiguration of the commonplace," Cage's remarks about art awakening us to life's excellence seemed prophetic. But by the 1980s the well-known lines were becoming unpopular, particularly among the growing ranks of feminist artists.

The performance artist Yvonne Rainer acidly protested, in 1981, that "only a man born with a sunny disposition" could have said anything so fatuous. (She is quoting one of Cage's unguarded comments about himself.) The fine critic Henry Sayre in turn quotes Rainer in his 1989 University of Chicago book, The Object of Performance, himself pausing to lament Cage's dictum as "so vastly apolitical, so vastly unconscious of social and political reality."

Such criticism will surely increase. In a time of world wide Earth Day observances, of Green political parties and general consciousness-raising about a possible end of nature and an endangered planet, Cage's sunny 1956 beliefs that art's only task is to wake us up to the excellence of life seem at best naive. At worst Cage, whose works were designed to awaken us, may seem himself, as Sayre perceptively says, to be unconscious. But in choosing that one quotation to represent Cage and then enshrining it in his influential books, Tomkins stopped the clock on Cage in 1957. To this day, Cage criticism follows essentially the lines mapped out by Tomkins.

The poems in Harvard's new book remind us afresh that Cage himself was the first to recognize the paradox in giving people new ears and eyes, then sending them out to experience global pollution. By 1966 his little-discussed piece Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) was calling for global planning of the environment.

He grew closer to Buckminster Fuller and championed ecology artists like Helen and Newton Harrison, whose very un-accepting art involved intricate plans to detoxify river basins. In 1968, reading Thoreau's Journal, Cage re-discovered his western roots, deciding that Thoreau's work contained "any idea I've ever had worth its salt." The 1975 Empty Words was a sixty-five page homage to that environmentalist classic. The new Harvard book continues that homage, as Cage identifies ever more closely with that other quirky, astonishingly influential American original.

Harvard deserves praise for publishing an encyclopedia-sized volume, illustrated and printed on fine paper, complete with two cassettes of Cage in performance, for just $34.95. Thirty five bucks isn't cheap, but these days university presses have to charge that much for any skinny book of essays. If you have never heard Cage in performance, the tape of him reading will be a revelation. He is old now, [1990] and his still-beautiful voice, trembling slightly as he reads his frightening, fragmented poems, reminds you inevitably of the famous recording of Eliot reading his Waste Land. Typically, the fragments Cage shores up against his ruins are bits of Thoreau or Fuller and his own past meditations, intercut with a computer's chance selection of disasters from the daily press. A key phrase (here, the start of CIRCUMSTANCES) forms vertically down the page:

Can never have enough of nature
we must
In space
they dRagged them away
square of seCret for ending hostilities
the groUnd or usage changes
Men hit only what they aim
thoSe images upside down for
going To

Sobering stuff: not the Cage who, forty years ago, asked us to be quiet for four minutes, thirty three seconds, and attend to the beautiful notes of our environment. The Harvard poems are the work of the still-unfamiliar second Cage who, when asked in that PBS trubute if he had any second thoughts about 4'33" said unexpectedly, "We've ruined the silence."

George Leonard, a novelist (The Ice Cathedral), recently acted in performance artist Eleanor Antin's feature film, THE MAN WITHOUT A WORLD. He Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at San Francisco State University.

(Shortly after writing this review, George Leonard went to New York to do a performance with John Cage)

He's nearly eighty now and arthritis has mauled his back and fingers. He can no longer play an instrument, he says, he must be in constant pain, yet he=s wittier than ever and watches everything that happens around him with youthful relish and endless good humor.

I ask him about the remark he made at the end of the PBS special on his work, Perhaps we have ruined the silence, as a postscript to 4'33". Cage laughs out loud: Wasn't that terrible of me? The darker side! But perhaps we have. And imagine, they they went right on to me collecting mushrooms.... The lighter side. Does he feel PBS misrepresented him, then? No! That's what's wonderful, isn't it? They had both. That they spliced both sides of him together, the darker Cage of A Year From Monday's ecological rages and the serene Taoist Cage, mushroom gatherer. I thought the PBS special very good! he says, with pleasure.

At dinner he opens the ancient metal attache case I've been lugging for him, steel, I swear, by the weight and takes three sheets of paper and some tupperware with macrobiotic food. Macrobiotic food and Chinese medicine control the arthritis pain. He makes a soup from rattlesnake bile, he says. I ask him the list of questions from my students, while he eats his brown rice and answers tirelessly, patiently. I apologize for interrupting his dinner. But life is a series of interruptions, isnt it? he says, laughing. Perhaps we must learn how to enjoy them. Yes? A kind thing to say, and he evidently means it, too. A week later I keep thinking about it, and it relaxes me. Life is interruptions, so we must learn how to enjoy them. Experience life as you would serial music?

He hasn't lost his sense of theater. At rehearsal he abruptly decides he'll sit on the stage with his back to the audience while I read what I'm saying at him. Changing he and Cage to you. That night he sits like a prisoner in the dock, while, like a district attorney summing up the case against John Cage, I, from behind a great amplified podium, blast at him all the charges feminist critics make against his work. The audience, which has paid eight dollars per head to see him, is aghast, and Hofstra's museum director Gail Gelburd, who is sponsoring this, says later she wanted to go under her seat. As he planned, they can't see his face, and have to guess his reaction. Great theater! After ten minutes of attacks on him (naive, vastly apolitical, unconscious) I swing into the darker Cage, the finely ecological poet whom none of his recent critics seem to know. Everyone breathes again. A Year From Monday gets applause. After he reads he answers questions from William Duckworth till his voice gives out, and Gail Gelburd calls it a night. But so many people come up for autographs he squats for twenty minutes at the side of the stage, in a posture that would pain a teenage, patiently signing everything and answering even the most irritated nonbelievers.

The next day two other artists and myself enter a Buddhist void, an installation by Eric Orr, with him. We stand in a lightless ten by ten space, so dark you can see the white on the edge of your peripheral vision. As our eyes adjust to the thread of light Orr has permitted in, we one-up each other with sensitive comments on what we're perceiving. As the minutes pass, slowly we realize John isn't saying anything, just meditating, and like chastened minor monks, we're shamed into shutting up and getting down to business.

After ten minutes, his old, good-humored face appears, floating in the black above his dark, still-invisible clothes. I think of Lao Tsu's lines, which could have been written for John Cage:

Hold fast enough to the Silence/
And of the ten thousand things in the world/
All can be worked on by you.