“Paper Should Be Edible, Nutritious”: John Cage’s Diary
LEE ANN NORMAN
Originally written for the Clark Coolidge magazine Joglars and later delivered as a series of lectures, John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) serves as a sketchbook of his ideas, stories, musings, rants, and views on society at a time when Americans still believed anything was possible. Siglio’s edition brings the eight completed sections together in one volume, allowing the Diary to be read as a cohesive work. (Cage was still writing two final sections at the time of his death in 1992.)
Cage — a prolific avant-garde musician-composer, writer, and artist — created works that pushed at the confines of music and sound, thus redefining the medium. He was a pioneer of prepared piano compositions, where modifications were made to the instrument’s mechanisms, and he often created atonal musical works rather than using traditional Western melodic techniques. His interest in aleatory devices and Eastern philosophy, particularly the Chinese I Ching, heavily influenced his creative output, as well as music indebted to him ever since.
Diary, completed between 1965 and 1982 and printed with an IBM Selectric typewriter, also uses constraints derived from chance operations. Depending on the outcome, Cage would write a fixed number of words every day, limit the number of characters and determine the margins and indentations of each line, creating what he termed mosaics. Color figures prominently in the text, too, with lines alternating between 28 different shades of blue and red. This vacillation between typeface, colors ranging from muted gray-blues to red-browns and variance in the surrounding white space gives each page a sculptural element, a welcome counterpart to Cage’s careful attention to the rhythm of the text. At times, this renders Diary poetic and delightfully meandering.
While relying on chance operations for its form, Cage maintained a deeply personal vulnerability in the content. His ideas about a variety of global issues are punctuated with casual references to his friends, mentors, and colleagues, including Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and Marcel Duchamp. Vignettes of domestic life — time spent with his mother or his life partner and collaborator, the choreographer Merce Cunningham — figure prominently throughout. (Cage’s father died in 1965, shortly before Diary was published and delivered in public address. His mother would die a few years later in 1969.) In one section, Cage gives a story about trying to purchase fresh coriander in Chinatown with a friend, and in another, he shares that as he was completing benefit forms after the death of his father, his mother revealed to him that she had been married twice before.
The Diary’s philosophical meditations (“The goal is not to have a goal. The new universe city will have no limits. It will not be in any special place . . . ”) and social commentary (“Act of sharing is a community act. Think of people outside the community. What do we share with them . . . ?”) provide effective contrasts to Cage’s seemingly stream of conscious musings and rant-like observations. In one instance he speculates that, “Encouraged, instead of frightened, children could learn several languages before reaching age of four, at that age engaging in the invention of their own languages. Play’d be play instead of being, as now, release of repressed anger.” In another, he observes “ . . . People ask what the avant-garde is and whether it’s finished. It isn’t. There will always be one. The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde nothing would get invented.”
The I Ching acknowledges that life and everything in it is in a constant state of flux. Diary reveals how Cage took that philosophy to heart in his daily life. His critical, yet hopeful musings about the cultural context on which Diary reflects capture life’s impermanence as well as Cage’s personal comfort with ambiguity during a time when people around the world were desperately seeking certainty. Observations such as, “Edwin Schlossberg told me that while Fuller was writing a dedication in his book Utopia or Oblivion, he paused and said, ‘Those are not the only possibilities . . .’ ” or “New York’s the largest Puerto Rican city in the world . . . ” show Cage to be not only an artist, musician, and thinker, but also a compassionate, active citizen of the world.