On Lithub: “Reading John Cage in Reykjavík”

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December 25th, 2019

(Essay) Diary: How to Improve the World: You Will Only Make Matters Worse


Reading John Cage in Reykjavík


Originally published November 25, 2019

In Kaffibarinn, a dark, wood-paneled bar in Reykjavik filled with Scandinavians sipping on artisanal beers, looking impossibly cool, I asked singer Damien Rice if he was a hoarder of digital junk.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitating. “It’s not just photos and sound samples, it’s hundreds of videos I’ll probably never look at again or show another soul.” Rice told me that one day he’ll enlist the services of an AI who will clean out his hard drives, disposing of what is insignificant or inane, a robot entrusted with his most intimate memories.

“You trust an AI with all of that when you don’t even trust an assistant to choose what kind of sound sample to put in your next song?” I asked him. “That’s messed up.”

He shrugged before telling me about a new portable hard drive called T5 that had next level data transfer speed and fit into the palm of your hand.  The person beside me was talking about jpegs, RAM, data storage.

“What kind of memory are you trying to get rid of?” she asked.

I didn’t answer.


I was thinking of failed relationships, sagging breasts, the malaise of middle age. I hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but I’d traveled half away across the world with a kind of drastic escapist plan in mind. I harbored the hope that taking a plane to the volcanic island would help me with the forgetting process and catapult me out of my depressive state.  Forget exactly what, I couldn’t say.

I was still awake at 2:23 am, leafing through John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), published by Siglio Press. Iceland was perfect for insomniacs like me because the sun never set, the sun never rose, my friends never slept and neither did I. But instead of bar-hopping I was poring over the nine-part edition of Cage’s writings.

CXIX.              No need to move the camera.

(Pictures come to it.).              Gather, Fuller

advises, facts regarding human needs and

world resources.                       Place in computer

memory bank.              Update continuously.

The excerpt was from his 1969 diary, years before personal computers were sold commercially.  Cage himself wrote on an IBM Selectric typewriter; the diaries I was reading spanned over 150 pages of center-justified text printed in various typefaces that traversed topics that included but were not limited to fungi, serialism, flower arrangement, politics, Thoreau at 22, Duchamp, airline representatives, Iceland, Hollywood, toilet paper, Virgin Mary, the automobile industry, and the Vietnam war. He recounted conversations with his friends R. Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Marshall McLuhan.  He employed chance operations to determine the length of each line, number of entries, and the formatting of the text—a seemingly random archive of his mental process.

“Place in computer memory bank,” Cage wrote, though he wouldn’t own a computer for many years.


After returning from Kaffibarinn, unable to sleep, I scrolled through the Instagram feed on my phone.  I was lying in bed, the white night bathing my eyelids. An ex-lover had posted a picture of a mangled hard drive that looked like it had been punctured by a steak knife then trampled on by an elephant; its silver insides were exposed to the sun. The caption said: “only way to be sure.”

Only way to be sure the digital history was obliterated, only way to be sure that the memory was eradicated and unretrievable.

Only way to be sure I forget you, I thought, thinking about the last time we met.

We were standing on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Was it raining or did I only remember it that way? My cheeks were wet; I could smell the azaleas in the after rain. I kept wondering what I could have done differently, as if life was merely a series of turns with endless iterations; if I had just taken a different train or worn the orange hat, would the outcome still be the same?  Were there other versions of the same person living out happier alternatives? The truth was I’d already intuited they’d been seeing other people, I just couldn’t convince myself that what we had could be discarded so easily.

I love you, but it will pass, I said, not sure if I’d spoken out loud or just imagined it. As I lifted my head from their shoulder I saw a black smudge on their shirt; tears or mascara? When I looked up at them their eyes were squeezed tightly shut.

How long do memories last?  How many years until they lose their power over us, until they fade into a black and white scrim of film stills that is only a residue of the original image?

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