The Gut Anarchism of John Cage

The strange beauty of a composer's avant-garde diaries


Whenever John Cage performed, he insisted that the auditorium have accessible exits: A spectator who didn't want to stay, he said, should be able to leave easily. Cage—most famous for his 1952 composition 4'33", in which musicians sit in perfect silence for four minutes and 33 seconds—was a gut anarchist. Asked about the word ecology, the composer replied that whenever he heard that seductive word he knew he'd soon hear the word planning, and "when I hear that word, I run in the other direction." He boasted that he never voted.

Born in Los Angeles, Cage came in the 1940s to New York, where he quickly became known as not just a composer but as a radical aesthetician who profoundly influenced many colleagues in several domains. Though his achievements as a composer and a theater artist remain well-known, he was also a brilliant and original writer, especially at the intersection of poetry and politics. Emphasis on original—both his forms and his sentiments were unfamiliar.

More than two decades after Cage's death, a small press called Siglio has published a definitive edition of his major long text. Starting in 1965, Cage developed a poetic form he titled a Diary and accurately described as "a mosaic of ideas, statements, words, and stories."

Among the constraints informing these writings were these: He would write less than 100 words each day, use no more than twelve different typefaces available at the time on an IBM Selectric typewriter (now antique), count no more than 45 characters in a single line, and change the typeface for each new statement. Earlier selections from Diary appeared as a pamphlet from the legendary Something Else Press in 1967 and in later perfectbound collections of Cage's essays published by Wesleyan University Press. This new handsomely produced hardback assembles all eight texts, the first seven written annually until 1972 and then an eighth, previously unpublished and perhaps incomplete, "continued" from 1973 to 1982.

Cage's informing theme is announced in the book's subtitle: How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). Always is he predisposed to leave well enough alone; almost always are his sympathies libertarian. (The exception is a peculiar, unfortunate, and temporary admiration for Mao Zedong.) In addition to appreciating such '60s touchstones as Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Norman O. Brown, Cage was influenced deeply by the American individualist anarchists. His guide to their work was James J. Martin's 1953 history Men Against the State. Martin for a while was Cage's Rockland County neighbor, and Cage would purchase copies directly from him. "It's one of those books I never have," he once told an interviewer, "because I'm always giving them away."

Cage was particularly devoted to Henry David Thoreau, whose texts he used in various ways—most brilliantly in his Song Books, where the performers repeat, "The best government/Is no government at all."

Cage's concise, almost short-handed remarks mix the personal and impersonal as they touch upon a wide variety of subjects, both aesthetic and social. As a collection of miscellaneous comments, Diary is best read not continuously, which can be daunting, but serendipitously for direct hits:

College: two hundred people
reading the same book.          An
obvious mistake.          Two hundred people
can read two hundred books.

Or this:

definitely improving.          You can tell it
from the fact that more and more you
hear it in places where you can move
around.          You don't sit in rows facing the
stage.          It's no longer disturbing to
yourself or others if during the
performance you get up and leave.

Like the original Something Else pamphlet, and unlike the Wesleyan book, these Siglio pages reproduce the typography in various colors, making Diary a delightful reading and looking experience. All that's missing is the experience of Cage's reading these live, as he preferred to do, in his inimitable voice, whenever he was asked to "lecture." But you can sometimes hear his dry delivery as you see his words on the page:

Complete checkup.          I was more
examined than ever before.          Doctor's
report: You're very well except for your