Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VII

by Maggie MolloyCage_Diary

This post is part of a series on John Cages “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI.

If I had to come up with a visual for how I imagine John Cage writing his “Diary,” it would probably be Cage standing over a kitchen counter and placing all of his thoughts, memories, musings, and musical philosophies in a high-speed blender—probably along with some mushrooms from his latest mycology expedition.

Crown Point Press

Photo courtesy of Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press.

Cage did, in fact, love to cook—and he even shared some of his favorite mushroom recipes in the October 1965 issue of Vogue magazine. (I’m not joking—click here for some Morels à la John Cage.)

Much like his cooking, Cage’s diary is a heterogeneous mixture of many different things. And although Cage used chance operations to determine the word count, colors, typefaces, letters per line, and patterns of indentation, the actual content of the diary is actually surprisingly organic.

“Imitation of nature in her manner of operation, traditionally the artist’s function, is now what everyone has to do,” Cage says in his typical deadpan delivery. “Complicate your garden so it’s surprising like uncultivated land.”

Cage’s chance operations allowed him to imitate nature in an unexpected way—it allowed him to make music and art that existed outside of the mind’s operations. In nature, any number of things may happen or not happen; in the grand scheme of things, we as humans actually have very little control over its course of events. Nature operates in meaningless ways and likewise, Cage made music out of meaningless chance operations.

Rather than trying to control nature (or in this case, rather than trying to control the music), Cage opened himself up to the possibilities and found beauty in the surprises—simple pleasures in the uncultivated land.

“National Wildlife Refuges: museumization of wilderness,” Cage says. “Controlled folly.”

Cage’s interest in nature extended into his writing and his visual art as well—particularly in the etchings and fire prints he created at Crown Point Press during the last 15 years of his life.


John Cage | EninKa No. 30, 1986. | Number 30 from a series of 50 smoked paper monotypes with branding on gampi paper chine-collé | Image Size: 24½x18½” | Publisher: Crown Point Press Printer: Marcia Bartholme

“It seemed to me that to be able to engrave required a certain calmness,” Cage said during one of his first visits to the studio. “And it’s that calmness that I’ve been, one way or another, approaching in my music, my writing, and so forth.”

Cage also sought calmness and oneness with nature through his study of Zen Buddhism with Suzuki Daisetz.

“One has not understood Zen until one has forgotten it,” Cage quotes solemnly.

Suzuki and Cage in 1962

John Cage with D.T. Suzuki in 1962.

Cage was also inspired by a number of other influential 20th century thinkers. In fact, while reading his diary it becomes quite clear what other writers Cage was reading at the time he wrote each of the eight parts. In Part VII, he favors the ever-Marxist military leader Mao Tse-tung, the maverick social critic Ivan Illich, and, as always, the famous futurist and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (who Cage affectionately refers to as “Bucky”).

“Just as, in Buddhism, denial of cause and effect arose from the realization that everything’s caused by everything else, so Illich’s society without school isn’t different from Fuller’s society with nothing but school,” Cage says distantly. “Illich and Fuller: All there is to do is live and learn.”

Like most great visionaries of this day and age, Cage had a less-than-traditional academic path. He took his education into his own hands, and he never stopped learning.

“Left college end of sophomore year,” he says monotonously into my right ear. “Refused honorary degrees. Reinforcement, positive or negative, is besides the point.”

The point is to learn, and to stretch oneself intellectually, artistically, and creatively. For Cage, institutionalized learning simply didn’t facilitate that sort of self-exploration.

“It would be better to have no school at all than the schools we now have,” he says with surprising conviction. “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.”

After all, somewhere in this creativity—somewhere in these secret languages—lies the key to improving the world.

“If we could change our language, that’s to say the way we think,” Cage whispers into my left ear, “We’d probably be able to swing the revolution.”

If we could just change the way we think, we could free ourselves from the confines and complications of a broken and weary world.

“A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell,” Cage says dryly. “Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in.”

Go to the next installment: Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VIII