Interviewer "What is the place of Bertolt Brecht in [the Polish] theater? Jan Kott: "We do him when we want Fantasy. When we want Realism, we do 'Waiting for Godot.'"
But the process of what we might call the "real - ization" of the avant garde - its gradual familiarization as "life" turns out to be curiously consonant with the "fictions" of the theatre — is not necessarily equivalent to that other move so regularly attributed to the avant - garde, namely, its inevitable commodification and appropriation by the late capitalist art market. For Peter Burger and like - minded theorists . . . the failure of early twentieth - century avant - garde movements (e.g., Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism) to transform the bourgeois institution of art itself, to create works that would effect social and political as well as aesthetic change, produced a situation in which the "shock of the new" has been reduced to more or less impotent gesture. And furthermore, according to this argument, even when the artwork in question is genuinely innovative (say, as in the case of Jasper Johns), it is all too quickly absorbed into the commodity system, an object whose exchange value no longer relates to its use. Hence the much fabled "death of the avant - garde."
My own sense, as I have tried to make clear in the preceding chapters, is that this "death" has been vastly exaggerated. True, the utopian side of avant - gardism, its longing to change the world, to overcome the bourgeois "dislocation [of art] from the praxis of life" (PB 49), has not met with success, at least not directly. But if we take the term "avant garde" more narrowly and literally as the advance guard of the army, that flank of artists who are in the forefront, and hence, as the cliche would have it, "ahead of their time," avant - garde art continues to be a reality. There is no reason to believe, in other words, that radical art practices will not continue to manifest themselves (often where and when least expected), even as their gradual assimilation into mainstream culture will not necessarily insure their commodification. Beckett, to take my original example, may well be performed and studied in countries around the globe, his manuscripts and first editions may well sell for enormous sums of money, and the photographic image of his gaunt face may well have become a familiar icon (especially in the year of his death). But the works themselves remain curiously impervious to the commodity system, as uncompromising in their demands on the audience as ever. Indeed, when in 1990 the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles produced Happy Days, even the unanimous critical acclaim for the production did not prevent a fair portion of the audience from leaving before or during intermission, complaining that the play had too little plot, too few characters (only Winnie and very occasionally Willie), and too much "meaningless" talk.
To say that Beckett proved to be too "difficult" for the middle - class audience at the Mark Taper Theatre smacks, of course, of elitism. "The pedestal of high art and high culture," as Andreas Huyssen puts it, "no longer occupies the privileged space it used to, just as the cohesion of the class which erected its monuments on that pedestal is a thing of the past" (AGD 218 - 29). Indeed, nothing today raises a greater outcry, especially in academic circles, than the suggestion that there might be a distinction between "high art" and popular culture. Postmodernism, after all, is now most frequently defined as the challenge to what Huyssen has called "the Great Divide" that characterized modernism, and whose theorist par excellence was Adorno. Perhaps, Huyssen posits, Adorno's concept of a "presumably necessary and insurmountable barrier separating high art from popular culture in modern capitalist societies" was a "culturally and politically valid" project in its own time (the war years and their immediate aftermath), committed as it was to saving "the dignity and autonomy of the art work from the totalitarian pressures of fascist mass spectacles, socialist realism, and an ever more degraded commercial mass culture in the West" (AGD 9). But "this project has run its course and is being replaced by a new paradigm, the paradigm of the postmodern, which is itself as diverse and multifaceted as modernism had once been before it ossified into dogma" (AGD 9 - 10). And the case is put even more strongly by Russell A. Berman:
Adorno's modernist aesthetics have been robbed of much of their relevance for the contemporary situation by a multifaceted transformation of cultural organization: the denigration of technique, the accelerated commodification of artistic production, the destabilization of the institutional discourse, and the loss of faith in the objectivity of the artwork. High art has rapidly integrated culture - industrial forms in its works (Lichtenstein, Warhol) as well as in its mechanisms of distribution (televised concerts, mass marketing of subscriptions).
The argument against modernist elitism, as outlined by Berman, and others, is appealing, especially as a response to those lingering Greenbergian notions of modern art as an heroic struggle against the encroachment of bad taste or kitsch, as the preservation of the purity of media, genre, and convention in the face of capitalist commercialism. One cannot help observing, however, that the argument for the postmodernist erasure of the high - low dichotomy is almost always presented at a generalizing theoretical level or from the point of view of popular culture (e.g., a semiotic or cultural analysis of Elvis Presley or MTV or Twin Peaks) rather than from the perspective of the experimental and radical artworks which are supposedly in sync with that culture. When we turn to praxis, in any case, we find that the happy marriage between "high art" and mass culture is at best shaky. For when Winnie (the heroine of Happy Days) is actually compared to an equally middle - aged wife like Mary Williams in The Young and the Restless, the differences, at least between Beckett and daytime serial, are hard to explain away. A convincing case for textual identity or even similarly between, say, the experimental fiction of Burroughs and the formulaic narrative of the prime time whodunit, at any rate, has yet to be made.
On the other hand, studies like After the Great Divide do suggest, even if they don't quite make the case themselves, that, given our media culture, the pretense that this mass culture does not exist, that life goes on as it always has for the sensitive individual — a series of sunsets and love affairs and social disappointments - just will not work. To put it another way: the culture always intervenes, the great love poems of Goethe and Heine, for example, responding to a particular cultural situation in the preurban, heavily traditional, and autocratic German states in the French Revolutionary period.
If American poets today are unlikely to write passionate love poems or odes to skylarks or to the Pacific Ocean, it is not because people don't fall in love or go birdwatching or because the view of the Pacific from, say, Big Sur doesn't continue to be breathtaking, but because the electronic network that governs communication provides us with the sense that others - too many others - are feeling the same way. The desire to have a child, for instance, surely one of the most personal and private of emotions, can hardly seem an appropriate "subject" for poetry, when the front page of the New York Times carries Connie Chung's announcement that, since she is almost forty - four, she is going to cancel her fall news show in order to "try aggressively to have a baby."
Given such media "events" (we can all now play the "will she, won't she" watching game), the poet turns, not surprisingly, to a form of artifice that is bound to strike certain readers as hermetic and elitist. The felt need, as the poet Joan Retallack puts it, is "to explore a different focal range, e.g., the multiple intersecting perspectives we are now 'privy' to, rather than the single point perspective of the deeply sensing 'I.'" Accordingly, in the radical little magazines currently published in the United States and Canada — a short alphabetical list would include Abacus, Aerial, Avec, Big Allis, Acts, Avec, Caliban, Central Park, Conjunctions, Contact II, The Difficulties, How(ever), Line, Notus, O.Ars, O.blek, Ottotole, Paper Air, Raddle Moon, Rampike, Screens and Tasted Parallels, Sulfur, Talisman, Temblor, Writing — we are likely to come across poetic writing that looks like this:
I like to watch the patties melt — suck the testicles propeller - like paintbrush decorative jello wrestling photo orgy, to people who don't — public humidity. How impertinent your pets can be — plus sight - seeing tours of colony. (Bruce Andrews, "I Like to Watch the Patties Melt," Aerial 5 :11)
Struck with this word implies a relation most do, cousin being the site and in that sadness two more little ones next to the sea. Wrong end of a funnel's disappearing act. The acrostic stripe pins all possible urgencies incline to a thunderstorm. (Karen Mac Cormack, 'One No Trump," Screens and Tasted Parallels : 21)
Wasn't it done then undone, by us and to us, enveloped, sid - erated in a starship, Iisting with liquids, helpless letters— what else - pouring from that box, little gaps, rattles and slants (Michael Palmer, "Letters from Zanzotto," Avec 3 : 24)
et iam Iunonia and turning the page space becomes time FAMILY RE - UnIon Appetizers Cheese Spreads and Dips (Top cream cheese with capers or chutney. Liquid Smoke, wine or beer pep up yellow cheese.) when the cliche becomes real panic sets in laeva parse Samos not goodbye forever or a suicide note WHATEVER HAS HAPPENED BETWEEN YOU AND ME on every wall on every scrap of paper on every matchbox: ALFA - BETIZACION ES LIBERACION Mug Shot #I Father Fig. #2 Is this the correct way to address these matters? (fuer ant Delosque Parosque relictae) you always remember the person who taught you to eat an artichoke fondly no matter what has hap (Joan Retallack, "Icarus Ffffalling," O.blek 7 [Spring 1990]: 180)
In each of these otherwise quite different texts, one hears conflicting discourses that penetrate and interrupt one another; in each, everyday items, whether melting hamburger patties or "listless liquids" or "cream cheese with capers or chutney," or the relation of "sadness" to "sea" in the dictionary, provide a kernel of "reality" with which language can play. More important: impenetrable as these texts may seem on a first reading, they turn out to be surprisingly mimetic. Retallack's columnar text, for example, is not "about" the fall of Icarus; rather, it imitates what it feels like to read that myth in Ovid, even as the reader's mind wanders to thoughts of a pending family reunion, to the appetizers she plans to prepare for it, to magazine headlines and matchbox slogans, to family photographs (to be shown at the reunion?), to questions of protocol, all these responding, in one form or another, to the idea that "when the cliche becomes real panic sets in." The technique is not so much collagiste as one of layering: WHATEVER HAS HAPPENED BETWEEN YOU AND ME," for example, may be a snatch from something read, but, given the context, it may also refer to family relationships that are about to be activated. But then Icarus too was part of a family: the "Father" of "Fig. #2" might be Daedalus. And so on.
Is writing of this sort elitist? My own experience has been that the fewer the preconceptions the reader has - and this is the case with younger audiences - the greater the willingness to "go with it," to be amused by Bruce Andrews's exasperated "how impertinent your pets can be" (following hard on a "meal" where melting patties give way to "sucking testicles" and then "decorative jello"), or Karen Mac Cormack's wry observation that "Struck with this word implies a relation / most do," and to participate in the delicate dialectic of "done then undone," and "by us and to us," in Michael Palmer's verse letter to the postmodern Italian poet Zanzotto. Then, too, these are elaborately sounded poems, appealing in their music. Note, for example, the complex weave of alliterating p's in Andrews's text and the very delicate vocalic play ("sid- / erated in a starship, listing / with liquids, helpless letters—/ what else . . .") in Palmer's lyric. As for the "impenetrable" imagery, often the appeal is to plain common sense: acrostics (see Mac Cormack's "One No Trump") really do produce a "stripe" of letters down the left margin. And if a funnel is turned upside - down, its "wrong end" does do a "disappearing act." Thus, when what Charles Bernstein has called "official verse culture" declares that such images are murky and incomprehensible, it is not because meaning won't reveal itself to a receptive reader, but because the culture has preconceptions of how images should be articulated and connected. The stumbling block, that is to say, is not so much obscurity as convention.
The poets' repeated denial of "normal" word order or syntactic integrity, their introduction of arcane vocabulary and difficult, indeed confusing reference, functions, I think, to mime the coming to awareness of the mind in the face of the endless information glut that surrounds us. We can see this especially clearly in the recent work of John Cage, with which I shall conclude, thus coming back to my beginning with his Lecture on the Weather. My text is I-VI, the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard University during the 1988/89 academic year, and published in 1990.
On the face of it, nothing could seem more unCagean than this elaborately produced volume with its thick, acid - free paper, its illustrations of fifteen different chance - determined prints (made from a single negative by Robert Mahon of the first autograph page of Cage's Sixteen Dances ), and its two sixty - minute audiocassettes, one of Cage reading Lecture IV, the other a selection from the question - and - answer sessions Cage held in conjunction with the Norton Lectures. The inclusion of the cassettes, packed in plastic wrap and attached to the cardboard promotional panel at the back of the book, seems especially odd, since Cage has consistently declared that he dislikes recordings "because they turn music into an object, and music is actually a process that's never the same twice." The whole "package," with its elegant wrapping (a color reproduction from Cage's Crown Point Press series of etchings 11 Stones  on the front, a full - page black - and - white photograph of Cage on the back), looks and feels like a coffee - table item: it weighs in at about four pounds and sells for $34.95.
Is this, then, the commodification of the late avant - garde? In his New Republic essay, to which I have already referred in chapter 5, Edward Rothstein suggests that indeed it is:
Cage's distinguished musical predecessors in the [Norton] lectures included Igor Stravinsky, Roger Sessions, and Charles Rosen. But for the 1988 - 89 season at Harvard the heritage of theoretical and critical rigor was put aside. After all, modernism has fallen on hard times, contemporary musical culture has long since subsided into sullen regularity, and many universities have become weary of disinterested scholarship. So Harvard turned its attention to the only remaining sign of life — the sometime avant - garde."The result," adds Rothstein, "is a random collection of atoms bumping into each other, creating a Brownian motion of cliches. Cage tries to have it all, hovering above his text like some Dadaist clown." In the end, "His career — and these lectures - are best seen as symptoms of our era's poverty."
Many members of the Harvard audience presumably felt the same way. The New York Times reported that during the first lecture, "over a third of the audience walked out in the middle, and one local professor emeritus who preferred anonymity remarked that 'it was a testimony to the disastrous state of American education that anybody stayed and listened.'" Others, however, responded differently. According to the Times,, "a respected young composer, Rodney Lister, called the lecture 'the most direct and moving political piece of music I have ever heard,'" thus setting in motion a month - long debate "between the enchanted, the outraged, and the befuddled." Those who stayed for the whole series, at any rate, tended to pronounce Cage's performance "hypnotic," the transformation, in John Rockwell's words, of "didactic prose into elusive poetry."
One of Cage's distinguished predecessors in the Charles Eliot Norton lectureship was T. S. Eliot, whose topic for 1932/33 was The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. The point of departure of this famous text comes in the Introduction:
criticism [can never] arrive at any final appraisal of poetry. But there are these two theoretical limits of criticism: at one of which we attempt to answer the question "what is poetry?" and at the other "is this a good poem?"And Eliot proceeds to take up and primarily to question earlier theories of poetry from Sidney to Arnold and I. A. Richards.
Cage has regularly paid homage to his favorite modernists, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, and even Ezra Pound's Cantos has become the source of a mesostic text, but Eliot seems never to have figured in Cage's work: there are no "writings through" the Four Quartets, no citations from Eliot's critical prose to match the citations from Thoreau or Marcel Duchamp or Buckminster Fuller. All the more curious, therefore, that I - VI does contain some buried Eliot allusions. Under "Method," the first of the source texts at the back of the book, for example, we find "HURRY UP PLEASE IT S TIME," here cited as from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, cited in [Marshall] McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point." In the text itself, this source yields phrases like " Its / time" (I - VI 123), followed some twenty lines further on by the passage:
we go ' Beyond his murder in the cathedraL convincEd are not (I - VI 123 - 24)This reference to Eliot is again mediated by Marshall McLuhan: it appears in the source text "Imitation" as part of an entry from Understanding Media on film technique: "T. S. Eliot reported how, in the making of the film of his Murder in the Cathedral, it was not only necessary to have costumes of the period, but - so great is the precision and tyranny of the camera eye - these costumes had to be woven by the same techniques as those used in the twelfth century" (I - VI 436). Note that the McLuhan source is much more respectful of Eliot than is Cage's spliced version, where emphasis shifts to going "Beyond" Eliot's tragedy as well as "not" being "convincEd" by it.
The notion of Eliot citations appearing in Cage's text only in the form of secondary citations from McLuhan will undoubtedly strike many readers as outrageous, an example of Cage's arrogance and Dada clowning. But it may also provide us with an entrance into the strange lecture world of I - VI, whose every word is cited, the whole (if we can speak of wholes in a case like this one) therefore constituting a found text.
The full title of I - VI is MethodStructurelntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacy InterpenetationlmitationDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructure NonunderstandingContingencylnconsistencyPerformanceThese fifteen terms provide Cage with his "mesostic strings," each term, beginning with "Method," being used a number of times in succession in each "lecture." For the six Norton Lectures, Cage chose 487 quotations which were put in fifteen files corresponding to the terms above, although — and this is a typically Cagean attitude - the placement of a given entry in a given file had "nothing to do with the file names as subjects, unless by coincidence" (I - VI 3) . The sources for the quotations (and each source text at the back of the book arranges its sources in the same order) come from Cage himself (57 taken from his earlier Composition in Retrospect, and 15 from Theme and Variations), Wittgenstein (93), Thoreau (49), Emerson (only 5 because Cage discovered that he "couldn't stomach Emerson"), Marshall McLuhan (91), Buckminster Fuller (64), and the rest from newspaper (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor) accounts of international events and from L. C. Beckett's Neti Neti (Not this Not this), a mystical book "of which my life," says Cage, "could be described as an illustration" (I - VI 3).
The computer program Mesolist devised by Jim Rosenberg, which is Cage's electronic version of the I Ching, was used to select the mesostic words, and chance operations (also on the computer) were used to reduce the volume of source material to a manageable length. Once the mesostic words were chosen, Cage's method was to add "all the wing words from the source text" and then "take out the words I don't want." "The situation," says Cage, "is not linear. It is as though I am in a forest hunting for ideas" (I - VI 2).
A further complication is introduced by juxtaposing the mesostics themselves, which are centered on the page horizontally, with the transcription, in small print at the foot of the page, of the six "seminars" or question - and - answer sessions that followed each lecture at a one - week interval. The resultant text, which is continuous from beginning to end, ignoring the breaks between respective lectures, is meant to serve "as a counterpoint throughout the book to the mesostics above them" (I - VI 6). The questions are in italics, Cage's responses in roman, the variation in typefaces corresponding to visual layout of the mesostics above, where "a space followed by an apostrophe indicates a new breath. Syllables that would not normally be accented but should be are printed in bold type"(I - VI 5).
What is the point of this elaborate schematization? To begin with, the running commentary of the "seminars" may be said to supply the work's reality principle. The transcription is absolutely faithful so that a question (the askers are anonymous) will appear in conversational rhythm, even as it was actually asked. The range is from short staccato phrases like
how do you feel what decisions do you make does it surprise you please you how (I - VI 201)to long repetitive polemics of a sort we've all heard at conferences and seminars, for example:
i've been puzzling through the idea of chance operations and intentional work and intentionless work and i have a cluster of questions about that it seems that there's some combination of chance and choice in your and you take out the words you don't like and so on it seems that it's not possible to do anything but by a chance operation if somebody had given the most formal lecture on musicology in the world that would still be a chance operation because that person would have had very contingent experiences and influences and tastes and values and so on everything seems to be a chance operation you seem to think that what you're doing is a chance operation in a different way you say i'm doing it by chance operation as if there's something else and you also seem to be doing it intentionally which raises another paradox you're intentionally doing something by chance if you're intentionally doing it it seems to be a choice so it's not by chance and you have a very elaborate structure to construct your lectures and some of your music so it seems on the one hand that it can't fail to be by chance and on the other hand it can't succeed because when people come to hear you they come to hear john cage when did you decide to become john cage or whatever people come and they say i'm going to hear john cage i'm going to hear something you know way out or avant garde or this that and the other things so it's not by chance. . .and it goes on in the same vein for another ten lines ending with the exasperated question, "why not read a phone book or why not invite someone else from the audience to yet up and say whatever they like i mean how do you go about deciding what" ( I - VI 141 - 51). To which Cage responds quietly that he simply has to carry on his work "in the direction that seems to me necessary" (153).
The exasperated question (which is, of course, not a question at all but a comment) so to speak deconstructs itself in the process of utterance, the "questioner" declaring that (1) everything is chance operation, but - change of mind - (2) everything is intention, so that (3) everything is both chance and intention, and since this boxes the speaker into a corner, he or she abruptly shifts ground and declares that (4) anyway, people only come because John Cage is famous, a "persona," and he might just as well read from the phone book!
The transcription of such questioning, it seems to me, has a central function in the larger system of the book. For one thing, it illustrates what happens when discipline (the discipline, in this case, of the mesostic system that controls the lectures) is absent. The "natural," Cage implies, is sloppy and self - indulgent; art uses the natural but does things with it, which is to say that, as Cage put it as early as Silence (1961), "poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized." Thus poetry differs from the small - print commentary at the bottom of the page which represents, as I said above, the reality principle, specifically the information world, where "meaningful" messages keep coming through the conduit but where what is received is not equivalent to what is sent out, the hearer's (or reader's) mind being so overwhelmed by repetition (chance operation or chance appears eleven times in the twenty lines above) that finally almost nothing is heard.
At one point in the question - and - answer text, someone comments, I find that during your lectures especially the longer ones I have a real hard time paying attention through a lot of it little things will catch my ear and i'll be able to concentrate on certain parts of it but then before i know it i'll be looking at the chandelier or counting the stacks of chairs or something and missing yeah i wonder if you think that changes the result of the performance or do you think it's of just as much value to me i don't understand i mean to be speaking in a monotone . . . mak es it really tough to pay attention (I - VI 313 - 15)To which Cage responds,
many people don't see anything until they're struck over the head you have the opportunity with these lectures to discover how to pay attention to something that isn't interesting (I - VI 316)And that may well be the key to Cage's Norton Lectures. In the "authentic" text that runs like a ticker - tape along the bottom edge of the page, people ask questions about the problem of paying attention; the audience is so to speak "hit over the head" with "real" subject matter, with specific topics, Yes/No, Either/Or. But in the "lectures," these information components are replaced by a set of verbal constructs that give the audience very little help on how to respond, that refuse to "hit you over the head." Ironically, then, Cage does follow Eliot in presenting his own poetics but whereas Eliot juxtaposed the Theory Question ("What is poetry?") to the Practical Criticism Question ("Is this a good poem?"), the second being unanswerable without some kind of formulation of the first, even as the first requires exemplification, Cage relegates these "two theoretical limits" to the practicum of the small - print text and produces lectures that are really poems, the implication being that to talk about poems is to write them. Interestingly, the twin audiocassettes (one a mesostic lecture, the other, the talk session) mirror this pattern, Cage's distrust of recordings matching the skepticism expressed in the "seminars" sessions.
But — and this is perhaps the most ingenious feature of I - VI — the "Source Text" at the back of the book provides, to use Cage's own terms, the "Interpenetration" between the "DisciplineNotationIndeterminacy" of the mesostics and the "NonunderstandingContingencylnconsistency" of the running commentary. For although, as I said above, I - VI is a found text, its finding takes a very strange turn. Beginning with "VariableStructure" — and the Introduction is, perhaps intentionally, quite misleading in this regard — Cage introduces series of "sources" written by himself in April 1988, which is to say evidently at the same time or shortly before he was composing the Norton Lectures themselves. Thus, whereas earlier mesostic texts like Empty Words and Roaratorio were entirely dependent on preexistent source texts, I - VI juxtaposes actual sources to those invented solely for the purpose of being fragmented and cut into the poetic text. These "sources" (there are 25 entries in all, found at the beginning of each of the last five sections), moreover, themselves become increasingly "poetic." The final section "Performance," for example, opens as follows (p. 450):
Practicality, action is action. The metal ones won't burn, wooden statues of the Buddha, winter fire. Quick o quick, a word of truth. One arm holding the cat, the other the knife. Quick, or I slit the cat's throat. (John Cage, April 1988)Clearly, this elusive plan of action (what, who is going to be thrown into the fire?) has a very different status from, say, the Wall Street Journal. The mode of Cage's self - citation recalls the elliptical prose entries of Williams's Kora in Hell, with their lyric urgency and decontextualized reference. In its conversational quality ("Quick, or I slit the cat's throat"), Cage's entry is closer to the seminar text at the bottom of the page than to the lectures. Yet the "source" is of course also recycled into the mesostics. For example (I - VI 46):
A particular use ' his kNowledge with Costs holding thE cat deal with collective mankind'S needs the bare maximum was whatHere "holding thE cat" is emptied of its emotional freight, its position in a narrative that leads to the potential slitting of the cat's throat, and is instead embedded in an economic discourse that gives the phrase a much more abstract sense, for example, letting the cat out of the bag. Thus "Performance" can be seen as the "Interpenetation" of "Intention" (after all, the source text is Cage's own, invented for the purpose) and "Contingency": the use of computer operations precludes the poet's advance knowledge of just where in the text a phrase like "holding thE cat" will appear.
Perhaps this is what Cage means when he says, in answer to a question (I - VI 16), that in his lectures, "ideas" are "brushed" by "source material." Such "brushing" may produce boredom, as Cage is the first to admit. But, as those who attended the performances have frequently reported, and as Cage has often suggested with reference to Zen meditation, such boredom can be productive. Consider the "boredom" at the opening of Lecture I, the mesostic string being "Method":
Much of our ' of borEdom Toward talks in it misled Him diplOmatic skill to place to place but Does it look at present Most ' fivE iranian fishermen ' cuTbacks would not wHat i have 'but pOssibilities i frequently haD to look up at the opening between the rule ' My thE iT ' migHt lOng time what ' of metal Driven the rule My thE ' cuTbacks would not it misled Him ' lOng time what ' place to place 'but Does it look
Here the units are so short and the sources so multiple that one doesn't, as in the case of Roaratorio, go back to the source and try to see how Cage has adapted it. The only phrase that stands out sharply is "five iranian fishermen," taken from a Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 1988, account of a rescue operation during flooding in Burma (see "Structure," I - VI 424). The other phrases, for example "Much of our"' and "of borEdom," could come from a variety of the source texts - in this case, from Cage himself or Wittgenstein, from Thoreau or McLuhan — the sources being, I think, deliberately neutralized so as to create what looks and sounds like a seamless structure.
In part, this seamlessness derives from the odd consensus of Cage's sources, odd because of course Wittgenstein isn't the least bit like the Wall Street Journal or McLuhan like the Christian Science Monitor. As culled and condensed, however, the Cage world of ideas - Cage / Fuller / McLuhan / Wittgenstein / Thoreau / L. C. Beckett / only a tiny bit of Emerson — presented in the context of ongoing international events (military actions, fires, raids, bombings) as reported in the newspapers is remarkably self - consistent. All extraneous items, which is to say most of the items contained in written discourse, whether descriptive or narrative or expository (e.g., description of place, personal anecdote, love story, argument for this or that position) - these are by definition absent. In this sense, then, no phrase calls excessive attention to itself and everything coheres.
Again, the lectures' seamlessness results from the use of what Cage calls "empty words." "The have - nots of language," he says, "what the Chinese call empty words, particles, connectives, etc., have a position equal to that of the full words" (I - VI 5). Thus, in the passage cited above, the first four words are "Much of our ' / of," four short breath units plus a fifth designated by the apostrophe, and a rest indicated by the bold face of our and the line break. One takes these "empty words" in very slowly, waiting for something to happen that will help us to construe a syntactic unit that "says" something. But when we come to such a word, it is only "borEdom," and as we continue down the page, "boredom" gives way to enigma. We learn that something is moving "Toward talks in," but never find out where or what the "it" is that "misled Him." A bit later, we learn of "pOssibilities," in which "i frequently haD to look up at the opening between," and the next line has only three one - syllable words:
the rule' My
All of us have had moments when we "frequently has to look up at the opening between"; and the relationship of this enormously suggestive phrase to "the rule '" (what rule?) is governed by any number of "pOssibilities." As for "My" - is this a possessive or an expletive ( "My, my!") ? The single - word lines "thE," "iT," and "migHt" don't help much, and by the time, after "lOng time what '/ of metal Driven." that "the rule My" (this time without stress on "My") comes back, we know even less about the possessive construction. Indeed, the fourth or refrain stanza, in which every line repeats an earlier one (i.e., line 20 repeats line 14, 21 = 9, 22 = 4, 23 = 17, 25 = 6), creates even greater prominence for the text's "empty words," decontextualizing and recontextualizing its "lOng time what '" so that "it misled Him'" becomes at once emphatic and elusive.
The irony, as far as the source texts are concerned, is that, once used, they no longer matter, at least not in the way we might think, judging from Cage's Introduction. Does it really matter whether a "thE" is taken from Wittgenstein or from McLuhan? Whether "lOng time what'" comes from Thoreau or the Wall Street Journal? And, by implication, isn't Cage saying that the media, whether radio or TV or the print media, should not be regarded as sources of "hard" information? That a lecture series cannot really impart A's "knowledge" to B, there being too many distracting factors and contextual circumstances for B to "take in" everything A says and absorb it? Handle carefully, this elegant volume seems to say, otherwise you will remain at the level of "i oNly has meaning" (I - VI 13).
At the structural level, then, I - VI is extraordinarily complex. Open the book at random and study the repetitions, and Cage's numerological and formal patterning reveals more and more intricacy. Yet — and this may seem paradoxical - an adjective Cage's Harvard performances repeatedly evoked, so the New York Times tells us (p. 27), was "relaxing." Relaxing, perhaps because the lectures don't impose preconstructed ideas upon the audience, preferring to let us participate in the process whereby unfinished news items and bits of information ("killing a policE officer," "a rumanian Citizen," "washington to use," "mexiCan opposition leaders") can be absorbed into the rhythms of individual consciousness; they remain discrete entities that we restructure according to our own predilections. So layered are the "information areas they were constructing" (I - VI 109) that we inevitably respond to some particular thing we hear or see rather than attempting to take in everything. To put it another way: saturation creates difference.
But difference should not be confused with detachment. One of the common complaints about Cage's poetry, as about his music, is that it rejects emotion, that it is not sufficiently expressive. But, as Cage has frequently remarked in conversation, it is precisely because emotions are so central to life that one must learn to discipline them: "Heroism doesn't consist in brilliantly combatting someone else. It is not a question, as Nixon undoubtedly believed, of winning battles . . . What is heroic is to accept the situation in which you find yourself. Yes!" In poetic terms, this means that one can only use what is given. in I - VI, that given consists of source texts, title words, mesostic rules, and the hour - long frame of the individual lecture. The "combat" is thus a struggle with letters, words, and numbers, a struggle animated by the passion - and it is a passion - to get it right. As such, the text challenges the audience to recreate the process whereby it was actually created, to "lay bare," as the Russian Formalists would have it, the devices of its own making.
Ironically, then, I - VI is, as its detractors claim, an unreadable book. But its "unreadability," far from being the consequence of what Rothstein calls "a random collection of atoms bumping into each other," is of course intentional, a carefully plotted overdetermination designed to overcome our conventional reading habits. Thus the elegant format and oversize numbered pages raise expectations that the text purposely deconstructs, engaging us as it does in a "relaxing" reading process that involves making rather than taking: open any place you like and follow whichever path interests you. That path may be aural (tracing the phonemic repetitions and variations) or visual (tracing mesostic capitals versus the "wing" word groups) or dialectic (reading the A text [mesostic] against B [commentary] and both against C [source]) or semantic (inspecting the recurrent "news" items and relating them to the abstract speculations that surround them), or, for that matter, literary, in that we can discover Cage's poetic lineage in studying his recreations of found texts. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: like Eliot, Cage is preoccupied with these ultimately political topics. As the final stanza of I — VI puts it (the mesostic word here is "PERFORMANCE "):
comPosition is is askEd foRth through us Filled with right tO one my pictuRe isn't vivid enough for teMpo only A ' suggestiNg a vast and undeveloped nature Communist it usEs
Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/perloff.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:00 EDT