Wednesday 11 July 2012

Where the Heart Beats - John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists

Kay Larson's book Where the Heart Beats has as its subtitle 'John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists'. At first you might think that this was another biography of John Cage. Though there is a strong biographical element in the book, it is more the biography of an idea, a study of the way Zen Buddhism came to be at the centre of the working life of a group of artists, centred on John Cage.

Cage wrought one of the revolutions in 20th century music and Larson's book is a brave attempt to make us understand the way Cage's thinking developed and why. Central to this is Cage's attendance at the lectures of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki in New York in the 1950's. Suzuki, a Zen Buddhist teacher, was an influential figure in the dissemination of Zen Buddhism to the West.

Larson's book is divided into three parts, which attempt to follow the arc of revelation as Cage comes to discover Zen Buddhism and through it effect changes to his work.

The first part, Mountains are Mountains, is largely narrative and biographical though it is more of a collage than a single biography, with portraits of Cage and his colleagues, teachers and influences welded together into a single narrative.

The middle section, Mountains are no longer Mountains, covers just the years 1950-52. The years in which Cage really discovered the teachings of Zen Buddhism. In around 140 pages Larson deals with not just the events, but with Zen Buddhism itself and its effect on Cage's thinking. The result is fragmentary and fractured, with a great deal of writing about Zen Buddhism and explanations of the various sutras.

The final section Mountains are again Mountains deals with the years afterwards, the after shock. But Larson is not really interested in Cage the man at this stage, more in the way his ideas are transmitted. She gives us a series of vignettes and snapshots as knowledge and influence move out in increasing circles from Cage himself.

From the very outset, Larson sees Zen in everything, from Duchamp's urinal to the Schoenberg's intransigent way of teaching. But it is true that in pre-war USA, Buddhism seemed to be everywhere.  The books is constructed as a dialogue with Cage himself. Larson extensively quotes from Cage's own writings, putting these passages separately so that it seems as if Cage is himself contributing. But Cage is an unreliable observer of his own life, tending to re-shape events to suit the legend. Though Larson seems mistrustful of him, her inclusion of so much text comes over as somewhat uncritical. This is a book that despite its academic rigour, wants Cage to be what he says he was.

Where the book is strongest is in the way Larson helps us understand how Cage came to make his decisions. Her pen portraits of the men who influenced him generate a convincing panorama against which Cage is set. In many ways she deals admirably with Cage's sexuality, his troubled struggles towards coming to terms with his own sexual nature. The triangle with his wife and Merce Cunningham contributed to the angst which helped force him on his artistic route. But at a certain point, when Cage securely has his feet on the path, Larson loses interest in Cage the man. In the latter parts of the book, his relationship with Merce Cunningham is largely unexamined except from an artistic point of view.

I have to confess that, whilst I found the study of the influence of Suzuki and Zen Buddhism on Cage to be fascinating, a lot of the Zen Buddhism in middle section of the book was rather impenetrable. Larson entered Zen Buddhism in 1994 and I think she has over-estimated the capacity of the average person to digest Buddhist concepts. Also, whilst such such phrases as 'he will learn to release the tight fist of ego by devising a radical new way of composing' might have a specific meaning to Larson, to one trained neither in Zen Buddhism nor psycho-analysm, it makes only the vaguest of sense.

Generally she writes in the historic present but I found much of the writing a little novelistic, as if she knew what the protagonists were thinking with a too much use of deja-vu.
'In 1944 his feelings reached an intolerable crescendo'
'She felt an intense flash of deja vu telescoping her down a long large corridor, followed by a stab of recognition: wisdom unbound from time, like a perfume permeating everything. The moment passed, but the euphoria remained. She watched him, rapt. Her confusion lifted.'
'We watch as the elfin scholar steps cautiously into the crowded room'

When she writes about Cage's music, she does so in a multiple and helpful way, mixing in descriptions of the work, how it fitted into Cage's mental journey and what contemporary response was, but also talking about recent performances that she has witnessed. There are sections of the book where she describes her contemporary journey, searching for and interviewing Cage's contemporaries. I did wonder whether the work might have been a stronger one if it had been cast more in the shape of Larson's own journey.

Where Larson's technique really breaks down, for me, is in the way she seems uninterested in the non-Buddhist experience. She makes a brilliant set piece of Cage's lectures at Darmstadt, interleaving this with discussions about indeterminacy. But having given the lectures, she leaves us rather high and dry with little discussion of the after effect of Cage's talk on the European elite left in Darmstadt. Larson is strongest when showing us the philosophical links between Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and a host of others in the American avant-garde.

This was a book that I wanted to like more than I was able to. I have to confess that I found it a little heavy going, particularly in the later portions. In the narrative sections, there are so many people involved that a list of them at the back would have been rather helpful. Larson's thesis is important and interesting. It demonstrates the centrality of Zen Buddhism to Cage's thinking. I rather suspect that she views events a little too uncritically and I longed for a greater degree of authorial critical dissent. But the book is an important source and resource. It will remain something of a specialist book, read by those with a serious interest in the subject of Cage and of Zen Buddhism. But the information itself will undoubtedly find its way out, folded into other writings and thereby lies the work's prime importance.

Kay Larson (c) Bernard Handzel Photography
Kay Larson
(c) Bernard Handzel Photography

Where the Heart Beats
John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists
by Kay Larson
The Penguin Press
496 pages, ISBN 9781594203404

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