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literature : review

The Total System

by Andrew Durbin

On John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

All images courtesy Siglio Press and the John Cage Trust.

Composed for oneself, most “literary” diaries—from Samuel Pepys’s to Virginia Woolf’s—are well-written, intimate, interior narratives of self-reflection, sourced from private thoughts on friends, lovers, events, and art, often assuming a private pose, only to wink toward their potential public. This particular complexity has made the form both hugely popular for readers and controversial for those nervous estates that inherit such diaries. Not so with John Cage, whose Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) is now out in full for the first time from Siglio Press. (It was originally printed serially but never gathered in a complete edition.) Unlike other diarists, Cage isn’t so much interested in an explicitly personal meditation on his own life; rather, his life is composed of, and belongs among, the lives of others—written into and out of canned speech and newsy verbiage, spoken and written by public individuals (mom and dad crop up, yes, but famous friends more), reversing the literary formula to begin with the public only to end in the private. Meditating on Chairman Mao and his friend Buckminster Fuller, Cage writes: “Transform mistakes into / projects, misinformation into facts. / Forget yourself.” Gain a public.

An artist of chance and procedure, Cage privileged the question (input) over the answer (output). As Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage trust in upstate New York, told editors Richard Kraft and Joel Biel, Cage believed that “the success of chance determinacy depends on the quality of the questions being asked.” He described his diary in a preface to the first section as “a mosaic of ideas, statements, words, and stories,” sourcing much of them from books, newspapers, overheard conversation, the TV, and the radio—all material for his other compositions, written or musical. He then arranged them on the page through chance procedures developed through the I Ching. “It is also a diary,” he wrote, clarifying that this text is more personal than other works like it, such as his lectures and mesostic poetry, both of which bear a close resemblance in form to Diary.

In addition to found language, Cage fit in long passages of original material, including musings on friends, family, and his domestic life. As such, the diary follows a Poundian visual and compositional logic in order to work through the news that stays news:

Cage’s Diary, available exclusively in hardback, has remained faithful to the artist’s original typographical decisions: the text switches between eighteen different typefaces and twenty-eight colors, all developed by the editors based on previous editions of the diary. There are nine sections, though Cage had planned a total of ten (he died while composing the ninth).

As the critic Paul Stephens recently noted in his book The Poetics of Information Overload (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Cage’s Diary is a “utopian text,” one that begins by proposing “getting rid of ownership” and the “disappearance of power politics.” Cage’s proposal—considerably larger in its scope than that of most diaries—results directly from his interest in the works of Fuller and Marshall McLuhan (both of whom appear throughout the diary, both as friends and as writers), particularly the notion of a global village connected through a vast “electronic bureaucracy” (Stephens’s words) in which “information rubs / against information,” a line that updates McLuhan’s famous notion that man’s sole occupation after the invention of the computer was to gather information that would “brush” against other information in order to create wealth. For Cage, information gathering—or rather diary keeping—is far more tactile. Language, detail, individuals—all of them information—rub against one another, stack together to form a kind of visual poetry that strives to give that information definite, personal shape. In the opening section, he writes what might be considered a general poetics for the entire project:

Likewise, the Diary considers other questions that persisted throughout Cage’s life, from artist friends to his own music, and asks whether or not the utopia it longs for would have room for art—and, for that matter, him. Later in the opening section he quotes Jasper Johns, who said “he / could imagine a world without [good art] and / that there was no reason to think it would / not be a better one.” I agree. Cage is less convinced. He concludes the final published section—begun during the Nixon administration but completed in 1982—with praise for the avant-garde:

Of course, a counter-argument could be made from Cage’s own proscription for his utopia: while nothing would get invented, everything else might get moved around, information rubbing against information. It’s a notion the text itself struggles with: both the proliferation of impersonal “global services” (and so information and its distribution technologies) and the face-to-face exchange of ideas between friends, admirers, and lovers. Set cattycorner to found text and television talk, Cage arranges quotes from and observations of people he knew, friends he spoke with, whom he must have recorded immediately or later in a notebook, a notebook that he then turned into a poem through processes of chance. The text flirts with both, forces them to rub against one another so that they can jumble together, sometimes awkwardly, all of it endeavoring a queer, utopian politics that struggles, always, to make sense of contradictory community. The effect is chaotic, clipped, lyrical, but also incomplete, open, freewheeling, and improvisational. “‘Your thinking’s full of / holes,’he quotes an anonymous interlocutor. “That’s the way I make it,” he responds: a vibrating complex.


Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat 2014) and the forthcoming chapbook MacArthur Park (Kenning Editions 2015). His work has appeared in Boston Review, Flash Art, Poetry London, Text Zur Kunst, and elsewhere. He was included in this year’s Greater New York at MoMA PS1 and Performa. A contributing editor of Mousse, he co-edits Wonder and lives in New York.