Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) – John Cage (Siglio Press)


I view this book as a conversation starter kit for your brain. Sure it’s a diary but it’s a John Cage diary, so it’s anything but conventional.

Cage is of course a US composer, philosopher, writer and artist who dabbled in everything from poetry, to criticism, philosophy, painting, sculpture and performance. His approach to sound, music and composition was revolutionary. Highly conceptual in approach, he was one of the leading figures of 20th century avant garde composition.

And of course his approach here is conceptual, using chance to dictate most of this diary, such as how many entries he would write at a given time, or how many words he would use, the typeface, and even in parts the colour of the text. Though the editors developed upon this idea and used their own chance techniques to develop the colour of the whole book. In fact it’s a gorgeous book, lovingly constructed, where Cage’s words are given the treatment they deserve.

Suffice to say you can’t really read this from cover to cover. It’s the kind of tome that you pick up, read a page, maybe even a paragraph or two, let your synapses fire and see where it takes you. There’s not a lot of narrative here, it’s more like a series of overheard thoughts, devoid of context – from the banal to the philosophical. It’s a mood enhancer, a direction pusher, a thought kickstarter, an intellectual game changer. Cage himself calls it “a mosaic of ideas, statements, words and stories,” and there’s no doubt he views it as a composition in itself. In fact he actually delivered part of this diary as a lecture, no doubt to some very confused attendees.

It’s a place where slapstick, where cheesy boom-tish jokes run up against (or alongside) deep philosophical ponderings, musings about traffic, about buying coriander, about fame, childhood memories, mushrooms, the perils of music schools, and friends like Marcel Duchamp. Yet it’s like one continuous sentence, or thought stream, as each subject barely encompasses a few lines, before he’s off on the next tangent. Not unexpectedly it’s all head and not much heart. We get musings, random thoughts, but no feelings, no hopes, no dreams. It’s intellectual, not emotional – though for those familiar with Cage’s world, this would hardly be a surprise.

Those looking for any kind of narrative account of Cage’s life or thoughts need to look elsewhere, as this diary is simultaneously much more intimate, feeling very uncensored, yet the structure keeps the reader at bay, never allowing you too close. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle – simultaneously everything and nothing. You can have my inner world he seems to be saying, but first let me shuffle the pack and pull out cards randomly so they don’t seem to have any relationship with each other. But what do you expect? It’s John Cage, like most of his work our involvement is not just preferable, but mandatory.



About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.