Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Writing through Merce: John Cage's Silence, Differends, and Avant-Garde Idioms

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Writing through Merce: John Cage's Silence, Differends, and Avant-Garde Idioms

Article excerpt

This essay explores John Cage's silence about his homosexuality in relation to Jean-Francois Lyotard's theorizations of the differend and the avant-garde. Examining several of Cage's poems, I argue that Cage's silence was a source of strength and that Cage silently spoke his homosexuality in avant-garde idioms.

Searching online for information on John Cage's "Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating?," one quickly encounters two magazine articles referencing the 1975 poem. The first briefly mentions it before commenting how Cage's "longtime friend" Merce Cunningham once rescued a Cage doodle from the garbage--an example, the article argues, of the slavish devotion Cage's friends offered him (Walsh); the other article, "Cunningham and Cage and a Lively Dinner" (a 1981 New York Times society piece), focuses on Cage and Cunningham's macrobiotic diet, cataloguing a luxurious meal the two offered in their Chelsea loft (Hodgson). Neither article contains anything relevant--which is why I mention them. Specifically, one would not learn, unless one could infer through the 1980s code of "longtime friends," that Cage and Cunningham were lovers, life partners from 1942 until Cage's death. A silence about Cage's homosexuality surrounds the commentary on the poem. For example, one also would not learn about Cage and Cunningham's relationship from Marjorie Perloff's discussion of the poem in The Dance of the Intellect; instead, Perloff comments that Cunningham is someone "to whom [Cage] has paid frequent tribute" (210). More importantly, one does not learn that Cage and Cunningham were lovers from the poem itself, which catalogues a series of meals that Cage, Cunningham, and members of Cunningham's dance troupe ate while touring.

So, what's all this ado about nothing but eating? "Where Are We Eating?" serves to represent a silence that pervades Cage's entire literary oeuvre, a silence on his homosexuality. As Jonathan D. Katz states in a 2001 essay, "nearly everybody in the art world who knew [Cage] knew of his life-long relationship with Merce Cunningham [...]. His sexuality was an open secret within the avant-garde [...]. Still, direct public acknowledgement of Cage's sexuality has been, until quite recently, hard to find" (41). Consequently, it could be argued that Cage could not discuss his homosexuality for fear of punishment (including legal, social, and artistic banishment), and that "Where Are We Eating?" displays Cage's active self-censoring of a topic that was strictly taboo; as Katz notes, a "longtime acquaintance" of Cage--an acquaintance who, tellingly, "wishes to remain anonymous"--certainly perceived Cage's homosexual silence in these terms, explaining it away by stating that Cage was "a fifties queen," one implicitly trapped in the silence of the closet (48). This view coincides with Jean-Francois Lyotard's theorization of the differend, in which a victim cannot voice that he has been wronged. However, as I will argue, deeming Cage's silence a differend is problematic, since doing so victimizes Cage and ignores the political challenges his work offers. By building on Katz's discussion of Zen in Cage's music and adapting those ideas to Cage's poetry, I will argue that Cage's silence is not a differend, nor was Cage silent due to a fear of punishment. I will then discuss another major poem Cage wrote for his partner, "62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham," in relation to Lyotard's theorizations of the avant-garde in order to suggest a more satisfactory conceptualization of Cage's homosexual silence as a silence that works to provide new idioms that testify to the problems of the homosexual differend in Cage's mid-century American society. The result is that Cage's work shows not only that silence can be politically agential and challenging to the status quo, but how to make silence an effective tool of socio-political critique.

Lyotard defines the differend as "a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments" (Differend xi). …

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