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The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.


Words are sounds, first; then what do we do to them, to the sounds? Jung thought grief gave human voice to sound. This is the meaning of Norman O. Brown’s “The fall is into language” (Love’s Body, p. 256), though it seems equally plausible that joy, close friend to grief, might also be capable of producing a word or two. Dostoevsky contributes to the modern discussion in “Notes from Underground” with his often quoted “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” If so, the first words uttered by conscious man must have been sounds of pain: Ouch! If you prefer cartoons, a caveman accidentally rolling the stone wheel across his big toe. Joyce spelled it:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!)

(Finnegans Wake, p. 3).

Norman O. Brown: “How to be silent. In a dialectical view: silence and speech, these two, are one. Apollonius of Tyana said silence also is a logos. And words do not spoil the silence for those who have ears to hear what is left unsaid” (p. 256). Listen to Ella Fitzgerald scat singing. Instruments reproduce the human voice, first (another reason Cage objected to jazz – and worked with sounds apart from voice). Louis Armstrong thought his trumpet an extension of his voice, and he sings as he plays. What we do to words is similar to what Cage thought we do to sounds in making music (anthropomorphizing sounds we hear in nature). Words give conscious order to sound, allowing for the reproduction of sounds with fidelity, creating self-consciousness through language.

Here’s something recently dug out that might illustrate in a playful way:

JAZZSKIN was published in the fall 1973, issue 3, of silent quicksand, a magazine published by students of El Camino College.


“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12). David Revill, in “The Roaring Silence,” his biography of Cage, discusses “the puzzling attitude he [Cage] develops toward jazz” (p. 9). “He [Cage] says simply, ‘I love sounds, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them’ (p. 121 – Revill’s source notes don’t indicate where he got this Cage quote, and in a quick skim of my Cage books I’m unable to find it).

I’ve always found Cage’s “…(jazz) doesn’t work” statement surprising, given how he integrates chance into his structures. Cage often sets up a rigorously defined structure only to let chance determine what comes next. For example, from his preface to “Diary:…” “I used twelve different type faces, letting chance operations determine which face would be used for which statement” (p. 3). Isn’t that jazz?

I think Cage’s classical training explains his attitude toward jazz. Classical players don’t improvise. Composers improvise, as Bach probably did, but the classical musician has to play the thing as written. Jazz’s frequent use of popular songs as sources for improvisation probably also annoyed Cage, since he was more interested in sound than sentiment.

Let’s substitute “words” for “sounds” in Cage’s statement that begins “I love sounds”: This gives us “I love words, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them.” And we might make the reverse substitution in the opening quote above, which would give us: “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use sounds.” Is it possible to enjoy words but not writing or reading? Cage appears to have preferred raw sounds to music that refines those sounds in an attempt to communicate something, even if that communication is an attempt to mimic nature.

But we are nature, and the guitar sounds like a train coming down the line, and the drummer’s brushes sound like salt water receding over smooth stones. All sounds carry some meaning. Besides, Cage’s “Diary” follows with “(Dialogue is another matter.)” What? Another matter (discussion, music, discourse?) wherein jazz does work?

The way in is the far out

John Cage opened the windows of the music room. He incorporated unintended as well as intended but unconventional sounds into music composition, thus acknowledging a modern electrocution of music that alters the sensorium. Music became an extension of our wired ears. The way in was the far out.

Cage created performance lectures, utilizing a multi-media approach that combined sound, text, and oral lecture with non-linear arrangement and movement of ideas, words, sentences as musical phrases, and anecdotal asides (his short-short stories approximating the Zen koan). Bulleted lines, multiple columns, and a variety of font characteristics permeate the text versions. The lectures are collected in the books “Silence” (1961) and “A Year From Monday” (1967). Cage’s initial attempts were an effort to incorporate his musical ideas into different modes of argument, so that the listener could “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it” (“Silence,” Foreword). The lectures are measured compositions. The composer provides time values, tempo markings, directions for rhythm and pitch, and textual arrangements serving as bars and measures. Chance and indeterminacy informed Cage’s composition process:

“At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture…The audience was seated in the center of all this activity” (“Silence,” Foreword).

Not everyone in the audience may have enjoyed the attempt to rearrange their sensorium. Cage relates, of his “Lecture on Nothing,” “One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

We may feel a similar response to some of today’s pervasive PowerPoint presentations. They are not written, or composed, but put together, as in “I put together a PowerPoint for today’s meeting.” The use of PowerPoint is itself a value assumption (warrant). Yet for organization and presentation of an argument for today’s reader (who has not the time, inclination, or patience for linear modes – a reader now beyond the Guttenberg Galaxy, outside the margins of McLuhan’s marginal man, a mosaic man), the persuasive possibilities of the PowerPoint slide show are hard to beat.

For a consideration of the potential ill effects of PowerPoint, see Ian Parker, “Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?” The New Yorker, May 28, 2001.