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Read this now? “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists” by Kay Larson.

Yes, that’s a question mark up there in the title. I generally reserve ASfwSS book reviews for publications that I can wholeheartedly recommend. It seems like a waste of energy to write about anything else; there are plenty of other people who will cover them.

But a couple of weeks after this really disappointing read, I find myself still pondering the shortcomings of Ms Larson’s well-intentioned book.  As witnessed here and here and here, I am a huge enthusiast for Cage’s work, and for its relationship with Merce Cunningham’s choreography, Bob Rauschenberg’s combines, and beat literature. I am also fascinated by many of the other topics that this book touches upon, but all of these subjects deserve far more sophisticated attention than they receive here. Analysis that is based in ignorance and misunderstanding is not merely unhelpful, it can actually be misleading. That is precisely the case here, so if this review helps one other person avoid wasting their time plodding through Ms Larson’s wrongheaded efforts then it will have been worth writing.

The young John Cage, "bisexual, and by Ms Larson’s account strikingly promiscuous".

Ms Larson’s central thesis is dependent upon simplistic pop psychology: the young John Cage (who was bisexual, and by Ms Larson’s account strikingly promiscuous) got himself into such an emotional tangle with his various liaisons, and found himself so perplexed by the seriousness of his (not entirely reciprocated) feelings for Cunningham that he decided he’d had enough of feelings of any sort. He thus found the possibilities of an art without an emotional element attractive, and therefore he turned to Zen.

For reasons best known to herself, she then tries to explain every aspect of Cage’s work in terms of Zen. I found some of her discussion of Buddhist sutras interesting. This is new material for me, but I couldn’t be really confident of her assertions, because I knew how tendentious were her claims in the territories where I do know what I am talking about.

Man Ray, "Marcel Duchamp, Solarized Portrait" (1930)

Man Ray, "Marcel Duchamp, Solarized Portrait" (1930)

Time and again she attaches great significance to assertions that are entirely speculative. Her discussion of Duchamp’s readymades is typical. Before she even begins, she has clearly made up her mind that Duchamp was inspired by Buddhism – “In the readymades, Duchamp asks – with the urgency and rigor of a Zen master – What is this? What is this?” – even though her grounds for believing this are laughably insubstantial. “A loosely construed Buddhism was circulating through the European avant-garde in the first decades of the twentieth century,” is about the best she can do. Or, because Duchamp was employed at the Bibliothèque Saint Geneviève in 1913-14 where “the position offered him the chance to read any books he wanted … He could have read ‘Buddhist poetry’”. Of course he could. He could also have taught himself Russian or committed the entire works of Shakespeare to memory, but in the absence of any actual evidence, it’s probably more sensible to conclude that he didn’t. But Ms Larson doesn’t do sensible. Instead she concludes that “either Duchamp absorbed Buddhist teachings from books, or he got the point all by himself”!

Pair such speculation with Ms Larson’s inconsistent and often immoderate use of language and she is often laugh-out-loud funny. Take her description of Seattle (where I currently live) as it was in 1938: “a city of some 365,000 drenched in the dark rain of the Northwest Coast. Alone on its corner of the continent, facing the heaving Pacific and the trackless spaces beyond the sunset, Seattle felt its isolation acutely – and felt it as liberation. The rugged port … still had the feel of a way station between nowhere and nowhere: circled by wilderness, a thrashing coastline, and the endless cold rain forest to the north.” (Few people would claim that Seattle is the most exciting place in the world, but this description makes you wonder whether Ms Larson has ever been here.)

I wanted to learn more about John Cage from this book. In truth, from a book that is almost 500 pages long, I learned one new fact of any significance. Apparently when Cage first conceived 4’33’’ he intended to call it Silent Prayer.

Ad Reinhardt

By contrast there were so many things that I expected I might learn, but didn’t. I still don’t really understand how Cage used the I Ching as the basis of chance-based composition. (Ms Larson starts out explaining it, but appears to give up half way through.) I also hoped that I might learn something about the relationship between Cage’s thinking and Ad Reinhardt’s. Reinhardt was only a year younger than Cage, moved in the same New York circles, painted entirely black paintings, was fascinated by eastern art and religion, rejected modernist novelty and any concern with the artist’s personality, wrote several essays that are very similar to Cage’s, aspired to the same sort of inscrutability, and even had a similar sense of humor. As it is, he’s only mentioned once in the book, without any introduction, passing a comment on Robert Motherwell’s Subjects of the Artist school. I also wanted to learn more about Cage’s music, but I didn’t. Ms Larson is as much of a musician as I am, and her musical analysis suffers horribly as a consequence.

Something went very wrong with the editing of this book. It is littered with inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and non sequiturs. Style and methodology are allowed to meander all over the place. I’m guessing that there must be some rationale to the narrative’s repeated sudden shifts from past to present tense and back again, but for the life of me I can’t work it out. In addition, there’s a serious problem in the relationship between the book’s main text and its 22 pages of narrow-spaced endnotes – more often than not, the very statements that really ought to be supported by evidence simply aren’t. Ms Larson doesn’t understand either abstract expressionism or post modernism, is disdainful of Pollock, and just wrong about Oldenburg. More than once it genuinely occurred to me, absurd though it might seem, that someone had sent the wrong draft to the printers – and that it was an early, far from finished draft at that.

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