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Elegy for John Cage

Lewis Hyde

Asked once to put his philosophy in a nutshell, he put it like this: “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.” So he’s out. William Yeats is laid to rest. The old rhythms endure, but not in this case as far as I can see. It’ll be hard to make something of him now. People laughing next door, just the sound of their laugher, no joke from this distance. After a certain age a stroke is an accident waiting to happen. Heart attack, cancer. An elegiac mood always gets an audience in this century. On the other hand, the whole thing could have taken a different turn; I had a list: “keys to agent, buy packing tape, call Norman, yard lights,” etc., but as luck would have it #9 came up: “elegy.” In the fifteenth century a lot of Low German gambling terms came into English. He said he had “a happy disposition.” Children on the street bouncing a basketball. People will always laugh. The joke about the rubbishy irises always there, always the humor of the sudden sally like an intravenous drug in the heart of an anxious man. No Buddhist piety, either. “A Husbandman had digged up his grounds.... Neither he that hid the golde, nor hee that tilled his ground, had any intention that the money should be found....” In renku there are surprises at each of the joints. With a lottery ticket the “intention” is different of course. No one buys it to support the state, nor is that how they sell them on TV. In that case, a laugh track keeps the silence from getting to you. Two large questions keep coming up: What does it mean to quiet the hear? and What is the influence of the divine? “I threw out the parts I didn’t like.” American renku: I’d say get on any Greyhound bus, though come to think of it there’s a certain sameness to the bus depots now. Better to spin the dial near some border town. “Were you serious about the proscuitto and figs?” Ah, John Cage, you gave me my ears. Even as you lay dying I was listening to the drone of the jets and the rhythmic dump truck back-up beep and, woven through those two, bird song, occasional cough (it could break your heart!), and the particular clink of someone doing dishes a house or two away. Hermes is sometimes the whisperer, sometimes the door hinge, sometimes the ear whose protective skin has been cut away. Father of Secrets, there were two noises that day when you went into the soundless chamber: the low one was the sound of your blood and the high one the sound of your nervous system. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue. Could have a strong ending here, rhythmic bit about a “stroke of silence,” maybe a little more of the Heart Sutra. The noise of the pen on the paper--a tapping, especially as I dot the i’s. The computer fan I think of as a rubbishy noise, but with practice all the drones return in beauty, as when you really see what colors painters use to make shadows on the skin, it’s the damnedest thing. Two beeps from the microwave two rooms away. Someone hammering an eight-penny nail through plywood into rafters. It goes on and on, and it’s a great pleasure, yours sincerely, my deepest gratitude, oh happy Cage.

-- August 12, 1992, Berkeley, California