Brain Pickings

A Lesson in Listening from John Cage

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A simple and beautiful reminder that we only hear what we listen to.

“Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around,” the legendary avant-garde composer, artist, and Zen Buddhist scholar John Cage once remarked. But even though life began with a Big Bang that was actually silent, our civilization has evolved away from silence, rendering true listening an art reserved for the eccentric few. Still: “How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her diary. Or listen.

In “At the Microphone,” one of the shortest and most wonderful essays in the altogether fantastic collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — which also gave us the celebrated author on what to say when people ask you why you write or make art — Tillman describes a 1975 conference called “Schizo-Culture” held at Columbia University for an audience of 300 or so grad students, where a roster of “magnetic and illustrious” speakers discussed such subjects as the structure of the unconscious. Among them was John Cage — perhaps humanity’s greatest champion of the beauty and transcendence of silence as medium of art and life. Tillman captures the essence of his character and credo in a short fable-like anecdote with exquisite, subject-appropriate economy of words:

All day, men — no women — took the microphone and spoke. There was always a buzz in the audience, whispers, an audible hum of excitement. Then it was time for John Cage. He walked onto the stage and began to speak, without the microphone. He stood at the center of the small stage and addressed the crowd. He talked, without amplification, and soon people in the audience shouted, “We can’t hear you, use the mic. We can’t hear you.” John Cage said, “You can, if you listen.” Everyone settled down, there was no more buzz, hum or rustling, there was silence, and John Cage spoke again, without the microphone, and everyone listened and heard perfectly.

In 1962, in Japan for the first time, Cage visits his Zen Buddhist master, D.T. Suzuki, who had shown him the heart of silence.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which goes on to explore everything from Kafka to Gertrude Stein to the poetics of downtown, is a dimensional and pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Kay Larsen’s breathtaking Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

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Rare and Stunning Etchings for Ulysses by Italian Artist Mimmo Paladino

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Emanating James Joyce in black, white, and gold.

I have a soft spot for visual artists’ reimaginings of literary classics, including Allen Crawford’s gorgeous hand-lettered take on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Lisbeth Zwerger’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975. So I was enormously delighted to come across a rare 1998 Folio Society limited edition of Ulysses (public library), featuring magnificent black-white-and-gold etchings by the celebrated Italian sculptor, painter, and printmaker Mimmo Paladino.

Stephen Joyce, James’s nephew — for whom the beloved author’s little-known children’s book was written — writes in the preface:

Ulysses is by no means an easy or straightforward book; it is a challenging book… Reading a book such as Ulysses is not only a challenge, it is a unique face à face between writer and reader…

The ultimate arbiter … must remain the reader, the listener, the beholder; not the academic or critic. I do not believe that literature can be taught. En revanche one can when the human appetite, open the human mind. If our cultures and civilizations are to be preserved and carried forward down through the ages, the creator must remain the master of his oeuvre, particularly beyond the grave.

It is that timeless Joycean mastery that Paladino’s illustrations amplify with delicate expressiveness and resonance of sensibility. Though this breathtaking edition is long out of print, I was fortunate enough to track down a copy for our shared enjoyment.

The Paladino-illustrated edition of Ulysses is well worth the hunt. Compare and contrast with Henri Matisse’s take on the Joyce classic.

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Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old

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How happiness feeds on the hard-earned blessing of making fewer apologies for our existence.

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” Karl De Schweinitz wrote in his 1924 guide to the art of living, and as with any art, genius-level mastery at it is only accomplished through hours upon hours of deliberate practice. It’s a truth that Henry David Thoreau, one of the great masters of the art of living, illustrates in a particularly beautiful passage from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau.

Writing in the afternoon of October 20 of 1857, shortly after his fortieth birthday, Thoreau does what he does best, drawing from an everyday encounter a profound existential parable:

I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But perhaps the greatest gift of old age is that of unselfconsciousness — 150 years after Thoreau, in reflecting on her long career of interviewing creative icons, Debbie Millman observed that the only two people not plagued by the characteristic self-doubt of creators were Milton Glaser and Massimo Vignelli who, not coincidentally, were both in their eighties. Thoreau, too, arrives at the same appreciation in considering the old man:

This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement it with these sweet and poignant illustrated adaptations of Thoreau’s life and thought, then treat yourself to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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