Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 3

Chapter 2 is entitled "John Cage 1912-1938."  Considerably longer than the first chapter, it is broken into different titled sections:  "The View From Pacific Palisades," "The Shape of the Future 1: Men," "The Shape of the Future 2: Music," "The Shape of the Future 3: Art," "Buddha of the Bathroom," "Luigi Russolo," "Arnold Schoenberg," "Oskar Fischinger," and "Walking Water Walk."  Many more Cage quotes are used to create pseudo-conversation.  The opening sections have fascinating descriptions of Cage's early adult life.  He really bluffed his way into just about every aspect of his life, from painting to music to love.  I had no idea that Cage got married, though the author uses quotes to make the very good point about the underground lifestyle forced upon homosexuals in the 1930s that Cage found untenable.  Plus it sounds like he was very confused about his whole sexual identity, falling into and out of love very quickly.  Slowly, as Cage encounters more movers and shakers of the avant-garde, he moves from dabbling dilettante to serious practitioner.  And the seeds of his influences from Dada and Futurism are explored, though more from the perspective of Marcel Duchamp and Luigi Rossolo than from Cage's perspective (so far).  There are hints of the connections to Buddhism as well.  The quotes flow much better than in the first chapter, and the chapter ends with a tease about Cage's later success with Water Walk to show the results of those early influences.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 2

Chapter 1 is part of the first section: Mountains are Mountains.  Everything is as we understand it, before Zen makes us unpack everything.  D. T. Suzuki is introduced through his influences on the Beat Generation, notably Gary Snyder, Allan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.  With the Beat set up, suddenly we are shifted to Project Manhattan and Robert Oppenheimer for a brief look at Dr. Atomic's association with Vishnu, before sweeping over to Japan for a biographical account of Suzuki's early life.  The descriptions of life in a Zen temple are very appealing.  They filled me with peace, and got me thinking about starting to meditate again.  I'm also impressed by Suzuki's dedication to Zen, even though he never formally became a monk.  While at university, he would walk over 30 miles to sit zazen (meditate) instead of going to class.  He was brought to the U.S. by the abbot of his temple, Soyen Shaku, to serve as a translator both for Soyen and for Paul Carus, who wanted to translate ancient Buddhist works into English.  Suzuki is portrayed as an incredible workaholic.  He translated many works, wrote his own texts, and traveled all over the world to study different philosophies and to give lectures on Zen Buddhism. 

After 14 pages, Cage is allowed to quote a koan as part of the supposed conversation on which this book is structured.  But the author does not respond to this quote as part of a dialogue.  Rather, she explains where Cage heard that koan, and some of the first works Cage composed based on Buddhist ideas.  The chapter ends with another koan, written as if Cage is quoting it, but not why.

I'm intrigued by Suzuki's story, and want to hear more about how he influenced Cage.  But the structure of this book is bothering me.  Perhaps I'm being too Western-minded, expecting a linear logic that isn't appropriate here.  But I certainly feel that the author is flitting from subject to subject without making clear transitions. 

Where the Heart Beats 1

Several months ago I was asked to write a review of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson.  I just got the book last week, and started reading it.  Since I haven't been blogging much lately, I thought I would do a "live blog reading" of the book, posting my impressions with each chapter, instead of waiting until I was done to give an overall review.  The book is in fifteen chapters, plus a prelude, epilogue, and the Maha Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra.

The prelude introduces the three main characters in the book: John Cage, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, and the author herself.  The description of Suzuki is intriguing, telling that he was not a Zen master, though still considered an expert on Zen.  He was not formally educated, but clearly a master of languages, having taught himself Sanskrit, Tibetan Sanskrit, and Pali, and fluent in Japanese, English, classical Chinese, and "several European languages."  It certainly makes me want to learn more about him.  The introduction of John Cage did not teach me anything new, and did not do much to evoke the avant-garde sense of wonder that I associate with his works.  4'33" is naturally given the main stage, but just a taste is given.  Perhaps the book will delve more deeply later, giving only a teasing taste in this Prelude.  The author describes her own path to Buddhism, and explains the structure of the book.  Grouped in three sections, the chapters are meant to follow a Buddhist arc of revelation.  And within the chapters, quotes from Cage are used to create a sense of conversation with the author.  This could work, or be very annoying as a conceit.  I shall see.