American Immortals

William Burroughs, Phil Baker (224pp, £10.95, Reaktion Books)
No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"
, Kyle Gann
$24.00, Yale University Press)

William Burroughs and John Cage hardly seem real. The lives of both men are a public patchwork of stories that have been told and retold so many times (Cage quitting his studies with Schoenberg because his teacher insisted he must have a sense of harmony, Burroughs being interviewed for the OSS) that the incidents are less biographical facts and more stages on a mythological hero's journey. It's almost as if we need to put both men's names in inverted commas because they seemed to construct themselves and have then been constructed by others as repertoires as anecdotes. Cage and Burroughs seem destined to go on being 'Cage' and 'Burroughs'.

On the face of it, there seem to be a number of similarities between John Cage and William Burroughs, between, say, chance procedure and cut-ups. Both men had large, albeit very different, visions of humanity; and both men's visions were informed by thinkers from outside the mainstream of western culture or from outside western culture altogether. Both men drew on American cultural icons: Burroughs on the Wild West, Cage on Thoreau. And the work of both seems to involve asking questions about what we pay attention to.

But these sorts of comparisons will only get us so far and the question of how we should go on paying attention to Cage and Burroughs is at the heart of the two books under review here. It is perhaps worth noting that Kyle Gann's book is part of series called 'Icons of America' which includes volumes on Fred Astaire, Gone With the Wind
, the Liberty Bell, and the hamburger; and that Phil Baker's book is part of a series called 'Critical Lives' which includes volumes on Bataille, Foucault and Genet. This has the curious effect of suggesting that Cage is populist, firmly in the mainstream, and that the work is more important than the man; and that Burroughs's work can be allied with a kind of philosophical avant garde and remains secondary to the man. There may be some truth in the latter suggestion. Timothy Murphy's excellent but little-known study Wising Up The Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (1997) notes that critics have often been and still are repelled by Burroughs's subject matter. One feels bound to add that repulsion is an excellent excuse for not paying attention to a body of work and its implications. And, of course, Burroughs's work can be seen as an extended riff on various types of genre fiction. This might explain, in turn, why he seems to attract fans as opposed to serious commentary.

Phil Baker's book portrays Burroughs as largely isolated and practically invisible for most of his career until his return to America in the early 1970s. He did seem to be everywhere during the following decade: a Reader
, Letters 1945-59, and other volumes from Picador; a memorable cameo in the film Drugstore Cowboy; allegedly supplying the title for Blade Runner; and an appearance on Laurie Anderson's second LP Mister Heartbreak. And the short-lived Radio 1 programme Walter's Weekly regularly played recordings of his readings from a number of LPs that came out in that decade. This meant that he was often back to back on the airwaves with Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk and Eric Bogosian. You don't get much sense of this from Baker but it does suggest that Burroughs was an awkward, almost-crossover figure, not quite mainstream, not quite avant garde. In fact, Baker paints him as an essentially conservative person. Now Burroughs seems less visible again or perhaps his relevance is getting harder to understand. When Burroughs first started writing his paranoid visions in which access to alternative realities revealed not alternative ways of living and being but the reality of control, few writers were doing this and not many readers were ready to receive it. But after the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War made the world free for total war, knowledge of the violence committed in the name of or complacently caused by neo-liberal capitalism is everywhere from a documentary about the realities of farmed prawns in South-East Asia, through Alphonso Lingis's essay 'Anger' (in which the world in divided into 'a technocratic-commercial archipelago of urban technopoles' and a vast outer zone of cheap labour and cheap production), to the film Babel.

The context of Reaktion's series teasingly suggests that Burroughs might be a kind of philosopher. Baker doesn't really follow this up except to suggest that Burroughs was a precursor of both Situationism and the postmodernism espoused by Lyotard and to argue that 'his ideas on viruses and parasites [...] make a certain sense'. But calling someone a precursor risks condemning them to a past relevance. Baker is
very good on the day-to-day detail of Burroughs's life and on the years before, one might say, Burroughs was 'Burroughs'; and also draws a good 'story arc' of the life plotting all the main points and events. Baker gives you a clear sense of important figures in Burroughs's life such as Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville, Kells Elvins and Anthony Balch as people. The illustrations of people and book covers are well-chosen. He is also very good in tracing the influence of, for example, Wilhelm Reich and Scientology. Maybe it's these sorts of things that have made people sceptical about how to take Burroughs. At any rate, they seem not to fit with either the impact of the work or the kind of associations we expect such as Ginsberg, the Beats, etc.

So if you are new to William Burroughs then Baker's book is an excellent introduction. For a small paperback, it's very heavy: 350 grms. But you'll need to go to other sources to flesh out Baker's narrative: Iain Finlayson's Tangier
for the years in North Africa; Victor Bockris's With William Burroughs for 1974-80 in New York; Timothy Murphy's book for Burroughs's collaborations in other media; and Last Words: The Final Journals of William Burroughs for the final years in Kansas—although that book now seems unpleasantly voyeuristic and probably shouldn't have been published. Barry Miles's William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible is still the best 'life and work' account. And that's the most frustrating aspect of Baker's book: there's no real attempt to argue for the importance of Burroughs as a writer which is a real oversight for a 'critical life'. Here's what Timothy Murphy has to say on 'the final implication' of Burroughs's work:

     an explosive intermediation or scrambling of all the codes
     faster than capital, subjectivity, or language can resuscitate
     them [...] 'Burroughs' is no longer just the name of an author,
     a celebrity, or an artist; it is the name, rather, of a set of
     potentials, an effect that propagates itself from medium to
     medium by the force of its difference, bringing into contact
     incompatible functions, incommensurable concepts, and
     unrelated materials. Even when Burroughs is no longer able
     to function as the focus for this force, it will continue to
     reverberate, indefatigably sounding its critical imperative:
     listen to my last words everywhere. (232)

The reverberation of a critical imperative is one way to describe John Cage's 4'33", the subject of Kyle Gann's enthralling study. The book is a small format hardback and weighs 420 grms. And who, apart from Cage himself, ever thought there would be so much to say about silence? In six chapters, Gann takes us through the piece's first performance in 1952; Cage's life and work up to that point; Cage's influences (Satie, Russolo, Duchamp, Coomaraswamy, among others); how the piece came to be written; the piece and its notations; and, finally, its legacy and available recordings. Gann is a composer and performer so his musical knowledge and expertise are an important part of the book but all this is handled lightly and accessibly so that one feels freshly informed. Gann's simple but accurate descriptions of what Cage's early music sounds like enables us to see both how Cage developed as a composer and where 4'33'' came from. The book is full of fascinating illustrations: of the Maverick Concert Hall where the piece was first performed; of scores and programmes; and of a 1932 cartoon from the piano enthusiasts' magazine The Etude which shows a boy getting out of practice by composing a piece entirely of rests. It seems scarcely credible that the cartoonist was called Hy Cage.

Equally fascinating are all the other things Gann tells us about a piece which everyone who knows it thinks they know inside out. The notation of the piece changed twice; there were three published versions of it; and, like a sonata, it has three movements. There was even a 4'33'' (No.2)
which Cage dedicated to his student Toshi Ichiyanagi and his wife Yoko Ono. But Gann's real achievement is to situate the piece culturally and historically. So we not only get a clear sense of how 4'33'' fits into Cage's life and work but also of the larger musical and social worlds in which Cage worked and in which the work was received. Like Phil Baker on Burroughs, Gann is a lively and engaging writer and the chapter on Cage's life 1912-1949 is in many ways a better read than, say, David Revill's The Roaring Silence: John Cage: A Life (1992) which, while comprehensive, can sometimes seem rather laborious. Gann also offers a balanced and convincing account of the afterlife and influence of both Cage and 4'33''. No Such Thing As Silence is an excellent introduction to Cage, his music, and his ideas; and, unlike Baker's book, you won't need to supplement it with very much apart from Cage's own writings collected in books like Silence and A Year From Monday. The book I'd recommend to go with them is John Cage: Composed in America, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (University of Chicago Press, 1994). This has essays on everything from Cage's early life to the relation of his music to chaos theory. As for the music, CDs of Cage are often hugely expensive but there are two excellent budget-price CDs of the early piano music on Naxos; and a mid-price version of Roaratorio: A Circus on 'Finnegan's Wake' on Wergo. Litany for the Whale (Harmonia Mundi), a selection of Cage's compositions for voice, performed by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices with a bit of help from Terry Riley, is also recommended.  

David Revill argues that 'One can gauge Cage's importance from the company he has kept' and one is reminded that it has always seemed easier to place Burroughs in a pop/rock/underground context than a literary one. Nonetheless, as I suggested at the beginning of this review, engaging with the work of Burroughs and Cage has the effect of making one pay attention in new ways. And, do you know, I just realised that 'gravitational pull' is a phrase that appears in both Roaratorio
and De La Soul's Ego Trippin' (Part Two).

          © David Kennedy 2010