After Merce got the Guggenheim Fellowship, someone asked him what he was going to do with all that money. Answer was monosyllabic: eat!
Now that I’m getting older, I think I understand what Wittgenstein had in mind. He said if he found anything he could eat he would stick to it and not eat anything else.
“Where Are We Eating…” was originally written for James Klosty’s 1975 book, Merce Cunningham, and is a play on the theme of his 1961 essay published in Silence, “Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?” The latter essay, as I mentioned in an earlier post, consisted of four simultaneous conversations that formed a sort of analytic joke built around Cage’s encounter with Wittgenstein, and the former essay contains the same ethos and tone, in contrast to the other nonsyntacitcal investigations Cage was undergoing in his later text-based works.
As the essay title alludes, the topic here is simple: food. Cage and company, whether it was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, David Tudor, or any other group of traveling artists surrounding his life and work, always integrated food and dining into the overall aesthetic of art and life, interpenetration, and silence. Food for Cage was an important ritual bonding experience, a site of social activity and interaction, curiosity, exploration, and daring; nothing was beyond Cage’s palate, and as the MCDC tours increased in their regional and international scope, so too did their culinary forays into multicultural and ethnic delicacies.
I find the tone of this essay very down to earth; Cage is not afraid to expose colloquialisms, (Merce “got” a fellowship, *gasp* - how provincial!), and the essay, like many of the anecdotes peppering earlier books, is reassuringly homely, like discussing the weather with an old uncle.
Cage opens the essay discussing his recent conversion to a macrobiotic diet, a regimen that avoids refined or process foods that was very much in favor in the 1970s social circles in New York. It was Yoko Ono and John Lennon that famously introduced Cage to the diet, as the star-studded anecdote famously goes, and by all measures Cage added a decade or more onto his life by moving away from the artery clogging Midwestern diet of butter, cream, hard liquor and cheap starches.
The essay itself reads like an excellent cookbook peppered with food reviews, and moves along in a decidedly relaxed pace; I found myself easily skimming through it, in contrast to other more difficult essays, such as “The Future of Music” from last week, where Cage tends to fall prey to the academicization of text through heady clauses buried beneath commas, dashes, and semicolons.
This is as much a diary of the comings and goings of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as it is about food or anything else in particular, and it alludes to the carefree early years, when Cage and company hopped in the VW microbus and toured the country, pulling over at roadhouses for the best hamburger or fried chicken in the tri-state area, or cozying up to the fire while grilling streaks in a national park. Carolyn Brown described these idyllic pastoral years, when, to assuage the internal tensions between dancers and Merce, Cage maintained a carefree and adventurous atmosphere as company cook, driver, accountant, and, oftentimes, company therapist. Consider this paragraph, which quickly moves through a collage of scenes, imagery, tastes, and emotions:
In order to crossover backstage you had
to go outdoors and around the
back. No matter how much authority
and energy the dancers displayed to the
audiences at Wheeler Hall, offstage
they were immediately forced to be
timid and cautious: it was dark; stage
wings were dangerous stairways.
Dancers’ requirement: swimming pool and
color TV. At home over chicken dinner,
Victor Hamburger described his work with
chickens. He alters their embryos so
when they hatch they have more or
less eyes or legs, for instance, and
in different places than chickens
normally have and do. I was
hungry. Jean gave me a bag of peanuts
in their shells. Barbara said I
sounded like a squirrel. We stopped and I
had a bowl of chili. Returned to
the bus and began shelling peanuts
Equal parts wit, humor, and caricature, and altogether odd; if ever there were a way to describe Cage’s own personal natural voice (an intentions mind you…), this essay is it. But at the same time, this is not an artistic manifesto, nor is it a statement on the aesthetic of silence or any other ideological dogma - it is Cage recounting a lifetime of touring, food, good company, and pleasure, an essay penned for a book on his life partner, and it isn’t until the final paragraph that the subject of not just this, but likely many other essays in some shape or form, emerges:
rumor Merce’ll stop. Ten years ago, London
critic said he was too old. He himself
says he’s just getting a running start.
Annalie Newman says he’s like wine:
He improves with age.