ANARCHIC HARMONY: John Cage’s Paradoxical Wager?

by Joan Retallack

Even before he named it, "Anarchic Harmony" had become John Cage's first principle and most cherished artistic wager. From the late 1940s on, when Cage began to embrace indeterminacy as a principle of composition, none of his major innovations – the redefinition of silence, the methodical use of chance operations, his lucidly consistent poethical framework – would have been possible in the way he realized them as composer, poet, visual artist, interarts collaborator without the framing concept of Anarchic Harmony. Cage used art processes to model forms of life worth living in our complex and chaotic world. This was for Cage a practice based on determined optimism, nourished by a considered ethical framework which included poetry as fundamental source of spiritual courage. Hence my characterization of his work as an ongoing series of poethical wagers. The allegiance to Anarchic Harmony was perhaps the most radical wager of all.

          In order to understand how to enjoy and benefit from John Cage's compositions, it is important to recognize how and why he desired to compose aesthetic forms as models of life in which the creatively free person would choose to live. Humanity, he believed, is capable of forming collectivities of individuals working with shared values toward shared goals, absent power dynamics that privilege some and coerce others. In 1988, he wrote a long mesostic poem entitled Anarchy – using chance operations, as was his practice, in order to moderate his own intentionality. The poem, preceded by a brief prose review of the history of anarchist thought, offers this gentle phrase toward the end: “liberty oF each / by virtUe of / deepLy with.” The anarchic goal will only be achievable in an atmosphere of dedicated collaboration and profound harmony. How that utopian vision might be realized in life as well as art is, of course, the great puzzle, a challenge for artist and citizen of the world alike. In the meantime, it remains the heart of the experience of John Cage’s textual, visual, and musical compositions from the early 1950s on.