Stochasticism, Ambition and John Cage: A Discussion with Rick Moody
Originally we had in mind what you might call an imaginary beauty, a process of basic emptiness with just a few things arising in it…. And then when we actually set to work, a kind of avalanche came about which corresponded not at all with that beauty which had seemed to appear to us as an objective. Where do we go then?… Well what we do is go straight on; that way lies, no doubt, a revelation. I had no idea this was going to happen. I did have an idea something else would happen. Ideas are one thing and what happens another.
– John Cage, “Where are we going? And what are we doing?”
I first met Rick Moody in 2010 at Jimmy’s No. 43, a Sunday Salon reading featuring Moody and a friend I was there to support as he was reading from his newly published epistolary novella. Moody was there to read from his newly released Four Fingers of Death. He sat quietly in the back, holding a copy of his book. I shook his hand and explained my fandom, how privileged I was to meet him. He was gracious, articulate, kind, perhaps a little shy or maybe it was reserve and reticence. His reading kicked ass.
Moody was born in New York City. He is an author, lecturer, musician, and columnist. He attended Brown and Columbia Universities then saw his first novel, Garden State (1992), win the Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award. His novel, The Ice Storm (1994), was made into a film directed by Ang Lee, which won best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. His stories and nonfiction have won The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Award, Addison Metcalf Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the NAMI/Ken Book Award, PEN Martha Albrand Prize, and Mary Shelley Award. His newest novel, The Four Fingers of Death (2010) is available now as well as a book of essays titled On Celestial Music. His album Rick Moody and One Ring Zero released in 2004 and he plays and writes lyrics for the band, The Wingdale Community Singers, which has released three albums, including the newly released Night, Sleep, Death (Blue Chopsticks Recordings). He has taught at NYU, Bennington, Yale, Princeton, SUNY Purchase, and the New School. He will be guest-lecturing this summer at The Johns Hopkins University and will be the featured reader for Eckleburg‘s Rue de Fleurus Salon held June 27th, at Johns Hopkins. We were fortunate to publish Moody’s short story, “The Nonsense Singers of the Red Forest” in our print Eckleburg No. 18 and fortunate to have him as guest-editor for our inaugural Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The below discussion on writing, music, stochasticism, David Bowie and John Cage took place in the Spring of 2013 over several weeks.
RAE BRYANT: Thank you for taking time to discuss your writing, music and most recent intermedia project, John Cage and the Question of Genre. Your schedule is a full one. That’s quite a list of books, awards, publications, teaching credentials…. Would you give it all up to sing with David Bowie?
RICK MOODY: Well, uh, just looking at that bio makes me glaze over a little bit. I admire David Bowie greatly, but I actually have exactly the relationship with David Bowie that best suits me: I met him twice. Recently, he gave me 42 words about an album he recorded, and I wrote an essay about it. That is plenty! I like singing in tiny rooms where you barely need a microphone. I am best when sitting on a couch. So there is no need at all to sing with David Bowie. But, as I say, I admire him.
RB: You admire John Cage, too, apparently. I was impressed with your Third Coast Festival collaboration, John Cage and the Question of Genre. How did this intermedia collaboration with Chris Abrahams and Sherre Delys come to happen? You first delivered this as the Duncan Phillips Lecture at the Phillips Collection International Forum in Washington D.C., correct?
RM: All correct. Chris (who is a musician I admire tremendously—one must hear his band The Necks) and Sherre and I collaborated on a radio play eons ago. And Sherre (who’s Chris’s partner, and a very extraordinary sound artist) and I worked on a few radio pieces together long ago. I was approached by a certain podcast to contribute something, and so I asked Sherre and Chris if they wanted to work on it with me. They did all the heavy lifting. It was a very delightful collaboration. With lots of theoretical discussion undergirding it. Now we’re trying to get another radio play off the ground. I’ve had one in mind for a few years, but it’s maybe too ambitious. Which is often my problem.
RB: Publisher’s Weekly commented similarly in a review of The Diviners. “Let it be said that Moody never suffered for want of ambition.” What does it mean, to you, being an ambitious writer?
RM: I suppose I come by this quality—which we are calling “ambition” only for lack of a better word—naturally, reflexively, so I don’t think about it much, only when it is described by others. It is not some precious metal that I need more of. It just is. I would probably use another word if I were talking about myself. In my own novels, I get bored easily. I can’t do the same thing twice without feeling discouraged, and I don’t want to compose a novel that simply supports the status quo in some way. So I always want to try new things. That is perhaps novelty addiction more than it is ambition.
Cage’s chance operations enact an unselfing, a casting off of the trappings of self (which surely are the stuff of schizo-culture), and thus a pouring out of self into the vessel of what is. And what a relief.
RB: In The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction No. 166 (2001), you explained your traditions in writing as “The modernist notion that anything is possible, the postmodernist notion that everything is exhausted, the post-postmodernist notion that since everything is exhausted, everything is permitted.” Does this, in part, explain the ambition? Anything possible, everything exhausted, everything permitted?
RM: Maybe, yes, ambition, if you insist, is just a word that suffices, in part, for describing the “anything anytime anywhere for any reason” approach, to which I do subscribe.
RB: And Cageian. In John Cage and the Question of Genre, you speak of the “stochastic” and “a campus on which projecting can take place,” which has a similar ring to Cage’s “imaginary beauty.” A seemingly ‘roll with it’ and reflective process. Is this a life philosophy?
RM: I suppose I take very seriously Cage’s notion that “Ideas are one thing and what happens another,” as you cite it above, and with that in mind I feel some terror at appearing to have complete control of the material at hand—Cage, my essay about Cage, my audio refraction of my essay about Cage. “Roll with it” is good as an analogy but colloquial in a way that doesn’t fully suggest the relief that comes from letting go of the teleology[i] of “well made” literature. The Cage essay that I wrote first (“John Cage and the Question of Genre”) was structured by using www.random.org, which, I should say, was a new technique for me (last time I randomly structured a piece I actually used pieces of paper and a hat). And the essay was structured according to chance precisely in order to thwart a teleological approach. I don’t have an argument about John Cage and genre, I simply constructed a series of vignettes. This seems to me more than adequate, and consistent with the work of the artist in question. My essay was about flows and probabilities. It was not a rhetorical bludgeoning, which I feel so often from literature of the mainstream these days.
RB: One might consider cut up techniques, such as www.random.org, to be less flow than pieces of flow, structure within the lack of structure, and therefore the act of using such a technique becomes an engagement of teleology if only to avoid the teleology. The avoidance becomes the craft. Is Cage’s chance an impossible pursuit or is the pursuit of the impossible really the intended journey? Is this where one finds his “series of vignettes”?
RM: I think I get where you’re going with this, but I suppose I would take some issue (and no disrespect meant, of course) with the premise. Let’s assume for a minute that one believes, e.g., in spiritual practice. If one believes in spiritual practice or at least in the metaphor of spiritual practice how many opportunities does one get, each day, absolutely to function in the full faith of that practice? I often find myself disconsolately sucked into the world (taxes! next week!), or pissed off because someone in front of me is driving a tractor, or what have you. One can attempt to return to the space of the spiritual and recognize that these things are of no consequence, one can render unto Caesar, as it were, but for me it is far better to try to find oneself operating according to plan that better demonstrates exactly what it is that one elects to believe. It is better to create an environment in which one functions ineluctably in that spiritual space. Cage, in stumbling upon chance operations (in arriving at them somewhat according to chance), retroactively imputes to them some meaning according to his understanding of Zen. Let’s avoid the controversy on this point, and the fact that some theorists of that discipline do not agree with Cage’s characterization thereof. He believed it, and he acted as though he believed it, and because of acting came to have faith in it, and so I feel we should honor how he talked about chance. Chance is one way, that is, to believe in the world.
Now, I happen to come from a tradition of narrative, in which a total recoiling from consequence and the amassing of facts is hard to come by. We narrative artists (you and me and others of our ilk) believe that time has a direction and one event causes another event, and that is how life has meaning. This approach seems antithetical to Cage’s feeling, his enactment, of chance as the plaything of God (I can’t think of a less dramatic way of saying it, because that’s sort of what I mean to say). But I have come to feel, a bit, that a well-made story, a three-act structure (let’s say) is perforce artificial, and, therefore inherently unrealistic. Ungodly, impious. (I’m using spiritual metaphors here, and don’t think I should be taken literally.) That is, I have come to feel that “realism” is inherently unrealistic, inherently artificial. I have come to feel a little disgraced by realism, no matter that there are a lot of books written in that tradition (The Sun Also Rises let’s say, or The Sportswriter) that I happen to have found important in my development. And so I have been looking around for metaphors for what I feel to be taking place in the world, and structures that reinforce and amplify this idea that I have about the world, that it is otherwise than it appears. That capitalism and its marketeering are not inevitable. And by and large those metaphors are musical (although some of them are visual arts metaphors, too, as in some of what Robert Smithson talks about, or some of what Andy Warhol talks about). Cage’s employment of chance operations, for me, is one of these metaphors, an inherently sturdy and limpid and beautiful metaphor. Which is why I have been caused to use this chance approach occasionally (not just in the John Cage essay, but in a few earlier pieces, as well, like one I wrote about Brian Eno in the nineties). It gets me where I want to go, where I am never stuck behind a tractor.
It is easy for me, therefore, to see the dictates of chance as a kind of flow, in the way, maybe, that Deleuze uses the word (I am not an expert on Deleuze, but I am a big fan of Anti-Oedipus and its critique), and therefore not a recoiling from what might be more apparently fluvial, namely the dictates of story and narrative. I see chance as more accurate somehow. And I like that accuracy. You say it is an “impossible pursuit,” but to me it seems kind of easy, not impossible at all. It just asks more of the audience. But as an audience member, I like being empowered to do more, to find connections myself. I don’t see the vignettes as vignettes but pieces cut from a larger cloth. Does that make sense?
Richard Meltzer. Hands down.
RB: Yes, makes good sense. I’m also intrigued by your mentions of Deleuze and Lacan. Push this further into a Derridean opposition, it suggests a lack of control to achieve/desire, which reflects your earlier mentioned, The Sun Also Rises, the ultimate expression of the molecular sexuality—i.e. Hemingways’ Brett Ashley, Jake Barnes’ lack of control over his love interest, friends’ love interests, the body politic, sexuality, experiences as a soldier…. And this reminds me of a quote you used from Cage within the intermedia: “I am so to speak a musical instrument in continual performance that I do not perform intentionally…all my music is silent, no matter how noisy it gets…” In the written essay of the same title, you expand on the issue of expectation/outcome and connected “reactions” such as the inevitable cough and tension of quiet that connects not only performer to audience and audience member to audience member but also all performances or most performances to all other performances and ultimately back to Cage… It’s something of an artistic String Theory. There is a lack of audience control over sound or “performance” as the audience assumes or desires the performance will or “should” be and how it actually is. Lack of control to achieve/desire. Is it fair to assume this binary is part of your flow or any writer’s flow, too? Something of Deleuze’s “schizophrenic desire,” that the process knows more than we consciously know?
RM: I think one response I might venture would be about dialectical thinking, and the difficulties of dialectical thinking. A fine response to the dialectical (which is implicitly if not explicitly an attack on Hegel) is to be found in Nietzsche’s later preface to the Birth of Tragedy, wherein he beats up on his own text most vehemently: “an impossible book… badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, and without the will to logical cleanliness.” This is interesting to me, because later, in Beyond Good and Evil he does say (and I have often quoted it), “Supposing truth is a woman–what then?” I think, that is, that he invokes “effeminacy” here not in a sexist or homophobic way, but in a way that mocks his own strengths (that is, it is only in attacking Birth of Tragedy that he can create an anti-dialectical Birth of Tragedy). Nietzsche, after a point, is all about resisting the dialectical or oppositional thinking. And the lesson of post-structuralism, it seems to me, follows his model. (Remember Derrida’s footnote about Nietzsche’s last written fragment–”I have forgotten my umbrella”–as bisexual or transgender image.) Me too. I always feel on unsteady ground when on the firmest ground, on a good old-fashioned either/or.
As to knowing ourselves, desires, etc., my personal response to this is I don’t have a self, I have a series of tendencies (some of them such ruts of predictability that they depress me), and these tendencies retroactively confer on me a state of Rick Moodyishness. But there is no self, in part because there is nowhere to put a self. (Though for me there IS a place to put a soul: in the space of metaphor.) What we desire is partly a recognition of sensory data that comes from the undeniability of body, but it is also a recognition of de-limiting these manifestations of sensory data. That is: civilization begins with the control of desire. Or: desire is for the thing you can’t have. You don’t know you desire it until you can’t have it. How does this cohere with Cage and chance operations? Yes, I think, as you say, that the process knows more about us than we know, but I am skeptical, I suppose, about the idea of more self-knowledge, which feels like the stuff of life coaching (and I have functioned in this capacity occasionally, recently, but as a life coach I always seek to avoid, as the Lacanians dismissively say, “ego psychology”); rather I think the goal is to unself the self a bit, and to see the body in space, without needing for it to do one thing or another, and to see language as a field of human possibility that happens outside of or apart from the intention of the writer. That’s what I think you’re saying when you say your writing is smarter than you are. I have often felt this way, too, but in the end I feel this way because I’m not sure there’s a writer there exactly. More like a receptor for language’s tidal movement, who functions best when he functions least.
Cage’s chance operations enact an unselfing, a casting off of the trappings of self (which surely are the stuff of schizo-culture), and thus a pouring out of self into the vessel of what is. And what a relief.
RB: Yes, a relief. And how does one best achieve this unselfing, when an artist exists primarily inside his or her own head, or more interestingly, how do you achieve this?
RM: I am certain that emotions exist, I am just not sure that I exist. My body exists (at least for now), and this I know because I have tested it, but whether there is a self I am not always so sure. It’s just a convenient way to talk about the likelihood of further work. The virtue of the Cage approach is that you don’t need to be an agency of volition and charm in order to practice it. Because chance operations reveal the artist’s hand less than they reveal What Is In the World, the forces at work, and this is a revelation mainly because most of us are preoccupied with stuff that has very little to do with What Is In the World. So the diminishment of self is less a thing to be “achieved,” to use your word, than it is a fact of life. Or, as they say in a certain crowd I travel in: humility is a fact, not an option.
RB: Another test, if I may: If you had to—gun to head, saving the world, superhero sort of thing—would you rather French kiss Richard Meltzer or sing with Taylor Swift?
RM: Richard Meltzer. Hands down.
RB: Heh. Agreed. Who are the musicians that influence you most?
RM: That’s a long list. Cage, certainly, Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Brian Eno, Don Cherry, John Zorn, Fred Frith (and his band Henry Cow), Pere Ubu, Meredith Monk, The Pogues, Robin Williamson, Incredible String Band, William Basinski, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Leonard Cohen, my bandmates David Grubbs and Hannah Marcus, Jolie Holland, John Lurie. That’s just today.
RB: Thanks so much for your time and discussion. A pleasure. And so is John Cage and the Question of Genre. Could you leave us with a few upcoming projects?
RM: Well, I am working on a new novel, kind of slowly, because of parenting and my recent divorce, and because of lots and lots of teaching. I hope to finish the draft this year. Right now it is called: ★★½. (I like the idea that it will be very difficult for people to type out the title. But I am also sure that no professional colleague of mine will think this title is anything but rash.) I have another novel going as well, but it’s on the back burner for the moment. That one is half done. There is a collection of stories basically done (entitled Stories With Advice), which may come out at some point. I could already publish another volume of musical essays just with what I have online at The Rumpus. I want to write a full-length piece of music criticism about a certain album I am interested in (not giving it away yet). And I have an idea for a play (based on a passage in Dante’s Inferno), a radio play (see above), and an album’s worth of new songs, that is, a second solo album, maybe. The process-oriented “presidential poems,” I need to work on them (I am just finishing the Obama sequence now). And who knows what else? Maybe I’ll get back to work on the community choir project? Or the screenplay about Elliott Smith?
[i] The idea that natural processes are directed toward an end or purpose. “John Cage’s artistic development showed an increasingly explicit awareness of environmental issues and of their relationship to his music. In breaking away from the linear, teleological structures of Western classical music, which emphasized a sense of forward movement culminating in a single climax, he criticized the destructiveness of a Western society committed to Faustian notions of historical progress” (Ingram, David. John Cage, Music and American Environmental Thought. Amerikastudien / American Studies. Vol. 51, No. 4, 2006).
Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, BLIP Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, and Pushcart awards. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and Johns Hopkins as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of the university-housed literary and arts journal, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.