Revising History

John Cage, in Silence:

While Meister Eckhart was alive, several attempts were made to excommunicate him… None of the trials against him was successful, for on each occasion he defended himself brilliantly. However, after his death, the attack was continued. Mute, Meister Eckhart was excommunicated. (p. 193)

In Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1981), medievalist scholar Edmund Colledge gives quite a different picture. Noting that one of Eckhart’s “heresies” was a direct echo of St. Thomas Aquinas that the inquisitors should have recognized as such, he brings up 

the problem of why Eckhart himself did not put up a better defense… The years… of paradox-spinning for the scandalized delight of larger but less critical and instructed audiences do not seem to have sharpened his wits… [W]e can perhaps detect signs of the apathetic fatigue experienced by an aging man, aware that he has not fulfilled his early promise and has exhausted his powers in his efforts to woo popular acclaim.  (p. 14.)

Now I’m trying to figure out when Cage visited the anechoic chamber. Most people (including Cage) say 1951, but his own narrative also seems to imply that he left Black Mountain College (where he was in summer of 1952, not ’51, and must have been until August 16, 1952, for a performance of Sonatas and Interludes), went to Rhode Island, thence to Cambridge for the Harvard anechoic chamber visit – and then wrote 4’33” for an August 29 performance! This is William Brooks’s position, and it looks irrefutable.

I’m at the point at which every day I finish half of what’s left of this book, but the final tiny pieces get harder and harder.


  1. says

    I don’t see the quotes as necessarily factually contradictory. Eckhart defended himself successfully; Cage says, “brilliantly”; an Eckhart scholar says, not so much. Seems a matter of opinion.
    Colledge sounded like someone with particular hopes for Catholicism. I looked him up — he was a priest as well as a scholar.

  2. Bob Gilmore says

    hi Kyle,
    I’ve had it in my head for years that the anechoic chamber was 1948, same time as his conception of Silent Prayer (though the causality was never clear to me). I wonder where in hell I got that from. Look forward to positive enlightenment.

  3. Michael Wittmann says

    About that last line, a post doc who mentored me (Richard Steinberg) used to say “The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time. The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.”
    I’ve used that quote a million times in my life. I hope someone else can make as much use of it…
    KG replies: I hear you. I did enough work today to finish the book, then realized I’ve got just as much left.

  4. says

    You may already have said, but is there a publication date or approximate target for this book?
    Just remember that even with an asymptotic approach to completion you’ll still eventually finish. . . when T=Infinity.
    KG replies: There’s only a deadline – three weeks ago.

  5. says

    I’ve read 100% of this book twice now, and still only really get 20% of it. What is that repetitive lecture all about? Beats me, completely.