John Cage’s Mushroom Koan

The avant-garde composer John Cage wrote a book called Silence, which consists of some of his lectures, accompanied by lots of little stories that are supposed to work a bit like Zen koans. I first read it when I was a teenager and have loved it ever since; I recommend it to everyone, especially people who don’t think much of Cage’s music.

The ‘koans’ are mostly stories from Cage’s everyday life, which at first seem banal but can bring up surprising paradoxes upon reflection. They also reveal the gentle way Cage had of being subversive — always trying to bring a bit of playful misrule into the lives of people he found overly serious and moralising.

In one of these stories, Cage takes a big group of children to the zoo. It’s a hot day, and the children start to complain, so he buys them all ice cream. They make a mess, so he takes them to a drinking fountain and tries to wash them off one by one. A queue has formed behind him, and one man in the queue shouts angrily: “There’s a washroom over there!” Cage replies: “Where? And how did you know I was interested in mushrooms?”

Cage was interested in mushrooms — he won $10,000 on an Italian game show by listing all 24 names of the white-spored Agaricus contained in Atkinson’s Studies of American Fungi. He even listed them in alphabetical order.

The puzzling thing about the story is that if it weren’t written in the first-person, it would be a boring story about a misunderstanding. Cage tended to think that misunderstanding was the highest form of understanding. But, since Cage himself is the one telling the story, it doesn’t seem likely that he simply misheard the man. Perhaps he did, and only subsequently worked out what the man really said. But it is at least equally probable that he was dealing with unnecessary aggression in his usual mischievous way.

If Cage wanted to clarify, he could have told the reader whether he misheard or whether he was being mischievous. But he was never going to clarify, and now it will remain ambiguous for the rest of time. Thus a very simple story becomes a riddle.

Why did Cage have such a passion for turning everyday life into Zen-like riddles? Upon hearing his music, one critic asked him: “With all the chaos in the world, why do you want to make more?” Cage replied: “Maybe when you go back into the world, it won’t seem so chaotic any more.”



Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website:

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