John Cale and John Cage have got a secret


In most of the classical psychoanalytical models of consciousness, dreams — whether functioning as wish fulfillment or as the working out of childhood trauma that is lodged deep within the unconscious mind — are riddles that, if properly deciphered, can reveal information about the structure of our psyches that has been so well hidden that it’s impossible to discover in the broad daylight of waking thought.  As Freud famously put it in The Interpretation of Dreams, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”  Freud expands on this thought in a 1925 essay called “Moral Responsibility for the Content of Dreams” in which he claims that not only are we, at some level, responsible for the ‘evil impulses’ of some dreams, but that these impulses are, in fact, a part of our very being:

Obviously one must hold oneself responsible for the evil impulses of one’s dreams. In what other way can one deal with them? Unless the content of the dream rightly understood is inspired by alien spirits, it is part of my own being.

The other night I had an incredible dream that may very well have been inspired by alien spirits.  In this dream I was walking through the green hills of Sonoma County farmland with my dear friend, J.  We were approaching a hill on which several wooden chicken coops — the kind that are often converted into studio space for artists, writers, and musicians — were situated within an orchard of fruit trees, and we came across a bed of the most amazingly beautiful blue-green cabbages.  As we stood admiring the cabbages (and there may have been other vegetables too — perhaps even some kale) we could clearly hear the repetitive and grinding avant-garde violin stylings of the Velvet-era John Cale.  Except the person playing the violin turned out not to be John Cale at all, but rather John Cage, who was sitting on a wooden fence in the orchard while sawing away.  Through the window of the chicken coop to the left of Cage we could see groups of students sitting casually on the floor while working on various types of aleatory compositions.  Though it was full daylight outside, a warm light drifted out of the coop windows providing almost the same feeling that one gets when walking at night along a country road and coming across a house that’s lit from inside by a thousand candles.

Since I grew up listening to both Cage and Cale it’s pretty clear that these dream elements are “part of my own being,” and it would be easy to unpack this dream to create a story about the way that desire and trauma are structured within my unconscious.  But what would happen if instead of thinking of dreams as the road to the unconscious we instead thought of them as a kind of secular medium of divination?  What if our unconscious isn’t as self-centered as we’ve been led to think, and instead of working constantly to patch up a traumatized psyche the unconscious is also working furiously to form connections and fabricate meanings that are relevant to the world that exists outside of the limited territory commanded by our ego?  In short, what if we were to use dreams to tell us something about the world, rather than assuming that dreams can only solipsistically give us back something that we already (unconsciously) know about ourselves?

Initially I had planned simply to post the narrative of the dream without much commentary and insert a couple of clips of Cage and Cale to add a bit of flavor to the proceedings.  While I was picking through video clips, however, I discovered an interesting coincidence: both Cage and Cale had — at different times in the early 1960s — performed music on I’ve Got a Secret, an American game show.  Cage performed his famous piece Water Walk in front of an audience that is clearly startled, bemused, and delighted, while Cale performed a portion of Erik Satie’s work Vexations, a composition for piano that demands that a single, short piece of music be played repeatedly 840 times.  As if there weren’t already enough dream-generated treasure here, it turns out that there’s another coincidence at work in addition to the improbable existence of these two fantastic game show performances by icons of the experimental music world: Cage and Cale were both participants in the complete, 18-hour, multi-pianist performance of Satie’s Vexations that is featured on the episode of I’ve Got a Secret that Cale appears in.

I’m not sure what this dream might ultimately say about what goes on in the back of my mind, but at least one thing is certain — the pun-forged connection between Cale and Cage enabled by the linguistic drift that occurs during dreaming has turned out, this time, not to be very phantasmatic at all.

2 Responses to “John Cale and John Cage have got a secret”

  1. Amazing.

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      I wish I could have more dreams like this more often . . .

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