The Influence of Joseph Campbell on John Cage
Edward Crooks, University of York


The development of John Cage’s influential artistic and philosophical theories has been the object of particular interest in the study of the composer. Nevertheless, questions still remain regarding elements of that development, the sources Cage borrowed from, and the meanings of his theories. The landmark research of David Patterson provided a clearer picture of the chronology of that development, but could not cover all angles. This essay focuses on Cage’s friendship with the comparative-mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904–1987). Focusing chiefly on the years between 1942 and 1952, it combines recent and original research to provide an updated history of Campbell’s influence on Cage and aspects of the development of Cage’s theories. Because of the importance of the theories of Carl G. Jung to Campbell’s work, it also details Cage’s references to Jung. By concentrating on Campbell and his circle, rather than the figures Cage more frequently cited as influences, the importance of Campbell to the development of Cage’s theories is revealed. As usual with Cage’s borrowings, what is discovered is not that he faithfully adopted theories but that he creatively—sometimes opportunistically—adapted them. These findings have particular relevance for researchers investigating Cage’s two summers spent teaching at Black Mountain College in 1948 and 1952, as well as to investigations into the development of Cage’s interest in Asian traditions.

This paper is divided into three sections. The first provides relevant background information on Campbell’s life and work; the second details the chronology of Cage’s readings, highlighting his connections to Campbell. (And? maybe) The final section analyzes specific compositions and lectures by Cage; it details how Cage used material drawn from texts written or edited by Campbell or Jung, and provides relevant explanations of that material.


1. Campbell

Campbell’s theories on mythology and its lessons for modern lives were shaped by influences he encountered throughout his adolescence and early adult years[i]. They ranged from Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, to Native American traditions, Arthurian legend, the novels of Thomas Mann and James Joyce, and the theories of Freud and Jung. From 1934 until his retirement, Campbell taught at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Through the courses he taught there, he pioneered the approach to comparative mythology, religion, and literature that later bore fruit in the books that bore his name. Campbell’s masterwork The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) was followed by a string of further publications. His writings and lectures found popularity with general audiences as well as scholars, artists, writers, and filmmakers (Larsen and Larsen).

Cage met Campbell when the mythologist was in the early stages of his career. At this point, Campbell was particularly interested in the religions and philosophies of India. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Campbell’s knowledge of Indian traditions was shaped in particular by three inspiring figures: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Svāmi Nikhilānanda, and Heinrich Zimmer (Larsen and Larsen 105, 282-7, 317-26). Through Campbell, each also influenced Cage. Campbell began to read the works of the Ceylonese-British art historian and metaphysician Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in the late 1930s. Campbell became acquainted with Coomaraswamy personally in 1939 and collaborated with him on a small number of projects. Campbell met Svāmi Nikhilānanda in 1940. Nikhilānanda was head of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, which promulgated the teachings of the revered nineteenth-century Bengali guru Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa. Between 1940 and 1941, Campbell assisted Nikhilānanda to translate and edit The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942) for an American readership[ii]. Campbell was introduced to the German Indologist Heinrich Zimmer by Nikhilānanda. A respected European orientalist and mythologist and a personal friend of Jung, Zimmer introduced Campbell to Jung’s circle in America, which centered on the Bollingen Foundation. The majority of Cage’s spiritual and philosophical influences of the period were connected through Bollingen.

Named after Jung’s rural Swiss retreat, Bollingen was founded by philanthropists Paul and Mary Mellon to develop knowledge of Jung’s theories in America. Mary Mellon had been introduced to Jung’s work in 1933 by her friend Nancy Wilson Ross. She quickly became a devoted Jungian. Five years later, the Mellons attended the Jung-focused Eranos Conference in Switzerland. Bollingen aimed to bring the spirit of Eranos to America. Zimmer, a regular Eranos lecturer, was invited by the Mellons to become a director of the Foundation; he was one of the guiding spirits of the foundations’ publishing arm, the Bollingen Series. It was Zimmer who brought the publisher Kurt Wolff to the project. Escaping the war in Europe, Wolff and his wife Helen settled in New York with their young son Christian; they established the intellectually-inclined Pantheon Books in 1942. Wolff and Pantheon were invited to publish the Bollingen Series in 1943 (McGuire). Besides publishing Jung’s complete works, Jung’s interest in mythology and Asian religions[iii] was also reflected by the titles published in the series

Campbell’s first assignment for Bollingen was to write a scholarly commentary for its first volume Where the Two Came to Their Father (1943), a depiction in words and images of a Navajo ceremony involving sand painting. Zimmer died suddenly in the year the volume was released. Bollingen employed Campbell to edit and complete the volumes Zimmer had been working on. With additional scholarly guidance from Coomaraswamy, Campbell edited Zimmer’s three final publications; one of these, The King and the Corpse (1948), was read by Cage. In the meantime, Bollingen also published The Hero with a Thousand Faces.


2. Cage and Campbell: Chronology

In 1942, Cage was still struggling to establish himself. Despite a complete lack of funds, Cage and his wife Xenia decided to relocate to New York and take up an offer of accommodation made by Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Two weeks later, after a disagreement, the Cages left the Guggenheim–Ernst residence. Still short of money, they moved in with Joseph Campbell and his wife, the dancer Jean Erdman. Xenia had known Campbell since 1932 (Larsen and Larsen 206-09). Cage knew Erdman through her collaboration with Merce Cunningham. The Cages lived with the Campbells in their small apartment for around two months. Cage took a considerable interest in Campbell’s ideas (Patterson 55-7; Silverman 52). The primitivist associations of Cage’s prepared piano compositions of the period, such as Totem Ancestor (c. October 1942), And the Earth Shall Bear Again (November, 1942), and Primitive (December 1942), resonate with Campbell’s interests.

Cage had some prior knowledge of the subjects Campbell introduced him to. During the 1930s he vociferously read the journal Transition, which had been Jungian-focused in its later issues (and had also introduced him to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), and was shown a copy of the Yìjīng [I Ching][iv] by Lou Harrison. While living in Seattle between 1938 and 1940, Cage made friends with painters Mark Tobey and Morris Graves both of whom were interested in Asian religions and mysticism. He had also attended a lecture given by Mary Mellon’s friend Nancy Wilson Ross entitled “The Symbols of Modern Art,” which had focused on links between modern art and psychology and science[v]. During the lecture she briefly suggested that there were similarities between Dada and Zen—a suggestion that made such an impression on Cage that he later remembered the entire lecture as having been entitled “Zen Buddhism and Dada” (Silence xxxi). Nevertheless, it was not until after he met Campbell that Cage took a serious interest in any of these subjects.

The Cages continued regularly to see the Campbells. Cage’s first composition that can be definitively linked to Campbell is The Perilous Night (1944), which took its title from Arthurian literature. The choice of title hints at the personal troubles Cage was going through. Around the beginning of 1943, Cage and Cunningham became lovers; Cage’s relationship with Xenia withered. She left their shared apartment in February 1944. Campbell and Erdman provided emotional assistance to both partners (Larsen and Larsen 332-3; Silverman 63). Cage was greatly affected by the split. Already attracted to the traditions he had discussed with Campbell, Cage found answers in sources his friend led him to. Among the first of these was Campbell’s draft manuscript of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which Cage read early in 1944 (Larsen and Larsen 333). In its pages, Cage encountered several of the writers and traditions he later adopted into his own work. When Cage began to introduce material from these texts into his lectures, Campbell provided a personal and methodological role model. It should be noted that many of these texts focused on essentialized constructions of Asian religions typical of the period.[vi]

Xenia’s departure coincided with Cage becoming dissatisfied with his compositional style. He had attempted to depict his tormented feelings in The Perilous Night. Audiences failed to understand the emotional content of the work. If communicating through music was impossible, what was the purpose of composition at all? (Cage, “Autobiographical Statement” 239; Nicholls 35). According to his later recollections, at this point he started to look for different reasons to compose (Tomkins 97). Here again, Cage was influenced by Campbell and his circle. While it is not certain when Cage began to think about utilizing Asian tenets in his own works, it had occurred by April 1946: “The East in the West,” published that month, contains his first mention in print of Coomaraswamy (24). As Patterson (66) pointed out, it was almost certainly Campbell who originally directed Cage to the writings of his colleague. A further text Cage read in the same period was The Perennial Philosophy (1946) by Aldous Huxley (Cage, “Preface to ‘Indeterminacy’” 78). Also known personally to Campbell, Huxley had provided a foreword to the version of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Campbell worked on. Huxley’s book surveyed the idea of a universal ‘perennial’ tradition—of which Coomaraswamy was the foremost modern exegete—and illustrated its themes with numerous lengthy excerpts from European, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese sources.

In the summer of 1946, Cage was still trying to answer the question of the purpose of composition. Assisted by friends Lou Harrison and Merton Brown, he continued to read Coomaraswamy (“Confessions” 41). That August he met Gita Sarabhai, a young Indian musician. They intensively discussed music, philosophy and religion for a period of several months. Before Sarabhai returned to India, she gave him a copy of Nikhilānanda and Campbell’s edition of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Although it was probably Campbell who first introduced him to The Gospel, Cage only read the book after Sarabhai gave it to him (Larsen and Larsen 334; Patterson 113-4).

During the year and a half that followed, Cage was engaged “studying oriental and medieval Christian philosophy and mysticism” (“Confessions” 41). Cage focused on texts he had encountered through Campbell. The exact list of texts is impossible to determine, but it certainly included at least one book by Coomaraswamy[vii], Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and the two-volume Evans/Pfeiffer edition of the texts of Meister Eckhart. Cage may have come to Eckhart via Campbell, Coomaraswamy, or Huxley. Near the end of that period, Cage collaborated with Campbell on a projected series of several operas. They got as far as beginning work on the first opera before the project foundered (Patterson 123-24). By 1948, Cage had read Jung’s The Integration of the Personality (1940), and by the following year, also had read Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse, edited by Campbell. Cage’s 1949 lecture at the Artists’ Club “Indian Sand Painting, or The Picture That Is Valid for One Day,” suggests that he read Where the Two Came to Their Father. Concurrently, he began to utilize ideas from these sources in his music. Borrowing from the writings of Coomaraswamy, the Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) and Sixteen Dances (1950–51) were underpinned by Cage’s somewhat clumsy attempt to utilize the concept of rasa—the blissful, numinous “flavor” formulated in classical Indian aesthetics that is said to be tasted through experiencing the stylized depiction of engendering emotional categories (Crooks 176-99).

It was the material surveyed above that informed Cage’s ideas when he taught at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948 and delivered the lecture “Defense of Satie.” In 1952, during his second summer teaching—during which he organized the legendary untitled event—he had refocused his interests. Cage had become particularly interested in East Asian traditions. Due to Cage’s syncretic approach, this did not entail that he dropped his earlier borrowings. His compositional strategies changed too: from the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1950–51) and Music of Changes (1951) through Water Music (1952), he began to develop the methodology of chance procedures that underpinned his subsequent work.

Cage had encountered depictions of Zen and Dàoism in Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. Influenced by The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Cage decided that all religions were essentially saying the same thing but that there were “different flavors” from which one could choose depending on one’s tastes[viii]. Cage browsed and the flavor he liked best was Zen (“Autobiographical Statement” 242; Cage and Anderson). A letter he wrote early in 1950 records that he intended to read texts by D. T. Suzuki that were to be republished shortly (Nattiez 50). The impact of East Asian religions first made itself felt in Cage’s writings in the “Lecture on Nothing” (1950). For this reason, scholars have found it difficult to identify the books Cage read on Zen first. Nevertheless, the story of the man on the hill provides one clue: unnoticed before now, Cage appears to have quoted the story word-for-word from Suzuki’s recently published book The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (144-5). Furthermore, as Rob Haskins (58) pointed out, during the lecture Cage also paraphrased an idea from Alan Watt’s 1948 publication Zen.

Cage read a variety of texts on East Asian traditions between 1950 and 1952. With a small number of exceptions, they were linked by Campbell and his circle at Bollingen/Pantheon. D. T. Suzuki was a friend of Jung, he would later be published by Bollingen; his writings were already well known to Campbell and his circle. Jung’s writings on Zen were indebted to Suzuki just as Suzuki’s writings on psychology were indebted to Jung. Late in 1950, Cage was given a copy of the Yìjīng [I Ching]in the Bollingen edition featuring an introduction by Jung. It proved a catalyst for Cage’s development of chance procedures. The gift was made by his composition pupil Christian Wolff, son of Bollingen/Pantheon publishers Kurt and Helen Wolff[ix]. Christian introduced Cage to his parents; Cage attended parties at the Wolff’s residence. By January 1951 Cage had been introduced to Alan Watts by either Campbell or the Wolffs. A popular American-based writer of books on Zen and comparative mysticism, Watts was also an author published by Pantheon, had known Suzuki personally since 1936, and was well-versed in the theories of Jung. Cage was friends with Watts during the early 1950s (Crooks 103-4; Watts, Own Way; Wolff and Patterson 63, 69-70). Cage certainly read Watts’s Zen (1948) and probably read other volumes by him in addition (see below). And it was at a dinner party hosted by Watts, and also attended by Campbell and Erdman, that Cage met Doña Luisa, Coomaraswamy’s widow, who is featured in two Cage stories (Cage, “Indeterminacy” 263-4; “How to Pass” 72; Watts, Own Way 226-32).

Only after this, in the spring of 1952, did Cage attend Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia (Patterson 141-2). That August, Cage returned to Black Mountain College. Fresh from Suzuki’s classes he brought with him a text the Zen scholar had been discussing, The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind[x] (Patterson 224). Zen became Cage’s primary focus. Nevertheless, Cage regularly returned to the sources Campbell had introduced him to until at least the early 1960s. On a personal level, they were no longer as close: as each found success, Campbell and Cage saw less of one another. Late mentions of each other in their respective writings date to the mid- and late-1950s (Cage, “How to Pass” 136; Campbell, Baksheesh 31, 268, 330 f.n. 37). But Campbell’s influence on Cage was significant enough to outlast their period of frequent contact.

A less obvious element of Campbell’s influence on Cage was the example he set of individualistic spirituality outside of organized religion. Campbell awoke Cage’s mind to how he could make use of spiritual traditions in his personal and professional life. Although a spiritually-minded person, Campbell did not practice the observances and rituals of a particular faith. The spiritual practice Cage came to echoed Campbell’s own approach, particularly in the lack of interest Cage took in the contemporary observances of the traditions he borrowed from, and in his primary focus on psychological rather than soteriological release. Even after he attended Suzuki’s lectures, Cage firmly eschewed seated meditation and all of the numerous rituals of Zen in favor of an individualistic syncretic observance grounded in his life and work. His work, meanwhile, echoed this approach in its relationship to existing Asian artistic traditions—though this also reflected the influence on Cage of the discourse of modernism, which also influenced Campbell. While it should be noted that Suzuki’s psychologically-oriented “Westernized” Zen was not entirely incompatible with this, Campbell’s role in shaping Cage’s perceptions should not be ignored. On the other hand, neither should it be over-exaggerated.

Campbell’s spirituality was grounded by the “traditional” values imparted in the mythology he focused on; conversely, Cage’s “hummingbird” approach led him to anarchism[xi]. A passage in Campbell’s diary for 4 July 1955 points to the distance that was opening up between them. Cage’s art, Campbell thought, had little to do with “the real character of Zen” (Campbell, Sake 199). By 1968, Cage and Campbell were on opposite sides of the barricade. Like Jung and Coomaraswamy, Campbell believed the “permanent human values” visible in myth and art supported traditional social conventions and roles. He disliked the 1960s counter-culture, supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and objected to feminists, communists, and other radicals (Ellwood 131-3, 138, 149-51, 166-7; Larsen and Larsen 287, 464-6, 508-12). Cage, on the other hand, was now in favor of revolution (Cage, Monday ix). Campbell’s position had not really altered, though it had hardened. It was Cage who had changed, revolutionizing the material he had borrowed just as he now wished to revolutionize society.


3. Case Studies

The Perilous Night

Cage composed The Perilous Night for prepared piano during late 1943 and early 1944. Unlike many of his compositions for the instrument, it was not written to accompany a dance. According to Revill (85), Cage remembered that the programme of the work derived from a myth concerning a “perilous bed” on a slippery jasper floor. It was, Cage said, an allegory of the dangers of the erotic (Tomkins 97). Cage told Revill that the myth in question (was) featured in a volume of Irish legends shown to him by Campbell. This could entail that the legend in question is the one referred to by Campbell in The Hero (110). Nevertheless, the words “perilous bed” and the image of a jasper floor relate more closely to a different legend known to Campbell that (is featured) features in Arthurian literature.

The “perilous bed” or “bed of marvels” was encountered by the knight Gawain in the Marvelous Castle (Château Merveil). The castle was populated by numerous women. Although he was expected to sleep on the bed, Gawain had difficulties even getting near it. The polished jasper floor was extraordinarily slippery, and the bed—mounted on wheels of rubies—constantly darted from him. When he did finally mount the bed it bucked and raged. Contemplating God, he waited; the bed became calm. Even so, the perilous night continued: Gawain was shot at, assaulted, and charged by a lion. When at last he had vanquished the perils, the female occupants of the castle appeared and tended his wounds (see Campbell, Masks 492-96; Zimmer 86-8). The degree to which Cage sought to depict the narrative of the myth in the composition awaits further analysis. Nevertheless, it is clear that Cage found ideas in the story that resonated with his own emotional state as his marriage ended.


“A Composer’s Confessions” and “Defense of Satie”.

Cage had read Jung’s The Integration of the Personality by early 1948. Campbell’s Hero was heavily indebted to it; it is likely it was Campbell who introduced Cage to the text (Rensma 94, 162). Cage referred to “the integration of the personality” in two lectures of the late 1940s. In the 1940 edition that Cage read, Jung’s theory of “the integration of the personality,” or “individuation,” refers to the process by which a human becomes an “individual” or “whole” person. It stems from the correct balancing of the ego-consciousness with the unconscious that is prior to yet not known directly to the former. Jung proposed that while the ego is specific to the individual human, the unconscious far precedes it. Just as the human body is phylogenetically shaped, so too is the human mind. The unconscious is a store of perennial wisdom that “opens the way to meaning by revelation” (83). It is “a realm of nature that cannot be improved upon or perverted” (101), the part of the self connected to metaphysical reality. Jung argued that modern life hindered the individuation process. Rationalism and the flood of media that confronted the modern human filled the “external mind,” leading to ignorance of the “inner world”. Their inability to deal with emotions and susceptibility to manipulation by “every form of mental contagion,” from cheap sentimentality and poisonous reason to political radicalism, was causing the issues bedeviling the West (10-11, 15).

Cage delivered “A Composer’s Confessions” at Vassar College in February 1948, and “Defense of Satie” at Black Mountain College in the summer of the same year. Although the first concentrates on Cage’s life and work and the latter on music theory, both are linked by passages where Cage argues that the “function of music” is to integrate the personality. References to psychology appear throughout the last third of the first lecture and the introduction and conclusion of the second. The purpose of the Jungian individuation process, Cage believed, was to integrate the conscious and the unconscious of the individual, which in most people were dispersed in numerous ways. In the first lecture, he joined Jung’s theory with Moholy-Nagy’s theory that a “healthy occupation” involves the “whole man”[xii] to argue that the function of music for composers, performers, or listeners was to provide “a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one” (41–2). Later in the lecture he borrowed from the Ruskin–Morris inspired rhetoric of Coomaraswamy[xiii] to argue that music worked to integrate the personality through the “age-old” process of “making and using” art, but that it would not do this if composers sought fame, money, and genius (43). Cage’s concluding paragraph—concerning “our” transference of belief from God to heroes to material things resulting in a need for tranquility through integration—is clearly influenced in part by Jung’s depiction of the decline of the Western psyche.

In “Defense of Satie”, Cage used Jung’s theory for subtly different ends. He postulated that composition entailed bringing “Freedom elements” and “Law elements” into balance (the former encompassed material, method, and form, and the latter encompassed structure). Music, Cage argued, “is a problem parallel to that of the integration of the personality,” which, he explained, was “the co-being of the conscious and the unconscious mind, Law and Freedom, in a random world situation” (84). In both lectures, Cage suggested that, like Campbell’s theory on the function of myth, the function of music was akin to Jungian analytic psychology in providing a guide to a psychologically healthy life and self-knowledge.

Cage’s ideas in these lectures are only tangentially connected to Jung’s theories. Cage did not mention the integration of the personality prominently in his lectures and writings either before or after this point. Perhaps he realized the limits of the confluence between their respective ideas. In later years, Cage suggested that his engagement with psychoanalysis had ended by 1947, instead “Oriental philosophy” had taken its place (Silence 127; “Autobiographical Statement” 239). These lectures show that Cage engaged with analytical psychology for longer than he later remembered. In fact, psychology and his new spiritual and philosophical interests started in parallel and were even connected.


“Lecture on Something”

Cage delivered the “Lecture on Something” at the Artists’ Club in 1951 (Nicholls 49). It contains early references to a number of his sources on East Asian traditions including the Yìjīng, and books by Campbell, Watts, and R. H. Blyth. It also mentions the life-story of the Buddha Śākyamuni and the saying that begins “Before studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains….” (143), which Cage probably found in a book by Watts—either the aforementioned Zen or Watts’s earlier publication The Spirit of Zen (1936)[xiv]. What has been remarked upon less frequently is the multitude of references to the archetype of the hero. The chief theme of the lecture is living, listening, and composing without prejudice, accepting whatever sounds or events occur. In Cage’s 1959 introduction to the lecture, he suggested a link between heroism and the flavor (rasa) “the heroic” (vīra); there is nothing in the lecture to suggest this connection and much that suggests an origin in Campbell’s work (see Crooks 176-99). It is possible, however, that the largely coincidental connection between the name of the rasa and the Campbellian hero may have encouraged Cage toward the subject matter of the lecture.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published around two years before Cage delivered the lecture. The titular hero is an archetype of the collective unconscious. The archetypes are “forms of instinct”, a “collective a priori beneath the personal psyche” that bear traces of primordial models of apprehension and perception (qtd. in Rensma 27). They are phylogenetic psychological structures that condition the way experience is processed. Archetypes can be symbolized: the hero is the abstract archetype of which the heroes found in myths are concrete images, variant instances of the archetype embodied (Adams 107-08; Salman 63). For Campbell, the hero also signifies more than this. The similarities between the myths and religious stories of the world reveal a “monomyth” recording the path the hero took through the mysteries and perils of legend. What is recorded in the symbolism of those myths is the collective human knowledge of the path through the mysteries and perils of existence (Hero vii-viii, 17-20, 25).

In the “Lecture on Something,” Cage argued that an artist should create “nothing” by “making something which then goes in and reminds us of nothing” (129). How could this be done? Through acceptance: like Morton Feldman (the distinctly Cage-like hero of the lecture), composers should accept the first sounds they encounter (129). Why was this necessary? “[T]he mythological and Oriental view of the hero is the one who accepts life,” Cage stated, reifying Campbell’s vision. Thus, if one cannot bring oneself to call Feldman a composer, he should at least be recognized as a hero. Everyone is a hero, Cage argues, “if we accept what comes, our inner cheerfulness undisturbed” (134). Composers who wish to make masterpieces separate themselves and their art from life. Heroes do not do this. They open themselves to the vicissitudes of fate and chance and accept the consequences (130-34). Near the end of the lecture, imitating Campbell’s style, Cage analyzed a mythological image of the hero in peril thus revealing a life lesson: “do you remember, in myth, the hero’s encounter with the shape-shifting monster? The way the sounds between two performances shift their somethingness suggests this.” What would a hero do? What would Morton Feldman do? According to Cage, a hero—which, he points out, can be any of us—accepts the music changing from performance to performance. As a result, what appears to be a monster is revealed to be a mirage and the hero goes on to achieve the goal of his quest. To reinforce the link between his own theories and Campbell’s, Cage added: “Now what if I’m wrong? Shall I telephone Joe Campbell and ask him the meaning of shape-shifters? …. He would know the answer” (144). Name-dropping was a regular feature of Cage’s writings. A few years later, Suzuki played a similar role in Cage’s writing.

Cage’s references to the archetype of the hero were similar only to one tenet of Campbell’s hero (discussed below). A further similarity was methodological. Campbell used his findings to reveal the meaning of works of art and literature from all periods. Cage attempted, largely opportunistically, to bring that methodology to bear on his own and Feldman’s music. Yet aspects of the lecture were highly antipathetic to Campbell’s theories. This was the lecture in which Cage first explicitly declared his rejection of symbolism; paradoxically, he used an archetypal image of the hero to explain why. Cage did not mention Campbell as explicitly in subsequent lectures. He kept some of the ideas he had borrowed, but reassigned the reference. Nevertheless, Cage retained one archetypal image of the hero: he was an Irish prince who implicitly trusted a shaggy nag.


The Story of the Prince and the Shaggy Nag

The story of the prince and the shaggy nag (horse) provided Cage with an archetypal image of a hero who completes his quest because he can act without preconceived ideas and remain unworried by the consequences. Cage’s understanding of this story derives from the twenty-six pages devoted to it in Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse[xv], edited by Campbell. This hero was a young prince who followed a rolling iron ball while being guided by a talking shaggy nag. In order for the prince to complete his quest and secretly gain entry into a fortified city, the nag ordered the prince to kill him, flay him, and use his skin to disguise himself. Despite the nag being the prince’s only friend, the prince did as he was commanded and was successful in his quest. Afterwards, he returned to the body of the nag and the nag was transformed into a fairy prince (for the full story see Zimmer 26-52).

According to Zimmer’s analysis, the rolling iron ball was directed by gravity toward the ground of being, the law of all things (40). The prince symbolizes the rational conscious, the nag the unconscious; they are both but parts of the self. He successfully overcomes the rational through killing his friend the nag, and his reward is the transformation of his unconscious (the nag) into an element of the psyche touched with the transcendent (the fairy prince) (43-6). His ease of doing so, Zimmer suggested (41), was due to his ethnicity and non-modern status. Revealing the primitivism inherent in the theories subscribed to by Zimmer and Campbell, Zimmer informed his readers that because the prince was “an Irishman—and, moreover, one of the early period,” he was “spared the characteristic fault of modern man, the too exclusive reliance on intellect, reasoning, and consciously directed will power.” He is an archetypal image of the hero.

The story of the prince and the shaggy nag remained in Cage’s repertoire of tales. His first reference to it was oblique. In the final paragraph of “Forerunners of Modern Music” (66), Cage added a footnote mentioning “acquiescence” with a reference to Zimmer’s book. His first proper telling of the story was the truncated version that features in the “Julliard Lecture” of 1952. In that lecture he used the word “acquiescence” again while telling the shaggy nag story: it was the “acquiescence of the hero” to the nag’s instructions that allowed the nag to be transformed into a fairy prince (102-03). The “hero,” Cage wrote, gave himself up to the roll of the ball unquestioningly; they “proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own”. Following the roll of the iron ball, like basing your choices on the chance selection of a number from one to sixty-four, allows one to move ‘with the vast rhythm of the universe (Zimmer 40).

The story appeared again as one of the minute-long tales for “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run”(138), and made two appearances in the 1954 lecture “45’ for a Speaker” (148, 167). The prince and the shaggy nag made their final appearance in Cage’s writings in the 1981 lecture “Composition in Retrospect” (130). Written in mesostics on the word “DISCIPLINE,” Cage retold the story in fractured form connecting it conceptually to sudden enlightenment, Suzuki’s teachings, and the aim of moving beyond likes and dislikes. Fully integrated into Cage’s other references, it remains a lasting symbol of the influence of Campbell on Cage. For Cage, the story of the prince was an exemplar of disciplining the mind and performing in a disciplined manner as well as a parable on the spiritual and psychological purpose of chance. Zimmer’s analysis provides an informative glimpse of the context from which Cage’s theories concerning chance in part arose, and of the discourse Cage was influenced by when integrating these theories with his other borrowings (in this regard see also Jung’s long foreword to the Bollingen edition of the Yijing).

Cage’s last significant mention of Jungian concepts is found in the second of his 1958 Darmstadt lectures. In that lecture, Cage made fleeting references to Jungian psychoanalysis and the collective unconscious (“Composition as Process” 36-7). Cage’s mention of “the ‘deep sleep’ of Indian mental practice” on the same occasion might point to the influence of Campbell, though such a connection is speculative (see Crooks 117-9).



Surveying traces of Campbell and Jung in Cage’s writings reveals both their influence and its limits and highlight the tangled origin of many of Cage’s references. As with all his borrowings, Cage only took those elements that interested him. Campbell opened spiritual doors for Cage. He was a catalyst who initially guided Cage and facilitated his early studies. Many of the central threads of Cage’s mature theories were shaped by Campbell’s early influence. Cage’s interpretations of his sources on Asia, and his subsequent representation of the traditions of the continent, were structured by the discourse Campbell introduced him to. Nevertheless, the level of confluence between their respective conclusions should not be exaggerated. Cage was his own willful agent who used the theories he encountered as jumping-off points for his own creativity. What Campbell influenced was the direction and manner in which Cage jumped.


[i] On Campbell see Larsen and Larsen; on Campbell and Jung see Rensma; on the ideologies of Campbell and Jung see Ellwood.

[ii] See Kripal.

[iii] See Gómez.

[iv] Chinese words are transliterated following the now standard Pinyin system; the older Wade-Giles transliteration follows in brackets if confusion may otherwise be caused.

[v] Archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. I thank the Harry Ransom Center for giving me access.

[vi] On which see King.

[vii] Cage read both The Dance of Śiva (1918) and The Transformation of Nature in Art (1934); it is not known which text he read first or if he read both texts between 1946 and 1948.

[viii] See Sharma.

[ix] Christian Wolff was introduced to Cage by Wolff’s piano teacher Grete Sultan (Wolff and Patterson 56-58).

[x] John Blofeld’s 1947 translation of the Chuánxīn Făyào [Ch’uan-hsin Fa’yao; Essentials of Mind Transmission] of Huángbò Xīyùn [Huang-po Hsi-yün].

[xi] I borrow the analogy from Carolyn Brown (38) who described Cage as flitting between sources like a hummingbird among flowers.

[xii] See Moholy-Nagy (15).

[xiii] See Crooks; Lipsey.

[xiv] The saying is attributed to the Tang dynasty Chán [Jap.: Zen] Master Qingyuan Weixin [Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin; Jap.: Seigen Ishin], and was recorded in the Wudeng huiyuan [Wu-teng hui-yüan; Jap.: Gotō egen] issued in 1252. It appears in Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series (pub. 1927, reprinted 1949); in the reprint the saying occurs on page 24. The saying is quoted by Jung in his foreword to the 1948 reprint of Suzuki’s 1934 volume An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (13 f.n. 1). And it is discussed by Alan Watts in The Spirit of Zen (82). In the “Lecture on Something,” Cage’s paraphrase is closest to the wording and exegesis in the Watts volume. Suzuki probably repeated the saying in the public lectures Cage attended from 1952 (for example, Silence 88).

[xv] Cage suggested in “Preface to Indeterminacy” (78) that the story came from Campbell’s Hero; however, the version of the story told by Cage appears in Zimmer’s volume. A different story about a shaggy nag does appear in The Hero though! (109-10, 172-3). Zimmer took the story from Yeats’s Irish Fairy Tales and Folk Tales where it is entitled “The Story of Conn-eda; or the Golden Apples of Lough Erne” (333-46).



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