To create anything of beauty, daring, and substance that makes the world see itself afresh — be it a revolutionary law of planetary motion or the Starry Night — is the work of lonely persistence against the tides of convention and conformity, often at the cost of the visionary’s aching ostracism from the status quo they are challenging with their vision. Rilke recognized this when he observed that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” and Baldwin recognized it in his classic investigation of the creative process, in which he argued that the primary distinction of the artist is the willingness to maintain the state everyone else most zealously avoids: aloneness — not the romantic solitude of the hermit by the silver stream, but the raw existential and creative loneliness Baldwin likened to “the aloneness of birth or death” or “the aloneness of love, the force, and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.”
This love-like force — the creative force — is what fuels the perseverance necessary to usher in a new way of seeing or a new way of being. It is the life force by which visionaries survive the aloneness of their countercultural lives. That is what jazz legend John Coltrane (September 23, 1926–July 17, 1967) addressed in an extraordinary letter penned in the late spring of 1962, posthumously included in Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s excellent 1975 biography Coltrane (public library).
One June morning two years after the release of his epoch-making Giant Steps and five years before his untimely death of cancer, Coltrane opened his mailbox to discover a package from the editor of Downbeat magazine, the premier journal of jazz, containing a gift: a copy of Music and Imagination — a book of the six lectures the great composer and creativity-contemplator Aaron Copland had delivered at Harvard a decade earlier.