The Road to Perfection
In 1922, German author Herman Hesse gave life to Siddhartha, an ascetic who spends his life seeking the meaning of existence. After a lifetime of mediation, many disappointments and hard lessons, he ends up settling in an old riverbank, where he discovers the multiple wisdom voices that the stream brings, to eventually reach a wordless communion with Nature and its simplicity. Regardless the parallelisms with Buddhism and leaving religious considerations aside, I like the idea of embracing the change and using every mistake we make in life as a stepping stone to grow up to the next level.
In a very different setting, Neo, the character interpreted by Keanu Reeves on the 1999 movie The Matrix, experiences a similar journey, tormented by even tougher decisions to make. While Siddhartha is operating under a vision of where he is going, Neo is driven more by the discontent with his current state. He is struggling to understand the world he lives in. When he is appointed as the chosen one to save humanity from a fake existence, he has to break through his confusion and take control. In a beautiful scene that is already part of the history of cinema, myriads of green fluorescent code start cascading down all around him, just in time to reach his personal Nirvana that allows him to crack the code of The Matrix.
These are fictional characters created by the imagination of fine artists. Both stories share a transcendent state at the end of the road in which there is no more suffering, and the effort of the heroes to reach perfection always pays off. Unfortunately life does not often operate that way.
But does it mean that we should stop trying?
There is an American musician, a flesh-and-blood hero of mine, who tried hard until the very last day of his life. John Coltrane is probably the greatest saxophone player in the history of jazz. Along his career he always strove to reach the perfect sound, he wanted to make a difference with his music at higher levels, trying to connect with his audience’s deepest emotions.
To achieve this goal, he worked relentlessly to shape his innate talent for improvisation. There are testimonies from several musicians who swore that playing with Coltrane was a different experience altogether. Roy Haynes, a contemporary who worked with him on the rhythm section in a few tunes, once said: “For a drummer, to play with Coltrane is just to accompany the guy. […] With others, you gotta hold the fort. With Coltrane, I could do things I had dreamed about.”
But what is it that told him apart from every other sax player? Today we would say that Coltrane was a perfectionist. He was obviously talented, but also studied really hard. While leaving the horn locked inside its case, not only he would explore the theory of melody, harmony, rhythm… but he would also read books about history, art, science and religion and their connection with music. He would explore other styles beyond jazz, change instruments, talk to other musicians and constantly try to bend the rules, embarking wholeheartedly on a life mission to find that perfect sound. Not surprisingly, he was never satisfied with any recording he did in his whole life. And he recorded a lot of tunes!
Coltrane and his music teach us how passion and talent, paired with hard work, can lead to new levels of knowledge and amazing discoveries. Something I like about the way he reached fame and recognition is that he never cared the least about those things: like Siddhartha, he was a quiet leader, spent his life chasing the next sound, and he didn’t mind to be misunderstood while trying new things. Unfortunately, he died only when he was starting to move towards a superior level, one beyond what our earthy ears could understand. But he was smart to use the admiration (and sometimes incomprehension) of mainstream critics as a vehicle to reach more people, to keep pushing the boundaries of his music. He left us a remarkable heritage of beautiful tunes which inspired many others afterwards, setting the standards of jazz as we understand it today.
In the documentary “Chasin’ Trane”, 42nd US president Bill Clinton compares the different creative phases of John Coltrane with Pablo Picasso’s, the Spanish painter who transformed his expression style many times during his life in a constant chase for beauty (from blue and rose periods to cubism and later surrealism). I think it is an accurate comparison. Picasso had a slight advantage though: being also a perfectionist, the legend says that towards the end of his life he would sneak to the museums where his own artwork was exhibited, and do some final touches after visiting hours. That is passion for one’s work.
So there might not be any transcendent end after all. There is no such thing as perfection and it is okay that way. The pilgrimage might look hard at times, but raising one’s head and enjoying the view is as important as reaching the destination. Listening to wonders like “Equinox” (which was marketed without Coltrane’s permission, again, not good enough for him) or “Alabama” make this point certainly evident. On personal development, the gifts may not be obvious, not wrapped with shinny paper, but they can be treasures.