Humanitas #7: Sun Ship, the late recordings of John Coltrane

Ed Mendelowitz's column describes an American icon's existential journey in "Sun Ship: The Late Recordings of John Coltrane"

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

“Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
—Albert Einstein

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

The Journey Begins

Ed Mendelowitz For years I have thought about a series of courses for psychologists entitled Music and the Mind. They should, perhaps, be made mandatory, part of every APA-approved program, prerequisite for practicing our craft. The idea may have issued from a book by the same name by the late Anthony Storr, a British psychoanalyst whose thoughtful, eclectic writing and broad literacy I have long respected. Storr’s musical sensibilities were focused especially on classical forms. The symphony (with its sweeping breadth and recurring motifs across movements) does indeed, seem, oftentimes, to evoke the richly variegated, fleeting enigma of life. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera depicts life as “a theme with variations,” observing the manner in which each individual life is marked by unique movements and themes, an “existential code.” Astute readers will recall the central place of Beethoven’s final string quartets in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in Immortality. These extraordinary works are typified not only by exquisite psychological profundity but by astonishing tonality as well. The narrative rhythm in Kundera’s novels derives, irrepressibly, from the symphonic form. I, however, find myself thinking especially about jazz . . .

Live at the Village Vangard

It is unlikely that the musical world will soon see again the likes of John Coltrane. An admirer of Einstein and J. Krishnamurti, Coltrane was a man whose musical ideas and compositions could change at a meteoric pace, often metamorphosing beyond seeming human capacity from week to week. It is now understood that the music he created in the sixties with his hallowed quartet—and the sometimes addition of Eric Dolphy—constitutes one of the high water marks in music of any genre. At the time, some called it “musical nonsense,” “anarchistic,” “anti-jazz.” There seemed to be a belief that this new music was inspired by irreverence for tradition and possibly anger, this despite the fact that Coltrane and Dolphy had achieved a kind of attunement rare enough on what Beckett has called “this bitch of a planet” and did not seem to harbor an angry inclination or thought between them. 

Neither Coltrane nor Dolphy gave the impression of needing to talk very much. Both men seldom spoke. Still, the abuse that they took from far lesser souls (eventually necessitating the parting of musical paths) somehow catalyzed a rare Downbeat interview entitled, inauspiciously enough, “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy answer the Jazz Critics.” Listen carefully for, as we shall see, those who speak softly often have, substantively, much more to say. Asked about the “deliberate” influence of bird songs on his haunting soprano/alto sax and bass clarinet solos, about its “validity,” Dolphy responds:

I don’t know if it’s valid . . . but I enjoy it . . . At home I used to play and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds. Birds have notes in between our notes—you try to imitate something they do—maybe it’s between F and F#—and you’ll have to go up or come down on the pitch. Indian music has something of the same quality, different scales and quartertones. I don’t know how you label it, but it’s pretty.

Note here that neither blithe categorization nor didactic explanation is the essential thing. Asked now about the “purpose” of their music, Coltrane (who had been listening in “frowned contemplation”) speaks briefly about his relationship with Dolphy, as if the music has perhaps no special purpose and may, indeed, derive out of the I and Thou as opposed to theoretical construction or premeditation. After a “thoughtful pause,” he then adds:

It’s more than beauty that I feel in music—that I think musicians feel . . . What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all . . . We never talked about just what we were trying to do. If you ask me that question, I might say this today and tomorrow something entirely different because there are so many things to do in music.

But overall . . . the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do . . . [W]e all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through music.

Cogent thoughts and words, unprepared and unedited, from the mouth a purported nihilist who is being asked to defend himself against the charge of having lost his feeling for form. 

Dolphy now interjects: Music is a reflection of everything. And it’s universal. [As if] you can hear somebody from across the world, another country. You don’t even know them but they’re in your back yard.

Coltrane and Dolphy have found their groove. They are on a nonlinear roll. They are doing what they always did so graciously and gracefully, improvising now even without axes. Coltrane, his good friend by his side, has for the moment no aversion to this sort of talk and the conversation continues. We bless our good fortune at finding ourselves flies on the wall, and know when simply to shut up and listen:

Coltrane: It’s a reflection of the universe, like having life in miniature. You just take a situation in life or an emotion you know and put it into music. You take a scene you’ve seen, for instance, and put it into music . . . [W]hile a guy is soloing, there are many things that might happen. Probably he himself doesn’t know how many moods or themes he’s created. But I think it really ends up with the listener. It’s a sharing process—playing—for people. 

Dolphy:  You can feel vibrations from the people. Coltrane: The people give you something too. If you play in a place where they really like you, like your group, they can make you play like you’ve never felt like playing before.

Asked about the accusation of being “anti-jazz,” these consummate artists of music and tact are nonplussed yet without evident resentment:

Coltrane: Maybe because it doesn’t swing.

Dolphy:  I can’t say they’re wrong, but I’m still playing. [Does Dolphy feel that he swings?]

Dolphy:  Of course, I do. In fact it swings so much, I don’t know what to do—it moves me so much. I’m with John—I’d like to know how they explain “anti-jazz.” Maybe they can tell us something.

Coltrane: There are various types of swing . . . {E]very group of individuals . . . has a different feeling, a different swing. It’s the same with this band. It’s a different feeling than in any other band. It’s hard to answer a man who says it doesn’t swing.

This sort of native gentility was typical of Coltrane, and Dolphy as well. People find it difficult to recall any unkind gesture or remark forthcoming from either of these men of impeccable character and mesmerizing creative genius. Each went his way humbly doing his thing, playing music and treading lightly, always with his gaze fixed steadfastly on what Robert Coles has called, aptly, “that Another”—a cosmic sensibility that, indeed, had imparted such grace. About how many people can you truly say that?


There is a resonance between the singer, the song, sung and heard, and the listener. A melody reverberates and regenerates feeling, mood, atmosphere, nuances of pathos, that no scientific discourse can convey, let alone scientific method begin to study, across widely different people, cultures, times and places.
—R. D. Laing

Song, Hasidism taught, is a ladder whereby man comes to a heightened consciousness. It has many rungs and must descend into dark depths before it can rise to luminous heights. It unites what is above with what is below and evokes forms yet unseen. Great is the song composed of words and melodies, greater is the song in which melody suffices, greatest is the song that needs neither words nor music. —Ruth Mintz

My book Ethics and Lao-Tzu: Intimations of Character is a collage-like work composed of numbered passages in the manner of Nietzsche or the Austrian novelist Robert Musil, with thoughts and images coming at the reader from various directions and at varying speeds; the approach is aesthetic and aural. The text is bound loosely together by the narrative and artwork of a dissociative client, a young woman with numerous personalities with whom I worked over the course of many years—the most heartrending story with which I have ever been involved on either side of the psychotherapeutic divide.Multiplicity finds its place, we find, in the world of music as well. Nat Hentoff, in an essay on Coltrane (“a man,” observes Hentoff, “of almost unbelievable gentleness”), writes of the many aspects of Coltrane’s personality and music. Concerning the former, he quotes Ravi Shankar who discloses, perhaps, his own native bias toward longed-for transcendence of the body when he says:

I was much disturbed by his music. Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading the Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I still heard much turmoil. I could not understand it.

Concerning the latter, Hentoff quotes the music professor David Baker who, in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, cites among Coltrane’s many achievements the use of multiphonics, playing several notes or tones simultaneously; creating asymmetrical groupings not dependent on the basic pulse; developing an incredibly sophisticated system of chord substitutions and initiating a pan-modal style of playing, using several modes simultaneously . . . All musicians should study Coltrane solos the way we now study the etudes of Bach and Brahms.

A little further on, Hentoff quotes his colleague Martin Williams before relating a final anecdote of his own:

In spending himself on trying to answer the questions that consumed him, Coltrane eventually developed what in jazz terms could be considered a large audience. As Martin Williams has pointed out, “It was almost impossible for a man to be as much of a technician, artist, and explorer as Coltrane and still have the kind of popular following he had. What did he tell that audience? In what new and meaningful things did his music instruct them?”

“I don’t know, of course,” Williams continued. “And perhaps as a white man I can’t know. But I would venture a suggestion. I don’t think Coltrane spoke of society or political theory. I think that like all real artists he spoke of matters of the spirit, of those things by which the soul of man survives. I think he spoke of the ways of the demons and the gods that were always there yet are always contemporary. And I think that he knew that he did.”

Some months after Coltrane died, I was visiting a black college in Delaware. It had been a year during which I had lectured at many colleges—mostly on education and civil liberties. When music had come into the discussion, the emphasis invariably was on rock sounds and players. Only at this black college did the students talk of Bird and Ornette Coleman, and especially of Coltrane. “You know,” one of the black students said, “when Trane died, it was like a great big hole had been left. And it’s still there.”

Philosophy in Time

Music was given a more central place in the scheme of things in the ancient world than in our own, something concerning which we ought to take diligent note. In the Timaeus, Plato writes:

All audible musical sound is given us for the sake of harmony, which has motions akin to the orbits in our soul, and which, as anyone who makes intelligent use of the arts knows, is not to be used . . . to give irrational pleasure but as a heaven-sent ally in reducing to order and harmony any disharmony in the revolutions within. Rhythm, again, was given us from the heavenly source to help us in the same way, for most of us lack measure and grace.

For the Pythagoreans, influential upon Plato in many respects, music entailed “the harmonization of opposites,” “the unification of disparate things.” We note here the influence of the Ancient Greeks upon Rollo May who was immersed in this matter of incorporating antimonies in the formation of character, the forging of one’s personal way.

In times closer to our own, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche seem to have been the philosophers nearest the ancients in their reverence for music. Schopenhauer’s “aesthetic mode of knowledge” refers to a pure contemplation of beauty allowing for the possibility of escaping, however temporarily, the misery of unsatisfied desire into a Nirvana of spiritual peace. Music, for Schopenhauer, was “the most powerful of all the arts.” It was neither passion nor transcendence that he sought but, rather, stillness, a stepping into a realm “where everything that moves our will, and thus violently agitates us, no longer exists.” One need only listen to the operas of Wagner to understand this sort of thing. (Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier scores Melancholia, his just-released vision of apocalypse,fittingly, with passages from Tristan and Isolde.) Wagner, thoroughly immersed in Schopenhauer, writes of “the bliss of quitting life, of being no more.” Renunciation of the will is the key to Schopenhauerian / Wagnerian redemption.

Nietzsche, influenced also by Schopenhauer, has, of course, his own ideas. In The Birth of Tragedy (subtitled, we recall, Out of the Spirit of Music),he writes of “the rapture of the Dionysian state,” a realm that eradicates “the ordinary bounds and limits of existence.” Like the Platonically-inclined Schopenhauer, Nietzsche is emphatic about the ineradicable place of music. Here, though, its purpose, like that of art generally, is wholly different:

Tragedy does not teach “resignation”—To represent terrible and questionable things is in itself an instinct for power and magnificence in an artist: he does not fear them—there is no such thing as pessimistic art—Art affirms . . . For a philosopher to say, “the good and the beautiful are one” is infamy: if he goes on to add, “also the true,” one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.

We possess art less we perish of the truth.

Nietzsche himself was an accomplished musician, improvisation being for him its highest expression. Even after madness had overtaken his cognitive faculties, his ability to extemporize at the piano persevered. “That music may dispense with words and concepts,” he exclaimed, “–oh what advantage she derives from that fact.” In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche elaborates upon this esoteric theme:

Language can never adequately render the cosmic symbolism of music, because music stands in symbolic relation to the primordial contradiction and primordial pain in the heart of the primal unity, and therefore symbolizes a sphere which is beyond and prior to all phenomena. Rather, all phenomena, compared with it, are merely symbols: hence language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never by any means disclose the innermost heart of music; language, in its attempts to imitate it, can only be in superficial contact with music; while all the eloquence of lyric poetry cannot bring the deeper significance of the latter one step nearer.

Paul Valery, the French symbolist poet, interestingly, readily conceded the German philosopher’s point. (”Language,” echoed Nietzsche’s near-contemporary and our forebear William James, “works against our perception of the truth.”) The word, to put it simply, is not the first or final thing.

Reflecting penitently on what Nietzsche had imagined as an “order of rank” separating “higher types” like Coltrane from mortals like us, saxophonist Branford Marsalis once volunteered this startling confession:

A few years ago I had one of the worst nights of my life. I heard a Miles Davis bootleg featuring John Coltrane, from Stockholm. Trane was massive, intense. I wanted to quit. It wasn’t like I could say, “Well, if I start to do this or that I might get there.” Forget it. How do you explain that to people who say “You’re on ‘The Tonight Show,’ isn’t that the ultimate achievement?” I think to myself, “Obviously you’ve never heard Coltrane in Stockholm.” They’ve probably never heard Coltrane at all, if they consider leading “The Tonight Show” band some ultimate achievement.

Such frank admission of mediocrity in the face of overarching brilliance is uniquely moving—a far cry from the self-promotion that motivates so much chatter in the entertainment world no less than our own. The Nietzschean “pathos of distance” between everydayness and imaginative genius comprises an unbridgeable chasm and reach—why Nietzsche once remarked that the only response to genius was love.

Nietzsche recognized, of course, the place of the Apollonic (a biographer notes in this regard the contradiction in Coltrane’s sound between the label of “free jazz” and his oftentimes “frightfully controlled music—the next thing to geekdom”) in the shaping and ordering of forms. In the end, however, as Nietzsche understood with especial clarity, music is emotionally and viscerally based, rooted in the Dionysian body. Looking back on The Birth of Tragedy from the vantage point of his late Ecce Homo, the philosopher reminisced: “A tremendous hope speaks out of this essay. In the end I lack all reason to renounce the hope for a Dionysian future of music.” One can easily envision Nietzsche sitting blissfully in a darkened corner of the Half Note (the dilapidated jazz venue in Lower Manhattan no more, really, than a hole in the wall where the saxophonist liked, especially, to play) thrilled at Coltrane’s embodiment of everything he himself had written about and pointed to. It strains the mind, by way of contrast, to imagine even our most rhythmically-inclined awe-based psychologists leaving the lecterns and conference halls for the thing itself—the virtuosity, the zeal, the sublimity. “What one finds wrong with American culture,” Robert Lowell once observed, “is the monotony of the sublime.”

Meditation & The Daemonic

In his book Coltrane: The Story of A Sound, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff writes of

the story of a concentrated listener, opening jazz up to influences beyond its periphery . . . There is a thoughtful musician’s establishing of a new kind of intellectual seriousness in jazz . . . There is a mystic’s keen sensitivity for the sublime, which runs like a secret river under American culture—the meditative and semierotic aesthetic of endurance, of repetition, of ecstatic religion . . . And, to judge from his song titles alone, his playing suggested an explorer’s mapping of some sort of terra incognita—meditative inside, astrological outside.

This tension between a “meditative inside” and an “astrological outside” is of the essence, perhaps, in effecting timeless artworks of luminescent aesthetics, masterpieces that hit on all notes along the spectrum of being. “What lives in Coltrane and his music,” writes journalist Christopher Lydon, “is the idea of love’s forgiveness, redemption through suffering, and the excruciating beauty that Dostoevsky thought would ‘save the world.’” Lydon compares Coltrane with Orpheus, Melville and Malcom X—figures of turbulence and transcendence who knew, intimately, the dark side as well. The “place of suffering”—not only in Coltrane but in our own work as well—is a terrain I wish, especially, to emphasize, for it is here that humanistic psychology is, perhaps, most cursory and insufficient. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James, our forebear and Nietzsche’s near-contemporary, writes eloquently about the dark side of this mortal coil we call life:

[T]here is no doubt that healthy-mindedness will not do as a philosophical doctrine because of the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

Coltrane, like James, was well-acquainted with melancholy and the “sick soul.” He was abusive of alcohol and heroin through much of the fifties. Miles Davis, after foreswearing his own heroin habit, threw Coltrane out of his late-50’s band, reinstating him only after he had cleaned himself up as well. We must take seriously the physical and psycho-spiritual ordeal that this sort of struggle entails. In an act of supreme Nietzschean/Rankian will, Coltrane changes his life (something he writes about in the liner notes to A Love Supreme), dedicating it henceforth to music, metamorphosis and a sort of etherealized love such that the final ten years are breathtakingly resplendent. It was a Herculean feat of awareness and focus without, we may note, aid of “Twelve-Step” programs or psychotherapy. Indeed, he does not appear to have inquired pervasively into our discipline at all. Still, we sense that the dark side remained ever-present. In The Principles of Psychology, James is predictably august when he writes:

We draw new life from the heroic example. The prophet has drunk more deeply than anyone of the cup of bitterness, but his countenance is so unshaken and he speaks such might words of cheer that his will becomes our will and our life is kindled at his own.

It is noteworthy, and by no means irrelevant, that Rollo May, torchbearer of a deeper humanistic psychology, wrestled throughout life with the daemonic as well, acknowledging, repeatedly, its place. Visionaries like Beethoven and Coltrane seem to have done precisely the same. “There is no sun without shadow,” writes Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus; it is essential that we know the night.


Coltrane’s spiritual proclivities were evident from an early point. Davis’s pianist Red Garland had called him, even in the mid-fifties, “the new Messiah.” An interview from this period reveals a skeptical and curious seeker who is already rummaging about the world’s major religions in search of bona fide spiritual truth. The musician is bemused by traditions that uphold absolute tenets to the exclusion of all others: “They can’t all be right,” he muses thoughtfully. As Coltrane’s quest broadens and evolves, Eastern and mystical perspectives become paramount. There are trips to India and Africa where the composer hears tones between tones and talk of gods beyond God and where fixed meter and melody yield to polyrhythm, arcane harmonics, and multiplicity.

As spiritual imagination takes flight, a man becomes singularly focused. The other members of the now legendary quartet are similarly tuned in and turned on. McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s young and brilliant pianist, was already a devout practitioner of Islam, as was Coltrane’s first wife, Naima. The astonishing drummer Elvin Jones, master of African polyrhythms, shared with Coltrane early immersion in the Christian (Baptist and Methodist, respectively) churches of our own nation—an original set of musical teeth serving as baseline and springboard rather than proscription or constraint. Bassist Jimmy Garrison’s ingenuity and searing passion (he is, indeed, trance-like in rare video footage of the group’s performances) spoke with arresting power and intelligence for themselves. Little was said among the band members about God or religion or, perhaps more surprisingly, even about music. Still, Jones recalled patent devotion sufficient unto the day without apparent need of objective validation or transposition into edicts or words.

Integrity of respective voices was implicit, a hallowed thing in itself. Relationships and dialogues ensued that (I state this without trace of hyperbole) the world has too seldom seen and never surpassed. The later Impulse recordings abound with Christian and Islamic references in their very titles, the music itself guaranteeing that precepts will be leavened by neither stasis nor reduction. Albums like Crescent, Impressions,Transition, Meditation,Ascension, Interstellar Space and the final Expression all bare moving witness to the patently spiritual journey to which Coltrane was, by this point, more-or-less wholly devoted. The astonishing A Love Supreme is accompanied by a poem about God that may seem almost prosaic until one realizes that its creator was immersed in studies of the Cabala during the time of its 1964 recording. Still, statements about just what Coltrane believed came rarely if at all, as he seldom spoke about religion or faith. Music itself, he believed, should be sufficient; music, that is, meant to communicate directly with the soul.


“I would only believe in a god who knows how to dance.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

On Coltrane’s 1963 recording Live at Birdland, we find the hauntingly beautiful and dirge-like Alabama, a song said to be composed in anguished response to the slaying of four black girls during the bombing of a Birmingham church. (It was, sadly, another minor holocaust in a nation beset with its own shadows and terrorists.) It seems, however, that Coltrane never really said just what the song was about, feeling, as he did, that music ought to speak for itself. Jones later recollected the recording session on that day, remembered Coltrane handing out the sheet music yet saying nothing at all about what it meant. All four musicians, Elvin recalled, had tears in their eyes as they played. A minion had been assembled and communion achieved, all this without rules or intermediaries, platitudes or creeds. A single listening (something, it seems to me, every bit as important as a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Mecca, the latest APA convention site or wherever) will convince the careful acolyte that all players were in perfect attunement that day, delicately poised upon on a similarly elevated and chastened plane.

What more, really, needs to be said? We may, perhaps, quote a line from Coltrane’s paean to divinity for the benefit of Caucasian supremacists, religious extremists and self-aggrandizing theorists/reductionists of every variety and stripe—all, apparently, too tone-deaf to hear and who will in no other way be moved to even nominal circumspection or restraint. After a few words about the “gentle” and barely perceptible flow of divinity through the globe and its minion, Coltrane writes starkly:

All from God

It goes without saying that the deity Coltrane worshipped was that Nietzschean god who had transcended the theologian’s obsession with “words, words, words,” a god who knew how to dance and simply be. “Socrates,” counseled his daemon as the Athenian thinker awaited execution, “Socrates, practice music.”


San la musique, la vie serait une erreur.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

On his final tour through Japan the year before his death (during which he visited Buddhist temples and war memorials and wondered who the famous dignitary or movie star on board the airplane might be as he debarked to meet the banners and cheering throngs), Coltrane is interviewed:

Coltrane was . . . asked about his religion. He answered: “I am [Christian] by birth; my parents were and my early teachings were Christian. But as I look upon the world, I feel all men know the truth. If a man was a Christian, he could know the truth and he could not. The truth itself does not have any name on it. And each man has to find it for himself,”

When asked about the future he said, “I believe that man is here to grow into the fullest . . . As I am growing to become whatever I become, this will just come out on the horn”. . . Asked what he planned to do in the next ten years, Coltrane answered, “Become a saint.”

Coltrane seems to have attained a kind of quietly non-parochial saintliness after all. The final years, especially, are marked by an almost otherworldly clarity of purpose and comportment. Sun Ship, recorded in 1965 just months before the final dissolution of the quartet and only two years before Coltrane’s death at forty, is a riveting glimpse of a band traveling at warp speed, alternating shards of chaos and beauty, the white heat of virtuoso musicians in the final moments of an almost preternatural communion, ecstasy and feat. The innumerable role-playing demonstrations of “encounter” I have witnessed among colleagues (the closest we get to the performative arts) seem pale—mock displays of authenticity—in contrast with this sort of dialogue and grace. It was a most rare gathering of four selfless/self-creating selves merging into a greater harmony, trajectory and cause.

A Love Supreme

A would-be saint on creativity and awareness, ignorance and hope:

If I may, I would like to express a sincere hope that in the near future, a vigorous investigation of the materials presented in this book . . . will help cause an opening up of the ears that are still closed to the progressive music created by the independent thinking artist of today. When this is accomplished, I am certain that the owners of such ears will easily recognize the very vital and highly enjoyable qualities that exist in this music. I also feel that through such honest endeavor, the contributions of future creators will be more easily recognized, appreciated and enjoyed, particularly by the listener who may otherwise miss the point . . . because of inhibitions, a lack of understanding, limited means of association, or other reasons.

Coltrane in a Letter to Don DeMichael(referring to Aaron Copland’s Music and Imagination, a book DeMichael had lent him)

I cannot help thinking upon reading these words of the myriad ways in which humanistic psychology tends oftentimes toward a kind of close-mindedness itself, frequently dismissing the sciences outright (why always Heidegger and never Jaspers?) and, what is more, the genuinely new and inspired in favor of familiar expediencies, comforting facsimiles of creativity and truth. (“The new sounds are there,” Coltrane’s friend Dolphy admonished, “if people want to listen.”) It is interesting to note that an antipathy for music was one of the few traits that Freud and Jung pervasively shared. Neither was in hearing distance of that Dionysian spirit Marcuse personified as “Orpheus the liberator.”

Sun Ship

I have gone on at some length in this column in order to draw connections that I consider to be matters of criticality and substance. Humanistic psychology sputters at times in a kind of repetition compulsion, holding patterns typified by codifications of greater spirits who have already come and gone. As I ponder my (only slightly) coded message, these immortal words of Laing ring in my ears:

If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you I would let you know.

Laing, you see, was talking about Coltrane. Look closely and you will see him sitting there beside Nietzsche at the cramped corner table in the rear of that tiny club on Hudson Street. Look again and we can glimpse William James as well, transported joyously by spiritual epiphany at last; Eugene Taylor (who really does hear the music) is tagging along. On a stage not much wider than the desk at which I am setting down these words are Coltrane and Tyner and Garrison and Jones. The audience is rapt. One day, perhaps, we will join them.

Ed Mendelowitz completed his doctoral studies at the California School of Professional Psychology where he worked closely with Rollo May. He is on the board of editors for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and a contributor to some of the major compendiums of existential/humanistic/depth psychotherapy. He has presented numerous papers on psychology, psychotherapy and their respective interrelations with the arts in the USA, Europe and Asia. His work resides on the gnostic frontiers of psychology in its eloquent blending of art, literature, music, cinema, religion, philosophy and clinical narrative. His collage-like Ethics and Lao-tzu has been called “an extraordinary moral narrative” by Robert Coles and “a remarkable book, a compendium of wisdom from an astonishing variety of sources” by the late psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis. Dr. Mendelowitz is on the faculty of Saybrook Graduate School and a lecturer at Tufts Medical Center. He lives and works in Boston.


Coles, R. (1999). The secular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Coltrane, J. (1961) Live at the Village Vanguard. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1963) Impressions. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1964) Crescent. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1964) A love Supreme. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1965) Ascension. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1965) Meditation. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1965) Transition. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1965) Sun ship. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1967) Expression. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

Coltrane, J. (1967) Interstellar space. NY: Impulse/MCA Records.

James, W. (1908) The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. NY & Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co.

James, W. (1950). The Principles of Psychology, vol. I. NY: Dover Publications. (Originally published 1890)

Kundera, M. (1986). The art of the novel (L. Asher, trans.). NY: Harper & Row.

Laing, R. D. (1967). The politics of experience. NY: Pantheon Books.

Laing, R. D. (1982). The voice of experience. NY: Pantheon Books.