How Art Makes Us Better

Ryan Frawley
6 min readNov 7, 2019
Photo by author

On the day Leonard Cohen died, I was on a train to Naples. It was late. I watched the rain fall in soft sheets from the roof over the dripping platform, the logo of the cement works on the concrete sleepers filling up with rain between the glistening rails. The train was ancient, and half a kilometer long. Hoisting my soggy bag onto the overhead rack, I slumped in my seat, put on some headphones, and watched the parade of distant towns I’ll never visit rise out of the mist and sink back, one by one, into a fold of the mountains.

My legs ached. We had spent the day before wandering the silent ruins of Minturno, where the old temples are abandoned, the stone road smoothed by the centuries but still bearing the wheel ruts of the chariots that used to race from here to Rome. With every year that passes, we feel our bodies more and our souls less. The rivers slow and deposit their silt in our veins, and what used to be a raging torrent becomes a muddy estuary.

It makes you feel. That’s what art does. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. It dredges the river. When I was a gloomy teenager, sadness seemed like a virtue, and misery was a mask I wore between myself and the world that called me by name. The sky was the colour of my eyes. The streets formed a map of my bright red veins. But I grew into the shape of a man, armed and armoured, a man the world didn’t recognize. I left. And the space I left behind will stay empty forever.

This is how you enter the Wasteland, one grey day after another. It’s haunted me since the moment the bright constellation of childhood began to fall from my eyes. When the world doesn’t talk to you, and you don’t talk to it. But I was lucky. The sad songs led me past sadness. Each knight enters the forest alone, by a path laid out just for them. It was there before they were born.

The Wasteland flourished again when its king was healed, restored by the weapon that wounded him. Beauty has haunted me, ever since I was old and ugly enough to recognize it. That shattering moment, that blissful annihilation I swayed beneath, a sapling under the storm, as I gazed at Michelangelo’s Pieta, or read Lolita, or listened to Suzanne. I’ve never once in my life been alone, unless I’ve forgotten these things. The secret chart to get to the heart of the matter. The path through the forest.

Ryan Frawley

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.


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