03/01/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Loneliness of Charles Meryon

I stepped out at twilight into 30 inches of newly fallen snow, into a world as vivid and haunting and empty as Charles Meryon's mid-nineteenth century Paris. Bob Dylan's Not Dark Yet echoed in my head:

Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there


Meryon was one of those characters whose seemed to be the model for the perfect stereotype of the suffering artist: French, of course; tormented (certifiably nuts, in fact); starving in a garret; dying young; ignored in his time -- the dark side of la vie bohème. He was captivated and all the while horrified by every hollow, arch, recessed window, stone, tower, and dormer in every building he observed in his Paris. His horror vacuii is nearly unbearable, as if he didn't know how to shut anything out. Meryon doesn't look up at the heavens and despair that nothing is there; he doesn't gaze down into his grave with dread; he looks out at the pitiless France of Les Miserables. Dark human dramas, rendered insignificant by the scale of emptiness surrounding them, unfold, almost beneath our notice, on his streets and alleyways.


Art often interposes itself not as a reflection of experience but as prism, shaping and coloring our experience. It's right there, in the way, enriching, defining, and giving form to what we sense and feel. Art, in connecting us to minds and hearts across space and time, also reminds us that unmediated experience is impossible. Our life, colored by art, imitates art. This is art's blessing and its curse.