I remember reading a few novels by C.P Snow quite a few years ago. The one that stuck with me longest was his final novel, published in 1979, entitled A Coat of Varnish. It stuck primarily because of the metaphor. Our lives, our culture, our civilization, our sense of control and equanimity can often be characterized as a coat of varnish, something which implies the fragile nature of life and the thin line separating humanity from barbarism.
This week that metaphor came back to haunt us all in Canada as we read and heard about the tragedy unfolding in Calgary of a family torn apart by an apparent domestic homicide. We heard of a young man, gifted, talented, athletic, dedicated, and apparently abruptly bereft of the coat of varnish which kept his life sane. It was a story which ripped through the normal everyday news and latched onto the imagination, triggering curiosity, fear, anxiety, and astonishment. Friends who knew the young man during his school days in Guelph spoke with me and shared their obvious perplexity. And while we all struggled to make some sense of it all - usually by calming ourselves with the recognition that events like this claim the media precisely because they do not happen regularly - the stark conclusion is that the coat of varnish can evaporate with alacrity and alarming results.
This week I also listened to music which, I think, improves my life. I visited with old friends. And I read about the world's wisdom literature in a wonderful survey by Harold Bloom. All the while, my thoughts kept rebounding to the C.P. Snow metaphor, to that "coat of varnish". The music was Vincent by Don McLean, an incredibly moving and simple tribute to the life and legacy of Vincent Van Gogh whose expressionist water colours live on despite the mental anguish and suicide of the artist. The visit captured elements of simpler, less tortured lives where cancer and troubled relations scraped away the canvas protected by that coat of varnish. And the book highlighted that the wisdom we seek in reading the best of the world's literature is often ambiguous and ironic, almost never providing the solace we desire.
I may never write a great novel. I may never paint a masterpiece. I may never compose a song that inspires. I may never even know why what we hold so dear seems so vulnerable and ephemeral. But whatever time is given to me, whatever opportunities present themselves, whatever wonderful and terrible events unfold, I must hold on to the possibility of beauty, truth, and insight. As Harold Bloom put it, "We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more." The coat of varnish is a glorious thing.