the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

OF all the re­flec­tions of cen­tral and east Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture from the time when that part of the world laboured un­der com­mu­nism, one from Mi­lan Kun­dera has al­ways struck me as si­mul­ta­ne­ously the most com­fort­ing and most chal­leng­ing. The bat­tle against to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, the great Czech wrote, is the bat­tle of re­mem­ber­ing against for­get­ting.

But here is another ques­tion: what do we re­mem­ber that we never re­ally knew? Re­cently I have been watch­ing my one-year-old grand­daugh­ter dance Gang­nam style, and also to the mu­sic of Katy Perry. Her de­light at th­ese mu­si­cal tit­bits, re­layed to her via YouTube clips on her par­ents’ smart­phones, is a demon­stra­tion at least of the in­stinc­tive hu­man love of mu­sic and rhythm, al­though I sin­cerely hope her tastes change with time.

The other in­escapable re­flec­tion that comes from as­so­ci­at­ing with a one-year-old is the per­fect in­no­cence of young chil­dren. In watch­ing a young child closely, do we not only learn some­thing of the hu­man con­di­tion but ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber some­thing of it as well?

Pope Fran­cis wrote re­cently that ‘‘ the be­liever is essen­tially one who re­mem­bers’’. I’m not en­tirely sure what he meant by that, but I found it a haunt­ing re­flec­tion. Is there in all of us some­thing of the mem­ory of the good­ness of childhood? And is that good­ness it­self some sort of echo of the gar­den of Eden?

Cer­tainly Christo­pher Koch, our great­est nov­el­ist, thought so and of­ten spoke of his char­ac­ters’ sense that there was a bet­ter world be­yond the phys­i­cal world they hap­pened to in­habit. There was a mys­ti­cal world to which they had some kind of ten­u­ous ac­cess. James McAu­ley, surely one of our two or three finest po­ets, called this the ‘‘ Edenic urge’’. CS Lewis wrote about it in his spir­i­tual au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Sur­prised by Joy, in which, very much like a Koch char­ac­ter, he finds a thrill as a child in the old Norse le­gends. This feel­ing, that there is some­thing more out there, some­thing tran­scen­dent, leads him ul­ti­mately to re­li­gion.

You see the same long­ing for the moral cli­mate of the gar­den of Eden, just oc­ca­sion­ally, in some quite spe­cial bits of pop­u­lar cul­ture. Re­cently Foxtel has been re-show­ing the 1970s Bri­tish sit­com The Good Life. I watched this with de­light when it first screened in 1975. The plot is lu­di­crous enough. Tom and Bar­bara Good re­sign from con­ven­tional life to make their sub­ur­ban home and gar­den as self-suf­fi­cient as pos­si­ble. With such a stellar cast — Richard Bri­ers, Felicity Ken­dal, Pene­lope Keith and Paul Ed­ding­ton, though only Bri­ers was well known when the show be­gan — it was bound to be a suc­cess. But I think what au­di­ences most liked about it, fi­nally, was the sense that here was a minia­ture universe of sub­lime in­no­cence and har­mony. It wasn’t up­roar­i­ously funny like Fawlty Tow­ers, and it was per­fectly deco­rous by to­day’s stan­dards, with even its dar­ing jokes be­ing about as blue as a nurs­ery rhyme. But the great abo­rig­i­nal calamity, as Eve­lyn Waugh de­scribed the fall from grace, had not hap­pened to th­ese peo­ple. Their universe was al­ways sunny, in a sense never in need of re­demp­tion.

Academics have writ­ten es­says along th­ese lines about PG Wode­house and his prelap­sar­ian hu­mour. In his books there is a universe in which the fall of man sim­ply has not taken place. Bland­ings Cas­tle re­ally is the gar­den of Eden. Sex is never threat­en­ing in Wode­house. Fred­die Three­p­wood can’t stop propos­ing to Eve Hal­l­i­day, the nov­el­ist Rosie M. Banks em­bar­rasses her hus­band by talk­ing about him in the press as half-god, half-naughty child, Ber­tie Wooster is in dan­ger of en­snare­ment by Hono­ria Glos­sop. But there is no real evil any­where in this world. Real evil has not en­tered the hu­man con­di­tion in the Wode­house books. And yet they are im­mensely clever. They are a sug­ges­tion of what is presently al­most a con­tra­dic­tion — adult in­no­cence. Even a proto-fas­cist such as Rod­er­ick Spode can be ban­ished when Jeeves tells Ber­tie of Spode’s pro­fes­sional con­nec­tion to ladies’ un­der­wear.

Is it just fan­tasy, or is there, some­where in th­ese Edenic gar­dens, a trace of mem­ory?

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