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?