(James Eckford Lauder, The Parable of Forgiveness: Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool)
‘It was Janet’s view’, Elspeth Barker wrote of her stubbornly individual young heroine, ‘that forgetting was the only possible way of forgiving. She did not believe in forgiveness; the word had no meaning.’ Janet has, you might say, a lot to put up with – and the Calvinist harangues of Mr McConochie are hardly designed to stimulate the more generous Christian virtues in the bosoms of his flock. Still, other approaches are, as they say, available.
‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’, T. S. Eliot wrote. It’s a question that’s cropped up several times in the news just lately. In Ukraine, unsurprisingly, they ask if they can ever forgive Russia, though that question often focuses more specifically on Putin. Some Russians are themselves wondering whether they can ever forgive their President for what he has done to their country, its neighbours, its standing in the world. In England, many of the relatives of those who died in hospitals and care homes in the earlier stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, unvisited, isolated from their families because of the rules made by a government that itself habitually failed to keep them, have stated that they will not forgive the man ultimately responsible for the whole lethal mess: the Prime Minister.
Forgiveness can also be given, or withheld, on a rather smaller scale. Of their gardener—until the family moved to another house—Henry Green wrote: ‘Poole, so they say, could never forgive my mother when soon after marriage she made him bowl mangel wurzels across one lawn for her to shoot at.’ Smaller or more frequent, up to that final point, as Ali Smith observed: ‘many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.
The news at the moment—none of it good—is of large events on a large canvas. But those events, whatever their size and nature, began elsewhere: in a room, in a bed, on a screen, in a garden, in a bar, in a grave. The direction of travel may vary. In Ezra Pound’s Confucius, he has this:
The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]; wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.
In the bath with Elizabeth Bowen (so to speak), I read about Jefferies listening to Jameson as he declaims about the New Jerusalem to the aunt and the young mother, as they wait for the young husband who will not, perhaps, come home. ‘After all, it all came back to this – individual outlook; the emotional factors of environment; houses that were homes; living-rooms; people going out and coming in again; people not coming in; other people waiting for them in rooms that were little guarded squares of light walled in carefully against the hungry darkness, the ultimately all-devouring darkness. After all, here was the stage of every drama.’
Walking briefly on the main road before turning off again into quieter places, at seven o’clock in the morning, I watch car after car go by, each containing one person, and am reminded of the final question that the New Statesman asks of its interviewee on the Q & A page each week: ‘Are we all doomed?’ The answers are sometimes considered, sometimes flippant. Here, now, the world presents itself as a peculiar version of, say, a golf course produced by a team of deranged designers or architects: they create some hazards, to make the course a little more difficult or challenging or exciting or unpredictable – bunkers, some cunning slopes, water (ideally a lake deep enough to drown in), a few awkward corners where many players will slice or hook into undergrowth or trees. Then they take away all those smooth greens and fairways, leaving only the hazards. No, wait, they put back a couple of greens and call them, what, foreign holidays or television streaming services or barbecues on somebody’s terrace. Then tee off. Fore! Playing is, of course, mandatory. As Pascal didn’t quite say: you must bet; you are in the game. But you might get lucky. So – you have to ask yourself – do you feel lucky? Well, do you?
(Charles Lees, ‘A Golf Match’: National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery)
It’s often, as they say, relative. The conduct of the present English government generally disgusts me – but I live in a wealthy country which is privileged by position, climate, history and the rest. So I hold the country and its government to high standards, with correspondingly high expectations of liberal, enlightened, equitable governance – and they fall woefully short. By almost every measure of a civilized nation, the current state of the country is a disgrace. Yet I’m still hugely – relatively – lucky by many measures. I would far rather be here, an angry and disappointed Englishman, than in a score of countries that come only too swiftly to mind, where having the wrong religion, skin colour, racial heritage or gender can all too easily leave you dead in a ditch.
‘Darknesse and light divide the course of time’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, ‘and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us.’ I don’t know. We have machines and social media to help us remember our grievances now and those strokes of affliction leave long-lasting scars, while slightly remembered felicities probably reside on Instagram or crop up as random and unprompted ‘memories’.
‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport commented, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’ Yes, there’s that, the gullibility which people seem oddly reluctant to admit to, retrospectively. But there comes a point, certainly in those countries that have any pretensions to a democratic system, when voters can no longer claim ignorance since they know now the nature of the ones they opted for last time. And it comes to this, that huge numbers of citizens, in many countries, say, in effect: yes, these people are corrupt, hypocritical, untruthful bastards but we’re giving them our support, so they can continue to wage war against democratic freedoms or public services or immigrants or women or universities or the poor. . .
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
 Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), 116.
 T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’, The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 32.
 Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; London: The Hogarth Press, 1992), 3.
 Ali Smith, How to be both (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014), 95.
 Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29-31.
 Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Human Habitation’, in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, with an introduction by Angus Wilson (London: Vintage, 1999), 166.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; as rendered, or polished, by John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.
 Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 152.
 Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 133.