In the third part of our series on the emotions, Frederic Raphael muses on nostalgia, wistfulness, and living life in the perfect tense
If the average voter were to be returned to the Garden of Eden, he would immediately complain about the fall in his living standards. To most people, such a move would smack more of forcible repatriation than of the recovery of primal bliss. Yet the fantasy of a past more beautiful, more simple and more blessed than the present is inseparable from the human condition. Nostalgia - the pain that arises from separation from home - is so keen and so universal that Edenic fantasies, and longings, lead mankind believe in and long for those careless yesterdays when all our troubles seemed so far away. Exclusion and hope are twins.

The body's clock carries us irresistibly, it seems, in one direction, but our minds turn us, as Scott Fitzgerald put it in The Great Gatsby, into "Boats against the current". We are forever aching to be carried back to first loves, childhood Arcadias, uterine security. Freud talked of "Oceanic feelings", the illusion of guilt-free drift in a timeless world where egotism is abated and we moon in tune with the music of the spheres. Freud fancied that such feelings echoed the sentiments of the unborn child, happily coddled in a sea of amniotic fluid. The novelist Thomas Wolfe (not the author of Bonfire of the Vanities) once wrote a book almost as fat as he was, of which the callous title alone remains forbiddingly durable: You Can't Go Home Again. It is the ultimate denial of hope. The age-old exiles' toast, "Next year in Jerusalem", was the wishful denial of such a denial.

The American dream is of a future that enshrines a past which was, in most cases, neither happier nor much more secure than the present but in which Andy Hardy plays forever with Tom Sawyer and the girl next door stays as sweet as she was. There is nothing new in such nostalgia: the Romans made constant appeal to the mos maiorum, what (wiser, better) people did in the old days. What would more happily suit today's England, in its nostalgic malaise, than the discovery of a thousand new Jane Austen novels, each of which could be translated into hours and hours of television to serve in the office of a wall against the intrusion of unpalatable modernity? Who dares that Jane's heroines, in their author's day, would have lost their (few) rights, even over their own persons, as soon as they found their Mr Darcy, that everyone's expectation of life was brief and that, in a world without anaesthetics, let alone antibiotics, the smallest operation was agonising, the least infection lethal?

What are books for but to bind the elusive past into proximity? European literature begins with the Greeks and the Jews. In both, the fall from grace is a recurrent theme: the lures of its recovery arms prophets with their reproachful fervour and poets with their bitter bite. The Hebrew Bible would have us believe that there is a cure, in Abraham's bosom, for Adam and Eve's expulsion from timeless simplicity. The eighth-century BC Greek poet Hesiod, whose Works and Days was the first gardening book, lamented the labour the surly earth now required. In the Golden Age, it had supplied punctual crops without need to turn the soil.

In Hades, according to the myth of Tantalus, ripe grapes dangled near the shackled, starving wordling, but whenever he leaned towards their succulence, they receded beyond reach. His cruellest torment was the constant reminder of days when men were the favoured dining companions and almost equals of the gods.

Dante's Inferno revised the pagan underworld for Christian sinners and infidels. Amid its torments, the damned were cruelly privileged to retain memories of earlier happiness. Yet among all the debilities of age, we fear amnesia more than physical decrepitude: nostalgia is better than blankness. Memories garnish the pension fund of the spirit. General de Gaulle called senility "a ship-wreck", but had the consolation of being able to pen his memoirs, and reprise his first love, La France, until sudden death felled him.

Nostalgia has a prime place in the fundamental fictions of Western literature. The Odyssey is a protracted lament, on the part of its cunning hero, over the years of his separation from his modest kingdom. Ithaca, and from Penelope, the faithful wife to whom he is, as males tend to think is understandable, faithful only in his fashion. Odysseus' nostalgia is both genuine and convenient. His longing for home and for his true wife allows him to slip away, "home free" as they say, from the erotic bondage of the nymph Calypso. Nostalgia gives warrant to his ruses and lends muscle to his resolve.

The early 20th-century Alexandrine poet, Constantine Cavafy, warns those who emulate Odysseus against plotting too straight a course for home:

As you set out for Ithaka.../Hope your road is a long one./May there be summer mornings when,/with what pleasure, what joy,/you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time.../But don't hurry the journey at all.../Better if it lasts for years,/so you're old by the time you reach the island...

The sweetness of nostalgia is sharpened by its pain. The imagination affects to predict the future, but it works more fervently and ingeniously in retrospect. The myth of "the eternal return" promises that life is cyclic and that, somehow, what is lost can be retrieved: "God and sinner reconciled". It is a promise which, against banal plausibilities, we cannot but hope will be kept. In The Go-Between, LP Hartley famously called the past "another country", where they do things differently. It is one to which we dream of obtaining a visa and in which, landed once more, we like to think we will not misuse our opportunities. Francis Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married is a filmic myth of such a return, and its delusive salvation. Nostalgia promises that, given another chance, first love will last and time squandered will be duly spent.

Yet man is straddled between pleasure and work, frivolity and earnestness. If I were to be returned to the Cambridge of the early Fifties, would I take the opportunity to be a totally diligent scholar, hunched over Advanced Greek Prose Composition and filling my reading list with evidence of midnight oil well burnt? Or should I - second time around - abandon quondam suburban timidities and advance myself shamelessly in the ambitious vanities of the literary and theatrical world? In all probability, I should once again fall between two stools.

Novelists have always traded in nostalgia. Perhaps one becomes a writer in order to find fuel, and pretext, to remount the stream of time, to refashion failure into success and folly into royalties. Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a wilful retour aux sources, a protracted and sophisticated revival of lost days, lost love, lost innocence. In its last volume, the narrator persuades himself (and us?) that transience and grey hair can be defeated by art. The writer often does his best to recast his memories so that, as Vladimir Nabokov imagined, he can go home again, even when the mansion has been despoiled, society dismembered, Eden defoliated and innocent love Lolita-fled.

Nabokov used art to avoid inevitability. With what seemed to progressive minds to be solipsistic absurdity, he denied the future to the Soviet Union on the stylistic grounds that the Communists had so crucified the great Russian language that it was bound, he insisted, to rise up and bounce them. What elitist arrogance! And what fanciful accuracy!

During all his adult life, Nabokov yearned for the lost pre-Revolutionary world, in which his father had been a shining instance of enlightened aristocracy: the millionaire Nabokov senior was a liberal for whom his son felt so unwavering a love that he held it evidence enough to refute Freud. Nabokov's nostalgia was not for the pampered luxuries of his childhood but for that slower clock, before the fall, which allowed every second to be steeped in sensations, and every sensation as intricately coloured as a butterfly's wings.

Nabokov glossed Darwin and spoke, as an entomologist, of the sweetest of nature's laws: "the survival of the frailest". While the tyrannosauri had blundered heavily towards their overweight extinction, the skittish butterfly - at once ephemeral and eternal - survived their clumsy tyranny with the resilience of powerlessness: beauty beats the beast. Such is the bet, not always won, which every true artist has to make.

Nabokov's nostalgia was as generous as it was egotistic. In one of his short stories (I hope memory serves me accurately), a couple quarreling in a public park (the Luxembourg?) becomes conscious that their ugly gestures and harsh words are being witnessed by a child whose memories they are deforming. Conscious that their boorishness is an assault, they return to chastened harmony.

Nostalgia recalls a world indifferent to cost-effectiveness; the past is stocked with invaluable moments which money can neither supply nor supplant. I am fortunate in being victim to many nostalgias. My first remembered home was in the America of the Depression. I recall queues of cloth-capped, shuffling and hungry men as we drove, in a Ford with a "rumble-seat", in the boot, where my grandmother sat in exposed dignity, from Chicago to New York. How luxurious modest security was in the days when a dime was a dime!

I was a small American boy until I was seven years old. It was not the Jesuits who determined my early consciousness, but Joe Louis and Babe Ruth, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue, Guy Lombardo and the Good-Humour Man, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, Bing Crosby and Eddie Kantor and Jack Benny and Uncle Don (the children's radio favourite who thought the microphone was already switched off when he said, "Goodnight, you little bastards," and was never aired again).

I sometimes feel as if I left a phantom self to grow up in New York, to go to Columbia or Harvard (maybe). My career in Hollywood, such as it had been, is perhaps a furtive retour aux sources. When I write a novel about Americans, as I am at present, I have fantasies of a return to a world in which I do not remember ever crying. My memories of tears begin when I came to my father's birthplace, England, and learnt homesickness at a good school.

England's present nostalgia for the days of imperial dominance may well by typical of what Lewis Namier called "Vanished Supremacies". The Euro- sceptic resentment of Brussels is the "reasoned" xenophobia that dares not snarl its name. Having severed umbilical affinities with the Commonwealth, the British - like Thomas Wolfe's hero - are unable to go home, or away, again with the old confidence. An island of steadily increasing prosperity feels diminished by the loss of the oceanic feeling which was induced, even among the lower classes, by Britannia's ruling the waves. They, and their one-time betters, are hobbled by nostalgia for a Paradise Lost which, should they manage to get back to it, they would discover to be Edenic only for a very few.

Yet little Englanders are persuaded that bitching and binding can retrieve what diminished power cannot. They are encouraged to imagine that they can redeem the past not by art, or purposeful effort, but by getting lucky in the "great" National Lottery (or by lobbying for hand-outs). They will then have tickets to emigrate to the past, or a country, such as Jimmy Goldsmith's Mexico, where tracts of the primal garden are still for sale to those who can afford to fence and police them. The angel who bars the way back into paradise is there transformed into a private security guard who checks the computer to see if Adam and Eve are rich enough to qualify for entry.

Byronic Investments 1996. Frederick Raphael's 'Old Scores' is published by Phoenix, pounds 5.99.