Howard Jacobson: Remorse is for a sin that time cannot wipe

'Will these hands ne'er be clean?' cries Lady Macbeth in horror. And the terrible answer is no
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Only two weeks into a new decade and already we have the phrase that will probably define it. "The period of remorse needs to be over."

A provocation delivered by the new boss of Barclays, Bob Diamond – a man as indurate as his name – in the course of a grilling by the Treasury Select Committee.

This is not a column about bonuses. We've done bonuses. Nor is it about greed. We've done greed. And we've done blackmail, too. Ditto incomprehension – the incomprehension of bankers, when it comes to why Brobdingnagian bonuses might be viewed as obscenities by people on Lilliputian salaries, being perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole kerfuffle.

I know a number of humane, delightful, well-educated bankers. I have found them to be like socialists in that you can have perfectly normal, civilised conversations with them until they hit on their idée fixe, and then suddenly you are talking to a Martian. I know you work hard, I say to them. So do nurses and teachers. I know you take risks. So do firemen. And how does your need to be well rewarded in a highly competitive business differ from anybody else's? All to no avail.

We're dealing with holy writ here. "And on the seventh day, God gave the banker a bonus and saw that it was good." When people believe they have been touched by the divine they are no longer as you and I are. After receiving the Commandments, Moses glows from the reflected glory of the Lord. Jesus undergoes a similar transfiguration. Remembering the divine origin of his bonus, Bob Diamond flushed with righteousness.

Reader, it's enough to have you running to take out a subscription to New Humanist. But then you remind yourself that the last time you talked to a humanist about God you ended up running to take out a subscription to Baptist Quarterly.

But that's the bonus. Today I want to address remorse, and Bob Diamond's suggestion that it should come to an end. "The period of remorse needs to be over." The choice of words is instructive. Assume that remorse has a "period" and you're halfway to saying that's enough of that for a game of soldiers. A period is the time during which anything runs its course. And for an American, remember, a period is a full stop.

But who says remorse must have a period? Where is it written, and by what process of reasoning is it assumed to be the case? It's in the culture, of course. Get over it. Find closure. Move on. By the terms of popular psychology we can only live our lives to their full potential when we put whatever has been keeping us awake (ie all that makes us moral beings) well and truly behind us.

A spoil-yourself book called The Alphabet of the Human Heart, written and illustrated by James Kerr and Matthew Johnstone, two erstwhile advertising men living, I believe, in Australia, has just been published here. I know this because I read a two-page extract from it in the Daily Mail the other day while I was sitting in a surgery waiting to be treated for depression. Depressed, me? Absolutely not. The very opposite. What I was waiting to be treated for was inane high spirits. I hoped the doctor could suggest something that would depress me back into seriousness. Unnecessary in the end. The Alphabet of the Human Heart did the trick.

I won't trouble you with its shallow advice – S is for stress, so unwind a bit; W is for worry, so let it go; C is for criticism, so stop putting everyone down, Dr Leavis – but what it has to say about regret bears on the je ne regrette rien stance of Bob Diamond. R is for regret, according to The Alphabet of the Human Heart and it's regret that keeps us "living in the past". Funny they think there should be something wrong with living in the past. "To get over it, get into the moment." This is Bob Diamond talk: get into the moment. "Empty your mind," Kerr and Johnstone go on. "Let go of your thoughts, just be."

Nice idea, that to "be" you mustn't think or remember. Tell that to Wordsworth. "But how could I forget thee? Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour, / Have I been so beguiled as to be blind / to my most grievous loss?"

If regret is a human necessity, remorse is more so. You can regret something you were not necessarily wholly or even at all responsible for – a missed opportunity, something forgotten, something that never worked out. It's an expression, partly, of disappointment. Remorse has more conscience in it; what the remorseful man regrets is some sin or wrong which he has himself committed. It is an acknowledgement of guilt. So when Bob Diamond proclaims the time for feeling guilty to be over, he is saying that guilt has a sell-by date. Never mind that the sell-by date is tastelessly close to the perpetration of the crime – fuck everybody over on Monday and forget about it Tuesday afternoon – the real grossness of what he says resides in the assumption that a sin to which remorse is the appropriate response can be washed away by time.

But literature, in which the deepest experience of humanity is recorded, teaches that it cannot. A sin remains forever a sin. "Will these hands ne'er be clean?" cries Lady Macbeth in horror. And the terrible answer is no. Let her scrub and scrub. "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."

Her companion in murder, never less than a loving husband, begs the physician to minister to her, find some cure, "pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow", "raze out the written troubles of the brain", and "with some sweet oblivious antidote / Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff / Which weighs upon the heart". But it can't be done. There is no such antidote.

It's Shakespeare's genius to make the Macbeths never more available to our compassion than they are now, as they succumb to the fact of their humanity. It is not a matter of extenuation or forgiveness. They are human to the degree that they are beyond cure. They cannot "empty" their minds. The past won't wipe its slate clean so they can "get into the moment". They are human because their remorse is never over – not for the least division of an hour.

The boss of Barclays is not obliged to know Shakespeare. But he shouldn't insult our common humanity by speaking in ignorance of the principles that govern it. Not all the perfumes of Arabia, Bob.