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Always Leaning Into Wrongdoing

Stephen Greenblatt’s reading of Adam and Eve

September-October 2017

The world’s most famous fruit-plucking: detail from Hugo van der Goes, The Fall (after 1479)

Painting detail from Bridgeman Images


The world’s most famous fruit-plucking: detail from Hugo van der Goes, The Fall (after 1479)

Painting detail from Bridgeman Images

Who are we, really?

Stephen Greenblatt’s latest foray into that question opens on Hawaii’s Big Island, in the midst of a volcanic eruption. “You can feel that you are present at the origin of the world,” he writes. This raises a perplexing question: What would you be at the origin of the world? Before society, religion, culture, community, or conventional wisdom came to tell you about yourself—if you, instead, simply sprang complete from the earth, what would you have in common with who you are right this moment? And would that primordial, unformed you reflect something essential about you—your truest self, perhaps—or merely something unformed?

In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, the Cogan University Professor provides an exploration of these questions through the literary and artistic history of the Abrahamic tradition’s first parents.

The kind of creature humans essentially are helps decide what shape history will take. If we are essentially corrupt, then history must always have been a record of stumbles and failures, with the occasional remarkable victory; if we are essentially good, then our learning and wisdom should mount over time and history should reflect this steady improvement; if we were at one time good and then became corrupt, we should be able to detect both a hinge when things changed and, perhaps, an eschatological hope. All of these possible accounts are explored in Greenblatt’s book, except, perhaps, the last segment of the final option.

Greenblatt’s own view emerges in the shape of his narrative. He begins with ancient Babylon, where the grand city’s occupants gathered each new year at the temple of the god Marduk to listen to the Enuma Elish, their own creation myth—the one, in Greenblatt’s telling, that Babylon’s captive Jews authored the tale of Adam and Eve to negate. The author is taken with the Enuma Elish: in its tale of original sex, rage, and murder, “life, with its energy and noise, had triumphed over sleep and silence.” So, too, is he taken with the Epic of Gilgamesh, another of Babylon’s foundational stories he views as a likely source text for later Hebrew myths. In Gilgamesh, Greenblatt writes, we find “a tale of joyous sexual initiation; a gradual ascent from wildness to civility; a celebration of the city as the great good place; a difficult, reluctant acceptance of mortality; above all, a life that has at its center the experience not of marriage and family but of deep same-sex friendship.”

One can hear Greenblatt’s sigh when he recounts that, despite the beauty of these Mesopotamian myths, we did not receive them as part of our cultural endowment. “Instead, we inherited Genesis.”

After skimming over some of the text’s earliest Jewish and Christian interpreters, Greenblatt arrives at one of his book’s handful of focal points: Augustine of Hippo, the Roman rhetorician who famously gave up his life of license to become a Christian, benighted by the hectoring puritanism of his mother, Monica—at least, in Greenblatt’s recitation. Longtime readers of Augustine might find little recognizable in Greenblatt’s rendering of either the man or his theology; there’s more than a whiff of bizarre incestuous desire projected onto the future saint’s relationship with Monica, and a number of questionable theological positions are attributed to him that an expert might quibble with. (Greenblatt ascribes much more substance to evil than Augustine did, for example.) Nevertheless, it is in Augustine’s hands, per Greenblatt, that the tale of Adam and Eve transforms from allegory into literal truth, and the fall becomes the font of original sin. Where humanity’s earliest stories had once celebrated sex and civility, the Edenic tale post-Augustine held sex in low esteem (thanks, Greenblatt argues, to Augustine’s own struggles with chastity) and valorized a state of original innocence in which humans were, body and mind, free of lusty desires.

Next comes a fascinating lineage of artistic depictions of Adam and Eve, spanning their earliest illustration through the Renaissance. Greenblatt then deposits readers in the early modern era, in the midst of the unhappy first marriage of English poet John Milton. Milton’s marital strife expressed itself in a number of pamphlets in favor of no-fault divorce, and eventually in the idyllic marriage imagined for the prelapsarian Adam and Eve in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. In Paradise, Greenblatt finds Milton imbuing the primordial pair with a fleshy realism Augustine’s literal reading had lacked, and returning to them the voluptuous sexuality the Bishop of Hippo had denied them: “Milton insisted,” he writes, that “Adam and Eve in Paradise had spectacularly good sex.” At the poem’s close, Greenblatt finds the pair “liberate[d] from the story that gave them birth,” with, as Milton writes, “the world...all before them.”

Thus Milton rescued Adam and Eve from the admittedly Catholic clutches of Augustine, where they had spent more than a thousand years without the barest glimmer of the enchanted, pastoral pleasure their English benefactor would endow them with. But their journey, for Greenblatt, does not end there. He skims through the age of exploration and further on into modernity, monitoring signs of “the drift toward make-believe,” the point where Adam and Eve ceased to be historical figures and became, at least to the cultured elite, simply symbols: “In the wake of the Enlightenment, there were too many contradictions in the origin story, too many violations of plausibility, too many awkward ethical questions to make it any longer comfortable to insist on a literal interpretation.”

Here, Greenblatt introduces the last of his characters: Charles Darwin. It’s with The Descent of Man, published in 1871, that the last claim Adam and Eve might have laid upon historical reality finally dissolves, replaced by the sturdier stuff of scientific theory. In the book’s final chapter, Greenblatt visits a chimpanzee sanctuary in Uganda’s Kimbale National Park, on the lookout for a glimpse of Adam and Eve as they truly might’ve been: our first parents, linked to us not by a direct lineage or by a shared moral conscience, but by our primate DNA.

In the primeval African forest, Greenblatt discovers death and affection, joy and wonder, life unmolested by guilt or anxiety. “We should be forever grateful to them,” he writes of the apes, “they enable us to see for ourselves what it would have been like to live without the knowledge of good and evil, just as they live without shame and without understanding that they are destined to die. They are still in Paradise.” The book closes with two chimpanzees, a male and a female, sneaking off to mate. Greenblatt graces them with the lines Milton gave Adam and Eve, finally realized: “the world was all before them.”

Follow the arc of history as laid out in Greenblatt’s account of this ancient tale, and you will find that we begin on a high note, with the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh and their happy fecundity and unabashed, vivacious humanness; then we pass into the dreary clutches of Augustine and the medievals; we are freed somewhat in Milton, whose greatest credit, in Greenblatt’s telling, is his Renaissance-inflected humanism; and then altogether delivered in Darwin and the apes, who return us almost to the Babylonian steppe, where violence and sex and hierarchy were simply facts of life, neither over-theorized nor laden with medieval Christianity’s legacy of shame. This is the view of history one might expect Greenblatt to take, given his past work. In The Swerve, for example (see “Swerves,” July-August 2011, page 8), he credits the Renaissance rediscovery of Epicurean philosopher Lucretius with the foundation of modernity—and Lucretius held that initial fertility and glory preceded a long period of gradual degeneration. The Renaissance represents a return to that golden-age style of pagan humanism, continued in certain sectors of modernity.

But I wonder if the story is really so simple. Greenblatt allows praise for the “leveling power that is always latent in the Adam and Eve story”—that is, for the radical potential inherent in the fact that all humankind shares a single set of parents. But what of the radical potential inherent in Augustine’s reading of Adam and Eve? In The City of God, Augustine writes that “[God] did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation—not man over man, but man over the beasts. And hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men.” Coercive governance and hierarchy enter into the world as a result of sin; but what is natural to humankind is equality, common holding of lands and goods, and peace—as the fourteenth-century Lollard priest John Ball famously quipped, “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then a gentleman?”

This was the dominant mode of reading the political meaning of Eden up until the early modern period—just when things start getting good, by Greenblatt’s lights. Yet it was early modern political theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke who, in their own analyses of the Adam and Eve story, found it most expedient to elide any difference whatsoever between pre- and postlapsarian states. For Hobbes, eliminating the distinction between “the way things are and the way things ought to be” was a handy way to vitiate Christian impetus for rebellion against tyranny; for Locke, arguing that “unremitting toil, inequality and the enclosure of the commons is not a symptom of the Fall, but simply the way God and Nature have arranged to make best use of the creation,” was, likewise, a way to tamp down good Christian reasons for rebelling against various abuses, especially of the poor. That it was these early modern thinkers who seemed so intent on undercutting the radical political potential of Adam and Eve suggests Augustine may not have been so old-fashioned after all—or at least that the historical narrative laid out here is more complicated than it may seem at first glance.

Who are we, really? In Augustine’s view, human beings are bent toward sin but intended for something better, always leaning into wrongdoing, but made for the good and right. There’s something compelling in that narrative: it speaks to the daily struggle any person wages against selfishness and narcissism, and grants a noble heritage to the goodness in all of us. Perhaps more importantly, it counts the good in us as more real than the evil; our goodness is what is human in us, and our evil is what eats away at that.

Greenblatt’s view necessitates a rather darker reading of Augustine and his medieval inheritors than this, and perhaps a rather lighter reading of those ancient Mesopotamian myths than a strictly consistent hermeneutic would produce. His vision of the essential human is of a being built for thought and for pleasure, however flawed, and his book is much the same.   

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