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Lead book review

The ‘biography’ of the creation myth: The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve reviewed

Steven Greenblatt’s cultural road trip is a compelling, all-encompassing story of myth, theology and belief

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve Stephen Greenblatt

Bodley Head, pp.432, £25

Trying to reconcile a belief in the literal truth of the Bible with the facts of the world as we observe it has never been the easiest of things. But heaven knows, people did try. Well enough known, I suppose, is the work of the 17th-century Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, who totted up all those begats to establish that the creation of the earth took place at six in the afternoon on 23 October 4005 bc. (‘He added,’ reports Stephen Greenblatt, ‘that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday, November 10.’) In like manner, in the 18th century, a French mathematician called Denis Henrion calculated, from a bunch of what were presumably dinosaur bones, that Adam had been 123’ 8” tall and that Eve had been 118’ 9”.

In the 19th century Philip Gosse, disconcerted by the growing evidence from the fossil record that things might not have gone quite as the Book of Genesis claims, reasoned triumphantly that if Adam had a navel (which he must have had, because he’d have looked weird without one), then God put it there — and so the new discoveries of the geologists were like Adam’s tummy-button. God put them there just to baffle and amuse us.

By the 19th century, though, people were prepared to greet this sort of speculation with open laughter. His peers never stopped giggling at poor old Gosse. Here was, if not the end, then the beginning of the end, to the story of Adam and Eve as it had been understood through much of Western history. But, as Stephen Greenblatt’s gently punning title indicates, there was a rise before this Fall.

Greenblatt, a scholar of early modern literature and the inventor of something called ‘the New Historicism’, is a bit of an academic superstar in the United States. I first came across his work as an undergraduate, reading his superb Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980). He’s interested in how literature fits into its cultural context — and so, here, though he delves deftly and lucidly into theology, he’s primarily interested in the literary power of the fable. He’s writing the biography of a story on its journey through the culture.

And, as he sees it, the trajectory of that story is of one that was given force by the attempt to make it literal — to body out the sketchy and paradoxical account in Genesis with real human detail; but, in turn, giving the fable tangible reality brought its contradictions more starkly into relief and so, in the end, did for it.

Were there two trees (Life, and the Knowledge of Good and Evil), or one? Were Adam and Eve mortal before they ate the fruit? How could they be punished for doing evil before they knew what evil was? What sort of language did they speak? How could Adam have named every animal in half a day (given, as one literal-minded commenter pointed out, ‘thither must the Elephant come from the furthest parts of India and Africk, who are of a heavy and slow pace’)? How come there was a woman for Cain to bump into when he pushed off for the Land of Nod? And what was the snake’s beef, anyway?

The story went, as Greenblatt puts it, through a ‘long, tangled history from archaic speculation to dogma, from dogma to literal truth, from literal to real, from real to mortal, from mortal to fraudulent’. In the end, ‘the naked man and woman in the garden with the strange trees and the talking snake have returned to the sphere of the imagination from which they originally emerged’; yet they retain ‘the life — the peculiar, intense, magical reality — of literature’.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of Greenblatt’s most fascinating chapters deals with the origins and sources for the creation myth in Genesis itself: essentially, it emerged from the ‘Babylonian woe’. Exiled in Babylon, the Hebrews were exposed to their hosts’ written creation myth, the Enuma Elish, and the urban cult of their chief god, Marduk.

Those who remained loyal to Yahweh (many converted, or folded the Mesopotamian pantheon into their scheme), when their exile was over, seem to have decided they needed a written myth of their own — one which drew directly and indirectly from the Enuma Elish, and the far older Atrahasis and Epic of Gilgamesh, but which posited Yahweh as a single, universal God who demanded loyalty, took a dim view of idol-worshippers, and was solely responsible for the creation of everything. The division of earth from sky (Enuma Elish), the man of clay (Gilgamesh) and the Flood (which appears in both Atrahasis and Gilgamesh) are all borrowings.

It was a work, then, of polemical appropriation — a subtler and more complex myth, but one with its roots in exactly the culture it sought to reject. Not that we’d have known it had it not been for the astonishing rediscovery and translation of these Mesopotamian myths in the 19th century. Anyway, they now had a written myth and the Hebrews, effectively, became Jews.

Where it all gets a bit odd is with St Augustine — who was forceful, learned, ingenious, tangled in overbearing mother-love, and more than a bit batty. Like many of us, he was preoccupied with sex. And he was convinced that his unruly private parts were prima facie evidence for man’s fallen state: if they did not respond to reason, but did their own thing, we are all, necessarily, born in and through the sin of lust. So he went big on original sin, and the Church was off to the races.

It was Augustine, too, who insisted (in the face of earlier and arguably more sophisticated authorities such as Origen, who sought to read Biblical texts allegorically) in the literal truth of the story told in Genesis. And if that seems odd to us now, it did produce — in artistic terms — something quite marvellous. For the portrayals of Adam as what Greenblatt calls the ‘holotype’, or ‘type specimen’, of mankind necessarily make our thinking about Adam and Eve a central way of thinking about ourselves.

Greenblatt rapturously traces the way in which the discoveries of the Renaissance — among them linear perspective and classical rules of proportion — fed into ever more realistic (and theologically and psychologically subtle) portrayals of Adam and Eve in the work of Masaccio, Van Eyck and, supremely, Dürer.

But he’s also heading for Milton — to whose Paradise Lost he rightly, and expertly, gives a great deal of attention. Here, he argues, is the first really detailed portrait of a marriage in literature; and one which wrenches the poem, in a sense, off-beam (the heavenly host come to seem a little weightless beside the suffering and tender humans). But Greenblatt also sees Milton’s radicalism — both politically and in terms of his broadsides against the prohibition of divorce — as rooted in his understanding of the story of Adam and Eve.

Milton made Adam and Eve into real, breathing people. And in doing so, Green-blatt argues, he sowed their eventual retreat back into myth. It’s a cutely ironic detail that one of the books that Darwin had with him on the Beagle was Paradise Lost.

The Greenblatt on show here offers a more populist touch than in his academic work. He’s content to talk airily of Adam and Eve as ‘a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires’, or to marvel at Milton’s achievement as ‘almost impossible to account for rationally’.

His narrative is bookended with personal material, too. He opens by describing how, as a child, he had defied his parents’ injunction to keep his head lowered during the benediction at the end of the Sabbath service lest he see God face-to-face and be killed on the spot. A Fall, perhaps, of the author’s own. ‘The air above my head was completely empty.’ Seeing others looking around, he thought: ‘I have been lied to.’

But now, he says, ‘something lives in me on the other side of lost illusions […] and I have come to understand that the term “lie” is a woefully inadequate description of either the motive or the content of these stories, even at their most fantastical’. He’s dead right.

In a rather moving epilogue, he describes visiting a chimpanzee colony in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. One evening, he sees that the beta male of the group has sneaked away from the pack with a female, at great risk of a thumping from the alpha: ‘Through violating the will of the supreme ruler and risking punishment, they had become a couple. They looked around the clearing and glanced quickly at us. Then, set on continuing their consort, they plunged together into the dense thicket where, set on continuing our spying, we struggled to follow. The world was all before them.’

Editor’s Note: “Edmund Gosse”, in the above, has been corrected to “Philip Gosse”. Wrong Gosse. Apologies.

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