“In the Beginning: Adam and Eve Reconsidered”
In the Beginning: Adam and Eve Reconsidered
(Originally published in Raritan)
Evidence of the dissolution of modernity’s once potent cultural order multiplies daily. The rancor of our political scene, so rife now with racial and regional tribalism, is mirrored relentlessly in a new civic sphere dominated by social media. There, in an anxious pursuit of likes, retweets, and viral links, Western individualism has been surrendering to an often crude collectivism, its virtual spaces haunted by ranters, hackers, click-bait bots, corporate eavesdroppers, and self-selecting “communities” of conformity. And as smart phone addiction spreads throughout the body politic, the dubious ethos of an online behavior too often defined by scolds and trolls has been infecting every domain, undermining norms long in the making. We can hear its ugly echoes ricocheting now from the statehouse, the White House, evangelical pulpits, and progressive podiums.
Although recently exploited by external enemies, this assault on our democratic character was not initiated by some foreign intelligence service, much less by the many illegal immigrants we tacitly invite into our countries to mow our lawns, pick our food, and care for our children. It is instead entirely homegrown, an unintended consequence of our reckless drive for progress, narrowly defined. The globalization of the economy and the digitizing of public and private communications have together been destroying the very logic of liberal modernity, its default habits and commonsense presumptions. If, as William Irwin Thompson once noted, America’s “destiny seems to be one of breaking down all the cultures of the world,” then that dissolution includes our own. We can build a border wall a mile high on every side and we wouldn’t be safe from the anarchic forces now set loose.
The West last suffered a self-generated “identity crisis” on this scale during the seventeenth century, when the radical empowerment of print technology was eviscerating Europe’s hierarchical societies. Eventually, after much confusion, strife, and internecine violence, a new cultural order was established, including a Protestant spirituality, a free market economy, and a democratic government, each licensing in its own sphere a new individualism, rooted in literacy. Such an historical comparison begs the question of how a people goes about successfully reconfiguring their identity. A total rejection of the old system is bound to fail. The utter erasure of old ideas usually means a ruthless extermination of those who still believe in them, and the regimes that have attempted such a scheme, including the French, Soviet, and Cambodian revolutions, have themselves proven to be, in Thomas Hobbes’s oft-cited critique of precivilized life, “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Ex nihilo nihil fit: out of nothing comes nothing. Or, as William Faulkner insisted: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” If, in the tidal turns of history, “all things fall / and are built again,” they are built again from the remnants of the cultural order preceding them—they are reformations in the literal sense. In the seventeenth century, rebellious Protestants turned back to the Bible, reinterpreting its meaning, stressing certain passages over others, and establishing doctrines that better fit their era’s new social and intellectual environment. They were vociferous opponents of the reigning ecclesiastical order, even as they clung to core elements of traditional belief, including the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the New Testament seen as a reformation of the Old.
Now, though, living in technocratic age, we are often blind to the essential role shared stories play in sustaining a social order on any scale, from a circle of friends to a confederation of colonies. The creation of the modern nation-state, for example, faced the daunting task of unifying whole sets of diverse and often mutually hostile peoples. Military force alone was insufficient to secure a lasting unity. Loyalty had to be inspired as well as enforced, and one primary means then for inducing that loyalty was the creation of a shared myth of origin through a new fictional form, the historical romance in prose. Often drawing on legendary figures from the oral tradition, those romances reimagined a common heritage, supplying heroes to emulate and enemies to loathe, in plots whose conflicts dramatically encoded a shared set of values. In America, the myth of frontier settlement, bubbling up from the populace in the form of pioneering legends, served that essential unifying role. You’re not likely to discover this in any history text, but James Fenimore Cooper, whose highly influential Leatherstocking Tales formalized that frontier myth, was as much as a founding father of the American republic as James Madison.
When a once vital cultural identity is breaking down, as ours is now, the emerging confusion about how we should behave inevitably leads to reconsiderations of who we truly are. And insomuch as those default conceptions have a narrative base, that often means returning to our myths of origin for reorientation. Which is why it seems more symptomatic than coincidental that two recent books revisit in detail the Judeo-Christian West’s aboriginal story: the creation and fall of Adam and Eve.
Much of the lore recorded in Genesis likely predates literacy and exhibits, therefore, the features of oral storytelling: its brevity, repetitive phrasing, and simple symbolic plots. Such stories were composed to be easily recalled, becoming a sort of portable wisdom in metaphorical form for an oral tribe. The biblical account of the creation of the first man and woman, and of their expulsion from their once idyllic home, certainly fits that mold. With one divinity, three archetypal characters, and a linear plot in which a sequence of choices, actions and reactions, has dramatic consequences for all the characters, Genesis 2 and 3 are less than a thousand words long.
Brevity doesn’t guarantee certainty of meaning, however—nor is it intended to. Effective parables, like adjustable lenses, supply a range of possible interpretations, allowing the inherited wisdom of the tribe to interact with and adjust to changing times. And because this parable sits at the start of the West’s most influential book, its skeletal narrative has been reassessed multiple times, creating in the words of James Grantham Turner “a vast ramshackle edifice of interpretation.” In looking back to Genesis, we might ask ourselves, then, whose previous reading might be coloring our own: Augustine’s? Freud’s? some Neo-Darwinian atheist’s? Are we returning to those thousand words alone and rereading them closely, as a New Critic might, or, in a kind of narcissistic presentism, are we projecting our self-conception as onto the ancient story in an anxious search for scriptural endorsement?
The title of New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler’s new book The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us succinctly defines his narrow approach, which strives to turn the West’s first couple into a romantic model for our post-modern selves. Hyperbolic praise for the biblical story prevails throughout. The Old Testament is not only “the greatest chronicle of human life in the ancient Near East”; it also “introduced love into the world.” The author’s biblical boosterism extends to chastising the usual grimmer interpretations of Genesis 3, the orthodox doctrine of original sin recast instead as “the greatest case of character assassination in the history of the world.” Indeed, the Fall, in Feiler’s view, was not such a bad thing, after all, for “only after falling from grace can Adam and Eve fully fall in love with each other.” When Adam defies God by accepting the forbidden fruit from his mate, he “chooses love over obedience,” and “who among us,” the author wonders, “cannot relate to that?”
The verb in that rhetorical question captures a second theme of The First Love Story: the Old Testament narrative is not only wonderful, it is relatable. Like today’s youth-oriented mega-churches, with their informal dress, pop music, hip sermons, and digital apps, Feiler clothes his analysis with contemporary references, supplying, for example, twee chapter titles like “Chore Wars” and “Meet Cute,” the saccharine rhetoric intent on sweetening, however, earnest advice of the self-help sort: “What Adam and Eve Can Teach Us About Relationships.” Whom exactly is The First Love Story aiming to teach? For which segment of the population is its version of this ancient story especially relatable? Feiler’s position as a Times columnist and, too, his past role as the host for two biblically themed PBS documentaries suggest a familiar demographic: an urbane, reasonably well-educated middle class of mating age that tends to reside in progressive silos like Brooklyn and Seattle (Feiler’s and my hometowns); well-meaning men and women who consider themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious,” and who are, like many today, anxious about the state of their romantic relationships.
Beyond its biblical boosterism, which quickly trespasses into inaccuracy—the Hebrews did not “introduce love into the world”; even a cursory glance at scholarship on ancient Egypt would have revealed that, and the presumption that all preliterate peoples lacked love is arrogant on the face of it—Feiler’s analysis is predictably in tune with his target audience. Loneliness is harmful; healthy relationships require caring, commitment, and an equality of roles, including the co-creation of a shared narrative. Sound biblically-based advice about love is now available, but in a new and better way, where “commandments are being replaced by recommendations,” and “guidance” is given instead of “mandates.” Rather than “blunt messengers of the consequences of disobedience,” Adam and Eve are “ambassadors of equality, transgression, forgiveness, and reconciliation.” Feiler sees in them “what [he] believes they saw in themselves: that what will endure of their union is their togetherness. What will survive of them is love.”
Such an array of platitudes is indistinguishable, really, from the many bulleted lists in the how-to titles that lard our current bookshelves with relationship advice. Its sole distinguishing feature is the author’s strenuous effort to anchor the authority of those assertions in the cultural bedrock of our oldest myth of origins: his attempt to authenticate who we should become (as couples and lovers) with who once were “in the beginning.” If, after all, the first couple on earth could earn the Hallmark Hall of Fame happy ending to their story that Feiler discerns, then so can we.
Unfortunately, no such ending exists in the original story. Other than listing their offspring, Genesis supplies almost no information about Adam and Eve after their expulsion from paradise. Starkly allegorical figures from the start, their compatibility as a couple, their happiness alone or combined, however defined, are not subjects for dramatic enactment or homiletic advice. At that point in the Old Testament’s serial narrative, their sole function, it seems, is to produce the next generation of allegorical figures, Cain and Abel. The reconfiguring of Adam and Eve into three-dimensional characters, whose attitudes and behaviors might prove instructive, comes later, through the multiple if often contradictory commentaries that constitute our ever-expanding “ramshackle edifice.” Acknowledging an ugly misogyny that taints some of that interpretive tradition, Feiler turns instead to more hopeful texts. Key among of those is Paradise Lost, whose intricate portrait of the first couple resolved a central struggle in John Milton’s own life, depicting in the end a potential model for the successful marriage of sexual passion with Puritan piety.
|Fair enough, and as Voltaire slyly observed: given the myth’s brevity, “every commentator” is more or less forced to “make his own Eden.” Still, like Thomas Jefferson, the Enlightenment rationalist who excised all references to Christ’s miracles to fashion his own cut-and-paste version of the New Testament, Feiler’s curated version of Genesis is defined as much by what it omits as what it includes. Conspicuous among the missing is that awesome and often jealous God who does command, rather than recommend, and whose response to those who reject his mandates includes fire, pestilence, and obliterating floods—that deus absconditus, whose power is felt and feared but whose ultimate intentions can never be plumbed. Indeed, there is almost no God-talk at all in Feiler’s account. The old Jehovah, like original sin, is shown the back door: both are treated as antiquated concepts that the new “spiritual” believer should progress beyond.
Fair enough again, but if so, Feiler fails to supply any alternative explanation for the pandemic suffering of humankind, or for the viciousness that we have inflicted on each other in every age and place, yea even unto today, in Brooklyn’s lofts and Seattle’s coffee shops. Nor does he address, really, our perennial estrangement from the rest of creation, that deeper loneliness and sense of homelessness that seems woven into the human condition, and that was beautifully expressed by Milton’s contemporary Henry Vaughan. “Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest / And passage through these looms / God ordered motion, but ordained no rest.” Along with the shame in Eden’s shadows, the simmering sense of something precious lost has been pithed from Feiler’s version of the myth. In his new Old Testament, spiritual practice has progressed or devolved, depending on your perspective, into something more like a therapeutic regimen: one whose simple central theme, “all you need is love,” was composed by John Lennon for the Summer of Love in 1967.
Is that all we need, though? (We might recall, by way of context, that 1967’s Summer of Love was quickly followed by 1968’s spring and summer of assassinations, riots, and violently suppressed war protests.) And is Feiler’s progressive reading of our origins any more helpful to reimagining a renewed America than the Tea Party’s reactionary nostalgia? Or, rephrasing that question to fit the narrower scope of this book’s ambition, are his teachings about romantic love really sufficient to assuage the agonies and uncertainties of today’s middle class?
Living in an era when traditional roles have been collapsing all around us—an age of degrading dating apps, online porn addiction, gender warfare, viral sexting, ghosting, and “slut shaming,” and a fully commodified wedding industry—I don’t doubt that we need new civilizing models for how to make and sustain meaningful relationships. I do doubt, though, that converting the profound ambiguities of our ancient scriptures into the banal positivity of self-help literature is equal to that task.
Worldviews can pass, and when they do, the relevance of the wisdom literature that expressed their core values may fade, too. The interpretive lens of a once revered myth can only adjust so far before it more skews than clarifies the new cultural circumstance. In those instances, the once authoritative parable, out of scale and out of touch, becomes ripe for parody, as in the seventeenth century, when the heroic chivalry of the questing knight was reduced to the tragicomic delusions of Don Quixote. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve argues that our myth of origins has been suffering just such a decline, even as the pun in its title announces a significant shift in authorial tone. In this return to our scriptural beginning, the refined ironies of the literary scholar have replaced the earnest homilies of the spiritually-inclined advice columnist.
Greenblatt first achieved scholarly renown as a founder of the New Historicism, an approach to analyzing literature that stresses its cultural and historical contexts. And though he has left behind the academic monograph lately to seek a wider audience, his writing has remained largely true to its original premise, emphasizing how “certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world.” And so Greenblatt naturally begins his study of Adam and Eve’s story before “the beginning,” analyzing the historical origins of Genesis itself.
Judaism, as we now know it, emerged in the aftermath of a tribal catastrophe: Nebuchadnezzar II’s conquest of Judah, his subsequent deportation of many of its Hebrew residents to Babylonia, and the destruction of their holy Temple ten years later in a failed revolt. The trauma of that period, the fight to retain their tribal identity during a sixty year captivity where they were exposed to a cosmopolitan diversity of myths, customs, and deities, eventually led to a fierce reformation of their own beliefs and practices. Once they regained their freedom and returned to Judah, mixed marriages were banned and the worship of foreign gods strictly proscribed. In a now familiar reactionary attempt to assert a doctrinal purity, an unknown group of priests and scribes began selecting a set of approved chronicles, myths, and ritual instructions from the wide array available. Just as a single all-powerful God would now be strictly worshipped, His doctrine would be contained in a single sacred text. Despite the urge to purge alien influences, portions of that text, including the story of a catastrophic flood, did borrow from other tribes. As Greenblatt aptly notes, though, the Hebrews applied their own interpretive lens to the stories they retold. “To [their] way of thinking there had to be a moral reason for the disasters that humans encounter,” and this obsession with ethical causation begins in the beginning, with the story of the Fall.
The plot is simple, and given the discrepancy between its minimal facts and the elaborate interpretations later educed from them, it bears repeating. The first man and woman, “naked and unashamed,” were placed by God within an abundant garden, whose bounty they were allowed to freely forage, with a single exception: upon threat of death, they must not eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Enter the serpent, “more subtle than any beast of the field,” who tempts Eve into disobeying that command by denying she will die and insisting instead that her “eyes shall be opened,” and that, “knowing good and evil,” she’ll then become “as gods” herself.
Without any hesitation, first Eve, then Adam eat the forbidden fruit. Their eyes are opened, but rather than achieve any blissful sense of divine entitlement, their first reaction to the new knowledge gained is shame and fear: they become aware they are naked, and cower in the trees when they hear the Lord approach. Although they aren’t killed, God’s punishment proves severe. The first couple is banished forever from Eden’s garden of ease. Eve’s “sorrows” are “multiplied,” as she’ll suffer in childbirth and need to submit to “the rule” of her man. The ground beyond Eden will be “cursed,” made full of “thorns and thistles,” and only “by the sweat of his brow” will Adam now be able to eke out a living.
Plot, as I define it for my writing classes, is “a sequence with consequences.” The sequence here, from prohibition to temptation to disobedience, is quick and clear, and its consequences grave: first shame and fear, followed by perennial exile, sorrow, suffering, and labor. In just 694 words, Genesis 3 (KJV) depicts how paradise was lost by Adam and Eve, a fate then inherited by all their progeny. No one knows the deeper history of this myth, and whether it too was borrowed by the Jews. But placed at the start of their sacred text, it does establish a moral severity characteristic of the rest, and which then became a central theme of the Judeo-Christian West. “In the beginning,” the darker aspects of the human condition, its sense of loss and longing, its suffering and labor, were earned through transgression. The common state and shape of the lives we now live are, in part, the “wages of sin.”
After he summarizes the origins of Genesis, the plot that interests Greenblatt the most—the “rise and fall” he traces—is the struggle to codify an orthodox interpretation of Adam and Eve’s story, followed by that version’s gradual decline in cultural authority. Although determined in part by the wider audience he seeks, his tactical approach of focusing on just a few key thinkers has other justifications as well. Insomuch as history is written by polemical as well as military victors, some opinions on this topic have mattered more than most, and none so much as those of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), whose impact on Christian doctrine has been second only to its first great evangelist, the apostle Paul.
Augustine was a brilliant thinker, a prolific author, and, just as importantly, a fiercely committed polemicist, adept at ecclesiastical politics even when living apart from Rome. His interpretation of the Fall evolved over time and was hardened in response to a series of theological opponents, including Origen, who preceded him, and his contemporaries Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum. In Augustine’s reading, the story revealed in Genesis 2 and 3 wasn’t an allegorical tale but the literal, historical truth. Adam and Eve were the first man and woman, made in the flesh in God’s own image; the serpent was a living “beast,” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” an actual tree. “Determined to save the divine creation from any imputation of injustice,” the Bishop of Hippo insisted that every baneful feature of the human condition was a punishment earned, that “the human race got what it deserved.” In their prelapsarian state, for example, the first couple not only enjoyed the material ease of Eden’s bounty; they were immortal as well, so that along with exile, suffering, and ceaseless labor, their disobedience brought death itself into the world.
For those who wonder at the source of Christianity’s frequent fear and loathing of sexuality, a plausible answer can be found in Augustine’s erotophobic reading of Genesis 3. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he asserted that what Adam and Eve first saw when their eyes were “opened” after eating the forbidden fruit were “their own genitals, and they lusted after them with that stirring movement they had not previously known.” That “stirring movement” points to Augustine’s bizarre obsession with erections, which, as involuntary physical reactions, he presumed to be deeply sinful and the first tangible proof of Adam’s fallen state. He regarded all postlapsarian sex, then, as both corrupted and corrupting. Conceived through the sinful “stirring movements” of sexual desire, even a newborn baby was inherently fallen and condemned to damnation unless saved by the Lord. In Augustine’s version of the Judaic fixation on ethical causation, “human sinfulness” was, in Greenblatt’s dry rendering, “a sexually transmitted disease.”
None of these assertions—that the myth was meant to be literal; that prior to the Fall the first couple were immortal; that sexual desire is, without fail, corrupted and corrupting; that newborns are damned prior to even making a free choice of their own—is self-evident in the original 694 words themselves. And all were opposed by other theologians of the day. But with the zeal of a convert, the charisma of preacher, and tactics worthy, at times, of a D.C. lobbyist, Augustine defeated each of his rivals. In the case of Pelagius, who argued that death was natural, rather than a moral consequence of the first couple’s failure, and that people possessed the free will to escape a sinful state, the Bishop of Hippo rallied his contacts in Rome to accuse his rival of heresy. In the sort of novelistic detail that makes The Rise and Fall so frequently compelling, we learn: “fearing that treatises alone might not secure the condemnation of his doctrinal enemy, Augustine was careful to send, through an ally, a magnificent gift of eighty Numidian stallions to the papal court.” As Euripides, that most skeptical of Greek playwrights, understood: “Gifts … persuade even the Gods; / with mortals, gold outweighs a thousand arguments”—in this case, arguments about the source and substance of human nature. With his hopeful stance on those subjects “outweighed,” Pelagius was convicted, excommunicated, and exiled in Egypt.
After summarizing some of the aftereffects of adopting the Augustinian account, including the later emergence of a virulent strain of misogyny, The Rise and Fall leaps ahead to the Renaissance, focusing on Milton, who is given three full chapters, the last of which bears the revealing title “Becoming Real.” According to Greenblatt, the “fall” of the orthodox reading of the Fall ironically began in the very era when it seemed to be gaining intellectual rigor, as Renaissance artists and thinkers strove to render “real” the psychology, physiology, and history of the first couple, seeking the exact location of the Garden of Eden, calculating the precise number of years since the expulsion, and so forth. The ambition to authenticate Augustine’s reading inevitably led, though, to disturbing anomalies. Just as the geocentric conception of the heavens was challenged in this era by a host of new astronomical observations, the insistence that Adam and Eve had been literal figures was undermined by multiple discoveries in paleontology. Gradually, the accumulation of scientific facts undermined faith in the orthodox fable. For if the Augustinian account was not physically true, as the new sciences appeared to show, then all the related moral and spiritual features long associated with it (the invention of death, the inheritance of sin, sex as corrupted and corrupting) might be called into doubt as well.
The obvious pivotal moment in this long process of disenchantment occurred with the arrival of Darwin’s theory. In its account of human origins, “paradise wasn’t lost; it never existed,” and rather the result of some original sin, our nature as a species was the slowly evolving product of natural selection. After some 2500 years, the West’s characteristic causal link between moral decisions and natural consequences was being severed, and as a result, “for many people today,” including Greenblatt, Adam and Eve’s “story is a myth.” After some darker turns, including the distortion of Darwin’s theory in racist terms, “the Enlightenment has done its work, and our understanding of human origins has been freed from the grip of a once potent delusion.”
Unlike Feiler’s, however, this happy ending is shaded by regret: the vestigial loyalty of a literary scholar who remains intrigued by the stories whose fall he has been tracing. Genesis 2 and 3 may be just “myths,” but Greenblatt still insists that they continue to “have the life—the peculiar, intense, magical reality—of literature.” And he ends his book with this curious pledge of allegiance to them: “Millions of people in the world, including those who grasp the underlying assumptions of modern science, continue to cling to the peculiar satisfaction that ancient story provides. I do.”
But after proclaiming that we’ve “been freed from the grip of [their] once potent delusion,” does Greenblatt truly believe that labeling these myths as “literature” and praising them as “magical” are sufficient endorsements to support their enduring value? To this reader, his final “I do” sounds less like a marriage vow than an embarrassed confession of nostalgic affection, an antiquarian’s indulgence in a now obsolescent mode of mind. And as with his omega, so too with his alpha; when, in its prologue, The Rise and Fall describes the Genesis account as “fiction at its most fictional, a story that revels in the delights of make-believe,” the masquerade of praise barely conceals the condescension implied, myth-making viewed as a charming but also childish pastime, its form of “make-believe” an early mental stage that a mature modernity has progressed beyond.
For a self-proclaimed lover of literature, Greenblatt has a strangely constrained view of what reality means. Exhibiting the “physics envy” that has long afflicted some humanities’ scholars, he tends to narrow reality’s primary range to the material plane, even choosing to end his study by visiting Uganda’s Kibale Chimpanzee Project, where he imagines he may be viewing the closest we can come to the aboriginal Adam and Eve. (That such a trip ironically repeats the failed attempts by Renaissance scholars to find the “real”—that is, physical—Garden of Eden doesn’t seem to occur to him.) Such a vision, however, discounts by omission those other dimensions of our lived reality traditionally explored by the mythic mind.
This bias becomes evident early in Greenblatt’s analysis when he focuses on Origen of Alexandria, whose insistence that Genesis should be read allegorically was overthrown by Augustine. If that earlier theologian’s “approach had triumphed,” he predicts, “Adam and Eve would gradually have faded into arcane symbols, interesting perhaps for the ways in which they pointed to subtle philosophical problems but not otherwise compelling.” Whether he’s referring here to a specific interpretation of Origen’s isn’t clear, but as a categorical “approach,” surely the opposite is true. Many allegories and their close cousins (parables, and aphorisms) have been fashioned to last, and they succeed in doing so because, in part, their standards of accuracy when measuring reality aren’t literal but analogical.
Lasting myths are elaborated forms of metaphorical reasoning, proven true through their usefulness—the poetic mind’s version of “the survival of the fittest.” But if assessed by the standards of literal truth alone, every metaphor—keen or clumsy, archaic or current—will necessarily seem false, and a person who relies on such a mode of thinking (as I routinely do) might even be accused of living “in the grip of a potent delusion,” someone whose worldview is just “a myth.” Given that most of the words we use are metaphorical in origin, that would suggest, however, that all our language-based thought is inherently delusional, a stance that seems less the “work” of the Enlightenment than the trendy turn toward a postmodern nihilism. You can’t begin to grasp, for example, the comic truth captured by the aphorism “acorns arguing / which is the tallest” with a literal mindset, which would want to insist that such a statement is nonsensical—that acorns, after all, can’t possibly speak, much less argue.
The enduring attraction of certain myths is not that they seem “magical” but that they prove meaningful, and they prove meaningful because the metaphors they use, if adeptly read, continue to supply a clarifying lens on human experience. The importance of reading them correctly—that is, of mastering the intricacies of their metaphorical reasoning—was powerfully expressed by Robert Frost in “Education by Poetry.”
Unless you are at home in metaphor . . . you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history.
The “satisfactions” that lead us to “cling,” then, to certain myths aren’t “peculiar” but profound. Insomuch as we are cultural as well as physical beings and our reality, as a result, contains vital ethical, political, and psychological dimensions, such stories can prove essential to our very survival: we aren’t safe without them.
On one level at least, Greenblatt understands this. He realizes that we need stories of origin, and that although the Darwinian account “happens to be true,” that “does not in itself make it good to think with”—that is, good to address the moral and metaphysical issues encoded in these myths. And even as he harbors the hope that a story that incorporates the science of evolution will be found, he admits that the theory’s current “resistance to narrative coherence makes it one of the great challenges of our age.” As it turns out, Darwin himself suffered a similar crisis, confessing to his children that, over time, he had lost his earlier love of poetry to the point where he found Shakespeare’s work “so intolerably dull that it nauseated” him. He worried about this unexpected change, suspecting that it was “injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character.” He even recognized that it might be associated with the nature of his work. But while acknowledging that his “mind had become a kind of machine for grinding general laws,” he couldn’t grasp “why this should have caused the atrophy” of his “higher tastes.”
Neither can Greenblatt, who has “no solution to what baffled Darwin,” an admission which, given the breadth of his reading and his affection for literature, seems odd indeed. He could have turned, for example, to William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets, which in 1818, when Darwin was still a boy, supplied the following diagnosis of the dangers inherent in the over-specialized mind:
whenever an intense activity is given to any one faculty, it necessarily prevents the due and natural exercise of others. Hence all those professions or pursuits where the mind is exclusively occupied with the ideas of things … and not as they are connected with practical good or evil, must check the genial expansion of the moral sentiments and social affections.
Or surely Greenblatt could have recalled instead that the incompatibility, to the point of rivalry, between mythical and rational ways of thinking is a very old story in the Western canon, nearly as old as the Torah itself. In the Republic, noting that the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry [was] ancient” even then, Plato chose to expel the Homeric epics from his ideal society. Like all the many censors who would follow him, he recognized the pedagogical power of dramatic narratives but abhorred their purportedly immoral influence, and sought to supplant their emotion-laden imagery and ambivalent plots with the unequivocal principles of his rational philosophy.
Yet even Plato reluctantly acknowledged the social utility of mythical thinking. Near the end of Book III, he has Socrates propose that his republic will have its own myth of origins: a story which, although admittedly untrue, would be broadly believed and so unify the city’s diverse population by linking them all to a shared beginning. The normally confident Socrates is, however, so chagrined by the necessity of this proposition—which he calls a “noble lie,” an “audacious fiction”—that he hesitates to state it and, when he finally does, he can barely meet the gaze his interlocutor.
This rare moment of embarrassment for the wisest man in Athens supplies a key, perhaps, to grasping Greenblatt’s own uneasy allegiance to the Genesis myths. Although his lifelong subject has been literature, his method for addressing it, rational analysis, has naturally influenced the credo underlying his ultimate message. Just as Plato frequently cited Homer’s “charms,” even while insisting such charms were dangerous, Greenblatt praises the old myths as “magical” and the “most fictional” of fictions, even as he details their gradual debunking. He recognizes that these creations of the mythic mind are “potent,” but as a committed rational materialist, he still believes at some level that its stories are “delusional,” that however fascinating or even noble, they are, at heart, lies.
In any case, the vague hope he harbors for a new story of origin that will incorporate the facts of evolutionary theory is not a feasible solution to our current confusion. Human beings are natively, it seems, “of two minds” (and maybe more), and no alchemy available can plausibly convert the statistical into the lyrical or, vice versa, narrative plot into logical proof. Given their persistence over time, we surely need both these modes of mind. But as a technological society we have radically favored the authority of the “one faculty” over the other, and that mental “machine for grinding general laws” can never fully fathom the ambivalent truths of metaphorical reasoning, much less fashion the mythical meanings that can cultivate “the genial expansion of [our] moral sentiments and social affections.”
The folly of assuming otherwise was captured long ago by these four words, orally composed by the mythic mind: “Jelly / in a vise.”
Greenblatt seems at times to forget that what his argument has traced, and with impressive efficiency, is the fall of a particular interpretation of Genesis. But if that orthodox account has been shown to be false, does that mean all other readings must be as well? Rather than condescend to the “make-believe” of our ancient ancestors, can we now return to their beginning—the original myth, freed of the “ramshackle edifice” obscuring it—and rediscover there some clarifying guidance for our own troubled times? Is Genesis still “good to think with”? More specifically: returning to Origen’s approach, and so “at ease [again] with figurative values,” can we “ride” its mythic metaphors to the promised land of moral and metaphysical understanding? Or, more nags now than Numidian stallions, will they “break down” as fully and fatally as Augustine’s literal reading has?
In fact, religious opposition to the literalist position has existed all along. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great theologians of the mid-twentieth century, defined the truest form of Christianity as mythic at its core. “Myth alone,” he insisted, “is capable of picturing the world as a realm of coherence and meaning without defying the facts of incoherence.” Literal readings, however, missed the ambivalent wisdom implicit in the mythic method. The orthodox approach mistakenly transformed “the myth of the Fall . . . into an account of the origin of evil, when it is really a description of [evil’s] nature.” “Original sin is not an inherited corruption,” much less a sexually transmitted one. But it is “an inevitable fact of human history . . . true in every moment of existence.” The “genius” of mythic religion, in Niebuhr’s view, is that—unlike today’s techno-utopians, who believe we can invent our way into a state of social perfection—it recognizes the natural limits placed on both our virtue and our wisdom. And insomuch as it encourages moral vigilance without inducing metaphysical despair, it proves more relevant to and realistic about our everyday ethical decision-making than either evolutionary theory or utopian rationalism.
Secular thinkers have also continued to find Genesis “good to think with”—not magical but meaningful, not peculiar but profound. In his 2010 essay “Agrarian Anxieties,” historian Steven Stoll recovers from its myths an accurate history of our species’ development and even a possible template for current reform. In Adam and Eve’s “abrupt expulsion from [Eden’s] kindly wilderness,” he sees “an allegory of the Neolithic transition.” Then, in Genesis 4, the first couple “beget the material and political archetypes of the Bronze Age: Cain the farmer and Abel the herder,” with the former “emerg[ing] as an ambiguous symbol of the victory of farming,” whose insatiable need for arable land will induce more violence. Later, Stoll praises the “remarkable innovation” of the Hebrew sabbatical, which not only saved their farmlands from depletion by decreeing they lay fallow every seventh year; it also made the agrarian economy’s wars of expansion less necessary, peace allied with prosperity again. And in the jubilee, the ritual law that periodically reversed all land sales, relieved all debts, and released all slaves, he sees a savvy solution to the sort of class divisions and economic inequalities that dog us now. Which, on that issue at least, poses the question as to whose system of thought is caught “in the grip of a potent delusion.”
For me, however, the chapter most relevant to our current predicament remains Genesis 3, the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. In returning to that beginning, I see within its plot a profound depiction of our abiding nature: the qualities that make us unique as a species, but also uniquely dangerous to ourselves. In his spiritual meditations, Pascal divided the human propensity to sin into three categories: libido sentiendi, libido sciendi, libido dominandi—our “lusts,” respectively, for sensual pleasure, for knowledge, and for power. Contrary to Augustine’s later fixation on carnal desire, it’s a hunger for knowledge and, secondarily, for the godlike powers that new knowledge might supply that first tempts Eve. In this at least, the mythic and the scientific seem to agree. We haven’t chosen, after all, to call ourselves homo sexualis but homo sapiens; though the distinction between knowledge (scientia) and wisdom (sapientia) remains contentious, we do identify ourselves as the thinking creature. Our most unique feature has been our capacity to name and number, to reflect and project, to accumulate knowledge and, with it, power.
Rapid infusions of new knowledge, however, are not only creatively “disruptive”; they can be socially destructive. When the powers gained through such surges of new knowledge are set loose in a cultural “garden” not designed to contain them—as, for example, the capacity to manipulate public opinion via today’s largely unregulated social media—the checks and balances of the old order are rapidly undermined in dangerous ways. The commonsense presumptions of a whole way of life, its rituals and customs and unifying myths, are called into question: losses that then spur fear, confusion, dissension, and despair.
Such is the pattern of self-punishment concisely enacted in Genesis 3, after our primordial parents “eat of” the tree. For if paradise is not merely a site on a map but a harmonious relationship between mind and place, then as Adam and Eve cower behind the trees in shame and fear, they have already been expelled from their once happy home. Before their Lord can speak, the very knowledge they have gained has, summarily, cast them out of Eden, that garden whose Hebrew name also means delight. They were never immortal (all gardens have death folded into their cycles), but now, due to the dawn of their self-consciousness, Adam and Eve are afraid to die. Made aware of the possibilities of both good and evil, they’ve been stripped of their innocence and now feel naked. No longer at home in their first garden, they will have to craft a new one, built from knowledge rather than instinct—a difficult mission “east of Eden” whose struggles are recorded in the rest of the Torah.
According to Genesis 3, our original sin was libido sciendi—a lust for knowledge, whose acquisition made us more godlike in our powers but also estranged us from the rest of creation. For today’s rational materialists, this reading reeks of oppressive superstition; they see in it the censorious preaching of a priestly caste who, in full flight from Enlightenment progress, would keep us in the dark and under their ecclesiastical thumb. But, as the Republic demonstrated, rationalists too can be inclined toward censorship to enforce their beliefs, either strictly banning the mythic mindset or demeaning its findings as “make-believe.” And if we want to be safe with the science we now practice, a sober glance in the rearview mirror would warn us that history is cyclical as well as progressive, and that “all things fall,” not just the superstitions of religion but whole societies, along with their orthodox conceptions of reality. Looking back might remind us, too, that the invention of printing sparked an information explosion that not only led to the amazing achievements of the Renaissance but also to the anarchy of the seventeenth century—a period when Europe was torn apart by assassinations, revolutions, and sectarian violence that resembled nothing so much as today’s Middle East. “Tis all in pieces,” John Donne lamented then, about the medieval order that once made sense, “all coherence gone, / All just supply, and all relation.”
Now, as we are both feasting on and cringing from a new information explosion, that cycle is repeating itself, and the cultural innovations that finally civilized the forces set loose in Donne’s era are themselves corroding. The capitalist economy that once helped liberate the middle class from an oppressive aristocracy has become a threat in itself, aggressively asserting plutocratic control over our lives at work and at home, and generating inequalities that have little to do with actual merit. A Protestantism that arose, in part, to morally discipline the individualism associated with the spread of literacy, and that periodically has restrained our nation’s lust for monetary gain (libido pecunia), has now become instead Mammon’s apologist and political enabler. Its most popular churches have adopted the [ig]”noble lie” of a prosperity theology whose grace panders greed, and have embraced a U. S. president whose cupidity is without precedent.
The fruits of the computer age are impressive. As an author, I benefit nearly every day from my instant access to its “tree of knowledge,” and recognize its exciting potential for scientific discovery and artistic innovation. But can the political institutions and social conditions necessary for any form of lasting progress survive the constant disruptions that now characterize our everyday lives? Spend an hour online following links, reading blogs, viewing YouTube videos, imbibing their swirling stew of beauty and bile, old truths and fake news, and it’s hard not to conclude that in our era, too, “all coherence [is] gone.” That we can stream the nightly news while drifting in a remote canoe doesn’t dim the suspicion that the digital revolution that was supposed to unite us into a global village has become complicit instead in the divisive xenophobia that news conveys. In times of social chaos and intellectual confusion, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity,” and those conditions then invite authoritarian solutions, as in the pseudo elections and “presidents for life” that now threaten the demise of democratic rule.
In an era where a TED talk passes for prophetic utterance, the presumption has been that each challenge we confront can soon be solved by a technical fix: a software patch or app, a hardware upgrade or new set of “best practices.” But cleverness is not wisdom, method not meaning, and productivity alone is never sufficient for true prosperity: homo sciens cannot do the work of homo sapiens. Google’s driverless car and Amazon’s cashierless grocery store may be technical marvels that soon will provide a categorical leap in commercial efficiency. But once they “scale up,” they are also likely to cast millions of citizens out of work. By then, drones may dropping packages atop our front steps, but how will the unemployed pay for them? In their despair, how will they spend their idle time? In their likely fear and anger, who will they vote for?
The self-generated crisis we now face is being driven not just by the pace of the new knowledge gained, nor by our disingenuous faith that more (data, profit) must equal better—a potent delusion that I call quantiphilia. As Hazlitt knew, our problem also lies in the narrow nature of the knowledge we pursue to the exclusion of other kinds. In the heady days following the fall of the Wall and during the dawn of the PC revolution, who could we have turned to capture a hint of the perilous conditions that actually lurked within such signs of apparent progress? Bill Clinton, with his oily optimism about “growing the economy for the twenty-first century”? His neoconservative opponents, with their self-congratulatory claims about the “end of history” and final triumph of the democratic project? The techno-utopians whose columns in Wired were promising our imminent liberation from scarcity, labor, loneliness, and death—more Eden 2.0s to sell their IPOs? From our perspective, whose narratives now seem to have been spun from the sugar-plum visions of make-believe?
Instead, choosing prudence over pride, we could have turned back then to the West’s first story, which, rather than pitching the imminent arrival of paradise, narrates how the good life can be lost. Some myths, after all, have been crafted to last—their past isn’t dead; it’s not even past. They remain relatable to anyone who, schooled in figurative values, can ride their sequence of images to their necessary consequences. If, as Ezra Pound insisted, “literature is the news that stays news,” then Genesis 3 remains a literary gem. We don’t need to fly to Uganda to spy its tragic Fall in action. We are reliving it here. In fear, if not yet shame, and from Brooklyn to Seattle, London to Berlin, we are suffering through it now.