Forbidden fruit salad
‘What can I say about Adam beyond complaining, in vain and too late?” asked Francesco Petrarch in Of Famous Men in 1337. As stories go, there is really not much to it. In Petrarch’s book, the biography of the father of all mankind is a single, short paragraph: Adam was born in God’s image, into a place without pain, “in every way a perfect man and in every way perfectly happy”; then he preferred “a woman’s whispering over divine command” and ruined everything. Thereafter, he had two children, saw one kill the other, and spent 930 years labouring to get his living from the ground.
“If only”, Petrarch laments, “he had been so unhappy alone, and not dragged our race down too, undeservingly”. If only. Because Adam’s story – and, of course, that of the woman who whispered to him – is the aetiology not just of humanity, but of everything wrong with human existence.
In and of itself, I am not sure I agree with the assertion of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve that theirs is “one of the most extraordinary stories ever told”. Weird, yes, but not extraordinary.
Indeed, by the standards of much origin-mythology, it is pretty tame: no fighting, no cannibalism, castration, or incest; not even that much in the way of basic narrative drive. Adam and Eve appear in Paradise and everything is given to them; they are told not to do one thing; they do it; and suddenly everything is taken from them. At heart – a point that Greenblatt rather misses in skipping medieval treatments of the tale – it is bathetic, too. Adam might have been perfect but he is less a hero than a prototype of the sad clown, who slips up almost instantly on his cosmic banana skin – or apple peel. It is all over in under two pages in my copy of the King James Bible. In the “Divine Comedy”, Adam informs Dante that he and Eve lived in Paradise for just under seven hours.
As Greenblatt notes, though, the meat of the Adam and Eve myth lies less in itself than its reception – what he terms its “life story”. The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve charts that story from its origins in pre-Judaic mythology right up to its supposed nemesis: Charles Darwin. On the way, he touches on our primordial parents’ place in early Christian theology via Augustine, Tertullian and Jerome; on their presence in the art and poetry of Dürer and Milton; and finally on their gradual crumbling at the rise of the Enlightenment, with its twin weapons of sarcasm – an apparently modern invention, “pioneered” by Pierre Bayle and “sharpened into a cruel weapon” by Voltaire – and science.
Needless to say, if you are a Young Earth Creationist, you should look away now. Otherwise, what you make of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve will depend partially on what you make of Greenblatt and his previous work. Most readers will be coming to it from either 2011’s The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, or 2005’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.
These met different receptions among Greenblatt’s different audiences: general readers ready to lap up his engaging and apparently authoritative stance on complex histories; and academics who, at their gentlest, believe Greenblatt prefers good stories to complicated truths. While The Swerve won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, historians quite fairly pointed out that its central thesis – that the recovery of Lucretius’s De rerum natura kick-started the renaissance – was wrong. Wrong both in simple, easily explained ways, and in a more complicated sense that is probably best described as striking many specialists as “epistemologically offensive”.
My own initial reaction to The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve was disappointment that Greenblatt has not followed through on his practice of using “how” in his subtitles. Adam and Eve: How the Mortal Taste of One Forbidden Tree Brought Death into the World, and All Our Woe would have worked nicely. Beyond that, this book will not raise academic hackles in quite the same way as The Swerve, but I doubt it will blow fans away either.
On the up-side, there is plenty to raise a pub-quiz nod of “I didn’t know that”. In the early chapters, particularly his reading of Genesis alongside the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greenblatt is genial company. But it is hard to shake the sense that he is not trying very hard. Much of the book dissolves into paraphrase of texts better left to speak for themselves, and unnecessary praise of the illustrious dead – above all Milton and Dürer, who do not need Greenblatt’s stamp of approval. At its worst, the book indulges in a sort of platitudinous shallowness that ignores the real dangers of its subject. For all that Greenblatt sees Adam and Eve’s as one of the most “influential” stories ever told – and “humans cannot live without stories” – he does not address in any depth its central entailment: misogyny.
Stories might be a necessity, but they are just as often a weapon, and none has been more potent than this one. Greenblatt flutters around the issue, pursing his lips at the Hammer of Witches and a medieval fabliau in which Eve’s vagina is created by an attack with a spade. But he turns away from the fact that, centrally, the myth of Adam and Eve is a tale about why women are bad, and why biology – “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” – proves their inferiority. When Greenblatt tells us “our understanding of human origins has been freed from the grip of a once-potent delusion” he is, sad to say, as wrong as can be. Religious beliefs might have left the mainstream, but the continuing socio-economic disparities between the sexes, and reactionary protests against marriage equality, show that we are still in thrall to the myth of Adam and Eve. So much so that evolutionary science is often made to dance to the tune of Genesis 3 too. Value-neutral biological differences – such as menstruation – are never far away from being construed as inferiorities, even by those invoking scientific impartiality.
Despite Greenblatt’s rousing cheer that “The Enlightenment has done its work”, Adam and Eve’s story is far from over. And it deserves a better, deeper book than this.
How extraordinary is the story? There’s no cannibalism, no castration, no incest
Cosmic banana skin: Hugo van der Goes’s