For­bid­den fruit salad

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

‘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

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