Q+A: Stephen Green­blatt on Adam & Eve

For au­thor Stephen Green­blatt

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Talya Zax

Has there been a more con­se­quen­tial story to the his­tory of hu­man­ity than that of Adam and Eve? In the as­sess­ment of Stephen Green­blatt, Shake­speare scholar and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor of the non­fic­tion work “The Swerve,” prob­a­bly not. Green­blatt spoke to the For­ward’s Talya Zax about the sig­nif­i­cance of the ori­gin story of Abra­hamic re­li­gions and how it ranges past its tan­gi­bly pro­found im­pact on the course of Western so­ci­ety, pre­sent­ing an un­matched op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the elu­sive yet ab­so­lute power of sto­ries.

“This is fic­tion at its most fic­tional, a story that rev­els in the de­lights of make-be­lieve,” Green­blatt writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to his new book, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.” “Yet mil­lions of peo­ple, in­clud­ing some of the sub­tlest and most bril­liant minds that have ever ex­isted, have ac­cepted the Bi­ble’s nar­ra­tive of Adam and Eve as the un­var­nished truth.”

TALYA ZAX: What drew you to the sub­ject of Adam and Eve?

STEPHEN GREEN­BLATT: In gen­eral I’m drawn to the ques­tion of why sto­ries are so pow­er­ful; why they haunt peo­ple; why they stay in peo­ple’s minds; why they, in ex­treme cases, be­come real. I’m a Shake­spearean by vo­ca­tion for whom char­ac­ters like Ham­let, King Lear and Fal­staff seem to have come alive, so I’m in­ter­ested in that phe­nom­e­non. Adam and Eve is the ex­treme ex­am­ple of that in all of Western cul­ture, for Jews, Mus­lims and Chris­tians alike. I be­came in­ter­ested in this as the paradig­matic story of our cul­ture for its ori­gin and for its mean­ing.

How would you sum­ma­rize the story told by “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve”?

The short­est pos­si­ble ac­count would be that an an­cient myth, or an­cient story, be­gan to take on a life of its own and then took a re­mark­able turn: It grad­u­ally, for mil­lions of peo­ple, be­came real. The story, in that sense, is a Pinoc­chio story: How does the pup­pet with the ob­vi­ous strings start danc­ing, with­out the strings, and ac­tu­ally come alive? The twist of the story is that it turns out that the dan­ger of com­ing alive is that you also die; the story, as a claim on re­al­ity, be­gins to crum­ble. It re­turns, in ef­fect, to where it came, which is to say to myth. My story is about a myth that be­comes real and then re­turns to myth.

What do you think the fu­ture of the story of Adam and Eve might look like?

As part of this whole project I’ve been try­ing to think about why it is that when they do polls, not just in the United States — which is

an ex­treme case — but even else­where in the world, so many peo­ple don’t seem to be­lieve the Dar­winian ac­count, which sits at the route of much mod­ern science. The same peo­ple who go and have CAT scans and all kinds of things that de­pend upon a set of re­search as­sump­tions about the world nonethe­less be­lieve in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent the­ory of the world. Why is that?

Dar­win pub­lished “The De­scent of Man” in 1870, that’s just re­ally yes­ter­day. One hun­dred and fifty years ago; it’s noth­ing. We don’t know when the Adam and Eve story orig­i­nated, but if we try to imag­ine the Adam and Eve story 150 years af­ter it be­gan to cir­cu­late, that’s be­fore hun­dreds, even thou­sands of peo­ple — artists, writ­ers, pro­found in­tel­lec­tu­als, or­di­nary peo­ple — in­vested their imag­i­na­tion and en­ergy in it.

What will hap­pen to the Adam and Eve story, if I would spec­u­late, would be that it would be like Sopho­cles’s “Oedi­pus.” Ev­ery­one gets that Sopho­cles’s “Oedi­pus” is an in­cred­i­ble, imag­i­na­tive achieve­ment, but no one be­lieves that there was a man named Oedi­pus who killed his fa­ther and mar­ried his mother. They think the story is beau­ti­ful in it­self, and it says some­thing quite im­por­tant about deep struc­tures in hu­man life. But the idea that you would have to sign on to think­ing that it’s true, that seems to me to be fated to dis­ap­pear.

Still, there are scores of peo­ple who still have deeply felt re­li­gious be­liefs that are tied specif­i­cally to this story.

I have them. I’m not, as you say, the vil­lage athe­ist in this re­gard, and I’m not in­ter­ested in wag­ing a cam­paign against be­liev­ing it. The con­tin­ued power of the story, or the con­tin­ued spir­i­tual feel­ings of hu­man be­ings, doesn’t sur­prise me in the slight­est. I think, ac­tu­ally, it’s the no­tion that we’d be in a com­pletely evac­u­ated sec­u­lar world that strikes me as an in­creas­ingly im­plau­si­ble hy­poth­e­sis, given the an­thro­po­log­i­cal ev­i­dence of what hu­man be­ings have been like for the last 50,000 years.

Can you tell me a bit about your own re­li­gious life?

I grew up in a Con­ser­va­tive house­hold, I kept kosher. When I was young I wasn’t al­lowed to cut pa­per or write on Shab­bat. My par­ents made var­i­ous ac­com­mo­da­tions to the world. My fa­ther loved base­ball and would leave the tele­vi­sion on be­fore dark on Fri­days so he could have a look at it on the chan­nel he wanted. At a cer­tain point I had a kind of skep­ti­cal dis­il­lu­sion­ment. I would say if I had a sin­gle wa­ter­shed mo­ment in my life — like ev­ery­one’s life, it’s more com­pli­cated than this — but if I had a sin­gle wa­ter­shed mo­ment, I was in Eng­land. I had a Ful­bright af­ter I grad­u­ated from col­lege, and Yom Kip­pur came around. I’d never lived very far from the or­bit of my par­ents, my world, and Yom Kip­pur came around and I de­cided: Do I be­lieve in any of this? And the an­swer: No. So why am I do­ing this? Why am I fast­ing? Why am I go­ing to shul? So I thought, all right, I won’t. I treated the day like any other day. At the end of the day I was fine. No light­ning bolt came out of the sky to knock me down; my par­ents didn’t have to know. But I had a kind of reck­on­ing at the end of the day: I had suc­ceeded in mak­ing the day like any other day, so nu? What kind of achieve­ment was that? And I felt that I had ac­tu­ally flat­tened my life out in a way that was ac­tu­ally not what I wanted. I’m not a deeply ob­ser­vant per­son, but I’m ob­ser­vant enough. It makes the rhythms of life in­ter­est­ing to me.

In your book, you ex­plore how the story of Adam and Eve emerged in re­sponse to ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences, specif­i­cally the Baby­lo­nian ori­gin story en­coun­tered by the He­brews dur­ing the Baby­lo­nian Ex­ile. How did that story im­pact your own con­cept of what it means to be Jewish?

I was fa­mil­iar with it in some sense. Peo­ple have known since the 19th cen­tury, for ex­am­ple, that the Noah story has an an­tecedent. If I had had a com­mit­ment to the idea that Jews in­vented every bit of this, as it were, from nowhere, then maybe I would have been sur­prised or shocked, but I al­ready un­der­stood that things al­ways come from some­where else. Things never ac­tu­ally orig­i­nate where you think that they orig­i­nate.

The other thing to say is that it’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing that the Tanach doesn’t be­gin with Abra­ham. It be­gins with Adam and Eve, who aren’t Jewish and, as you know, aren’t He­brews. The ori­gin story is not the ori­gin of our tribal peo­ple and our tribal god; the ori­gin story is the ori­gin story of hu­man­ity, in which we are a part. It’s kind of won­der­ful that the story be­gins that way and not with Abra­ham, be­cause it is an ac­knowl­edg­ment that we are just one piece of a very big part of hu­man­ity.

I can imag­ine peo­ple say­ing this story has caused more death than we can com­pre­hend. Wouldn’t it be bet­ter if the He­brews hadn’t felt the need to write some­thing in re­sponse to the Baby­lo­ni­ans? If it hadn’t crossed bor­ders, would there be more peace?

I don’t know about the death part, but suf­fer­ing, yes. The Au­gus­tinian idea of orig­i­nal sin, and then the misog­y­nis­tic uses of the story, I think caused a lot of suf­fer­ing. But your hy­po­thet­i­cal per­son who says this seems to me to ac­tu­ally un­der­stand sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about how vir­tu­ally all cul­ture works, which is that it doesn’t come in a neat, clean and per­fectly safe pack­age. Cul­tures are com­pli­cated. It’s a con­stant ne­go­ti­a­tion and strug­gle, in­clud­ing the Adam and Eve story. There are parts of the story that are ex­traor­di­nar­ily won­der­ful and im­por­tant, and there are parts of the story that are hor­ri­ble, that can be used for hor­ri­ble pur­poses. You don’t have to roll over and play dead; you ac­tu­ally have to be much more ac­tive in re­la­tion to all of the things that you re­ceive.

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KURT HOFF­MAN

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