Marina Warner

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Green­blatt

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Marina Warner

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Green­blatt.

Nor­ton, 419 pp.,$27.95

In 1872, when the bril­liant young Assyri­ol­o­gist Ge­orge Smith found a cu­nei­form tablet in the Bri­tish Mu­seum in­scribed with part of the story of the Flood, he be­came so ex­cited that he be­gan un­dress­ing, though the com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture scholar David Dam­rosch thinks that he might have been merely loos­en­ing his col­lar, Stephen Green­blatt tells us—still sign enough to alarm Smith’s Vic­to­rian con­fr­eres into fear­ing that he was over­borne with pas­sion. It’s a fa­mous mo­ment in the his­tory of lit­er­a­ture be­cause Smith, who was a de­vout Chris­tian, be­lieved that his dis­cov­ery re­vealed con­ti­nu­ity be­tween the Bible and the far more an­cient Epic of Gil­gamesh, in which a Baby­lo­nian Noah ap­pears. Smith took his dis­cov­ery as proof that the Bible was true his­tory: here was tes­ti­mony to the Del­uge from an older, in­de­pen­dent source. Dated to around 2100 BCE, the poem is the ear­li­est ex­tant work of lit­er­a­ture we have. (When Green­blatt says “quite pos­si­bly the old­est story ever found,” he is be­ing very cau­tious.) Ge­orge Smith’s read­ing of the tablet could be turned around. Rather than con­firm­ing the ve­rac­ity of the Bible, the Gil­gamesh ac­count of events at the be­gin­ning of hu­man so­ci­ety more likely re­veals the con­tin­gency of Ge­n­e­sis: the story re­ceived for cen­turies by Jews and Chris­tians as re­vealed truth is only one of many en­twined sto­ries, in­her­ited and in­vented, pre­served, for­got­ten, and re­cast. As Green­blatt de­scribes, with the lu­cid­ity we ex­pect from him, the cos­mic strug­gle of Tia­mat and Ea and other deities in the Baby­lo­nian cre­ation myth only sur­vived in a copy of Berossus’s His­tory of Baby­lo­nia, made by Euse­bius, which was it­self lost and sur­vives in a sin­gle copy of an Ar­me­nian trans­la­tion. As for the great Epic of Gil­gamesh, it lay buried in the li­brary of Nin­eveh un­til La­yard’s dig of 1845, the key to its script lost, its mag­nif­i­cent nar­ra­tive un­read un­til Ge­orge Smith’s work of de­ci­pher­ment. Mean­while the Bible ac­count trav­eled far and wide, and pre­vailed.

The life of any ar­ti­fact or work of lit­er­a­ture is sub­ject to hap­pen­stance. How it trav­els and set­tles, takes root and ef­flo­resces, de­pends on so many var­i­ous and un­pre­dictable fac­tors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendip­i­tous en­counter or a rare in­di­vid­ual’s ad­vo­cacy, as Green­blatt ex­cit­ingly de­scribed in The Sw­erve, which re­counts the ad­ven­tures of Lu­cretius’s De re­rum natura. But at the heart of all this un­pre­dictabil­ity, the strug­gle for author­ity con­tin­ues, and seeks to es­tab­lish an ap­pear­ance of rea­son, in­evitabil­ity, and nor­mal­ity.

In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Green­blatt sur­veys the vi­cis­si­tudes that made the ac­count of hu­man ori­gins told in Ge­n­e­sis 1–2 the pre­em­i­nent one. It was this ac­count that shaped the his­tory of hu­man re­la­tions in the Chris­tian world—with in­fants deemed born in sin, women pro­claimed “the devil’s gate­way,” and sex­u­al­ity de­mo­nized. In a col­lec­tion of es­says Green­blatt edited called Cul­tural Mo­bil­ity (2009), he in­voked the me­dieval con­cept of con­tin­gen­tia, “the sense that the world as we know it is not nec­es­sary: the point is not only that the world will pass away, but also that it could all have been oth­er­wise.” It could all have been oth­er­wise: this could be his motto.

Green­blatt fol­lows the story of Adam and Eve through the­ol­ogy, lit­er­a­ture, art, bi­ol­ogy, and even an ex­cur­sus into pa­le­on­tol­ogy, with a wist­ful eye for the coun­ter­fac­tual. He re­views the meta­mor­phoses of scrip­ture’s re­cep­tion from God’s im­mutable word to fan­tas­tic myth (though not for all, of course) and makes a case for its force when read as imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture: “The nar­ra­tive be­comes a just-so story,” he writes; “if it is pow­er­ful enough it be­comes a work of art. The drift to­ward make­be­lieve did not have to end in dis­il­lu­sion­ment.” Green­blatt’s most per­sua­sive and pas­sion­ate ar­gu­ment con­sid­ers the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Ge­n­e­sis and the Epic of Gil­gamesh. He ar­gues that the cre­ators of the Ge­n­e­sis story, who would have come to know Baby­lo­nian cos­mol­ogy dur­ing the He­brews’ long cap­tiv­ity in Baby­lon in the sixth cen­tury BCE, told their own story of the be­gin­ning in di­a­logic dis­pute with their masters. The cre­ation story in the Bible can be read as a con­scious ri­poste to the Baby­lo­nian cre­ation myth, a de­fi­ant man­i­festo for the true re­li­gion, writ­ten by the cho­sen peo­ple against their pa­gan ri­vals and masters. Af­ter Cyrus freed the He­brews in 539 BCE, they be­gan to con­sol­i­date them­selves as an in­de­pen­dent so­ci­ety, and this meant tak­ing pu­rifi­ca­tory mea­sures, which in­cluded es­chew­ing Baby­lo­nian cus­toms and dress and for­bid­ding in­ter­mar­riage. As the prophet Ezra de­clares, “The land, unto which ye go to pos­sess it, is an un­clean land with the filth­i­ness of the peo­ple of the lands.” The Old Tes­ta­ment be­queathed the fea­tures of Moloch and Baal to Sa­tan and his devils and made Baby­lon a sym­bol of pro­fan­ity. But, asks Green­blatt, “How do you up­root deeply held be­liefs?” With a flour­ish, he replies, “You change the story.” Parts of Ge­n­e­sis, which was edited into its known ver­sion in the fifth cen­tury BCE, had be­gun to form be­fore the He­brews left Baby­lon:

The dream of the master text, the truth stripped of all un­clean­ness, was part of a con­certed ef­fort to re­sist the pow­er­ful cul­ture of the sur­round­ing peo­ples, to refuse their reign­ing di­vini­ties, ab­jure their forms of wor­ship, and re­ject their ac­counts of the world . . . . The To­rah helped to turn He­brews—a tribal peo­ple oc­cu­py­ing a par­tic­u­lar, highly vul­ner­a­ble ter­ri­tory— into Jews.

The cor­re­la­tions be­tween the two ori­gin sto­ries are many but pro­ceed an­tiphonally: in Gil­gamesh, the scene opens in a great city, Uruk, not a gar­den, and the gods and god­desses are on the side of hu­mans, who have begged for help against the ex­cesses of the demigod Gil­gamesh, their ruler, who tyr­an­nizes them, tak­ing their wives and prop­erty. In an­swer the gods cre­ate the wild man Enkidu by pinch­ing off a lump of clay. He is as strong and as beau­ti­ful as Gil­gamesh but un­civ­i­lized. A god­dess in­ter­venes, and a woman, Shamhat, a hi­ero­d­ule, or sa­cred har­lot, is given the task of hu­man­iz­ing this new crea­ture— through sex. Af­ter wild nights to­gether,

Enkidu finds that the an­i­mals he once ran with now shun him.

Green­blatt reads these scenes, and their se­quels, as sto­ries of cre­ation and com­ing to aware­ness (i.e., knowl­edge of good and evil) through the agency of a woman, and an ex­pe­ri­enced, sex­ual woman at that. He pithily re­marks, “Ge­n­e­sis rewrites ini­ti­a­tion as trans­gres­sion.” Later, when Enkidu dies, Gil­gamesh learns the mean­ing of sorrow and loss, and con­fronts the in­escapa­bil­ity of hu­man death. When the god­dess Ishtar so­lic­its Gil­gamesh to be her con­sort, he re­jects her bit­terly: the love she of­fers is treach­er­ous, and the gods’ care for their crea­tures capri­cious and ne­glect­ful. Hu­man dis­obe­di­ence is made ad­mirable.

Many of these themes and mo­tifs have trav­eled into other poems and sto­ries: they echo in the tales of Odysseus and Th­e­seus and Circe and in Ara­bic and Per­sian ro­mances. (The Ori­en­tal­ist Stephanie Dal­ley has ar­gued that the name of the hero Bu­luqiya in a long quest tale in the Ara­bian Nights de­rives from Gil­gamesh.) The deep and trou­bling ques­tions the epic raises— about the be­hav­ior of gods to­ward their cre­ation, the ethics of sex­u­al­ity, the in­ter­re­la­tions of an­i­mals and hu­mans, and the fact of death—in­spired a di­ver­gent vi­sion in the au­thors of Ge­n­e­sis. Green­blatt writes:

a tale of joy­ous sex­ual ini­ti­a­tion; a grad­ual as­cent from wild­ness to ci­vil­ity; a cel­e­bra­tion of the city as the great good place; a dif­fi­cult, re­luc­tant ac­cep­tance of mor­tal­ity .... In­stead, we in­her­ited Ge­n­e­sis .... What was a tri­umph in Gil­gamesh is a tragedy in Ge­n­e­sis.

Green­blatt laments the cen­so­ri­ous turn that the story takes in Ge­n­e­sis, and yet he finds much to cel­e­brate and con­sider. As a Re­nais­sance and lit­er­ary scholar he is fas­ci­nated by al­le­gory—how can one not be an al­le­gorist, he im­plies, when read­ing of magic trees and a talk­ing snake? At the same time, his heart is fired by Re­nais­sance verisimil­i­tude: he ad­mires Dürer’s in­tense and de­tailed 1504 en­grav­ing of Adam and Eve, and our first par­ents as brought to life and speech by Mil­ton in Par­adise Lost.

The ten­sion be­tween lit­eral and al­le­gor­i­cal ways of read­ing bib­li­cal sto­ries in­spired much fruit­ful dis­cus­sion in the early years of Chris­tian­ity. A cache of manuscripts that was un­earthed near the Egyp­tian town of Nag Ham­madi in 1945 re­vealed sharp re­sis­tance, al­ter­na­tive ver­sions, and new ways of read­ing, as Elaine Pagels has de­scribed in her path­break­ing stud­ies The Gnos­tic Gospels and Adam, Eve and the Ser­pent. (Green­blatt could have ac­knowl­edged her spade­work more gen­er­ously.) Why did a lov­ing God for­bid crea­tures whom he had made in his own im­age to have knowl­edge of good and evil? How were our first par­ents to know what was right or wrong with­out such knowl­edge? How could evil be in the gar­den at all (not to speak of a talk­ing snake)? And there were many other ques­tions, some of them more prac­ti­cal: What lan­guage did they use to talk to each other? How long were they in Eden? (Dante makes it a very brief mat­ter—only six or seven hours, Adam tells the poet in Par­adiso.) When the story mi­grated into the Ko­ran and Is­lamic be­liefs, some of these knots were un­picked: Sa­tan was ex­cluded from the gar­den be­cause he re­fused to bow down be­fore the new crea­tures God had made, whom God had or­dered all the angels to wor­ship for their per­fec­tions. Sa­tan protested that, be­ing made from fire, he was su­pe­rior to Adam and Eve, who were only made of earth. In the Mus­lim nar­ra­tive, Eve isn’t con­demned to the same de­gree— the Ko­ranic Adam doesn’t blame her for mak­ing him eat the for­bid­den fruit. The sto­ries of their sur­vival af­ter the Fall are filled with mar­velous vi­sions and mir­a­cles, and Adam is in­cluded later among the Prophets.

The Is­lamic com­men­taries also ex­plain the talk­ing snake with nice

in­ge­nu­ity: Sa­tan man­aged to in­vei­gle him­self into the Gar­den by tempt­ing the an­i­mals with a prom­ise to ward off mor­tal­ity. He first tries to talk the pea­cock into let­ting him in, but the pea­cock re­fuses and of­fers in­stead to fetch the ser­pent who is “the leader of all the beasts of Par­adise” and is “teach­ing [Adam and Eve] about the trees.” The fallen an­gel ap­proaches the snake and says, “I see a space be­tween your two fangs. I can fit there.” So the ser­pent— a she in this story—opens her jaws and Sa­tan leaps inside.*

The Chris­tian the­olo­gian Mar­cion, in the mid-sec­ond cen­tury, posited an evil cre­ator along­side the fa­ther of Je­sus Christ to ex­plain the ex­is­tence of suf­fer­ing, pain, and pests such as mos­qui­toes and scor­pi­ons. He gained fol­low­ers, and the Mar­cionites even sug­gested re­ject­ing the Old Tes­ta­ment al­to­gether. He was de­clared a heretic and his works were de­stroyed. An­other dis­si­dent, a Gnos­tic com­men­ta­tor, pointed out that Adam and Eve did not die as the cre­ator said they would if they ate the fruit, but that in­stead their eyes were opened. He went on to ask, “But of what sort is this God?... Surely he has shown him­self to be a ma­li­cious en­vier.”

Au­gus­tine was the prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tect of Chris­tian­ity’s com­mit­ment to the ab­so­lute re­al­ity of the Eden story, which as­signs to our first par­ents full re­spon­si­bil­ity for suf­fer­ing and death en­ter­ing the world through the God­given gift of free will. They chose to sin, and Au­gus­tine for­mu­lated out of this story the doc­trine of orig­i­nal sin, which de­clares that the trans­gres­sion of Adam and Eve was trans­mit­ted in the act of sex­ual union to all their de­scen­dants. Green­blatt em­pha­sizes Au­gus­tine’s ob­ses­sive drive to de­fine, prove, and de­fend his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Scrip­ture and the moral he ex­trap­o­lated from it: a fate­ful ex­e­ge­sis that dom­i­nated Chris­tian be­lief for cen­turies and still forms part of Catholic as well as much Protes­tant doc­trine.

In a chap­ter called “In the Bath­house,” Green­blatt takes his lead from the Con­fes­sions and reprises how Au­gus­tine’s fa­ther ex­ulted, when they were at the baths to­gether, to see that his young son had reached pu­berty, in­qui­etu ado­les­cen­tia. (Green­blatt sug­gests Au­gus­tine’s fa­ther saw his son’s “in­vol­un­tary erec­tion, or sim­ply... re­cently sprouted pu­bic hair.”) His ar­dently pi­ous mother, how­ever, re­acted with hor­ror at these signs of what the saint would later de­cry as con­cu­pis­cence. Fol­low­ing a no­tion he de­vel­oped in his book on Lu­cretius, Green­blatt could have called this bath­house mo­ment a sw­erve—a point at which his­tory takes a slight de­vi­a­tion from a pre­dictable course. But for him a sw­erve is a pos­i­tive shift, not the brak­ing halt that Mon­ica—Saint Mon­ica, pa­tron of child abuse, Green­blatt tells us, with a nip of irony—called on Au­gus­tine to make, in­still­ing, in Green­blatt’s view, an early and durable sus­pi­cion of sex and the body. The mother does not come off well in Green­blatt’s ac­count, and he hints at his own rea­sons for such wari­ness about in­ter­fer­ing mother love.

Too much em­pha­sis is given to this mo­ment, and the tri­umph of the dis­mal, ut­terly de­press­ing, and con­trol­ling Au­gus­tinian

*Shiha al-din al Nuwayri, The Ul­ti­mate Am­bi­tion in the Arts of Eru­di­tion (Pen­guin, 2016), p. 242. view of hu­man na­ture could be an­other ex­am­ple of con­tin­gency. Au­gus­tine’s elo­quent and most acute op­po­nents—Pe­lag­ius and, later, Ju­lian of Eclanum—nearly over­came his ar­gu­ments. Ju­lian de­clared, “Hu­man na­ture in in­fants is whole and sound, and, in adults, ca­pa­ble of choos­ing” good or evil. Again Pagels is more search­ing and il­lu­mi­nat­ing on these con­flicts. Green­blatt’s con­cerns lie else­where: “bril­liant new tech­nolo­gies of representation,” he writes, “fi­nally suc­ceeded in con­fer­ring a con­vinc­ing sense of re­al­ity upon the first hu­mans and in bring­ing their story fully to life.” His in­ven­tory of var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Adam and Eve is nec­es­sar­ily par­tial—he speeds through the cat­a­combs to the eleventh-cen­tury bronze doors of the Hildesheim Cathe­dral, the lovely siren­like Eve at Au­tun (signed by Gisle­ber­tus), and Masac­cio’s griev­ous stricken cou­ple in Florence, “ut­terly bereft and mis­er­able,” un­til he fi­nally comes to Dürer, whom he ad­mires for his de­pic­tion of Adam and Eve above all. By mak­ing this as an en­grav­ing to be copied and widely cir­cu­lated, the Ger­man artist spread his hu­man­ist al­le­giances to the ide­al­ized nude of his clas­si­cal pre­cur­sors and to be­lief in the ac­com­plish­ments and po­ten­tial of the crea­tures God made: “I be­lieve,” Dürer de­clared, “that no man liveth who can grasp the whole beauty of the mean­est liv­ing crea­ture.”

Although this sec­tion of the book is writ­ten with heart­felt en­thu­si­asm, it’s a bit thin, and Green­blatt’s de­scrip­tion of the im­age leaves many fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures un­ex­am­ined: Why a par­rot in the tree, for in­stance? To my eyes, Dürer re­mains a flinty nar­cis­sist, and his images of women (in­clud­ing his Eve) of­ten coldly anatom­i­cal, their metic­u­lously ren­dered allure re­ver­ber­at­ing with misog­y­nis­tic ter­rors of the pe­riod, rather than in­wardly un­der­stood, let alone sym­pa­thet­i­cally in­hab­ited (as in the case of the draw­ing of his mother).


Adam and Eve make love be­fore the Fall? This ques­tion has ex­cited many great minds. A rabbi, Jeremiah Ben Eleazar, in the sec­ond cen­tury CE pon­dered Aristo­phanes’s story in Plato’s Sym­po­sium of pri­mor­dial hermaphrodites and spec­u­lated that Eve was made as Adam’s help­meet only af­ter he had tried to unite with all the an­i­mals and found them want­ing. Other schol­ars imag­ined sex­ual union with­out pas­sion or de­sire, a kind of breath­ing or pain­less trans­fu­sion; yet oth­ers, fol­low­ing the Greek fathers and their Pla­ton­ist sym­pa­thies, in­voked Par­adise it­self as some­thing close to joy­ful sex­ual union. It’s clear that this book couldn’t in­clude ev­ery­thing, and Green­blatt is pri­mar­ily a scholar of the Re­nais­sance, but his ap­petite for sto­ries could have led him fruit­fully to ex­plore me­dieval fan­tasies about life in Par­adise, such as Bernard Sil­vestris’s Cos­mo­graphia or Eri­u­gena’s bliss­ful meta­physics of sex­ual union in Pe­ri­phy­seon (On the Di­vi­sion of Na­ture). These au­thors would give cru­cial sup­port to his en­thu­si­asm for al­le­gory, col­ored in their case by the Pla­ton­ism of such thinkers of the early Greek church as Ori­gen and Gregory of Nyssa.

Later op­pos­ing voices—and there were many more—for whom the good­ness of God’s cre­ation in­cluded hu­man sex­u­al­ity, and even the fe­male sex, need more air­ing and dis­cus­sion in Green­blatt’s ac­count. Two learned women of the Re­nais­sance who strug­gled against the pre­vail­ing misog­yny of Chris­tian dogma make brief en­trances: the hu­man­ist Isotta Nog­a­rola (1418–1466), who wrote a “Di­a­logue on Adam and Eve,” and Ar­can­gela Tarabotti (1604–1652), who ful­mi­nated against the mar­riage mar­ket and the forced en­clo­sure of dow­er­less or oth­er­wise in­el­i­gi­ble women in con­vents. (She was her­self dis­abled and put away against her will.) In her Pa­ter­nal Tyranny,a brave fore­run­ner of Diderot’s much more fa­mous at­tack in La Religieuse, Tarabotti de­nounced these pa­tri­ar­chal abuses. The In­qui­si­tion cen­sored both of their works, and both have only been trans­lated re­cently, in the en­ter­pris­ing se­ries the Other Voice in Early Mod­ern Europe. I would have liked to hear more from these other, fiery minds, not to change the story in a wish­ful fash­ion, but to in­ten­sify the depth of field as Green­blatt’s his­tor­i­cal hori­zon widens.

It was John Mil­ton, the regi­cide repub­li­can and Pu­ri­tan, poet and ac­tivist, who unashamedly evoked the glo­ri­ous ten­der­ness and delight of sex for Adam and Eve be­fore the Fall—and imag­ined angels do­ing it as well—in a richly in­tri­cate lan­guage that clothes the la­conic Bible nar­ra­tive in lav­ishly sen­su­ous im­agery, sin­u­ous syn­tax, and in­ti­mate in­ten­sity.

Mil­ton mar­ried at the age of thir­tythree (late in those days), and his first wife, Mary Pow­ell, left him to re­turn home af­ter lit­tle more than a month. Green­blatt sees this cri­sis—the rea­sons for her depar­ture re­main mys­te­ri­ous— as the event that “re­aligned ev­ery­thing in Mil­ton’s life and de­ci­sively shaped the great poem he would even­tu­ally write about Adam and Eve.” Like the bath­house, the aban­doned nup­tial bed be­comes the cru­cible for great con­se­quences. Mil­ton turned his for­mi­da­ble rhetor­i­cal ar­se­nal to a pam­phlet on no­fault di­vorce and re­ferred to Ge­n­e­sis for jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of mar­riage as freely cho­sen com­pan­ion­ship. Later, Mary came back: the Civil War height­ened the dif­fi­cul­ties of sur­viv­ing for her fam­ily (they were Roy­al­ists and Cromwell’s New Model Army was win­ning), but she died af­ter the birth of their fourth child, a daugh­ter.

When the for­tunes of the Com­mon­wealth turned, Mil­ton was in grave dan­ger for his polem­i­cal writ­ings and his rev­o­lu­tion­ary loy­al­ties; he was also by 1652 com­pletely blind. Still, he got

mar­ried again, to Kather­ine Wood­cock, who was twenty years younger. She too died, of “a con­sump­tion,” also af­ter giv­ing birth, the baby fol­low­ing her a month later. She is prob­a­bly the sub­ject of Mil­ton’s most poignant, ele­giac son­net, “Methought I saw my late es­poused saint.” She vis­its him in a dream, and he hopes “to have/ Full sight of her in Heaven with­out re­straint.” Just so, with­out re­straint, un­veil­ing their faces and bod­ies, Mil­ton went on to imag­ine de­light­ful mu­tu­al­ity be­tween Adam and Eve be­fore the Fall—and after­ward, when they set out on their new ex­is­tence: “They hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their soli­tary way.” An im­pov­er­ished, blind wid­ower with three chil­dren, a marked man un­der the Restora­tion for his part in the Civil War, Mil­ton again got re­mar­ried five years af­ter Kather­ine’s death, to Betty Min­shall, thirty years younger than he. It was dur­ing these last, be­lea­guered years that he dic­tated the epic Par­adise Lost, in­spired by a Muse whom he named Ura­nia and who came to him in the night or in the early hours. Green­blatt brings a sto­ry­teller’s sense of drama to the tur­bu­lent life of the poet and, as he does with Au­gus­tine and his mother, views the mak­ing of a ma­jor work, not with­out a touch of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, through the lens of his pri­vate and pub­lic strug­gles. Adam be­comes a type of ev­ery­man, Eve an ev­ery­woman, and their union a fig­ure of love: for Green­blatt, read­ing Mil­ton read­ing Ge­n­e­sis, the Bible story is uniquely ad­mirable be­cause it ac­knowl­edges the im­por­tance of a man and woman “cleav­ing to­gether.” When God presents him with Eve, Adam “ut­ters a ju­bi­lant wel­come, an ec­static poem”; Robert Al­ter’s trans­la­tion draws at­ten­tion to the fu­sion in dif­fer­ence of their two be­ings: “This one shall be called Woman (ishah)/for from man (ish) was this one taken.” “Within his tiny scope,” writes Green­blatt, “the Ge­n­e­sis sto­ry­teller finds the time to re­peat and re­peat the strange, ec­static feel­ing that the man and the woman are what he calls ‘one flesh.’”

Of Mil­ton, Green­blatt writes, “More than a thou­sand years af­ter Au­gus­tine, Adam and Eve have fi­nally be­come real.” But this su­per­sat­u­rated re­al­ity runs the risk of no longer com­mand­ing as­sent, the very ac­cu­racy of the char­ac­ters’ de­pic­tions giv­ing them a deathly fal­sity. In the last sec­tion of Green­blatt’s book, the truth of Adam and Eve’s story grad­u­ally loses its pow­ers of per­sua­sion: the story’s au­di­ence be­gins to leave, some shak­ing their heads in mock­ery, some in sorrow.

Isaac La Peyrère, a pre­co­cious skep­tic who was raised Calvin­ist, won­dered how the ban­ished Cain founded a city, as is re­lated in Ge­n­e­sis. Who was out there for him to marry? La Peyrère’s ques­tion­ing grew more re­bel­lious, and against the back­ground of so many newly dis­cov­ered lands and peo­ples all over the world, he pro­posed, in his book Prae-Adami­tae (Men Be­fore Adam, 1655), that there had been other men and women be­sides Adam and Eve at the be­gin­ning and that the Bible gave only one myth of ori­gin among many, a specif­i­cally Jewish story. (La Peyrère was him­self de­scended from Mar­ra­nos, as Jewish con­verts were known in Ibe­ria.) But poly­ge­n­e­sis, as this the­ory came to be called, was rank heresy, and La Peyrère was forced to re­cant. His pro­fes­sion of faith echoes Galileo’s: “If the pope said [his idea] was wrong, then it must be wrong.”

Later, La Peyrère’s anal­y­sis was twisted to be­come the pre­text for racists to ar­gue “that the peo­ples of color whom they had en­slaved were not in fact de­scen­dants of Adam and Eve.” Abo­li­tion­ists re­tal­i­ated, ground­ing the equal­ity of all hu­man­ity in our shared par­ents—an­other “use­ful re­minder” in Green­blatt’s view, of “the lev­el­ing power that is al­ways la­tent in the Adam and Eve story.”

In a star­tling coda, the au­thor trav­els to the Kibale Na­tional Park in Uganda to ob­serve chim­panzees in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. He takes their state to be Edenic, with­out knowl­edge of good and evil, with other, murkier re­sem­blances to “the the­olo­gian’s dream of life be­fore the Fall. The fe­males are dom­i­nated, but they lack any con­cept of dom­i­na­tion.” He muses on deep time and on the sci­en­tific world­view since Dar­win, which can­not ac­count for moral choice, the crux of the drama in Eden. This leads him to an un­ex­pected state­ment: “Mil­lions of peo­ple in the world, in­clud­ing many who grasp the un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tions of mod­ern sci­ence, con­tinue to cling to the pe­cu­liar sat­is­fac­tion that the an­cient story pro­vides. I do.”

The Sw­erve was lifted by its joy­ful ap­pre­ci­a­tion of two at­trac­tive and rad­i­cal fig­ures of in­tel­lect and imag­i­na­tion: the poet and sci­en­tific vi­sion­ary Lu­cretius and the hu­man­ist scholar and man­u­script hunter Pog­gio Brac­ci­olini. It brimmed with the ex­cite­ment of the world chang­ing in front of one’s eyes. But the Ge­n­e­sis drama is, by con­trast, a dispir­it­ing tale of per­sis­tent reg­u­la­tory op­pres­sion; the he­roes of Green­blatt’s story—Dürer, Mil­ton—how­ever bril­liant, are not eas­ily like­able, and his dis­cus­sion of post-Dar­winian in­quiry nec­es­sar­ily cur­sory.

Af­ter the pow­er­ful open­ing chap­ters, the end feels wa­ver­ing. The rise in re­li­gious be­liefs, in the class­room and through­out the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, has made an­a­lyz­ing in­ter­ac­tions be­tween doc­trine and ide­ol­ogy, make-be­lieve and lit­er­a­ture, a far more sen­si­tive un­der­tak­ing. (I’ve been wor­ried re­cently when lec­tur­ing on Ge­n­e­sis and Voltaire about the re­ac­tions of some pi­ous stu­dents.) It has be­come more dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate how lit­er­a­ture has dif­fer­ent ways of be­ing true, that it could all still be oth­er­wise.

‘Sa­tan Watch­ing the Ca­resses of Adam and Eve’; il­lus­tra­tion by Wil­liam Blake for John Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost, 1808

John Mil­ton

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