In Dürer’s etching they stand with their heads bent, about to take the fatal bite. In Masaccio’s fresco they flee, Eve’s mouth gaping in agony. The Fall of Man has fascinated many: it’s when we become mortal, knowing and sexual all at once. In this new book, Stephen Greenblatt turns his attention to Adam and Eve. In a departure for Greenblatt, this is an attempt at a full cultural history of the kind we might associate with Marina Warner. It was triggered by a visit to a pairadaeza, an old Persian garden, in Iran. He describes reaching, after driving for hours through desert, ‘a relatively small, dusty, square space with very old cedar trees lined up in rows along very straight paths’. There’s nothing to it. But when he sees the stars in the desert night, he marvels at their depth, and it makes him ask the question posed by the authors of the Bible: what are we?
In his search for answers, Greenblatt tends to dig deep rather than to break wide. We learn little about, for example, Hugo Grotius, or Du Bartas, or even Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Spring and Fall’, though this is at least partly because – as the title suggests – Greenblatt has a love affair of Rousseauian proportions with origins. Small beginnings are embedded in his larger narrative. We learn of Babylon’s fall to the Persian king Cyrus, who released the Hebrew exiles, which led directly to the writing of the Torah – an effort to refute the book of the Babylonian god Marduk and to distinguish the Hebrews from the worshippers of other deities. The Torah, Greenblatt thinks, turned the Hebrews into Jews, people whose religion was not attached to a particular city but to a book. Marduk, by contrast, was splendid, but only in Babylon; when it crumbled, so did he.
This is also a history of human curiosity. The devouring wish to know was, after all, one cause of the Fall itself. The historians and scholars who first discovered that the story in Genesis was not unique earn Greenblatt’s special approval. He notes the discovery, midway through the 19th century, of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of a flood in which a god destroys mankind. It also tells of Platonic love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu (Adam and Steve?), whose passion exceeds that of Genesis’s first couple. Greenblatt actually prefers the Malthusian reasoning of the Babylonian god, who brings about the flood to keep the population of mankind low. He dislikes the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in which moral authority is embodied in the deity as destroyer. He throws in the story of the death of George Smith, the discoverer (or rediscoverer) of Gilgamesh, in a village east of Aleppo, at the age of thirty-six. It seems so obviously unfair that it leads him to question the idea of a just God. He is also excited about the Nag Hammadi scrolls, discovered in Egypt in 1945, and their gnostic content. Like many much-anticipated sequels, the Gnostic Gospels, as the scrolls are known, are less exciting than he hopes, but he is keen on the text called the Apocalypse of Adam, in which Adam speaks of his deification after the Fall.
This sunny vision turns dark. When a fourth-century Christian thinker called Pelagius argued that newborns were innocent and that death was not a punishment for man’s sinfulness, Augustine of Hippo was horrified. Augustine argued that sex, as we know it, was neither natural nor healthy; even sex between man and woman in marriage is corrupt. What really upset him was the disobedience of the penis, and hence the disobedience of desire itself. Arousal was present not just during sexual intercourse but in ‘the very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men’. Whose body is it anyway? How is it that we can’t even command this crucial piece of our flesh? So obvious was it to Augustine that something had gone very badly wrong that he decided it all had to stem from that single action by our parents, Adam and Eve. He called it Original Sin. It follows that – as Greenblatt puts it – human sinfulness is a sexually transmitted disease.
Struggling with himself and his own body, Augustine was the first to admit that this sin was more Adam’s fault than Eve’s. Not so those who followed him. Greenblatt is fascinated by the way in which a mixture of seduction and revulsion recurs in countless images of Eve, where the serpent often sports the long hair and breasts of a woman. His account of the creation of the bestselling anti-witchcraft tract Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’) in the 15th century, however, is – to say the least – as simplistic as any a 1970s feminist might have written. Recent research revealing that this text was a laughing stock among some and an object to be refuted among others has passed him by, though omissions of this sort are understandable given the huge amount of ground he tries to cover.
Greenblatt is mostly known as an acute and sensitive interpreter of Renaissance literature, so it is unsurprising that the whole book feels as if it is leading up to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Indeed, it would be reasonable to subtitle it ‘Greenblatt does Milton – at last’, but one can see why he’s put it off for so long. He finds Milton profoundly uncongenial and attributes what he dislikes to Milton’s failed marriage. The account he offers of the genesis of Paradise Lost in the mind of the blind poet is moving and subtle whenever he stays off the subject of Milton’s marital difficulties. He notes how intelligent and thoughtful Milton’s Eve is in responding to the serpent, though he skirts over the fact that Adam’s enthusiasm for her ‘autonomy’ is rebuked, first by the archangel Raphael and then by God himself. His whole discussion smacks of special pleading, with a lot of ‘and yets’ to mark the moments when he passes a worried hand over his brow. But when an archangel speaks of ‘man’s effeminate slackness’ it must be taken seriously, however much Greenblatt might wish otherwise. He is so anxious about such matters that he misses the genuine and very human beauty of Eve’s apology to Adam after the Fall. Being the first to say sorry when you are the most wronged and insulted is a triumph of the human spirit.
Greenblatt offers a seductive reading of Milton’s Adam and Eve as the victory of curious, loving and smart humans over the pesky old religions that brought the myth into being. He wants the story of Adam and Eve to be a completely human one. Without referring directly to William Blake, Greenblatt clearly sympathises with his romantic idea of Milton’s epic of rebellion. Nevertheless, it is striking that he says little about the likely influence of Milton’s political beliefs on the work, except in the context of Mrs Milton’s Royalist sympathies. Greenblatt also misses the way that the epic at least begins with the ashen sense of injustice and complete failure brought about by the Restoration.
More telling is Greenblatt’s account of the shock of the New World. The bare skin of natives suggested a shamelessness that Genesis told the world was gone from the human race. One of his heroes is the 17th-century theologian Isaac La Peyrère, who must, Greenblatt thinks, have been his Sunday school teacher’s nightmare because he asked so many questions. Noting that Adam’s eldest son, Cain, gets a wife from somewhere, La Peyrère thought that there might have been humans before Adam and Eve who lived outside the Garden of Eden. The naked natives that explorers met seemed to fit La Peyrère’s theory. This led European colonists to regard them as lesser men and consequently to exploit them. Bartolomé de las Casas, the brilliant 16th-century Dominican intellectual, took a different view. For him, the Americas were the likely site of the lost Garden of Eden, peopled by natives above shame who were morally superior to their captors.
Greenblatt is also fascinated by the death of myth, which occurs whenever ‘a significant number of people cease to believe that the story convincingly depicts reality’. He doesn’t, though, say what kind of number is enough. This ushers in a discussion of the anticlerical vehemence of Voltaire, who thought Adam and Eve a ridiculous lie to crush the human desire for knowledge. Inevitably, we are soon in America with Jefferson and Whitman and Twain; history has always led fairly directly to Massachusetts. Predictably, Darwin appears. Greenblatt visits chimps in a reservation and discusses the development of our notion of evolution. He then explains why he himself still holds on to the narrative of Adam and Eve:
What the current scientific understanding still lacks – and may never achieve or even want – is the focus on moral choice that lies at the heart of the Adam and Eve story … The Adam and Eve story insists that our fate, at least in the beginning of time, was our own responsibility. Millions of people in the world, including many who grasp the underlying assumption of modern science, continue to cling to the peculiar satisfaction that the ancient story provides. I do.
Yet despite his curiosity, Greenblatt is reluctant truly to consider the view articulated by John Henry Newman. Newman said that one had only to look around at the world to see that something had gone very badly wrong with Creation: ‘The human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator.’ Newman’s phrase suggests an echo of ‘the time is out of joint’. Among other things, Adam and Eve were the first human beings to live a life bounded by time. If the historian Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus is right, we dwell among the first human beings who will not be bounded by it – the First Immortals. If that is so, will we even care about Adam and Eve any more?