The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives by Susan Rubin Suleiman (Ed) - review by Marina Warner

Marina Warner

Redefining Eve

The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives

By

Harvard University Press 390 pp £21.25 order from our bookshop
 

The double curse of Eve was to give birth in pain and to submit to her lord - 'Thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee'. In the late Sixties this biblical message excited a wave of feminists to take apart Genesis 1-3, and, like archaeologists descending through a hill, to find the layers of locker-room fantasies, wishful thinking and plain misogyny deposited in the Bible. Embedded in Genesis, and reaffirmed by later exegetes, was the Judaeo-Christian attitude to women, the conviction of their inferiority and dangerousness to men; at the crux of the Creation story stood the twofold message that Eve, the first 'mother of all the living' came second, in time, history and consequently in status, and that she led humanity to its perdition, got us flung out of Eden, because, as a woman, she was weak, foolish, curious, faithless, a soft touch for the tempter. In mediaeval and Renaissance art, it was pointed out, the serpent sometimes has a woman's face; it can so resemble Eve that it seems her doppelganger, the intrinsic evil within Everywoman.

Feminist theologians and polemicists pointed out that such readings were only readings, culturally determined , as the Bible itself, by male domination, but that there were trace elements of a more precious tradition: the passage 'male and female created he them' implied sexual equality ab origine; while some inspired commentators like Agrippa von Nettesheim had suggested that Eve was made last because she crowned God's creation, that woman represented the culmination of his handiwork.

Now, two decades on, the revisions of Genesis continue, and reflect the times' different approaches to the problem of sexual difference. Eve still is, as the poet Edwin Muir wrote,

The first great dream

Which is the ground of every dream

since then.

Mieke Bal's contribution to this collection of essays, 'Sexuality, Sin, and

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