This thrilling work charts the slow process, from Augustine to Milton to Darwin, by which the Genesis story became no longer tenable
The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (1615) by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. Photograph: Alamy
When they were young, my children reflected on where they came from. At different stages in their lives, they came up with three different kinds of answer. Their first answer was biological: “I come from mummy. No, Mummy and Daddy. And they’re made out of Granny and Grandpa, and Grandma and Grandad.” The second was geographical: “I come from Exeter. But I was born in Cambridge. And I live in Yorkshire. And Oxford.” The third was more sophisticated, and came after a few years of science: “I come from African hominids. Or fish, if you trace it all back far enough.”
One of the earliest lessons children take to heart is that they have not always been around. There was a time “before me”. Trying to work out what that was, what that means, takes up much of the intellectual labour of childhood. And as the examples above show, there are no easy answers: everything comes from something else. The existential horror of an infinite regress of origins strikes early on in life.
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Theories about the big questions of human culture – what are storytelling, art and religion for? – are not, in the main, generated by children. The professors to whom we owe our big theories are typically less worried by “where did I come from?” than “where am I going?” Most modern theories of human civilisation are, fundamentally, about the need to deal with mortality. Stephen Greenblatt’s thrilling new book, however, on the peregrinations of the story of Adam and Eve – the world’s most influential attempt to arrest the infinite regress of creation – shows just how central the question of human origins has been to pre-scientific conceptions of humanity.
This is not a comprehensive account of the reception of the biblical story: there is little on rabbinical Judaism, and next to nothing on Islam. Greenblatt is a specialist in the culture of early modern England, and it is westward from the deserts of Israel to Europe and ultimately the New World that the narrative weaves its path. The protagonists are the north African Christian bishop Augustine, who turned the story into one of sex and sin; the artist Albrecht Dürer, whose copperplate engraving and paintings on the topic revolutionised European art; John Milton, who transformed the entire biblical story of creation into an emotionally complex portrait of human values (emerging in part from his reflections on his tragic, inept and thoughtless treatment of his wife); Isaac La Peyrère, the French theologian whose thoughts on the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas led him to posit that humanity pre-existed Adam and Eve; the French Enlightenment philosopher Pierre Bayle, who could not accept the Genesis account as literally true; and Charles Darwin.
Sex and sexual difference, paradise and exile – Adam and Eve’s narrative explains its enduring appeal
This is, then, a book about the historical shaping of the Christian west’s attitudes to human origins. It is also a parable for the modern Christian west, in an era when creationism is apparently on the rise. When Greenblatt refers in his title to the “fall” of Adam and Eve, he means not the fall from grace of the mythical characters but the rapid decline in authority of biblical explanations that took place from the 18th century onwards. Greenblatt leaves the reader in no doubt that science has won the intellectual debate. He is an Enlightenment realist: the steady accumulation of philological, anthropological, biological and geological knowledge has made the Genesis story no longer tenable, except as a story.
Augustine became history’s most passionate defender of the literal truth of the biblical account: he even suggested that Eve’s transgression consisted precisely in not taking God’s commands literally enough (so woe betide you if you follow suit!). But even he could not reconcile all of its oddities: “However much one tries, not every word can be taken literally, and Augustine could find no simple, reliable rule for the appropriate degree of literal-mindedness.” Was Adam actually made from mud? When we are told that God spoke to Adam, are we to imagine he used human language issuing from physical vocal cords? When the Bible says that eating the fruit meant the eyes of the two proto-humans were opened, are we to imagine that they had been sealed shut so far?
The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1500s) by Hieronymus Bosch.
The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1500s) by Hieronymus Bosch. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images
Greenblatt has many such stories of pious readers trying and failing to come to terms with the implications of a complete surrender to biblical authority. Perhaps the most entertaining is the case of the lay preacher and naturalist Philip Gosse, who (among other things) created the world’s first seawater aquarium. Like many others in Victorian Britain, Gosse had been disturbed by the findings of the geologist Charles Lyell, whose pioneering work in rock stratigraphy indicated that the world is many millions of years old. Gosse thus set about reconciling the evidence of the Bible with that of the physical world, and came up with an ingenious theory. The world, he argued, is indeed recent in origin; but it was created by God with a geological backstory in place. The argumentation for his theory was as masterfully inventive as it was absurdly contorted. Gosse invited his readers to consider the analogy of Adam himself: the Bible says he was created as a fully formed adult, of (Gosse speculated) some 25 to 30 years old. Like the Earth, Adam was created mature; and again like the Earth, he must have carried with him traces of an earlier youth, even if he never lived through that. Specifically, Gosse pointed to Adam’s navel – surely he must have had one, as a perfect specimen of humanity – as the trace of a birth that never took place. If Adam was created as an adult with a navel, why could not the Earth, by the same token, have been created along with complex layers of sedimentary rock, testimony to a past that never happened?
The success of the Adam and Eve story for so long, however, was down to more than daft, devotional reflections on belly buttons. It is first and foremost a story rich with resonant motifs: utopia, command and transgression, duty and autonomy, sex and sexual difference, paradise and exile. It is this narrative power that explains its enduring appeal as a prompt for literary, artistic and philosophical creativity. Greenblatt is clearly attracted to the bolder creative responses that challenge dominant ideologies. One memorable highlight – all the more memorable within a largely male-centred narrative – is the wonderfully named 17th-century Italian nun Arcangela Tarabotti, the author of an uncompromising anti-patriarchal tract Paternal Tyranny. According to Tarabotti, Eden was free from discrimination between the sexes, and indeed Eve was made of nobler substance than Adam’s clay; it is only the malicious defamation of Eve that has led to the subjugation of women. Another highlight is John Ball’s iconic slogan for the English peasants’ revolt (later taken up by the 17th-century Diggers): “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” For Ball, paradise was defined by the absence of class structure.
This is a study of western disenchantment, of intellectual progress – but it also an ode to human creativity
It is Milton who represents the pinnacle of this creativity: Milton the vain, pious, puritanical literary genius who, in Greenblatt’s phrase, made Adam and Eve “real”. As a youth, Milton had been afflicted by a bizarre loathing of sexuality, which he paraded vaingloriously before his peers. At one point, he described male ejaculation as “the quintessence of excrement”. His marriage was practically doomed from the start: not least because Mary Powell was a sophisticated, youthful urbanite from an Oxford family of royalists to whom Milton owed money, and so not the likeliest match for an austere parliamentarian. When the relationship broke down and Mary returned to her familial home, Milton responded with a tract proposing that divorce was morally justifiable. The scandalised ruckus that ensued drew a magnificent volley of insults from Milton’s pen, including “brain-worm’’, “cock-brained solicitor” and “presumptuous lozel”. But when the tide of the Civil War turned to the Cromwellians, Mary returned to John in apparent repentance. Milton, whose vision was beginning to fail him, found his heart molten: he took her back, and they had four children before her premature death in the aftermath of the final labour.
It was following this time of personal, financial and political trauma that Milton wrote Paradise Lost. The paradise that he envisioned was, Greenblatt argues, one of perfect human freedom from political and social constraints. It was the utopian model for an achievable state in which humans were free from tyrannies both literal (the king) and metaphorical (social convention). But that Edenic state was rapidly receding: not only was he now blind, but the Restoration of the monarchy was also accompanied by a predictably bloody series of recriminations against parliamentarians. Milton, however, was unbowed, and pressed ahead. At night, he claimed, he was visited by a mysterious figure he called Urania (after the Greek Muse of cosmology) who dictated lines of blank verse to him. In the morning he would dictate the lines. If the amanuensis was late, he would cry out: “I want to be milked!” His achievement, in Greenblatt’s view, was not to create an allegory of politics, or of his own chaotic love life, but to draw on those experiences and create a cosmic drama that was true to life. Each of his characters – Adam and Eve, but also God and Satan too – responds in a way that real human beings do. This “realisation” of the biblical figures, Greenblatt argues, played a critical part in the desacralisation of the myth, even in spite of Milton’s own theological commitments: “Adam and Eve had become so real in Milton’s imagination that they began to crack open the whole theological apparatus that brought them into being.”
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve is undoubtedly what scholars used to call a “whiggish” book: a study of western disenchantment, of intellectual progress, of the fading powers of the myths of a simpler age. But it is a more complex study than that. It is also an ode to human creativity and to the powerful grip of narrative. Greenblatt concludes his story with an account of his own visit to a chimpanzee project in Kibale, Uganda. Evolution is, of course, modern science’s answer to the question “where do we come from?” Evolution is a “myth”, not (assuredly) in the sense that it is untrue or irrational, but in the sense that it provokes the same awesome, vertiginous sense of peering into the deep well of time that Genesis once did. Whether the 21st century will find its Milton to express the power and reality of its new mythology remains to be seen.