'The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve', by Stephen Greenblatt - Review

By Leith, Sam | The Spectator, September 16, 2017 | Go to article overview

'The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve', by Stephen Greenblatt - Review


Leith, Sam, The Spectator


Steven Greenblatt's cultural road trip is a compelling story of myth, theology and belief

Trying to reconcile a belief in the literal truth of the Bible with the facts of the world as we observe it has never been the easiest of things. But heaven knows, people did try. Well enough known, I suppose, is the work of the 17th-century Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, who totted up all those begats to establish that the creation of the earth took place at six in the afternoon on 23 October 4005 bc. ('He added,' reports Stephen Greenblatt, 'that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday, November 10.') In like manner, in the 18th century, a French mathematician called Denis Henrion calculated, from a bunch of what were presumably dinosaur bones, that Adam had been 123' 8" tall and that Eve had been 118' 9".

In the 19th century Edmund Gosse, disconcerted by the growing evidence from the fossil record that things might not have gone quite as the Book of Genesis claims, reasoned triumphantly that if Adam had a navel (which he must have had, because he'd have looked weird without one), then God put it there -- and so the new discoveries of the geologists were like Adam's tummy-button. God put them there just to baffle and amuse us.

By the 19th century, though, people were prepared to greet this sort of speculation with open laughter. His peers never stopped giggling at poor old Gosse. Here was, if not the end, then the beginning of the end, to the story of Adam and Eve as it had been understood through much of Western history. But, as Stephen Greenblatt's gently punning title indicates, there was a rise before this Fall.

Greenblatt, a scholar of early modern literature and the inventor of something called 'the New Historicism', is a bit of an academic superstar in the United States. I first came across his work as an undergraduate, reading his superb Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980). He's interested in how literature fits into its cultural context -- and so, here, though he delves deftly and lucidly into theology, he's primarily interested in the literary power of the fable. He's writing the biography of a story on its journey through the culture.

And, as he sees it, the trajectory of that story is of one that was given force by the attempt to make it literal -- to body out the sketchy and paradoxical account in Genesis with real human detail; but, in turn, giving the fable tangible reality brought its contradictions more starkly into relief and so, in the end, did for it.

Were there two trees (Life, and the Knowledge of Good and Evil), or one? Were Adam and Eve mortal before they ate the fruit? How could they be punished for doing evil before they knew what evil was? What sort of language did they speak? How could Adam have named every animal in half a day (given, as one literal-minded commenter pointed out, 'thither must the Elephant come from the furthest parts of India and Africk, who are of a heavy and slow pace')? How come there was a woman for Cain to bump into when he pushed off for the Land of Nod? And what was the snake's beef, anyway?

The story went, as Greenblatt puts it, through a 'long, tangled history from archaic speculation to dogma, from dogma to literal truth, from literal to real, from real to mortal, from mortal to fraudulent'. In the end, 'the naked man and woman in the garden with the strange trees and the talking snake have returned to the sphere of the imagination from which they originally emerged'; yet they retain 'the life -- the peculiar, intense, magical reality -- of literature'.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. One of Greenblatt's most fascinating chapters deals with the origins and sources for the creation myth in Genesis itself: essentially, it emerged from the 'Babylonian woe'. Exiled in Babylon, the Hebrews were exposed to their hosts' written creation myth, the Enuma Elish, and the urban cult of their chief god, Marduk. …

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