The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

The garden, the man, the rib, the woman. The command, the apple, the snake, the expulsion into pain and death. The story of the couple in the primal garden is a sequence of scenes so ancient and familiar we may think we “know” it as we know ourselves — and in fact, as Stephen Greenblatt argues in his richly woven new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, it is a story that’s so compelling that once we hear it, it feels impossible to forget. But the fact that we all recognize the outlines of this odd origin myth doesn’t make it any less strange. Why would God, so generous in his initial creation, so immediately and pointedly tempt the people he himself had just made? If the people were made in God’s image, how could they not already know good from evil? Why a snake? Why a rib? Didn’t the all-knowing actually know he was creating curious souls? In this rich book, Stephen Greenblatt plays tour guide to some of the story’s enduring oddness. With him, we can unpeel layers of history and try to encounter the myth as it emerges and evolves along with our culture.

This means starting at the beginning, so to speak, in the landscape into which and against which the myth was created. It means traveling through the ways it has been used — to separate Jews from those around them; to cement the notion of Original Sin in early Christianity; to make humans fall so that they can — in graceful medieval counterpoint — later be saved by Jesus. Adam and Eve’s shame has been used to justify the oppression of peoples who may not have had reason to be ashamed of their nakedness; Eve’s eating of the fruit has been used to justify a forceful misogyny that has held all women through all time responsible for Eve’s error. Greenblatt explores these foundations, illuminating histories, variants, art, and historic exegesis, so that the origin myth itself re-forms as a forked garden of weird possibility.

There is the section where Greenblatt reminds us that in Islam, Adam and Eve are not a sinful counterpoint used to set the stage for later salvation, but figures of error, and later of both stewardship and prophetic illumination. (In that version, Eve was not tempted by a serpent but by a particularly beautiful camel.) There is a long chapter in which Greenblatt invites us to see Adam and Eve as a creation myth in comparison to what it is not — namely, a story like Gilgamesh, where coming to the city and meeting prostitutes (as opposed to eating fruit and getting kicked out of a garden) is the fundamental civilizing act. There are two chapters about Augustine’s childhood that feel like fascinating divagation until Greenblatt ties them together to let us know how Augustine (who himself apparently had fathered a child out of wedlock and then banished the mistress he loved) helped cement the idea of Original Sin. There are trips through Renaissance art studios, with an especially nice cameo of Dürer crafting his own naked body as a possible study for the original man. And there are several chapters about Milton’s basic antisocial character and his own first bad marriage that help set the groundwork for understanding how the late-blooming poet was finally able to craft Adam and Eve so beautifully within Paradise Lost.

In short, this is a book of stories about a story, stories that help us see the way a story is a river that also takes on the shapes of what it flows by, even when it eventually encounters such formidable challengers as Darwin. Or, to float another metaphor, it’s a book that reminded me of the Hebrew Bible’s concept of Midrash, where interpretive stories enclose and nest and build upon biblical stories, so that the story about the story becomes integral to finding ones way back to the story itself. Writing about Dürer, Greenblatt remarks that his 1503 “nude self-portrait bears witness . . . to the search for the original, the essential body.” Greenblatt’s book is not autobiographical, exactly, but one does sense in it the hunger to strip the story away from all the vines that have come to cling to it. Greenblatt wants to peer back through both vine and story to see what each tells us about our strange, unusual humanity. In some ways, the modernity that has made the story seem smaller is itself small in comparison to the centuries of belief that preceded it. And the story as story remains puzzlingly unforgettable. Even when it falls, it lives on.