'The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve' by Stephen Greenblatt: An age-old story, still powerfully relevant

Chicago Tribune

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain had fun with the story of Adam and Eve, writing in “Extracts From Adam’s Diary” about the first man’s confusion over the sudden appearance of the first woman:

“This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don't like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals …. Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain …. WE? Where did I get that word — the new creature uses it.”

Such playfulness, though, gives no hint of the two-and-a-half millenniums during which the Bible account of the first people in the Garden Eden was taken very seriously, even to the point of life and death, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.”

Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the general editor of “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” has written a book that is thoughtfully readable and deeply erudite, a book steeped in humanity and in the unending efforts of humans to figure out who they are and why their lives are filled with pain, struggle and death.

The account of Adam and Eve, once seen as literal fact, is now viewed by most as an act of faith and imagination that tries to describe the indescribable — the birth of homo sapiens. For Greenblatt, it is a great work of art, one of the greatest stories ever written.

In Genesis, he notes, Adam was given life when God breathed into his nostrils. “There is a powerful truth encoded in that mythic scene. At some moment in an immensely distant past it was a breath that brought Adam to life, the breath of a storyteller.”

Before Adam and Eve, other Middle Eastern cultures had developed their own origin stories. Some aspects of those tales, such as the great flood, were worked into Genesis, which was put into writing in the 5th century B.C., in part, to counter those other narratives.

From the start, the biblical account, sparse and poetic, raised difficulties for readers: Why did the one God say, “Let us make a human in our image”? What language was spoken by Adam and Eve (and God)? How could a snake talk? For some, the solution was to see the story as an allegory, a metaphor for a profound mystery.

The Christian church establishment’s rejection of that approach culminated in the writings of St. Augustine in the 5th century. His emphasis on the literalness of the story, which led him to the idea of original sin, had its roots, Greenblatt writes, in an exceedingly embarrassing involuntary erection the teenaged Augustine experienced while at the public baths with his father.

In all his brilliance, Augustine saw lust as the one thing that a human could not control through will and intelligence. It was the sin that, for him, was at the heart of the Adam and Eve story, or, as Greenblatt puts it, “Human sinfulness is a socially transmitted disease.”

Down the centuries, the efforts to portray the first parents as real reached a milestone in 1504 when Albrecht Durer produced his vividly masterful engraving “The Fall of Man.” Easily and quickly reproduced, this work made it possible for the masses to see what Adam and Eve looked like, at least as Durer envisioned them.

Another milestone was John Milton’s 1667 epic poem “Paradise Lost” in which, notes Greenblatt, “Adam and Eve took on a more intense life — the life both of fully realized individuals and of a married couple — than they had ever possessed in the thousands of years since they were first conceived.”

But these achievements eventually backfired, since they raised again the questions about the discrepancies in the Genesis account — and at a time when scientific discoveries were making the claims of Scripture seem more and more absurd.

Nonetheless, Greenblatt asserts that the Adam and Eve story, far from fading from the world culture, has vital importance today. In its seeming simplicity, it expresses core human issues and remains “a powerful, even indispensable, way to think about innocence, temptation, and moral choice, about cleaving to a beloved partner, about work and sex and death.”

Patrick T. Reardon is the author of eight books, including “Faith Stripped to Its Essence,” a literary-religious analysis of Shusaku Endo's novel “Silence.”

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