Stephen Greenblatt gives Adam and Eve the benefit of the doubt in this enthralling study
We may be a godless lot, but our world remains hopelessly religious. As Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates in his enthralling, thrilling book about Genesis and its afterlife, myths that once compelled belief have dwindled into make-believe, but in the “post-truth” era fiction and fantasy still determine the lives of many – Islamic fanatics, members of the Jedi church, Trump loyalists – and make them bow down before false gods.
Stephen Greenblatt – a professor of humanities at Harvard, academically celebrated as the biographer of Shakespeare and the founder of the new defunct fashion in literary criticism known as the new historicism – here picks apart the most invidious and onerous of myths. Genesis devised a story that told us where we are, why we are here, and established rules for our conduct. Human history in the Christian west has been a long battle to come to terms with that tale, whose inflictions include a drastic ban on acquiring knowledge and a baleful sexual morality, with the pain of childbirth and inevitable death imposed by God as penalties for disobedience. Greenblatt follows Adam and Eve out of the garden and shows how they were loaded with an extra burden of guilt by St Augustine, who invented the vile notion of original sin to make us all take the blame for an impromptu erection that embarrassed him in the public baths. Greenblatt welcomes the redemption of Adam and Eve by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo or Dürer, who saw them as ideal physical specimens, not the harassed victims of a repressive God. Finally, a little relieved, he has Darwin kill them off.
Along the way, there is an often hilarious account of scholastic efforts to rationalise the myth’s illogic, and an array of entertaining heresies. From the evidence of fossils, a 16th-century French mathematician estimated that Adam was 123ft tall; another addled expert calculated that he lived to be precisely 930 years old. In the Talmud, a rabbi speculated that – before asking God to create a female partner for him – Adam tried sex with all the other animals. Iconographers worried whether he should be painted with a navel, since he had no mother. Luther asked why he followed Eve’s example and ate the forbidden fruit, and concluded that he did so to reject a slavish life of prayerful gratitude: in Luther’s dangerous words, it was his way of declaring “I hate God.”
What gives Greenblatt’s “intellectual adventure” its tension and excitement is a sense of his own divided loyalties. He begins, as if in Eden himself, with two youthful acts of rebellion. He ignores his mother’s warning that he must never cross a busy Boston road on his own, and even more wickedly he opens his eyes in the synagogue during a rabbi’s benediction because he wants to look God in the face. The first experiment passes off without accident; the second results in disillusionment. God, after all, was nowhere to be seen. Greenblatt realised he had been told a lie, but at the same time he discovered that mental development depends on breaking ancestral rules. Even so, he may have defrauded himself: wouldn’t it have been more comforting, despite the implicit threat, to go on believing that God was visible above the heads of the congregation?
That worry haunts this book. Is its research transgressive, putting at risk not religious belief but Greenblatt’s faith in the literary imagination? He is torn, as Milton and Darwin were, between respect for clear-eyed knowledge and reverence for the grand fabulations with which we redesign the messy, cheerless world. The more Milton humanised Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost – writing for them a quarrel which, Greenblatt says, will ring true to anyone with a spouse – the more he challenged God’s insistence that we should “know to know no more”. Darwin did not mind that his theorising about evolution undermined theology; what dismayed him was that his brain, now “a machine for grinding general laws”, could no longer appreciate Romantic poetry and found Shakespeare “intolerably dull”.
Stephen Greenblatt resolves the problem by effusively reaffirming his first love. He calls Paradise Lost “stupendous”, says that it is “impossible to account for rationally”, and even recommends that we should “take seriously” Milton’s claim that it was dictated to him by a celestial muse who made nightly visits to his bedside. Coming from an academic, this worship of genius is every bit as unusual as literal acceptance of Genesis would be.
Though Greenblatt knows that the biblical story is the source of our abiding unhappiness and self-dislike, he still wants to cling, as he says, to “the peculiar satisfaction that the ancient story provides”. His book, however, is written not to glorify God but to extol the defiant endeavours of human thinkers, and more generally to admire the self-help of a species that, rather than being created fully fashioned and set down in a fruitful garden, spent arduous aeons slowly acquiring “the fathomless complexities of toolmaking, art-making, language, and the capacity to reason”.
The journey is not only cerebral. Greenblatt is right to call his project an adventure, because it takes him from an ethnological museum at Harvard, where he inspects the skeletal remains of our remotest simian forebears, to the desert south of Tehran where he visits a replica of Eden – a dusty square planted with gnarled cedars, miraculously irrigated by a spring that gushes into a turquoise-tiled pool. It concludes in another, more savage Eden, a jungle – though Greenblatt politely calls it a forest – in a Ugandan national park. Here he studies the social and sexual habits of another family of Adams and Eves. They happen to be chimpanzees, and in Greenblatt’s view they enviably remain in the state of innocence, free from the onus of shame and guilt that Genesis imposed on humans.
He ends with an account of an adulterous coupling by two chimps, which after their secret assignation gently touch each other’s rumps and disappear into the thicket. The scene provokes Greenblatt to quote, as his book’s final line, Milton’s encouraging farewell to Adam and Eve on their expulsion from paradise: “The world was all before them.”
There’s an ironic reminiscence here of his earlier description of the weeping humans evicted from paradise by a bossy angel in a Renaissance painting by Masaccio: stripped, abject, “utterly unprepared” for a harsh future in an alien place, this Adam and Eve look like refugees, boat people on dry land. Greenblatt’s chimps, by contrast, scamper into a lush, fertile world that belongs to them. As we approach the end of human history, it’s good to be reminded that other species do not suffer from our neurotic hang-ups and our mortal dread. May they have better luck when, in our absence, the long travail of evolution resumes.
• The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt is published by the Bodley Head (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.