The Pulitzer and National Book Award winner considers the enduring appeal and manifold interpretations of the biblical account of the first humans’ expulsion from paradise.
“How does something made-up become so compellingly real?” asks Greenblatt (Humanities/Harvard Univ.; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, 2011, etc.), positioning himself as a secular-minded admirer of a story that religious thinkers for millennia have struggled to fit within a coherent theological framework. The author notes that this tale of humanity’s origins was uncomfortably reminiscent for many early Christians of the pagan creation myths they scorned as absurd: the talking snake, the arbitrary deity, all those animals named in one day, etc. Some, like the Alexandrian scholar Origen Adamantius, tried to frame the story as an allegory about the evolution of the soul, but the interpretation that triumphed was that of St. Augustine, who insisted that the story of Adam and Eve was literally true. From that assertion flowed the concept of original sin, the denigration of sex, and the powerful strain of misogyny (it was all Eve’s fault) that characterized the Catholic Church for centuries. During the Renaissance—Greenblatt’s focus as a scholar and the subject of this book’s best pages—artists like Albrecht Dürer and writers such as John Milton sought to give the rebellious couple of Genesis a palpable human reality in images and literature, most thrillingly in Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost. When Greenblatt moves on to the challenges to belief in the literal truth of the Bible posed by Enlightenment philosophers and 19th-century scientists (culminating with Darwin’s The Origin of Species), his narrative speeds up and loses focus. The author seems to be making an argument for the enduring power of stories while decrying fundamentalism, but his point isn’t clear, and a final chapter positing a chimpanzee pair in Uganda as a present-day Adam and Eve is simply odd.
Many fine passages charged with Greenblatt’s passion and talent for storytelling can’t disguise the fact that he’s not quite sure what story he’s trying to tell here.