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The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve 1st Edition
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“With all his usual clarity and freshness, one of our foremost literary historians and critics sets out a comprehensive picture of how a story foundational for European civilization developed, from its origins in western Asia to its much-contested place in the post-Darwinian world… This is a rich, learned, lively book, which should engage all who are interested in the history of our imagination and the interweavings of faith, poetics, and philosophy.”
- Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury
“A rare combination of wide-ranging erudition with verve of exposition. Even the most familiar materials are seen in a fresh, and humane, light. This is a book that makes one understand why old myths matter, even when they perceived unblinkingly as myths.”
- Robert Alter, author of Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
“Bare then clothed, innocent then ashamed, blessed then cursed, sheltered then exiled. Stephen Greenblatt tracks Adam and Eve from an astute reading of the ancient origins of their story through a serendipitous tour of their afterlife in Jewish, Christian, and sometimes Muslim art, literature, and philosophy down to their post-Darwinian persistence in our own time. Endlessly illuminating and a sheer pleasure to read.”
- Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions
“[A]lmost dizzying in its scope; Greenblatt draws from history, religion, art and science, and he writes about all of these fields with infectious enthusiasm. It's a strikingly intelligent book, but it's also accessible; he's a clear, unpretentious writer who can hardly hide his fascination with the subject.”
- Michael Schaub, NPR Books
“Most modern theories of human civilisation are, fundamentally, about the need to deal with mortality. Stephen Greenblatt’s thrilling new book, however, on the peregrinations of the story of Adam and Eve – the world’s most influential attempt to arrest the infinite regress of creation – shows just how central the question of human origins has been to pre-scientific conceptions of humanity.”
- Tim Whitmarsh, Guardian
“Greenblatt’s particular genius is in synthesizing a vast array of knowledge, connecting the dots between anthropology, archaeology, biology, theology, history, philosophy, art and literature. . . . In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve he does this brilliantly, creating a compelling and nuanced account.”
- Patricia L. Hagen, Minneapolis StarTribune
About the Author
Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, he is the author of eleven books, including Tyrant, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story that Created Us, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, including Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, for both Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and The Swerve, the Sapegno Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale University Graduate School, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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Greenblatt begins his history with the Babylonian Captivity of the Jewish people after their conquest and expulsion from the land of Israel. Weeping by the waters of Babylon, the Jews were exposed to the chaotic religious beliefs of their captors, in which gods and goddesses cavorted, fought, and struggled for supremacy. In an effort to distinguish their own monotheistic worship the Jews created their own stories, relying on old teachings and traditions and sometimes borrowing ideas from the other peoples to whom they were exposed. Eventually these stories became the foundation for what is now known as the Old Testament.
Later on that foundation led to the rise of Christianity and Islam. Greenblatt does not spend much time dealing with Islamic traditions, his focus is on Western Christianity. He does a remarkable job of covering St. Augustine's influence on the development of Western theology and Adam and Eve's place in it, touches somewhat cursorily on medieval Christianity, then refocuses for another superb recapitulation of John Milton's influence. Moving from Milton through the Enlightenment, Greenblatt's next major emphasis is on Darwinism, finally finishing with a short epilogue dealing with chimpanzee societies in Uganda.
Some may fault Greenblatt for being too cursorial, but given the breadth and importance of the subject his choice must have been between a multivolume work versus this relatively brief (300 pages plus another 100 of Appendices, Notes, and Bibliography) summarization. Although the book may be a bit short given its subject it is nevertheless full of important insights. The humanity of the story, the emphasis on Adam and Eve's freedom to choose, the sense of loss, and the odd re-echoes in our own world, where DNA evidence points to a common heritage for all of humanity are all beautifully covered in Greenblatt's beautiful prose. A book to read and reread and ponder.
The footnotes are pretty good, but you have to work way to hard to meaningfully correlate them while you are reading the text.
I strongly recommend that readers consider this issue if they are, like me, avid footnote readers.
And, I recommend to Amazon if they read these comments, that it fix that problem. I have contacted Amazon and as best I understand their nonresponse, they have no interest in fixing it. They should do better for this book.
What turned out to be more interesting was Greenblatt’s treatment of the story as an historical idea, especially its uneasy status between mythology and literal fact with the faiths that adhere to it.
Greenblatt starts with historical context. I learned a lot here. The story as told in the Torah dates to the 5th century BCE. The Enuma Elish, from as early as the 18th century BCE, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, going back as far as 2100 BCE, not only predate Adam and Eve in some respects, they also provide a base to which the story responds.
For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the Sumerian creation story), man, once created, truly becomes man by joining the city of Uruk. Enikidu, the first man, becomes human by leaving the garden and joining the city — only by doing so does he become other than another wild animal.
Somewhat similarly, in the Enuma Elish, the role of the city is emphasized as Marduk, the creator, approves the creation of the city of Babylon.
By contrast, the story of Eden turns the relation between the garden and the city on its head — it is in the garden that Adam and Eve are their purist selves. It is only in their fallen state that they leave the garden, with their son, Cain eventually founding the city of Enoch. And of course, God punishes the city of Babylon with a proliferation of mutually unintelligible languages.
There are other apparently deliberate positions or decisions taken by the story of Adam and Eve that respond to cultural and historical context — an insistence on strict obedience to God, pridefulness as sin, a hierarchical relationship between man and woman, the moral prominence of shame, and the status of labor as a punishment (although it does appear that Adam and Eve may have tilled the soil of Eden).
Greenblatt discusses some of these aspects in depth, in historical interpretations given to them. He provides extended discussions of Augustine’s notion of “original sin” and of the historical treatment of Eve as primarily responsible for the fall.
But it is his discussion of attempts at literal interpretation of the story that most engaged my interest, especially as attempted by Augustine and Milton, and aided by the artists of the Renaissance.
There appears always to have been a spirit of interpretation of the story, and of Genesis in general, as allegorical or mythological, rather than literally true. But the pressure to strengthen the faith of believers such as Augustine and Milton produced successive attempts to articulate and defend the story as literally true. And these attempts figure critically in an historical decline in the significance of the story.
Greenblatt believes that the story of Adam and Eve may be a victim of its own success — that is, it became vulnerable as it became believed in that literal sense. Through the efforts of Augustine, the artists of the Renaissance, and Milton, the story was pushed toward a modern kind of realism — literal factuality. Greenblatt writes, “The collective success of all of these efforts by believers — the triumphant fulfillment of the old Augustinian dream of a literal interpretation — had an unintended and devastating consequence: the story began to die.”
It became subject to the same kinds of questioning that any factual account is subject. What evidence stands for or against its truth? What about the internal consistency of the story?
Then, in this context, skepticism could grow roots. Where did Cain’s wife come from, if Adam and Eve bore only two children, he and Abel? Where did the inhabitants of the city that Cain founded come from? How could Adam have named all the animals of the world in half a day? What should we make of the newly discovered peoples of the New World, who apparently did not participate in the shame of nakedness that was the consequence for all humans of Adam and Eve’s transgression? What of the apparent age of the world as implied by ancient documents of Greece and the Aztec artifacts discovered in the New World?
I suspect that Greenblatt is tracing also an increasing split in general between the mythical and the factual, a distinction that if not peculiar to the post-Enlightenment world, is at least more sharply drawn from that point forward. Those questions were always available to any literal interpretation of Genesis, but they were not asked in the same spirit in which they required reduction to fact. Pre-Enlightenment, Augustine had certainly wondered about some of those same questions, and about the very idea of a talking snake, a magical tree, etc., but he took belief and faith as a challenge to be met. His literal interpretation of the story seems an aggressive expression of faith, rather than, in a later post-Enlightenment spirit, a sorting out of the facts.
Greenblatt is clear that he thinks something is lost with the demise of the story’s standing, and I found his position at least somewhat persuasive. The story of Adam and Eve gave us a framework, if not always answers (or acceptable answers), to questions about freedom, knowledge, choice, innocence and guilt, responsibility, and much more. By contrast, the modern story of our descent from extinct hominins leaves those things largely untouched.
Some do draw social Darwinism from the ironically mythologized version of evolution — “survival of the fittest” in Herbert Spencer’s words. Others look for the origin of human morality in our ancestors and closest relatives, the apes. But the former is cynical, reminiscent of Thrasymachus’s ill-fated version of justice in Plato’s Republic — “the advantage of the stronger”. And the latter is, at best, unfinished business and seemingly a very messy story from which to draw guidance for moral thought.
It’s one thing to talk in generalities of an age of realism and fact. It’s another to show in some detail the evolution of one core component of western culture toward that age. By doing so, Greenblatt enables us to see, for better and for worse, how the role the story of Adam and Eve plays for us has changed.