If you Google “Adam and Eve,” the top result is a sex toys franchise, followed by a hair salon, a film, a TV show and several hotels.
The Genesis story makes its first appearance midway down page two: clear evidence of the “Fall” part of the title of Stephen Greenblatt’s new book, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.”
Yet this strange little story of a talking snake, forbidden fruit and loss of Paradise has engaged theologians (Jewish, Muslim and Christian), scholars, philosophers, artists, poets, and ordinary people for more than a millennium because “the story of Adam and Eve … addresses who we are, where we came from, why we love and why we suffer.”
Because the Adam and Eve story is short (only about a page and a half in the King James Bible) and quite thoroughly lacking in detail and motivation (the words “sin,” “fall,” “Satan,” and even “apple” are conspicuously absent from the text), “the range of possible meanings is wide open.”
Greenblatt’s fascinating book traces the history of the meanings — and the implications — the story has accrued over the centuries.
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. (His last book, “The Swerve,” won the Pulitzer Prize.)
In “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” he does this brilliantly, creating a compelling and nuanced account of the way this little story “has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny.”
The book begins with context for the shaping of the Torah, then explores early readings of the Adam and Eve story, rabbinical and Christian, demonstrating how the story was puzzling from the beginning: What language did the snake speak? If Adam and Eve’s eyes weren’t open until the Fall, how could Adam see the animals to name them?
Puzzlement led to skepticism about the literal truth of the narrative, which in turn led to competing allegorical interpretations; in the Renaissance, the tides turned again toward literality in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving “The Fall of Man” and, of course, John Milton’s epic “Paradise Lost.”
Greenblatt delineates these contesting readings with wit, subtlety and dramatic flair, bringing them to life by showing what was at stake in the real world of ethics, politics and dogma.
His greatest achievement here is his deep cultural analysis of key texts — theological, literary and visual.
St. Augustine’s obsession with a literal interpretation of Adam and Eve, for example, resulted not only in the doctrine of Original Sin but was also used to authorize rampant misogyny and even witch hunts. Images of Mary triumphing over Eve often depicted Mary with saints and Eve with Jews, justifying the notion that anti-Semitism is a Christian virtue.
Greenblatt closes by discussing the way in which the European discovery of New World natives, Voltaire’s skepticism and, finally, Darwin’s evolutionary theory combined to create today’s widespread dismissal of Adam and Eve as anything more than fiction — and a great name for a sex toys franchise.
If Greenblatt is correct in claiming “These few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires,” perhaps a Google search tells us more than we really want to know about who we are at this moment.
Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
By: Stephen Greenblatt.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 419 pages, $27.95.