Tuesday 19 November 2019

The first 'first couple'

Non-fiction: The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt, Bodley Head, hardback, 365 pages, €28

Adam and Eve. Found in the collection of Courtauld Institute of Art, London. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Adam and Eve. Found in the collection of Courtauld Institute of Art, London. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt

Darragh Mcmanus

A thought-provoking book about the origins of the Adam and Eve story manages to go a long way to explaining the peculiar satisfaction millions of people continue to derive from this scientifically debunked parable.

Despite doing a degree in the subject, 'straight' history books leave me cold. I've hardly read more than five since leaving college.

My problem is that they focus, almost exclusively, on power and war. You know the sort of thing: the rise and fall of kings, this battle and that battle, the transfer of rule back and forth, back and forth, across centuries in the most meaningless, dismal game mankind (it usually is men) ever invented. It's monotonous, depressing and reductive; there's so much more to human life, and to history, than this.

I far prefer books like The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, which take a central theme to explore certain currents and flows in the tides of history. In this case, it's the ­biblical tale we all know: the original people, ­Garden of Eden, a serpent, forbidden fruit, and finally, our banishment from Paradise.

Pulitzer-winner Stephen Greenblatt ­describes Adam and Eve as "the most durable and hauntingly real (story) of all time". Is he right in that? Well, yes and no.

On one hand, gigantic swathes of humanity lived, for millennia, outside the Abrahamic tradition. China, Japan, much of Africa, South-East Asia, the Americas: while they have their own creation myths, this specific story - fashioned by a small tribe of exiled Hebrews in 5th-century BC Babylon - means next to nothing. (Many Asian religions, for instance, don't even have a similar concept of the universe "beginning", then marching inexorably forward to "end days"; time for them is more cyclical and ambiguous.)

On the other hand, for "people of the book" - which is anyone, believer or not, from Judaeo-Christian, Islamic or Jewish sociocultural backgrounds - Adam and Eve is a powerful, fundamental part of that story we tell ourselves, about ourselves.

Whether taught the dogma as a child and still believing, or merely using concepts like The Fall as a metaphor for some intrinsic wrongness in humankind, we're all familiar with it, on a deeply subconscious level. We constantly draw on elements from the story for conceptual or abstract use, even as we might kick against religion and its many grievous flaws.

As Greenblatt shows, much of this is down to the fact that, for much of recorded history, Adam and Eve wasn't regarded as a story at all: it was considered a stone-cold fact. He isolates two people probably most responsible for how profoundly it's become embedded in our thinking: St Augustine and John Milton.

During Augustine's time - 4th and 5th centuries AD - many leading Christian intellectuals pooh-poohed Adam and Eve. While in no doubt as to God's existence and wondrousness, the specific details of the story weren't to be taken literally.

This outlandish fable, with its talking snake and petulant God - who'd created Adam from actual mud, like some lowly labourer - was obviously allegory. It contained important truths, yes, but was nonetheless a parable.

For various reasons, though, the literal reality of Adam and Eve was vital to Augustine. He was a very weird guy - perhaps not so weird by the standards of the time - but also incredibly gifted.

His intellectual brilliance carried the day in this theological struggle: Adam and Eve was cast in stone as the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth, for over 1,000 years.

By Milton's arrival in the 17th century, that stone was beginning to crack. The Renaissance, Reformation and, especially, discovery of the New World were forcing intelligent people to question their ideas. How was it possible, for example, that an entire continent of people had remained unaware of the origin of man?

Milton, too, believed in the literal truth of Adam and Eve. And in his epic poem 'Paradise Lost' - one he claimed to have more-or-less "channelled" every day in a dreamlike fog - his literary genius made Adam and Eve feel more vivid, more alive, than they ever had. (Greenblatt notes, amusingly, how Milton also made Satan so vibrantly realistic that he had to reduce the bad guy's appearances in latter sections.)

Later we meet figures such as Voltaire and Darwin, whose scepticism or scientific discoveries wobbled the legend's foundations; eventually the edifice shattered. The book concludes with modern-day geology and zoology which prove, conclusively, that Adam and Eve never existed.

The human race didn't descend from them. We couldn't have, it's not possible in this universe.

Nowadays, the only people who take it as anything but a richly metaphorical folktale are fundamentalists, in denial of provable reality.

And yet, as Greenblatt writes near the end: "Millions of people in the world, including many who grasp the underlying assumptions of modern science, continue to cling to the peculiar satisfaction that the ancient story provides. I do."

Personally, I don't - but I understand, to some extent at least, those who do, thanks to this erudite, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and elegantly fashioned book.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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