Stephen Greenblatt: The Really Hard Questions About Human Existence

photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of nine books, including Will in the World and the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Swerve. Greenblatt is also the editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and The Norton Shakespeare. His new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, tracks how the biblical story of Adam and Eve has changed and adapted over time.

What's your history with the story of Adam and Eve, and how has your relationship to the creation myth changed over time?

I do not remember ever believing that Adam and Eve were our literal ancestors--neither my religiously observant parents nor my religious teachers suggested that--so I have no personal story of disillusionment. In important ways, my relationship with the story is the reverse: that is, I began with disbelief and only slowly came to understand how rich and compelling the creation myth is.

Why do you think belief in Adam and Eve's literal existence has been so persistent, despite all the scientific and intellectual developments you note in your book? Do you think it's possible for a literal-minded believer to appreciate your book?

I think that the story has persisted not because it is so simple, let alone simple-minded, but rather because it is, within a tiny compass, so complex. It manages to address the essential dilemmas of human existence: our experience of love and of suffering, our compulsion to violate prohibitions, our struggle to survive a harsh environment, our mortality. I have, as you note, no literal belief in the story, but I hope that a biblical literalist could in fact appreciate my book, even in the midst of the most serious disagreement.

You note that many have interpreted the story in ways that support misogynistic ideas. Do you think the story is inherently misogynistic, or is it truly a function of how it's interpreted?

Absolutely not, if by "inherently" you mean inevitably and inescapably. After all, among the earliest surviving traces of the story, as I note in my book, are the gnostic texts that argue that Eve is the actual hero.  If that could be claimed some 2,000 years ago, you can imagine how wide is the range of interpretive possibilities.  

Undertaking a book with such an epic scope naturally results in some stories being left out. Were there offshoots or eccentric takes on the creation myth that you would have liked to explore? I was a little disappointed Lilith didn't make the cut.

You are absolutely right. I also miss Lilith--though she does not appear in the biblical account--and I miss a whole raft of figures from Asherah, the Ugaritic queen of heaven, to the Egyptian Tefnut, who was created by masturbating, spitting or sneezing. I tried to keep focused on the story that I had to tell, but I was sorely tempted to wander down an infinite number of alleyways. I would be there right now, if I hadn't been so excited by the surprises I kept finding on the main road.

The story of Adam and Eve can seem simplistic when compared to the great works of literature. Do you think whoever compiled, edited or wrote the story should be considered a literary genius, comparable to Shakespeare or Milton?

Absolutely. I could not admire Rembrandt and Picasso more, but the person who painted the bison on the walls of the cave in southern France, 35,000 years ago, was as much of a genius as either of those masters. The Adam and Eve story--or rather the two stories woven together at the beginning of Genesis--are among the greatest creations in world literature.

You begin with Adam and Eve's origin in the Torah as a response to the Babylonian captivity, but the succeeding chapters largely concern Christians' relationship to the myth. Why did Christians seem to engage more fervently with the story than other religions?

Notwithstanding its Hebrew origin, the Adam and Eve story as we know it is in effect a Christian story. The Jews were far more deeply committed to the story of Abraham, the founder of the religion, than to the story of the first humans.

There were two reasons, I think, for the special fascination that the Adam and Eve story had for Christianity. First, it spoke to the universality that Christianity claimed--not the history of a particular people, chosen by God, but redemption (or damnation) of the whole of humanity.  Second, it spoke to the role of Jesus, as interpreted by Paul--the savior who as the "second Adam" redeemed mankind from the curse brought on by the disobedience of the first Adam.

Do you think there is a certain universality to how people conceive of their origins (à la The Hero with a Thousand Faces)?

The world is a big place, and there are many different ways to imagine the origin of our species.  But we all share certain features:  a prolonged childhood in which we acquire language and learn what we can and cannot do; a need for food and shelter; the reaching of puberty and the experience of sexuality and reproduction; death. Given this repertory, it is predictable that many origin stories bear at least some resemblances to one another. But I am at least as much struck by the variety as by the resemblances.

Allegory seems like such a simple, elegant solution for the theological problems that biblical literalism caused for great minds like Augustine and Milton. Why was it so important to them that Adam and Eve be read as literally true? How did such intelligent people grapple with the cognitive dissonance literalism must have caused?

Ah, this is the subject of much of my book. I argue that a lot depends on Augustine himself--on his peculiar compulsions, both personal and theological. I will not rehearse my arguments here, but I would add that I think Augustine and Milton somehow found what you call the cognitive dissonance thrilling. That is, difficult as was the task they set themselves, they saw the route of allegory as too easy--too prone to paper over the really hard questions about human existence.

In writing about Milton and Augustine, it seems like you gave some thought to the psychology that lies behind their interpretations of scripture. Do you think it's fair to say that their ideas owe just as much to individual personality and Freudian influences as intellectual rigor?

I argue that the story of the story of Adam and Eve depends on a succession of personal commitments. Of course, there are thousands and thousands of such commitments over many centuries--that is, how the story was transmitted across such a vast span of time--but certain key figures became so deeply engaged with it, body and soul, that they managed not merely to continue its transmission but to transform its significance.

I do not think that in Augustine (or Dürer or Milton) there is a separate, explanatory "Freudian key" any more than there is a separate, explanatory theological key. There is a total presence of the whole remarkable (and often disturbing) human being.

What about the story of Adam and Eve still resonates in the present day? Is it still a useful guide for understanding human nature?

As I try to make clear, I am fascinated by our own evolutionary account of human origins, an account that I believe to be the "truth," even though I recognize that today's scientific truth will at some point look quaint and half-mythical.  But our account is still quite new--Darwin's Descent of Man was published in 1871, not even 150 years ago--and many of the problems with which the Adam and Eve story tries to grapple are barely addressed by it at all. We still await our Augustine and our Milton, who after all came many centuries after the Adam and Eve story was first created.

The biblical story focuses our attention in an utterly brilliant way on the paradoxes of our moral universe: our sense that humans are at once utterly innocent and utterly guilty; that we are somehow responsible for what we could not possibly have known and do not completely fathom; that we experience labor and death as if they were terrible punishments for something we have done; that we crave forgiveness. --Hank Stephenson


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