Why Mythologies Like Adam and Eve Are Such Good Thinking Tools
Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning.
Greenblatt is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, has edited seven collections of criticism, and is a founding editor of the journal Representations. His honors include the 2016 Holberg Prize from the Norwegian Parliament, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award for The Swerve, MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize (twice), Harvard University’s Cabot Fellowship, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, 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.
Among his named lecture series are the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt, the University Lectures at Princeton, and the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, and he has held visiting professorships at universities in Beijing, Kyoto, London, Paris, Florence, Torino, Trieste, and Bologna, as well as the Renaissance residency at the American Academy in Rome. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and a long-term fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Philosophical Society.
Stephen Greenblatt: I think the first thing to say about the story of Adam and Eve is it’s one of innumerable origin stories. It happens to be the most celebrated, the most famous and powerful origin story in our culture, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but it’s only one of many, many origin stories. It seems to be something that our species does; and as far as we know other species don’t do it. I don’t think that chimpanzees ask questions about the origin of chimpanzees, or bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, but we do ask, “Where did we come from? What were the first ones of our species?” And this appears to be a universal phenomenon in culture, to ask about origins. So this is a crucially significant version of the kind of story that is generated. And we might ask, “Why? Why do we want to know? Why don’t other creatures want to know?”
Well, I think there are a number of different explanations—one is our insatiable curiosity, including something like scientific curiosity. Another is our uneasiness, perhaps, about ourselves and the course of our existence: Why is it so hard? Why do we have to labor? Why do we weeds grow in the fields and we have to clear them out in order to get food from the ground? Why can’t we just get everything we need naturally? Why do women scream in pain when they give birth to offspring—a totally natural event that is part of the replication of the species? Why are men so miserable to women, and why do they put up with it? And, maybe above all, why do we die?
So the story addresses these in an incredibly powerful though difficult way, but in very, very tight compass it addresses those questions and more in a way that human beings appear to want and need, as a way of orienting themselves in the world, as a way of understanding their fate.
The fact that the first humans are in a garden where they’re told that they can eat of any tree that they want—they’re vegetarians—and they can eat of any tree in the garden except for one, which they are prohibited from eating. And it happens that the one tree that they’re prohibited from eating is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was noticed a very long time ago, say several thousand years ago, that it’s a problem to be prohibited from eating of the tree that will enable you to distinguish between good and evil, since distinguishing between good and evil is presumably what enables you to observe the prohibition in the first place!
So that problem bothered people right away, or at least maybe not right away but at least 2,000 years ago. And then we have various other problems: they’re warned that they will die if they violate the prohibition. He doesn’t explain, unfortunately, what that means, and since there had been—as far as we know—no death in the world up to that point, it must have been rather perplexing. I sometimes think of Adam hearing this for the first time and thinking, “I don’t really know what he means, but next time I talk to him I’ll ask him, what do you mean by "die"?” But in any case we don’t get any explanation given to the first humans as to what it is they’re being told to beware of.
And in fact when they encounter the talking snake, when the woman encounters the talking snake, the talking snake says, “No, you’re not going to die, you’ll become like a god.” He denies that the punishment will be death. And you could say that immediately after the man and woman eat, they don’t die, so they keep going on, and this is a problem that actually puzzles many early commentators: why don’t they die immediately since they were warned that they would die?
It’s a perfect instance of something that I think should puzzle us and interest us: why is it that when we look around or when we look at the polls that are conducted of our own fellow citizens, men and women in the United States, but also more broadly in the world, so many people profess to believe in the literal truth of this literally unbelievable story.
And we could shrug and say it’s religious dogma, we could say it’s stupidity or gullibility, but I’m not inclined to say any of those things. I think that this is an incredibly powerful story. It’s very good to think with. I think it’s extremely naïve to believe that any of us can live without narrative, without stories, without myths. We don’t. Even those people who think that they’re not living with myths—maybe Spock on Star Trek, but people don’t live lives like that. We need ways of orienting ourselves in the world, and this is one of the great instances in the history of our civilization, an instance of a very complex kind, with good sides and bad sides, of people orienting themselves in the world.
I'm not the least bit surprised that millions of people in our world—despite the evidence of genetics, despite the evidence of geology—nonetheless cling to a belief in this story.
When I am reading or looking at an image or a painting or listening to music, I try to make myself as alert as possible to what I don’t get, what seems to me not to be working or to puzzle me or not to make sense. And sometimes it actually just doesn’t make sense; all right we leave it at that.
But actually I think often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging—not the thing you want to let your eyes slide over and go onto the part that looks super familiar and easy.
So for myself, and since I’m a teacher I encourage my students to be alert to the stuff that doesn’t fit, that looks weird, and to think about why it looks weird and to pay some attention to that. Because our temptation as readers and as lookers, listeners, our temptation is just to seize—like flailing in the ocean—to seize on what we are familiar with already, but then that tends to give you what you already know. I’m interested in what we don’t know.
The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
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