The Grasp of the Real

By Paul A. KottmanFebruary 1, 2018

The Grasp of the Real

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt

LONG BEFORE the creation of specialized academic disciplines, human ways of knowing — as Giambattista Vico put it — amounted to a “crude metaphysics,” or a “poetic wisdom.” Our earliest ancestors began trying to make sense of the world and themselves, Vico wrote, “with a metaphysic not rational and abstract like that of learned men now, but felt and imagined […] [t]his metaphysic was their poetry.”

Following in the trail blazed by Vico, Stephen Greenblatt’s new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, tells a gripping story about storytelling, a tale spun by the fortunes of one of the greatest stories ever told. Although “we have no idea when storytelling became one of our species’ characteristic accomplishments,” human beings cannot adequately understand themselves without grasping narrative responses to the basic question: “Where do I (or ‘we’) come from?” Because of its singularly powerful response to that question, the story of Adam and Eve remains an indispensable narrative achievement, crucial to understanding not only storytelling itself, but also the realities of “human responsibility and human vulnerability” on which the story touches.

That Greenblatt is himself an extraordinary storyteller will come as a surprise to no one familiar with his books. And here he treats us to absorbing accounts of Augustine and Milton — the anchors of the book — as well as Dürer, Darwin, and many others. I shall focus, however, on just one issue: the intertwinement of the fate of the story of Adam and Eve with the fate of storytelling itself as a form of human self-understanding, to which, as the book jacket alerts us, the work of the modern humanities is also tied.

It is often said that storytelling is essential to human life. Greenblatt starts from this premise, too: “Human beings cannot live without stories.” From this perspective, any scientific understanding of human life demands that we take storytelling to be a defining capacity of human beings, almost coeval with speech. And Greenblatt’s often tarries with this kind of “anthropological” approach, presenting storytelling as a distinguishing marker of the human. “[W]e think we know […] that pleasure-loving bonobos do not tell themselves, while grooming one another, a story about how the first bonobo male and female mated.”

An obvious problem with this approach is that it’s far too general — certainly too vague as a way of approaching the Adam and Eve story, much less a paradigm for what the humanities do. That the origins of storytelling are prehistorical, or that human beings still seem to tell stories, is true enough. But, beyond a functionalist account, that tells us nothing about why we might need stories (only that they are needed), much less about how certain stories, like that of Adam and Eve, respond to our need for them. Happily, Greenblatt’s book mostly avoids this initial route, and turns its sights toward a higher ambition.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve becomes most interesting when it sees storytelling not as a mere object of inquiry, but as itself a form of human inquiry. “[I]f we want to understand the way we are,” Greenblatt writes, then “there must be a story to tell” — that is, there must be “some history of decision, action and reaction,” and not just cosmic happenings. The need for storytelling, on this second view, springs from an ongoing apprehension of past actions as essential to our current self-understanding. Not just the chronicling or describing of things done, but — as Aristotle proposed — some mythic or narrative presentation of a significant action. “And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating […] and she took of its fruit and ate.”

Greenblatt does not stop here, though. Although he does not always make it explicit, it is certainly implicit to his account of Adam and Eve that Aristotle’s poetics of “plot” (mythos) — beginnings, middles, ends — is insufficient in at least one important respect. For it turns out that our need for certain forms of storytelling also has a beginning, middle, and end — stories themselves have a history, storytelling itself is historically presentable. Indeed, by telling us the story of the rise and fall of Adam and Eve, Greenblatt wants to regale us not with the tale of Adam and Eve, but with the story of the story of Adam and Eve, the rise and fall of our need for the tale itself.

Whence, then, our need for Adam and Eve?

Oversimplifying wildly, we could say that there are two basic kinds of knowledge. The first one is the “scientific” knowledge of how things are, of reality and facts. The second kind is “moral” knowledge of good and evil, the harmful and beneficial, the noble and the ignoble. In Genesis, as in many religious traditions, the second type — “moral-value knowledge” — takes priority. In the Garden of Eden, Eve desires knowledge of good and evil, and only after “the fall” is she forced to learn about reality. But the Western philosophical tradition, since Plato and Aristotle — and then after the Enlightenment — reverses this priority of moral knowledge over theoretical knowledge. Any moral knowledge to which we might aspire is a consequence of intellectual activity, of our efforts in grasping the way things really are — not the other way around. We do not determine what is good or bad on the basis of divine revelation or received “traditional wisdom,” but rather through our own rational effort.

Analogously, as Greenblatt shows, ancient debates over Adam and Eve — such as those that preoccupied the Church Fathers — once turned on how best to understand the “moral knowledge” revealed in the Adam and Eve story (which usually meant trying to figure out whether Genesis should be read “allegorically” or “literally”). But so long as the goal remained an interpretation of the moral meaning of the myth — “God’s revealed word” — the true “scientific” question could not yet be posed: what does the myth make sense of?

Because Greenblatt rightly sees our need for the tale as springing from certain elemental puzzles — sexual reproduction, love, work, moral responsibility, mortality — he understands the rise and fall of the story of Adam and Eve from Augustine to Milton to Darwin as a matrix for tracking our developing grasp of those same puzzles. The trajectory of his book bends toward seeing Adam and Eve not as a divinely revealed moral lesson, but as an ongoing attempt to make sense of reality, tumbling into the modern natural and human sciences.

The crucial moment in Greenblatt’s tale is thus the Enlightenment. With the rise of the authority of reason in modern societies, the artistic and religious life of Adam and Eve — the grand parade from Genesis and Augustine through Dürer and Michelangelo to Milton — finally became a thing of the past. At the same time, our past need for those artistic and religious presentations could itself finally be interrogated. “The Enlightenment has done its work,” writes Greenblatt. “The long, tangled history from archaic speculation to dogma, from dogma to literal truth, from literal to real, from real to mortal, from mortal to fraudulent, has ended in fiction.”

As Greenblatt rightly notes in the same passage, the Enlightenment did not just unmask the tale of Adam and Eve — with its snake, its magic — as a mere falsehood or a lie; it did not put an end to the myth. Rather, “the collective success” of Renaissance painters and poets in “thinking of Adam and Eve as real” had already brought the story to its culmination from within. Milton and Dürer and Michelangelo taught us that Adam and Eve are, really, a myth. If the natural sciences have driven home that Adam and Eve cannot be “real” in any literal sense, then the human sciences of art history and literary criticism reveal how artistic-religious works — and not just Darwin — prepared us for that lesson.

Our “esteem” for art — Hegel believed — does not fade but rather rises when art’s pastness comes into view. By this, I think, he meant to say that the significance of art (and religion) becomes vivid to us, and their importance in danger of disappearing from consciousness, at the moment they are seen to retreat into the past. Hegel saw in this danger the spark for the Geisteswissenschaften, the humanities. Greenblatt, too, notes that for us moderns, the “naked man and woman in the garden with the strange trees and the talking snake have returned to the sphere of the imagination from which they originally emerged.” But, he continues, “that return does not destroy their fascination or render them worthless […] [t]hey remain a powerful, even indispensable, way to think […] about human responsibility and human vulnerability.” I agree with this. But not because I think, as Greenblatt seems to, that Adam and Eve “hold open the dream of a return somehow, someday, to a bliss that has been lost.” Rather — and I see this as the most important lesson of Greenblatt’s book — only when we acknowledge that the “life” of the story of Adam and Eve remains in the past can the significance of the tale start to become vivid to us.

A leading question for the humanities today is whether we can see in art or storytelling not — as Milton saw in Paradise — a fantasy of blissful mutuality, but the probability that such fully realized bliss is nothing but fantastical. Reckoning with the ongoing demands of reciprocity in human affairs requires facing up to art’s and storytelling’s insufficiency with respect to that effort. For the modern humanities, then, the “rise and fall of Adam and Eve” matters as a searing reminder of unmet needs for mutuality. A memento of paradise lost, after stories and visions of paradise step to the side.


Paul A. Kottman is the author of Love as Human Freedom (Stanford, 2017). He is chair of Liberal Studies, and associate professor of Comparative Literature at the New School for Social Research.

LARB Contributor

Paul A. Kottman is the author of Love as Human Freedom (Stanford, 2017), Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare (Johns Hopkins, 2009) and A Politics of the Scene (Stanford 2008). He also edits the book series, Square One: First Order Questions in the Humanities (Stanford), and teaches at the New School for Social Research.


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