The Sense of Life in What Humans Create: Stephen Greenblatt on Adam and Eve

STEPHEN GREENBLATT, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, is known to general readers primarily for his writing on Shakespeare, but also for The Swerve, his award-winning book on Lucretius, and his work on various Renaissance figures. In academia he is both celebrated and pilloried for helping to found the New Historicism, an interdisciplinary approach to literature, influential in the 1980s and 1990s, that considers texts in historical context.

Greenblatt’s latest work is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, which looks at one of the key stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition as it worked its way through literature, thought, history, visual art, and religious dogma, century after century.

He spoke to me from Philadelphia, a stop on his cross-country book tour.


SCOTT TIMBERG: I never thought a book about the Bible could be so much fun.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: I’m delighted to hear it, thank you! So far, so good. I expected a little bit, predictably, that I would run in choppy water, but so far it’s good.

Well, let’s talk a little about Adam and Eve, and how this story has changed over the years. As a young religious skeptic, I thought, “This is why, in the West, we distrust women, why we’re afraid of sex, and why we’re suspicious of knowledge.” (I was probably reading Voltaire at the time.) I know I’m simplifying a complex story, but how much of that has passed through to us in the 21st century?

You were a precocious kid! I think that I would’ve said, at least in America, all three of those areas were serious parts of the afterlife of the story. I don’t think they’re necessarily in the story itself, but they’re part of the reception of the story. I think all of those have very significantly weakened.

I mean, talk to a feminist, you might get a different account, but I don’t think that someone who feels on the front line that way — or, let’s say, Hillary Clinton, for the purpose of this conversation — would feel that it’s Eve who’s done it to her. There’s no doubt that there are very strong currents of misogyny, as there is a fear and dislike of knowledge, and there’s anxiety about sex; and they were all three figured in the work that the story of Adam and Eve did over time. They may be way deep in the groundwater, but no one’s going to cite them and say, “I don’t want a woman president because of what Eve did.”

Part of what’s fascinating about your book is the way the story has been interpreted so many ways. It’s like this cultural Rorschach test, where you have monks and theologians, and rabbis, and mystics, and everyone offering their own sense of the meaning of it. It’s sort of what we used to call, in the days of Deconstruction, an open signifier, or something like that, right?

It certainly is a screen onto which a lot of people have projected what they wanted to.

Give us a sense of how radically different the interpretations of Adam and Eve have been over the last 2,500 years.

I mean, there are obviously huge differences in how the three monotheists tend to process it. The Muslims tend, quite interestingly, not to excoriate Eve, and to hold both Adam and Eve responsible, but not to think they’ve introduced unspeakable catastrophe into human life forever. To them, Adam, in some sense, anticipates Muhammad as the Prophet.

The Jews, have, as usual, kind of a “two Jews, three opinions” response to this. Rabbis have a wild range of views, very early Rabbis as well as more recent ones, and they really run the gamut. But they include strange and wonderful stories. Including, I think, some of the most remarkable early Rabbinic commentary suggests that it wasn’t finished in the Garden of Eden at all. It comes up, I don’t know if this is in the book or not, that a skeptic asks an early Rabbi why Adam wasn’t circumcised and the Rabbi said, “Well, you can’t get perfect right away.” And I said, wow, that’s a wild response in relation to the Christian tradition of everything being at its absolute height in Eden and only going downhill since.

Right, this was paradise, and they were kind of the ideal human beings.

Every bit of them, physically, mentally, spiritually, so forth and so on. Anyway, there is a very wide range of views about those three subjects.

On Eve, for example, or on women, there is certainly a very strong, and unhappy, and long misogynistic tradition. But there are also people early on — it tends to be more women than men — who say, “Look, creation is rather progressive, that just as humans come at the end because they’re best, Eve appears at the end because she’s better, she was created in the garden.” And then they point out that there’s not a lot of evidence for the strong misogynistic reading in the Bible.

And there are certainly people who said, very early on, that Eve was the hero of the story. That, to me, is what’s most jaw-dropping — the early intervention in that regard. There’s a long and very orthodox tradition of thinking that human knowledge was at its absolute peak in paradise, and that all of education is an attempt to recover what the first humans knew. That’s what Milton thought the whole purpose of education was, and Francis Bacon, of all people, seemed to think the same thing: that it was about getting knowledge back — not fearing knowledge, but getting it back.

And then … what was our third one … oh, sex! And so, you know, we also get the notion that runs the gamut from thinking that it was meant to be simply sexual reproduction without pleasure, and then thinking it was the best sex ever.

What have artists made of the creation story?

Of course, we’re talking now about Christians, because Jews and Muslims both have a provision against graven images. But for Christians, it was, how shall we say it, a godsend, because they found a way, in the wake of the conversion from paganism — they found a way not simply to scrap completely the vast pagan representations of the human body …

Right, it allowed, or required a kind of eroticism or at least respect for the flesh, love of the flesh.

That might be a little strong in the early years. I think what’s actually very striking about the earliest interpretations is that, for the most part — even though the artists are people who would have been exposed to the glorious naked bodies of gods and goddesses and young men in the gymnasium — the representations that they made of the supposedly perfect people of the beginning of time show them, on the whole, to be hunched-over, hollowed-out, looking ashamed of themselves. And, even when they’re in paradise, they’re shown looking a little uncomfortable.

And, it’s easy to look at those things and think, “Oh, that’s just a convention of art,” but actually, you’re looking at things that are done when they’re still doing the other thing too, so this is an ideological gesture, this is a way of marking a difference from the pagans. But eventually they were able to represent the whole human body, as it were.

We’re talking about the Renaissance?

Well, it starts to happen in the Middle Ages too, but tentatively. It was a very complex negotiation with what I call in my book the rule of shame, and gradually that rule is eased, in effect, so that there are more and more representations of Adam and Eve before the fall, and actually looking quite splendid. You know, we somehow take it for granted that humans have always admired the beautiful bodies.

Isn’t that something we date back to the Greeks?

Absolutely, but then that Greek approach to representation came under attack by the Jews, and the Christians, and the Muslims, all of whom had a bone to pick.

Speaking of the pagans, my layman’s sense is that we can usually find pagan roots for a lot of what occurs in the Old Testament and the New Testament, whether we’re talking about the crucifixion or the resurrection, but that Adam and Eve are really distinctive. This really is a unique Judeo-Christian idiom.

Well, there’s a yes and no to that, because one Mesopotamian version of the creation is that human beings were made from clay, sometimes adding a bit of spit, and they were put down in a garden. So far so good, as it were, but they were put down in the garden to work, really work — not simply to tend the garden, but to dig irrigation ditches for the gods; that’s why they were created. And that’s a much older version, as far as we know, than the Hebrew version, so something about making people out of clay and putting them in a garden was already floating around, as it were, in that part of the world. But then the Hebrews do something quite unexpected: God doesn’t need the work.

And then there is, in the Mesopotamian tradition, the idea of humans being punished, of death coming into the world, but in that case it’s because humans make so damn much noise. They’re keeping the principal god up — he wants to have a nap in the afternoon! And again, the Hebrews have god getting quite angry with humans and punishing them, but not because he can’t sleep in the afternoon. I kind of like the Mesopotamian version. It sounds kind of delicious to me …

At the end of the book, you include other creation myths. If history had gone another way, Gilgamesh could be our story …

Yes, we could have had a bromance at the beginning of it all.

I only recently read Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Gilgamesh, and it’s amazingly bizarre, and sexual, and gripping … You sort of wonder what kind of culture would have evolved if that had been the founding myth …

Absolutely, it’s kind of like the speculations that began this conversation, a wonderful place to play. Paris Review have published one of the things that my wonderful editor, Norton, made me throw away: a set of alternative versions of the Adam and Eve story which I had written out. Many, many — an absurd number of them, I just got carried away and I had fun doing them.

This book is very wide-ranging: we’re in North Africa here, and Babylon there, and then with Columbus in the “New World” … What was the most intellectually fun part of your research?

“The most” is a little hard, because there are so many moments, each of which I found crazily gripping. And they’re not all early. I found wonderful and wacky readings — that the serpent is the hero, for example. And I love the Mesopotamian things, and crazy Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676) making a fuss in Sunday school about pre-Adam life was incredibly interesting …

Right, he was the guy who said clearly there were other people who had set up the land of God?

He’s a Sunday school teacher’s worst nightmare, the little kid who will not stop asking crazy questions. You tell him to shut up and he’s still hassling. Eventually the Pope told him to shut up and he finally did, but it took a major effort.

Well, it’s funny for anyone who thinks that Christianity has ever been unified or had a consensus, because you get a real sense of all the fighting and banishing and discrediting, and heresies, and just a whole wild mix of ideas.

Religion encourages this kind of thing, I suppose, but the philosophical ambition of Christianity is quite distinct … Not that the Jews and the Muslims aren’t ambitious intellectually, but in different ways. Both traditions have this open argument quality, but the Christians, because, I guess, of their immersion in Greek philosophy, really did commit themselves to coming up with an intellectually coherent theology. That’s unbelievably hard to do — in fact, it’s impossible to do — so the effort has generated lots of ferocious and occasionally murderous arguments.

A lot of your book, I think three full chapters, are given over to John Milton. Why was his work so important to you? Why was his character so compelling?

Well, in the first place, there is nothing like Paradise Lost. There are lots of paintings out there, of spectacular quality, really amazing sculptures. But in the case of poetry, of literature, in all the European languages that I know or have access to in translation, there’s nothing like this.

Milton did something that no one else had done … There were some other figures who tried, like Dürer, but none of them is even remotely comparable to Milton — and it’s because he was a lunatic, a revolutionary, a wild man! And because when his life was in ruin, he began to get nightly visits from the muse. With Milton as with the other figures I write about in some length — like Dürer and Augustine — they bring their whole being to it, body and soul. Their marriages, their relation to their children, their sex lives, what it felt like when they ate, but also their intellectual lives, and their spiritual lives, every piece of them is there. There’s no carving out one part of you.

That’s what’s fascinating to me about Milton, what’s fascinating about Augustine. I’m not interested in reducing what they’ve done to the details of Milton’s catastrophic honeymoon or Augustine’s erection in the bathhouse, but they bring these things to the table, as it were.

You’ve obviously had some success writing for a general audience, atypical for an academic. I wonder where you think you learned to write — or to write like this, setting scenes, using metaphors, establishing characters, and so on … I was wondering where that comes from, because that’s not built into the training of a literary or historical scholar.

They try to beat it out of you! It’s probably that I wasn’t willing, somehow … I wasn’t trained adequately — they didn’t beat it out of me. They tried, but they didn’t. And I remember writing the first sentence of my dissertation a thousand years ago, and going out in the hallway and saying to a friend of mine who was there, “I’ve written the first sentence of my dissertation,” and he looked not particularly thrilled. Then I said, “I’m going to read it to you!” I can even remember it: “Sir Henry Yelverton, the king’s attorney, was no friend to Sir Walter Raleigh,” and my friend looked a little quizzical. I said, “The thing is, you don’t know whether you’re reading a dissertation, or a novel, or…”

Yeah, that could be the opening line to a Cheever story.

I’ve always wanted to do that. But I can also justify it by saying, what’s the point of studying literature if you can’t use some of the things like narrative or metaphor that one studies? If you think that those devices carry the huge weight of the author’s intelligence, why would you leave that part of your intelligence out?

The other thing I would say is that my key realization over the last, you know, 15 years of trying to do this, is that the fatal mistake is to write “down” — the notion that the way you write a book for a broader audience is to dumb it down. I’d like to have a brain transplant and be smarter — everyone would — but there’s no difference between the intelligence I try to bring to the table in academic work and this. But the difference is that with a book for a general audience, I try to remember that no one is being compelled to read the damn thing, that someone is going to have to want to turn the page, and therefore I try to use whatever narrative skills I have to motivate a reader through what is often quite difficult, complex material.

In academia there is a kind of wariness, a kind of dislike of anything that seems a little too pleasurable, as if pleasure and intelligence couldn’t be married, or couldn’t be allied.

Well, we’re back to puritanism. I have an 11-year-old son who walks around the house intoning the soliloquy from Hamlet. He was excited when I told him I’d be talking to a Shakespeare expert. I wonder if you expect you will return to the Bard someday. Is there anything left to say about him and his work?

Yes, there is. There always will be, but there is even more from me, and I’ve said my piece quite a few times. I’m under strict injunction not to discuss my next book, but you don’t have to draw a very long breath before you will hear me again on this same subject. I just published something not so long ago in The New Yorker on The Merchant of Venice that’s not from the book, but is a part of my ongoing thinking about Shakespeare. No, I’m not done at all, far from it. I once met someone, a million years ago, who taught French literature at Cambridge, and he worked on a French writer, and he was old at the time, and he told me that he was retiring and never going to read another page of this writer’s work. I thought, “Oh, this is a terrible way to live your life!”

Finally, before you became known as a Shakespeare scholar, you were known for New Historicism. And there have been all kinds of manifestos and takedowns, and so on. I wonder what you think of the movement’s enduring legacy. Has it triggered some kind of long-term rethinking of how we approach literature or history?

I think there is some life still in the old beast. I, in any case, still feel some version of what I felt a long time ago: the desire to open the windows and let some air into the room. I don’t just want to look at the internal workings of a very subtle machine, but at what’s out there, what this is a part of, what work this is doing in the world.

Well, we certainly see with the Adam and Eve tale how a narrative can have deep and lasting real-world consequences.

Absolutely. You couldn’t say that Milton took up the Adam and Eve story, or that Dürer took up the Adam and Eve story. The Adam and Eve story took up these people — it actually put a claim on them. It did some things to them and it was doing things to the world. There’s an eerie sense in which that’s where a lot of their life really was. It had its own life …

There is a sort of weird Pinocchio desire to cut the strings and have Adam and Eve dance as if they really were alive. But there’s also some sense in which they were: the story, not the figures, has some kind of strange life. And I do think that that is the more interesting, odder side of New Historicism — not the antiquarianism, but the sense of life in what humans create.


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.