Paradise Lost, Found and Lost Again

The central paradox to the story of Adam and Even is that, the more reality they take on, the more they are shown to be fiction.

Eve (detail), panel painting in oil by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528.The stories we tell define who we are as individuals and as a society, without which we struggle to understand ourselves. This is the central message behind Stephen Greenblatt’s impressive new book, In the Beginning was the Story: The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve. He gives his readers the history of ‘one of the most extraordinary stories ever told’. Covering thousands of years, from ancient Babylon to 21st-century Uganda, Greenblatt dips in and out of history to pick out significant moments in the development of this story. He gives readers not only a sense of historical change, but also touches on important themes – gender, politics, sex – and demonstrates the relationship between story and self.

Unsurprisingly, given Greenblatt’s interests and expertise, the most attention is given over to John Milton and his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. Greenblatt accords this epic poem a central role in the paradox surrounding Adam and Eve: the more reality these figures take on, the more they are shown to be a fiction. Greenblatt’s narrative of Milton’s life carries a beautiful mix of tragedy and triumph, all linked to his longing to capture something elusive and ultimately impossible: an understanding of what Adam and Eve were really like. No one came closer to achieving this than Milton, but in imposing upon them the dictates of reality, the poet exposed them to the scrutiny of Enlightenment scepticism.

A thrilling, informative and stirring read, The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve is not always a comfortable one. Greenblatt consciously unpicks one of the world’s foundational sacred stories. There is a twinge of discomfort as he discusses the literary merits of The Book of Genesis as one would a work of Shakespeare or Austen, but Greenblatt is clear about the necessity of such an exercise and the results demonstrate his point. This story had a profound effect on almost every element of life for those who believed it – as well as those who questioned it – and Greenblatt dexterously switches lenses from this more general story to specific studies of Augustine, Milton and others. Of course, such a conclusion can be just as troubling: all this effort, dedication and violence over nothing more than a story, a few lines of myth conjured up centuries before. Alternatively, it can be empowering: if we are the stories we tell, then there is power in these stories and how we understand them. Our sense of who we are is thus potentially heightened by the historian and literary critic coming together.

In this, Greenblatt is more the critic than the historian. In suggesting that the story of Adam and Eve emerges from a feeling of ressentiment during the Babylonian Captivity, Greenblatt relies more on textual parallels between the Jewish and Babylonian origin stories than on historical evidence. A historian might be more sceptical about the claims made in Augustine’s Confessions or Milton’s account of his ‘Muse’. But Greenblatt’s subjectivity is part of his message and he bookends his account with his own experiences. We are the stories we tell and Greenblatt is, self-consciously, not exempt.

This is where the book has even more potential to be unsettling. Adam and Eve have experienced a second Fall; expelled first from Paradise, they have now, we are told, been cast out of the public imagination. There might be reason to doubt this: conspicuously absent from Greenblatt’s account is the way in which Adam and Eve – even today – are used as justification for the condemnation of same-sex relationships.

That said, we can accept his suggestion that the story holds less power than it once did. Even as we might celebrate the triumph of reality over fiction, there is a sense of loss here. Greenblatt tells us that Darwin struggled to read Shakespeare after completing his scientific research, resulting in a profound ‘loss of happiness’. Adam and Eve certainly are not innocent – used as a weapon in the oppression of millions – but Greenblatt makes his reader wonder whether we have lost something essential through the exposure and expulsion of this extraordinary story.

The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve
Stephen Greenblatt 
W.W. Norton & Company
432pp £25.00

Joanne Paul is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex.