Stephen Greenblatt Discusses Adam and Eve at the NYPL

Holberg Laureate Stephen Greenblatt (left) and Tony Kursner discuss Greenblatt's book, "The Rise And Fall of Adam and Eve." (Photo credit: NYPL)

“The story of Adam and Eve is about what it means for a myth to become real to millions of people,” says Holberg Laureate Stephen Greenblatt, “and also what it means to be human.”

On 28 September, 2017, the Holberg Prize and the New York Public Library co-presented a conversation between 2016 Holberg Laureate Stephen Greenblatt, literature professor at Harvard University and Shakespeare scholar, and the American playwright Tony Kushner.

The event was an instalment of the New York Public Library’s flagship series, “LIVE from the NYPL,” and took place in the spectacular Celeste Barton Forum, at the NYPL building in Brayton Park, New York City. Greenblatt and Kushner discussed the topic of Greenblatt’s new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W. W. Norton, 2017) which explores the story of humanity’s first fictional parents—the origin story which is common to all the Abrahamic religions.


A Compelling Story

The two writers explored the immense theological, artistic and cultural impact that the story has had over centuries, and how life has been conferred upon the story in such ways that Adam and Eve remain real to so many people, even today. Greenblatt, a co-founder of New Historicism, also recited from his just-launched book. In describing contextual factors essential to both the creation and the various interpretations of the Abrahamic origin story, Greenblatt demonstrated what he has previously referred to as the "mutual permeability of the literary and the historical".

As was brought up during the Q&A session, about 46 percent of the US population believe in the literal interpretation of the Genesis myth, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, and about 78 percent believe in some sort of creationism. The same poll found that about a third of Americans feel confident that humans evolved in a process guided by God, while only 15 percent believe that the notion of God’s hand in the creation of man is false and that science in itself most accurately describes human evolution.

Greenblatt stressed that he did not hold the Genesis story to be mere “lies”—rather, he submitted that there are important truths contained in this and other origin stories. However, the Holberg Laureate was puzzled by how people in this modern age, who trust in science, can also subscribe to al literal interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve, and believe that the Earth is about 6,000-10,000 years old.

“How is it possible,” Greenblatt asked, “that 150 years after Darwin, people who get CAT scans and so on read the story of Adam and Eve literally?” He used as an example a creationist theme park in the Midwestern U.S., with exhibitions based on biblical biology, where people can watch representations of how dinosaurs allegedly shared their habitat with humans 6,000 years ago.

Obscured by Things Unknown

As a writer, Greenblatt acknowledged that he is painfully aware of how much there is to know and how much he does not know. “I try to become aware of what is out there,” he said, “not to master it.”

“There is a lot of things that none of us knows,” the Laureate said, referring to how elements from ancient creation myths and other stories have seemed to vanish, only to resurface in another time. “I am fascinated by how things disappear and later come back,” he explained. “Where do they go? Why does an account fail, and what forces it underground?”

Man’s First Crisis: Opportunity or Catastrophe?

One of the ancient origin stories that preceded the Book of Genesis, but contains many similar elements, is the ancient Babylonian Gilgamesh epos. In Gilgamesh, Man is created from the soil by a god and lives among the animals in a natural state. He is introduced to a woman, who leads him into temptation.

Both in the Bible and in the Gilgamesh Epic the man receives food from the woman, covers his naked body and is forced to leave his place of origin. In Gilgamesh there is also a snake that steals an immortality plant from the story’s main character.

In Gilgamesh, however, Man’s exit from the forest and the natural state is seen as an awakening, while Genesis views the expulsion from Paradise as a catastrophe, for which human kind must suffer the consequences in all posterity.

Greenblatt submits that it is a plausible hypothesis that this rewriting of the Babylonian creation story was a form of revenge of the Hebrews upon the Babylonians who held them in captivity. The Hebrews, who had their land and their god taken away from them, created an origin story that rearranged the Babylonian order of social values.

While the Abrahamic creation myth became an essential part of Western cultural history and has had an immense influence on much of the world over the last two millennia, the Gilgamesh epos never attained the same significance—it vanished into obscurity and was only rediscovered in the 19th century.

She Tempted Me, And I Did Eat

One of the central points in Greenblatt’s book is how Augustine of Hippo, the 4th and 5th century church father and theologian who greatly influenced Western Christianity and philosophy, converted the story of Adam and Eve from myth to literal truth.

Augustine put forth thorough theological arguments as to why the origin story and the Fall of Man should be considered an absolute historical truth. "He rescued Adam and Eve from obscurity, devised the doctrine of original sin—and the rest is sexual history," Greenblatt writes in his book.

Kushner and Greenblatt discussed how Augustine became obsessed with Adam and Eve, and how he argued that there was no room for interpretation: Anything other than a literal meaning would be slippery slope, where the notion of Jesus as the New Adam, and even Trinity itself, could eventually be called into question.

Augustine underscored how God is not just a god of kindness and benevolence, and how all Man’s fears and desires come out of one terrifying place: original sin. “Some of us are redeemed through our faith,” explained Greenblatt.”  “But we are sinful creatures just by birth. At the time this was a terrifying idea—that even a baby who dies before baptism is going to Hell. It was all built around the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jesus.” As Augustine saw it, all of us are inclined to sin, but our creator intended something else and better—something immaculate.

All of a millennium later, Renaissance artists figured out how to confer life upon stories and managed to do what Augustin had called them to do: make Adam and Eve real. The myth had collapsed; and, in spite of the Age of Enlightenment and all the scientific progress that came later,  Adam and Eve still retain a central place in the collective consciousness of millions of people. Thus, even today, humanity’s first fictional parents remain very real to so many people around the world.