In his remarkable tracing of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W.W. Norton, $27.95), Stephen Greenblatt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Swerve, presents a history of the central creation story of Western culture and pays tribute to the power of story itself in shaping what it means to be human. Intended to explain the origins of life, the nature of good and evil, punishment, shame, gender roles, moral responsibility, and much else, Adam and Eve from the first have raised as many question as they’ve answered. St. Augustine struggled for decades to make a coherent orthodoxy out of a Biblical text riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, but refused to relinquish his faith in the material’s literal truth. Milton also had an “obsession” with the first couple, but understood them in a new way. Focusing on their relationship as domestic partners he wrote Paradise Lost as an investigation of marriage and companionship. Like Dürer, he made Adam and Eve real people, not symbols. For Greenblatt, whose chapters on these two artists are as beautiful and heartfelt as they are scholarly, the Renaissance marked the pinnacle of Adam and Eve’s cultural life. With the Age of Exploration new geological and ethnographic information began to surface that was “incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve,” until Darwin’s theories finally replaced Genesis as the pre-eminent creation story. Yet Greenblatt and many others continue to find a “peculiar satisfaction” in the 6th century BCE myth. As Greenblatt notes, “it was a breath that brought Adam to life, the breath of a storyteller,” and it’s storytellers—and critics—that keep him going.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve - Stephen Greenblatt