Naked in the Mirror: Stephen Greenblatt on our obsession with Adam & Eve

A man, a woman, a snake, a tree: from just a few stanzas in the Book of Genesis comes a story that has inspired and puzzled centuries of artists and thinkers. Host Paul Kennedy discovers why the story has resonated with religious and secular minds alike, as he speaks to Stephen Greenblatt, author of “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.”
Detail from "Adam and Eva" by Lucas Cranach the Elder , 1526. One of the many interpretations of Adam and Eve. (Wikipedia/Courtauld Institute of Art)
Listen to the full episode53:58

A man, a woman, a snake, a tree: from these ingredients, and in just a few stanzas of the Book of Genesis, comes a story that has inspired and puzzled centuries of artists and thinkers. (This episode originally aired November 15, 2017.)

Stephen Greenblatt usually dives deep into literary and artistic subjects — and he has a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award to show for it.  But the sheer staying power of Adam and Eve drew him in. Why has this short but vivid biblical story had such a hold on philosophers, poets, and painters through the ages...never mind in TV photo shoots for The Bachelor?

It's not just because the Adam and Eve story has a place in three major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Professor Greenblatt, author of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, believes this compelling and contradictory tale of the first man and woman is masterly storytelling that goes straight to the core — excuse the pun — of some of our most vital human questions.
Stephen Greenblatt gives 11 quick reasons why the Adam and Eve story fascinates us. 0:42

Along with answers, the Adam and Eve story engenders many questions. Why would God threaten death as a punishment when his innocent human creations would have no concept of it? If the Tree of Knowledge was off-limits, then how would the first man and woman know the difference between good and evil? It's these very confusions that have ignited such enduring interest in Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt suggests to IDEAS host Paul Kennedy. The interpretations of the story, as either a myth, or as biblical truth, are plentiful. 

In his book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, the Harvard humanities scholar follows the story through the centuries. It centres on several of the great minds who've grappled with the story, and details how they bring themselves into their reading. 

The cultural legacy of Adam and Eve

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, Engraving. (Wikipedia)
The early Christian philosopher Augustine (354 AD - 430 AD) interpreted the story through the lens of intellect and religious passion, but also with a vivid and personal sense of his own desire and bodily shame. He was the first to introduce the idea of original sin.

Stephen Greenblatt: "The first humans did something at the beginning of time that was then passed on to all succeeding humans. And not only passed on, but in Augustine's dark and brilliant vision, was passed on as a kind sexually transmitted sinfulness, a sex transmitted disease, through the way that we're reproduced. Inevitably, inescapably. And that vision has had most remarkable long term consequences in the history of the West." 

As well as thinkers, artists were also taken with the creative possibilities of Adam and Eve. Renaissance painter and printer Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) grew obsessed with depicting the perfect, innocent bodies of these first humans before their exile from Eden. His still widely-distributed 1504 engraving featured a magnificently-realistic Adam, with the body of a Greek god, and an elbow copied from a more earthbound model — the artist himself.

John Milton (1608-1674) is a focus of Stephen Greenblatt's book, around the creation of his epic poem, Paradise Lost.  His inspired version of the Adam and Eve gave the couple an intense humanity, and a true portrait of a marriage that came from Milton's own experience of that bond, for better and worse.

Science — particularly via Charles Darwin's theory of evolution — has inevitably led to an erosion of the idea that Adam and Eve actually existed, and in the era it was supposed they did. But even in increasingly secular times, a recent Gallup Poll found that 47% of Americans still believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Adam and Eve, as Greenblatt suggests, continues to exert its hold as a story in the West, over believers and non-believers alike.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt is published by W.W. Norton (2017).

Further reading and related websites:

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.


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