Annalisa Quinn is a writer and a regular book critic for NPR.
It is a story that needs no introduction. But introduce it Stephen Greenblatt will. It is a "tremendous achievement." It is a "stupendous achievement." It is "unforgettable." It is "astonishing." It is "one of the great triumphs of art and literature." It is "one of the most extraordinary stories ever told."
Ladies and gentlemen: the story of Adam and Eve, in all of its infinite variation.
Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar of vast, ranging intelligence, likes his superlatives. His treatment of thousands of years of thought on the first parents in Genesis, "The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve," supports many of them. He is ambitious. He begins with the Babylonians and ends with Darwin, with stops for Augustine, Dürer, Milton and others, looking at how each changed the way we understand Adam and Eve. But Greenblatt isn't just eager to convince you that his topic is a worthy choice. Each subsequent point of consideration must also be hyped like an act at the circus. The effect is a nagging feeling that you're being sold something.
The authors of Genesis were more reserved. The koanic few lines give us a man, a woman, a fruit, a serpent and then eternal exile enforced with a flaming sword. Then came the letters and apocrypha, rabbinical writings, Christian writings, and centuries of literature and art to fill in the details. From these, Greenblatt fashions a narrative arc. First, the story existed as myth, inspired in part by the Babylonian creation story, then Saint Augustine made it fact, and biblical literalism reigned for centuries until the Enlightenment, when representation of the couple in art and literature became so accurate that they seemed too human, too real, and people started asking questions, and before long secularism and science turned the story back into myth.
As with his previous book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Swerve," about the rediscovery of a manuscript of Lucretius, this theory requires us to accept a particular arc of history: relative enlightenment back in the old days, followed by centuries of grumpy, musty monks in dark rooms, and then the rise of art and science putting an end to all the oppressive chanting and witch burnings. "Curiosity was to be avoided at all costs," Greenblatt writes of monasteries in "The Swerve," a portrait that misses the glorious, strange, violent, intensely creative world of medieval Europe. Even for secular readers, the knee-jerk equation of Christianity and backwardness is tiresome.
"Untold numbers of our contemporaries continue to take the tale as a historically accurate account of the origins of the universe and to think of themselves as the literal descendants of the first humans in the Garden of Eden," he writes. The lack of attention to those people is one of the book's flaws, because the numbers are not untold: Many people study that very question. About 1 in 4 Americans consider the Bible to be the literal word of God, according to a recent Gallup poll, but Greenblatt doesn't speak to any of them, or wonder who they might be, and how they feel about Adam and Eve.
A certain condescension, too, is apparent in the over-lavish way he tries to write for a general audience. In Greenblatt-speak, a king didn't just collect books — rather, a "learned ruler . . . brought together under his lordly gaze the wisdom of the whole world." It isn't just grandiose; it also fails to tell you anything. If every adjective serves to emphasize magnitude rather than quality, readers go away without quite knowing what they learned, except that it was supposed to be very impressive.
When he does add specificity, it can be speculative or irrelevant. At one point he writes of Milton's sex drive: "The bookish young man must at least on occasion have gazed longingly at the pliant milkmaids." He is trying to say that although Milton was celibate before marriage, he probably struggled with it. But Greenblatt's sentence reads like a standardized test where you fill in the adjectives and adverbs — bookish, pliant, longingly. Kings are "mighty," pages are "well-thumbed," scholars are "indefatigable." Is there any evidence to suggest that Milton lusted for milkmaids, and if he did, that they were pliant? Maybe he longed for steely milkmaids or no milkmaids at all. Later, like cartoon villains, Milton's "exultant enemies laughingly burned his books."
A version of the new historicist approach Greenblatt employed in "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" — that is, using elements of Shakespeare's biography to illuminate parts of his plays, but only with care and restraint, always leaving room for imagination and transformation — has gone too far here. That Milton had a difficult marriage is useful information, but the sketch with the imaginary milkmaids is only silly, particularly when there is so much that could be said about Milton's poem.
"Paradise Lost," we learn, is not only "the greatest poem in the English language" but also "one of the world's greatest poems." But praise like that tells us little about Milton's thorny, byzantine, glorious portrait of moral anguish. For instance, Satan famously has the best lines in "Paradise Lost," lines full of terrible grace and dignity:
"What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?"
But Greenblatt treats Satan's awful charisma as a mistake. Milton, he says, based his character on Shakespeare's magnetic villains too closely, because Satan "threatened to take over the poem." But in 1967, the scholar Stanley Fish came out with a revolutionary theory: Satan is so appealing because Milton means the reader to be seduced and redeemed alongside Adam and Eve. His idea is radiantly obvious in retrospect. Of course Milton is asking us to fall with Adam. Of course Satan needs to be a real temptation rather than just a painted devil. Greenblatt has surely read Fish, and cites him in the bibliography, and yet never mentions his work. Perhaps Greenblatt disagrees with Fish, but even so, why ignore the most interesting idea about Milton to come out in decades?
In many of his other works, Greenblatt's scholarly voice is precise and distinctive, and he has a rare interdisciplinary instinct. He can be warm, intimate and learned; his writing on Shakespeare in particular manages to be both emotionally astute and encyclopedic. But in this work, perhaps some of his biases have intervened. He also tries too hard to be what he is already — very naturally — in his scholarship: accessible. Lucretius, as Greenblatt notes in "The Swerve," called his own poem "honey smeared around the lip of a cup containing medicine that a sick man might otherwise refuse to drink." Greenblatt applies too much honey to his medicine. "The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve" feels sticky-sweet.
Accessibility is so often a mixed experiment. How does one distill massive amounts of information clearly without compromising facts and condescending to readers? Some academics are naturals. Take the classicist Mary Beard, whose antic, dirty, capering popular Roman histories bounce with specific examples, historical oddities, cheerful savaging of accepted wisdom and genuine personality. Books should overestimate their readers. After all, as Milton's Adam says, "Among unequals, what society / Can sort, what harmony, or true delight?"
By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton. 419 pp. $27.95