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Stephen Greenblatt on Adam and Eve (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 22, 2018: Stephen Greenblatt's book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (Norton, 2017) is hard to categorize. As I read over Greenblatt's 2017 book, I kept looking back at the list of his previously published books and the list of books he has edited over the years. In addition, I kept looking at the acknowledgments (pages 321-324). In the acknowledgments, he says, "Part of the pleasure of pursuing this topic has been the incentive it gave me to venture outside the disciplinary orbit in which I ordinarily circle" (page 321). Yes, he does indeed "venture outside the disciplinary orbit in which [he] ordinarily circle[s]."

Because Christians eventually incorporated the Hebrew Bible into the Christian Bible, I suppose that Greenblatt's wide-ranging book could be categorized as a work in church history, albeit a rather expansive work in church history. I know, I know, this categorization sounds fanciful. Nevertheless, as fanciful as it sounds, nobody doubts the significance of St. Augustine of Hippo in church. Greenblatt discusses St. Augustine of Hippo so extensively that the index references under his name fill up more than one column in the index. Consequently, my fanciful categorization may just be a wee bit fanciful.

In any event, Greenblatt's book includes a prologue (pages 1-3), fourteen chapters (pages 5-284), an epilogue (pages 285-302), two appendices (pages 303-311 and 313-320), acknowledgments (pages 321-324), notes (pages 325-365), a select bibliography (pages 367-391), illustration credits (pages 393-395), and an index (pages 397-419).

Now, on page 297, Greenblatt says, "In a provocative book [The Genealogy of Morals] published in 1887, the German philosopher [Friedrich Nietzsche] argued that the crucial mechanism for the transformation of amoral ape-like creatures into moral human beings was pain -- repeated remorseless infliction of pain. Punishment was the means by which the healthy, exuberant, violent energies of the dominant males -- Nietzsche called them 'the blond beasts' -- were gradually tamed. In the process, everything that those who had once ruled the earth regarded as good -- the ruthless satisfaction of appetite, the swaggering insolence, the reckless blend of rapine and largesse, the unrestrained will to be the alpha male -- was rebranded as evil. The mass of women and male weaklings who had once been gleefully dominated by the blond beasts managed to proclaim their values of self-sacrifice, discipline, and pious fear as good. The transformation -- Nietzsche termed it a 'transvaluation of values' -- was in effect a successful slave revolt. It must have been led, he thought, by an extremely clever priestly caste seething with resentment. He identified this caste with the Jews and declared that their culminating invention, in celebrating diseased suffering over amoral health, was Jesus, the new Adam" (pages 297-298).

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Oddly enough, as Greenblatt details earlier in his book (pages 24-63), a certain number of ancient Hebrews had been relocated in Babylon. He says, "Abraham, the founding figure of the Jewish faith, began his life in nearby Ur" (page 24). But things did not go well for the Hebrew slaves in Babylon, to put it mildly. Eventually, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. But the anguish of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon found expression in certain key texts that eventually became part of the Hebrew Bible.

Greenblatt says, "If the Hebrew storyteller [of the story of Adam and Eve] intended to unsettle deeply held Mesopotamian beliefs, he succeeded brilliantly. He turned the ancient origin story upside down. What was triumph in Gilgamesh is tragedy in Genesis" (page 63). Of course, this is not exactly what Nietzsche meant by the "transvaluation of values." But the Hebrew slaves exacted a kind of revenge in Genesis.

Now, my favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). He reprinted his only extended discussion of Nietzsche as "Post-Christian or Not?" in his book In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture Macmillan, 1967, pages 147-164).

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More to the point, Ong discusses how agonistic contexts often contribute to the emergence of new thought in the 1981 paper "The Agonistic Base of Scientifically Abstract Thought: Issues in [Ong's 1981 Book] Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness" that he presented as a plenary address to the American Catholic Philosophical Association; reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 479-495).

Granted, the story of Adam and Eve does not involve scientifically abstract thought. On the contrary, it involves concrete imagistic thought that is characteristic of the world-as-event sense of life, as Ong describes this sense of life in his book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967, pages 111-138) and in his article "World as View and World as Event" in the journal the American Anthropologist, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647; reprinted in volume three of Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1995, pages 69-90).

In the book Preface to Plato Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), the classicist Eric A. Havelock contrasts what Ong refers to as scientifically abstract thought with what Havelock refers to as imagistic thought. Ong reviewed Havelock's book, and Ong never tired of referring to it. Ong's review is reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (pages 309-312), mentioned above.

For an essay of related interest, see my article "Walter Ong and Harold Bloom can help us understand the Hebrew Bible" in the journal Explorations in Media Ecology, volume 11, numbers 3&4 (2012): pages 255-272.

For another essay of related interest, see the American anthropologist David M. Smith's 1997 essay "World as Event: Aspects of Chipewyan Ontology" reprinted, slightly revised, in the book Of Ong and Media Ecology (Hampton Press, 2012, pages 117-141).

Greenblatt comes close to using Ong's terminology about world-as-event when he says, "What carries weight here, as in almost all oral tales, is the action" -- what Ong refers to as the world-as-event sense of life (page 16).

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Greenblatt also says, "We have no idea when storytelling became one of our species' characteristic accomplishments, but the adaptive usefulness of stories, as a way of transmitting knowledge as well as providing pleasure, suggests that it came long before the invention of writing" (page 17).

According to Ong, the world-as-event sense of life came long before the invention of writing. According to him, the world-as-view sense of life emerged historically in Greek philosophical thought as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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