Matthew Walther: Genesis: why you should Adam and Eve it

Detail from Adam and Eve, by Cranach the Elder: Milton’s portrayal was glowing

Of all the folks who could end up in the headlines in the Year of Our Lord MMXVII, our first parents seem unlikely, if highly deserving, candidates for their poor banished children’s attention.

Adam and Eve have been in the news thanks to a ludicrous book by Stephen Greenblatt, an American professor who long ago abandoned Marxist historical criticism in order to churn out literary potboilers: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; How the World Became Modern; and now The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. I suppose anything beats writing sentences like this: “Social actions are themselves always embedded in systems of public signification, always grasped, even by their makers, in acts of interpretation, while the words that constitute the works of literature that we discuss here are by their very nature the manifest assurance of a similar embeddedness.”

The problem with Greenblatt’s books is that, like all potboilers, they always begin with the same premise, namely that people in the past were rather dim and bigoted and believed in all manner of absurd things, including God and hell and so on, unlike us clever moderns.

His latest is no different. A generous extract appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago prior to publication under the headline “How St Augustine invented sex” – not the most fanciful action ever attributed to the author of the Confessions, but still pretty wide of the mark. (We all know that sex was “invented”, like evolution and vers libre, in the 19th century.)

A few weeks ago, the New York Times hired an equally bad, albeit Christian, writer to do a hatchet job on Greenblatt. In some 1,300 words, Marilynne Robinson found room for all manner of irrelevant and reader-insulting details (“Milton was a major figure in the English Reformation”: you don’t say?) but somehow missed the essential point, namely, that Adam and Eve were real persons, not “plausible” literary characters.

This is a truth unfortunately lost on many Catholics as well. The literal first parenthood of Adam and Eve is not a matter about which we are at liberty to speculate. As Pius XII put it in Humani generis, “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.” When forced to respond to those who ask us about the historicity of the Fall as it is presented in Genesis, we should quote Harrison Ford in one of the recent Star Wars films, the intricate plot details of which I have already forgotten save for one line: “It’s true – all of it!”

It cannot have escaped Professor Greenblatt’s attention that this year is the semiseptcentennial of Paradise Lost. Poor Matthew Arnold found that he could no longer believe in God, but he didn’t see why perfectly respectable mid-Victorian gentlemen like himself could not put their feet on the fender and invent a new religion for themselves out of Milton. It is not an unattractive proposition. Logan Pearsall Smith was right to deem this Roundhead villain “the golden alchemist of our language”. Why Providence entrusted the finest ear in English to a semi-Arian Whig with a “Turkish contempt of females” is one of those holy mysteries none of us will understand till the last trump blows. Surely the International Commission on English in the Liturgy could have used some of this magic:

Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joyes to the milde Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

Aside from the obvious beauty of his thousands of glowing lines, Milton’s greatest achievement is his treatment of the principal characters in Paradise Lost. There is an extraordinary tenderness in his portrayal of our first parents – has anyone ever written half so well about the delicate act of hand-holding? – as people very much like the rest of us, which they of course were. Like any married couple, Milton’s Adam and Eve find a home (“thir shadie Lodge”), eat, work, sleep, undress and honour one another in the marriage bed. They each make mistakes – rather significant ones, admittedly – and manage somehow to forgive their spouse. In the poem’s final and most moving scene, having been driven to the edge of the garden by the flaming brand of St Michael, they wipe their tears to find that:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Here is the single most perfect image in English literature, one that is evocative even now as we find ourselves mourning and weeping in the same vale of tears our remotest ancestors entered thousands of years ago.

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent for The Week and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow