Shakespeare scholar, cultural historian, and trailblazing literacy critic Stephen Greenblatt has had the kind of stellar career that most other academics wouldn’t have the imagination to dream up for themselves.
The 73-year-old Harvard teacher, whose early work includes a lovely biographical study of Sir Walter Raleigh, crossed the threshold from mere prof to ivory-tower rock star in the 1980s, when he helped devise “new historicism,” a method of literary criticism that flew in the face of orthodoxy.
His years of work on Shakespeare led to the classic 2004 biographical study Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and won him a position as the general editor of the 2015 edition of The Norton Shakespeare and general editor and a contributor to The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
His eminently accessible Shakespeare biography sold well; in fact, it ushered in a new era of general-audience hits written by academics. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Greenblatt became a bona fide publishing phenom with the publication of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, a best-selling cultural history that tells the tale of a 15th-century bibliophile and papal emissary named Poggio Bracciolini. The book also earned Greenblatt a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Greenblatt touches on religion and theology more directly than ever in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, a cultural study of how the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from the garden has influenced Western culture. He will talk about the book at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library.
Several reviews of The Swerve took you to task for your critical comments about the effect religion has had on Western culture. Is the new book an attempt to explain your position on faith and theology?
Neither in my personal life nor in my writing am I “anti-religion.” It is, I think, dishonest not to acknowledge the grief religion has caused, as well as the solace. But surely such an acknowledgment is compatible with a religious outlook as well as an anti-religious one.
You describe the story of Adam and Eve as “this fiendish, Kafka-like little tale.” Why read it so harshly? What is it about this myth that troubles you?
I meant that as a kind of compliment! I am a great lover of Kafka. The central problem is a prohibition that can only be faithfully observed if you know the difference between good and evil, the very thing that you are prohibited from knowing.
How do you approach a text such as the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, which is so far away from us historically and culturally?
It comes to us from far away, but it is not actually very distant. There is a reason why the briefest line drawing in a cartoon immediately conjures up the story.
What’s so significant about this story?
The story focuses on human moral responsibility, at the beginning of time, for everything that humans have to endure: physical labor, the oppression of women, the difficulty of surviving, mortality — even the fear of snakes!
Are you less interested in doing biblical exegesis than in studying the reception and use of the story through history?
My book has a large cast of characters, but it centers on a small number of figures — Augustine, Dürer, Milton — who changed the course of the story, altered its meaning, disrupted its reception.
And one of those figures, Augustine, emerges as a bit of an anti-hero, if not a villain, because of his literalism. Because he treated Genesis as if it were a real history, not a fable.
I am not particularly interested in designating anyone as hero or villain, but I am interested in the way in which my key figures — and Augustine is one of them — throw themselves body and soul into the interpretation and transmission of the Adam and Eve story.
Augustine’s incredibly troubled personal relationship with his sexuality contributed to the theology of original sin and the enduring link it has assumed with sex.
You cannot leave out Augustine’s theology, of course, but you also cannot leave out his life: After all, he insisted precisely on the presence of both.
How do you rate the various contemporary attempts to divorce Adam from Eve and instead couple him with Lilith?
What interests me most are the misogynistic efforts to collapse Lilith, as it were, into Eve, to see Eve as the source of female intransigence, disobedience, independence, even murderousness.
Can we ever be rid of Adam and Eve?
If by “we,” you mean in our generation, I think the answer is no. Over thousands of years, who knows?
What’s been easier to write: your early academic work, or the more recent work, which has become so popular with general readers?
The odd thing is that I don’t feel them as enormously different, though you have to be alert to your audience. The key, I think, in writing for the educated general reader is to avoid the fatal mistake of talking down. I think that the books I have written for the general reader are as demanding and complex as those I have written for a strictly academic audience. The biggest difference is that in my more recent work I have tried to tap into the power of narrative — that is, to tell a story.
Stephen Greenblatt: "The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve." 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: $15. Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org/authorevents.