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August 2, 2011

Sena Jeter Naslund: ADAM & EVE

Posted by Stephen

adam.JPGFrom time to time, I’ve asked myself, as almost all of us have, “What would I be like just to start over?” Haunted by the question, I decided to create just such a story. When Adam Black, an American soldier, naked, alone, and discarded after torture, wakes up one morning in the Middle East, he does go back to start over --- all the way back to the biblical book of Genesis. Around him, fruit trees of every variety abound, flowers from all over the world bloom at once, and the animals live in a Peaceable Kingdom.

He believes himself to be the biblical Adam, who walks and talks with God. His prayer is that God will send him a companion --- Eve.
The idea of a woman who wants a new genesis then came to me: a middle aged woman who literally falls into Eden is herself in need of a new start. Her astrophysicist husband is dead, possibly murdered. Overcome by grief, her life has become meaningless.
Imagining the convergence of the traumatized soldier and the widow in an idyllic place was the starting point for my novel Adam & Eve. I wanted Eden to be a place of healing for both of them. What does it take for two kind and loving but very different people to share an Edenic world? What problems emerge? What happens when the real world intrudes on paradise? Just above the beautiful clouds over Eden, I realized, fighter jets were engaging in battle. Eden was a small, isolated part of the world we actually live in: in a world where someplace on the globe war is in progress.
Of course, the book of Genesis is itself at the heart of an ongoing conflict in the United States. Does the story belong in our schools? Can that account for the creation of the universe, the Earth, and human beings coexisting with narratives given to us by Darwin and by modern astrophysicists and biologists? Beside the biblical Genesis, what other creation myths exist? What is the origin of the biblical book of Genesis? According to the scientific record, what were the earliest human beings like? Were they much like us? Are we created in their image? How far back can we trace feelings of love and hate?
All of these questions --- and more --- bombarded me. Knowing that from time to time, especially in the 1940s, other ancient texts are discovered that illumine and place the canonical Holy Bible in a cultural context, I decided to imagine a “lost” commentary on the writing of the book of Genesis. After all, the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered; they illumine the ancient Jewish culture. And thirteen other gospels about the life of Jesus had been discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Why not invent a new version of Genesis?
In the traditional Genesis, there are actually two different accounts of human creation. In the first account, humans, both male and female, are created before the animals and before the Garden of Eden. In the second, fuller account, God appears as a lone creator, an artist, something of a potter who fashions Adam out of clay and Eve from a rib of Adam. In the alternative version of Genesis, I imagined the act of human creation to be based on the procreation model, not the artistic model. In the dialectic of procreation it takes the convergence of two different entities to create life.
Because no such discovery of a new Genesis text has been made (to date), I thought it might be more acceptable to place my story in the future. Besides, then I could also imagine new scientific discoveries which would inevitably have philosophical and religious implications. Suppose I envisioned a near future, not full of the technological gadgets of science fiction but at an important moment of transition for human consciousness? Suppose I imagined them in a time when life on other planets had been discovered?
Since I was a child I have marveled at what I learned about the vastness of space, about the size of gigantic stars, about galaxies that lie beyond our own Milky Way, about the mysteries of time. Imagining the expansiveness of these marvels is a spiritual experience for me. Who are we vis-à-vis the vast glory and beauty of the universe? My friend the novelist Lucinda Dixon Sullivan calls a fascination with the stars “the enchantment of the infinite.” I’ve felt this fascination for a long time, and I had actually published an essay on the subject in a book titled All Out of Faith.
One of my earlier novels, Ahab’s Wife, is subtitled Or, the Star-Gazer. Though Una, my heroine in that novel, lives in the mid-nineteenth century, she too feels that the starry sky holds intimations concerning human definitions, our limits and our glory as human beings. When her friend Maria Mitchell, a character in Ahab’s Wife I borrowed from history, succeeds in being the first person in the world to discover a new comet using her telescope, Una rejoices.
The stories of other discoveries by real astronomers also fascinated me. When Copernicus discovered the earth revolved around the sun --- the reverse of the commonly held view then that the sun revolved around the earth --- people could no longer believe that we (or our Earth) were the center of the Universe. When Galileo trained his telescope on the moon, he saw that its face was marked by craters, but the pope at that time found that claim to be blasphemous. He felt that the moon was a perfect heavenly body, created by God, and it was therefore impossible that its face was marred with craters. Eventually, because his scientific discoveries (now widely accepted) threatened the dogma of the Catholic Church, Galileo was forced to recant or face the possibility of torture. Recently, within the last year, the Catholic Church has apologized again to Galileo (who died in 1642). Why must there be discord, I have often asked, between religion and science?
To me, the problem seems to lie in an overly literal, historical reading of sacred texts. Suppose we read the Adam and Eve story as a myth, one that absorbs even earlier myths, all of them a human attempt to understand that for which we have no explanation. The ideas of the discoveries in the future of an alternate Genesis and of extraterrestrial life began to fit together, though my novelistic picture was still incomplete. I needed to expand the idea of what is a sacred text.
Is not the starry sky itself a kind of sacred text? Those trained to read its language can tell us much about our place in the universe. And so I invented a character who was an astrophysicist, and I let him discover the location of extraterrestrial life. After all, even now the scientific community is abuzz with the very high probability of discovering life “out there.” (See the January 2010 issue of the National Geographic magazine, for example.) This search has been agreed upon as a high priority project for this decade by the scientific community.
“Would my scientist have enemies?”I asked myself. “Powerful people whose religious beliefs would be threatened by the scientific discovery of extraterrestrial life?”
“Did Galileo have the pope?”You betcha. I thought that ultra fundamentalists in all three of the major Western religions --- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam --- all of whom accept the Genesis story in a literal way might even combine forces to silence such a scientist.
I wrote my new novel Adam & Eveas a speculation, as a way of asking people to think of the issues swirling around all sorts of sacred texts and how to read and honor them.

I wanted to write an exciting adventure but one with intellectual resonance. To make the novel more fun to read, I wanted it to have the enticement of a romance, a mystery, a fantasy, and a thriller. While I wanted to use the conventions of those genres, I also had the urge to subvert them. Though my novel is a romance, the romance does not turn out as one might expect; it’s a mystery, but one that’s only partly resolved; while it’s a fantasy, it’s one that has its feet in the realities of violence and war throughout our world. The real thrill is not a chase deep in the bowels of the earth past prehistoric cave paintings but of individuals being true to their own unconventional natures. Why did I want to subvert conventional expectations of genre writing? Because I think conventions often close doors that I’d like to open. Conventions can be falsely reassuring or satisfying; they can blind us both to realities and to possibilities.

Ultimately in Adam & Eve, I want to suggest that individuals, some of my characters, may create for themselves, within actuality, a brave new world, one more free and open, where the shapes of their lives do not conform to convention or dogma. Given the chance to start over, my Adam and Eve create themselves, and they direct their lives in paths of their own choosing. And so my thinking circled back again to the idea of starting over.
Certainly in my own life, there have been a number of instances when I seemed to need to start over. I think this is true for most of my readers as well. Those have been challenging and difficult times. I realized that I needed to include another element in the story, one true to my own experience. When I have made difficult transitions I have found contemplation of the arts --- classical music, visual arts, theatre, and dance as well as, of course, the literary arts --- to be of sustaining value. To be titled Adam &Eve, my book needed to include not only the sacred texts of religion and science but also the knowledge, insights, and necessity of the arts for human beings. Not just the shining glory of the natural world, but the excellence of the arts that can open us to awe and grateful joy.
Most of us can easily picture Adam and Eve in the Genesis story, though our pictures vary in the details. We see a nude man and woman, a tree with tantalizing fruit, fig leaves, a wily serpent. Art history is full of many paintings that render the story modestly or with bravura. Much older than these familiar representations of
Eden, and even more ancient than the images suggested by the words of the biblical Genesis, are other actual pictures of early life. I’m speaking of the magnificent prehistoric cave paintings that date back 10,000 to 36,000 years ago.
In the novel, I take the characters to contemplate those actual paintings, mostly of animals, some of which, like the mammoth, are now extinct, but a few representing men and women. I went to the south of France to see these ancient “texts” for myself. These paintings give us some definite ideas about the nature of human beings. Yes, back then, we killed each other; yes, back then there was lust. Sex and violence were part of the essence of early human beings. But there was also the impulse not only to destroy but also to create. To create art. Back then, from the still existing evidence, we know that our distant ancestors painted and drew and sculpted. Probably they made music, danced, and told stories, too. Perhaps creativity exists along with sexuality and violence as part of our fundamental human nature.
Along with the breathtaking drawings of the animals in the caves of southern France, there are drawings of a man wearing a costume, dancing. It is our earliest example of ekphrasis art: art about art. For me, there is spiritual solace and challenge in contemplating the starry sky and also inspiration in contemplating human-made art in all its manifestations, displayed here on the walls of our home, planet Earth.

I started this essay by asking what narratives about our origins as humans should be taught “in our schools.” It’s an open question. One for us to explore in as many ways as we can --- through religion, through science, through imagination. But here’s another question: should there be a place for the arts, all the arts, “in our schools?” To me the existence of the prehistoric cave paintings shouts that the impulse to create art is basic, is fundamental to our very nature.

A sacred text is one that tells us of our origins, our nature, our place in nature, and perhaps our future. It may partake of religion, of science, and of art. Sacred texts speak to us as a group, a society of living inhabitants, along with the animals and plants, of the Earth, and it speaks to us as individuals, each with the innate right to explore his or her nature as an individual. A sacred text has the ability to transport us beyond the immediately apparent.
My desire to write Adam & Evewas rooted in my desires to advocate imaginative readings of religious texts rather than literal ones, to marry philosophical questions to scientific advances, and also to promote the imagination itself as a way of knowing, and the creation of art as the fulfillment of imagination. It may be that for us, as well as for the earliest humans, that artistic expression makes an essential contribution toward our continuing survival. Violence is the cancer we need to eradicate from humanity, especially when it is espoused in the name of religion.
I hope the novel Adam & Evesuggests optimistically that each of us can find ways to renew ourselves, to start over, to begin spiritual quests that reach out to the wonders of our universe --- for it is ours no matter how insignificant a role we play --- and that journey inward to the deepest recesses of our beings.