For Matthew Taylor
The holiday of Simchat (Simchas in the old days) Torah, which fell this year on October 11, celebrates God’s gift of the Torah to the Hebrews. It involves scrolling back to the beginning of the Pentateuch to recommence the yearly reading of the five books.
As everyone knows, the Torah begins with the story of the creation and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, which Christians speak of as the “Fall of Man.” Thus this is an appropriate moment to examine the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience from a generative perspective. For example, on October 15, a webinar broadcast from Israel had for its subject “Forbidden Fruit: Revealing the Mystery of Adam and Eve’s Temptation and Sin.” The term original sin is Christian rather than Jewish, but that there was indeed a sin is universally accepted.
In Chronicle 419 (“Originary Feminism”), I pointed out the relevance of the serpent’s choice of Eve as the object of his temptation. The woman is usually said to be the less acculturated member of the couple, hence the more naively susceptible to an appeal to her appetite. But the Genesis narrative makes clear that the serpent’s appeal is directed not to her appetite but to her resentment. God’s command not to eat of the tree was given directly only to Adam. As we know, to this day many religions exclude women from priestly functions involving the mastery of language. The case of a priestess such as the Delphic oracle is of quite another nature; Pythia does not master language; she serves as a passive vessel for its transmission.
This exclusion is the effect of women’s absence, as the producers and nourishers of the next generation, from the violent activity of the hunt. As society has always recognized, female lives are more precious than male—on the Titanic, “women and children first” were not idle words. But since women are as capable as men of using language (although not so long ago, teaching women of certain classes, like slaves, to read and write was considered subversive), they are potentially resentful of male-dominated culture.
Feminism has always appealed to this resentment. But as we see, by making it the motor of the felix culpa, the Bible makes the woman responsible for the temporal implementation of the cultural, which required in the first place disobeying God’s command to keep away from the Tree of Knowledge. Rather than simply displaying woman as an unworthy factor of sin, the Bible makes her the agent of true humanization. Left to his own resources, Adam would presumably still be living in Eden in his original state of naked ignorance.
In contrast with GA’s originary event, there is no human community in the Genesis scene. What ordinary humans learn from their community via their parents, Adam learns from God, or “teaches himself” under God’s tutelage, such as in naming the animals. Yet it is not difficult to establish correspondences between our hypothetical event and the details of the Biblical creation scene.
In the first place, we note the uniqueness of God’s interdiction. Rather than imposing a long list of restrictions such as we will encounter in Leviticus, God allows Adam and Eve to eat of all the plants except the one tree in the center of the garden.
Animal food—in our hypothesis the originary source of conflict—is not mentioned. Yet the primordial configuration is nonetheless that of our originary event. Not all nourishment had to be divided up under the Alpha-Beta system; only a prey animal large enough to provide food for the entire group would become the central object of such a division. The origin of significance and sacrality begins in both cases with a unique central focus of interdicted desire.
The Tree of Life, although created in 2:9, is not interdicted to Adam, and remains apparently unknown to the couple until they have transgressed God’s commandment. In 3:22, after God discovers the couple’s disobedience and says “Behold, the man is become as one of us,” he goes on to justify the expulsion from Eden “lest he . . . take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”** This makes clear that the ability to know good and evil while remaining in Eden, that is, knowing evil without desiring to do evil, is reserved to the purely transcendent, non-mortal being of God.
In contrast, Adam’s sinfulness in acquiring this knowledge reflects the impossibility of making the transcendental interdiction of the sacred permanent in the real world. In our hypothesis, what could be maintained for the duration of the originary event would not have served its purpose had the interdiction of the center maintained itself indefinitely. The harmony once secured had to lead to the collective “violation” of the central object in the sparagmos. It sufficed for the survival of homo sapiens that the cultural world inaugurated by the sign of deferred appropriation prove capable of reproducing and gradually refining itself.
GA’s originary hypothesis, in contrast to the Girardian “emissary murder,” should not be understood as implying the institution of an Edenic beginning for human society that would be undone only by the institution of private property. The sparagmos has a net positive outcome on the love-resentment scale, but only the sign, not the meat, can be fully shared with no residue, whereas the bottom line for biological survival remains on the earthly plane. Thus neither in practice nor in theory is the equalitarian hunter-gatherer world without violence. The Christian communion rite, as the often bloody disagreements concerning its interpretation serve to emphasize, is no doubt humanity’s most explicit attempt to embody this paradox in ritual form.
Let us examine more closely the serpent’s argument, which persuades Eve to examine the tree and judge it (3:6) as “good for food, . . . a delight to the eyes, and . . . desired to make one wise.” In 3:4-5, the serpent denied God’s claim that “ye shall surely die,” claiming instead that “God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent’s contradiction of God’s words is less than meets the eye. God didn’t tell Adam that he would live forever, merely that “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The assertion that “thou shalt surely die” is not unambiguous, as the intensive “surely” (mo’t) emphasizes. Knowing one will surely die is not the same as being mortal. And of course we know that although Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they will live for another 900-odd years. What happens that day is not their death but their awareness of death.
This awareness is the product of the différance inaugurated by the sign. The difference between the language of the serpent and that of God is that the former, without of course making this clear, situates God’s “eternal” threat in the real world. From the standpoint of Eden, death is the equivalent of mortality in the “fallen” world; the exact moment of death is unimportant. But Eve does not know this. The serpent’s language dismisses God’s threat “in the day . . . thou shalt die,” not because the couple will not become mortal, but because the day of their death is, in worldly terms, not determined.
In the place of death, he promises them the knowledge of “good and evil.” This knowledge can be seen as a positive value, to “make one wise” as Eve puts it, but it is also the equivalent of the knowledge of mortality that God had warned Adam not to seek. We should note that God had not told Adam that he would acquire the knowledge of good and evil by eating of the tree of knowledge, merely to avoid the tree so named.
What God had proposed to Adam was in effect to enjoy, presumably forever, the benefits of Eden without transcending the animal state. Adam can use language, but although God is about to create Eve for him to converse with, it is notable that the first conversation recorded between two non-divine beings is not between the couple but between Eve and the serpent. All Adam “says to” Eve is, referring to his rib, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh …” (2:23). Thus at this stage, Eden remained wholly in the transcendental realm, which we may call more specifically the mythical, given its incompatibility with any conceivable anthropological reality.
The most salient effect on the couple of eating of the tree is (3:7) their realization of and shame at their nakedness, an awareness that reveals to God their act of disobedience. This choice of sexual shame as the first sign of full-fledged humanity appears to privilege the erotic over the more fundamental bodily needs for food and shelter. How should we account for this from a generative perspective?
Eden is devoid of collective rivalry; human conflict begins only after the expulsion, with the frères ennemis Cain and Abel. If by our hypothesis such “fraternal” conflict is the real source of the human, how can we explain the Bible’s foregrounding of sexual shame, even in the absence of any potential sexual or other rivals? And given that the biblical account implies that female resentment precedes this shame, why would the first effect of “knowledge” be to provoke it?
Eve’s readiness to disobey the divine injunction reflected its transmission to her at second hand. Although she was aware of the interdiction, it was given to Adam before she was created, and we must presume she learned it from him, a reflection of their implicit difference of status that leaves Eve freer than Adam to disobey it, the serpent and Adam both being non-divine interlocutors. But the sexual shame that the couple experience on eating the fruit affects both simultaneously. This shame is not so much a reaction to the other’s desire as to the awareness by each of their vulnerability to desire.
I need not insist that human sexual desire is never “natural.” Even between two people entirely cut off from the rest of the world, desire for another human is unlike the desire we feel for any other object, because it is a desire for an Other.
Girard’s explanation of this phenomenon relies on his notion of mediation. As he puts it, the desirer desires the other, but the other, aware of this desire, “desires her/himself.” This must be understood in the sense that the desired other is aware of her/his “interdiction” as a desire-object, a status that derives from the sacrality of the central object-divinity that is the originary object of desire.
To be oneself desired is to experience this sense of sacrality and the interdiction that attends it, hence to be impelled to withhold oneself from it. The biblical scene emphasizes the couple’s symmetry because it concerns the epistemological origin of this sense of sacrality in the mimetic doubling of desire.
This suggests that, although the first experience of the sacred may be in an object of collective appetite that we must learn to desire before we can consume it, the human intuition of sacrality that leads us to conceive of “anthropomorphic” gods who share our use of signs is grounded in the erotic relationship that exposes us as individuals to the experience of being desired.
Human sexual practices may seek to deny this factor of desire, as in our era of “hooking up,” for which sex is Chamfort’s contact de deux épidermes without its échange de deux fantaisies. But denial is not equivalent to elimination; the structure endures.
What, finally, is “the knowledge of good and evil”? It is the awareness that one’s own senses can on occasion incite desires that motivate actions in conflict with God’s explicit prohibition. Eve, although aware of the prohibition, finds the fruit “good for food, and . . . a delight to the eyes.” That is, she chooses the motivation of her senses over the transcendental interdiction—which is also, in our hypothetical scene of origin, the necessary outcome of the interdiction of the central object.
But by following her senses, Eve is not succumbing passively to her appetite. Nor is she simply accepting the serpent’s depiction of the situation. The text insists that her act is the result of a judgment, and it is this judgment—conceived, as we would put it, on her internal scene of representation—that she opposes to the judgment attributed to God, who in our terms acts as the “voice” of the originary collective scene.
Thus Eve’s judgment leads her not only to desire the fruit, but to dare to measure her desire for it, her attribution of significance/sacrality to it, on the same scale as the transcendental interdiction that God had pronounced.
It is this awareness of our freedom to weigh, on our internal scene of representation, the significance/sacrality of our worldly desires against the transcendent command that, by maintaining the sacred outside the human world, protects it from self-annihilation, that is the knowledge of good and evil.
This knowledge is indeed of ambiguous value, for it can be acquired only by a sinful act. Mere temptation would not suffice: Eve would know good, but not yet evil, and hence would not “know” good either. Only the experience of sin can impart the knowledge of good and evil. That is the felix culpa.
God, who knew this, wanted to save us from mortality. Yet we must assume that he also knew that without mortality, no one would ever have conceived God in the first place. Whatever the ontological status of the transcendent, it is in the first place paradoxical.
To be continued…
**The English translation is that of the second edition of The Pentateuch (J. H. Hertz, ed.; London, Soncino Press, 1980).