Curs’d is the ground for thy sake, thou in sorrow
Shalt eat thereof all the days of thy Life;
Thorns also and Thistles it shall bring thee forth
Unbid, and thou shalt eat th’ Herb of the Field,
In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eat Bread,
Till thou return unto the ground, for thou
Out of the ground wast taken, know thy Birth,
For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return.
Over the course of this self-imposed reading assignment, I’ve spent a good deal of time not liking Adam and Eve, or their tame forest, or their smarmy heavenly protectors. I’ve complained about them and ridiculed them and heaved gusty sighs of despair. In large part, I haven’t wanted to care about them. I’ve wanted to ignore them, refigure them, tart them up. I’ve wanted to tear them out of the coloring book and lose them under the couch cushions. I have indeed wanted to discover and argue with and possess Milton and all of his crazy greatness. But I haven’t wanted to love this stilted, static pair.
Nonetheless I do love them, though in this case the connotations of love are imprecise and difficult to negotiate. I can’t love them like parents or objects of desire, despite Milton’s relentless encouragement. Nor can I disguise myself in their personae, as I might with Huck Finn or Elizabeth Bennet. Nor can I exactly admire them as fractured reflections of a familiar world, as I do Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury or Dickens’s Aged Parent.
My feelings about Adam and Eve bear more resemblance to the love I once felt for my large and shabby collection of dolls and stuffed bears: a general helpless, anxious, immersed affection blent with indifference; a superstitious physical attachment; a periodic ferocious, godlike control over these button-eyed companions, whom I riotously embraced for a season and then forgot for the rest of my life. Like battered rag dolls, Eve and Adam are emblems of the grief and ruthlessness of time.
Of course, in truth I have no control over these characters. Come innocence or sorrow, they wend their augured way, “hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow.” The inevitability of myth is a well-oiled yet melancholy trap. Like the life stories of the noble dead, a myth is both stately and inexorable. Again, and once more again, Virginia Woolf wades into the river with her sweater pockets full of stones, John Keats sails hopelessly to Italy, Pandora unlocks her forbidden casket.
And so Adam and Eve’s lost paradise is also my lost paradise, not because I ever glimpsed it or even had faith in its existence but because the tale of their loss dwells with me, as legends do, in the shadowy margins between knowledge and invention. A prodigious experiment, this devouring of myth, a willing obedience to the delights and tragedies of belief. If story helps us rationalize mystery, it also absorbs us into sensibility’s bosky underworld. We become the sadness we know.
This is why myth, for all its implausibility, seems so much like lived experience. There is nothing real about Prometheus chained to the rock or Orpheus looking back for Eurydice. They could not have existed. And yet they have always existed, even in Harmony, Maine, in the autumn of the year, where webworm nests swing triumphantly in the chokecherries and my nine-year-old son tosses long, wobbly football spirals, his trajectory a slow-motion wiggle into the weeds.
O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds,
Thy Trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own,
Thou art thir Author and prime Architect.
This is the key to myth—that I stand inside and outside it simultaneously. I taste Eve’s apple and I believe the serpent’s words with all my laden heart, which “by a secret harmony / Still moves with thine,” my “Author and prime Architect,” as my son’s football blunders into the weeds, as a hen squawks irritably, as Sin and Death await Satan at the foot of the “portentous Bridge” they have built over the gates of Hell.