The First Feminist: Mother of the Living
by Elizabeth Winkler
Reposted from October 2
It’s fall in Princeton now, and as I walked to class this morning, munching my Red Delicious apple, I was reminded of that momentous first bite: Eve, reaching up towards that glowing crimson orb, suspended from the forbidden tree.
As a kid, I had always felt a strange, decidedly vague, and naturally unspoken admiration for Eve – so dynamic, so exciting, this woman who so changed the world by her simple act. And yet, remembering all the evil that haunted her name – foul temptress, mistress of death – I couldn’t admire her without falling under a heavy shadow of guilt. I began to consider her story more closely and wondered if the Genesis account – slice of cultural wisdom that it is – hadn’t perhaps been tampered with. Had I been told the right story? History is commonly understood to be written by the victorious: we must claw away at the artifice and invention to arrive at truth. How could we forget to do the same with myth?
Consider this: God ushers Woman into creation. Under Adam’s dutiful tutelage, she begins to explore the world around her. He presents her with a certain item – a peach, let’s say. Adam tells her that it is called ‘peach,’ and she soon learns to associate her experience of this food with the word itself.
Now this female creature, this Woman, is eager to understand not only the natural world, but existence itself: what does it mean to live? Is she alive? What is she? I mean, what is ‘herself’?
As life in Eden slips by, Woman begins to wonder: God created the heavens and the earth and commanded that Man and Woman ‘cultivate’ and ‘have dominion’ over that earth. But then – and here the light bulb goes off – why would He place us in a gated garden? And so begins her awareness of the Outside, the Other, the possibilities of existence which she can only contemplate in utter, blinding ignorance.
But there’s another thing too that she has been wondering about: that tree of knowledge of good and evil. How strange that God would place it there and subsequently forbid it! He’s omnipotent, after all, maker of Everything. Why create it in the first place? Naturally, she is curious about it, especially since it exists as the threshold of Death. But what is death? Can she really know? She has been told that her existence – living in the garden of Eden – is called Life. As the dual element of that binary, Death must mean the end of life in Eden, something else, something outside, something other.
But, alas, it is forbidden! The understanding she so desires hopelessly prohibited! She stands beneath the tree, serpent whispering in her ear as she contemplates her decision.
The Western metaphysic has located this moment as the first and the great ethical dilemma of humankind. But let’s step back and examine the decision that Woman realistically faced: she can either eat the fruit or not eat the fruit, but having knowledge neither of Good nor of Evil (since she hasn’t yet eaten it) how can she possibly make that decision? She doesn’t even know what ‘Good’ or ‘Evil’ mean: they exist as empty lingual functions, meaningless as ‘peach’ before she ever tasted the fruit in her mouth. The decision is overwhelmingly arbitrary. One might as well ask, “Apple or orange?” “Daffodil or tulip?” In her ignorant, inexperienced mind it would make no difference.
Except this: to obey in silent, ignorant submission the absurd decree of Authority, OR to reach beyond, to transcend, to question and search and yearn for More, for the possibilities that exist outside the garden wall, outside the Known that we call Status-Quo.
Woman sought the light of knowledge. In the quiet of her questioning mind was born the possibility of change, reform, and revolution that has characterized humanity’s unending progression towards tolerance, peace and freedom. By her act of transgression, she gave birth to human life outside the paradisiacal prison of Eden, and to the search for understanding that illuminates the human mind as well as the human soul.
Eden, after all, must be understood as a state of mind, a place whose unfathomable beauty and pleasure conceals a darkness within; a narrowed view of existence that not only rejects change, but refuses even to acknowledge the mind that seeks to rethink and redefine. Woman with her apple broke the chains of that tyranny and so, as Genesis tells us, came to be called Eve, “Mother of the Living.”
And let me just be clear: the Bible calls Woman “Eve” only after she has eaten the apple and been banished – with Adam – from the garden. Only then is humanity – the “living” – really born.
So forget the patriarchy’s bullshit about temptation and weakness, evil and the culpability of the female. The story is right there and none of that is in it. Instead, imagine yourself as this woman, longing to understand herself and her world. And then remember that we must continue – every human – to eat that apple because Eden always manages to creep back up on us and the act of looking outside, of remembering that other possibilities exist when the world closes down and refuses to answer our questions, is in fact the only thing that keeps us human.