Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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.


At October 21, 2008 at 10:42 PM , Blogger PeterW said...

This is of course a fantasy and isn't really subject to logical debate. But let me point out that as regards curiosity about the world, men predominate in both science and philosophy. The former can partly be explained by a small difference in mathematical aptitude, but philosophy rewards verbal skills in which women have a corresponding slight advantage.

You might see how your implied assertion that women were the unique or at least predominant seekers after deeper truth has a few holes.

At October 22, 2008 at 12:35 PM , OpenID frenchic22 said...

Peter, of course this story is a 'fantasy' (myth would actually be the more appropriate term); I make that explicity clear when I refer to it as a "slice of cultural wisdom." If you were well-read in cultural criticism, and the effect of storytelling and myth on our society, you would understand that often stories that are not factually accurate can carry a greater impact on our social values and understandings than scientific and historical reality, especially when such a story is associated with the bible and an understanding of 'origins.' For countless centuries, the Genesis story was interpreted by scholars in ways that had monumental impacts in the Judeo-Christian worold on our understanding of things like sexuality, morality/ethics, decision-making, the nature of good v. evil, man v. woman, God v. self, human curiosity, etc. Not to be insulting, but you are quite frankly, it seems, ignorant and ill-read on the effect of biblical interpretation in particular on social values of the Western world.

Your statement that "men predominate in both science and philosphy" is equally ridiculous. Well, Of course they dominate! what the hell woud you expect when they controlled the means of production, government, access to education etc. for over 2000 years! For women to overcome those odds required exceptional circumstances. Again, this simply demonstrates your own ignornace when it comes to the history of power relations through the world- if you would be interested in understanding some of this, I would suggest reading "The Second Sex" (by PHILOSPHER Simone de Beauvoir), "A Room of One's Own" (by Virginia Woolf, one of the most revered authors of the 20th century). Or, if you are so predisposed to read male authors, then John Stuart Mill ("On the Subjection of Women") and Jeremy Bentham. Come back to you're a little better informed and we'll have a real conversation. ;)

Finally, I did not in any way intend to imply that women are 'truth-seekers'. I explicity say that EVERY HUMAN should keep in mind this act as a means of ensuring a stable, free and tolerant world.

At November 6, 2008 at 5:38 AM , Blogger Roscoe said...

Well, it's interesting that you bring this up as many Catholic thinkers really touch on just about everything you said. And it is interesting that you do not address Adam's weakness in temptation, as he clearly is as much to blame and the woman. It is really talking about the temptation and weakness of humanity, and the most interesting part is the fact that this story illustrates all the downfalls of free will and the outside world. The fact that you say humanity has some "unending progression towards tolerance, peace and freedom" implies that because of the free will given to us we have intolerance, war and tyranny. The story of Eden is way more than a chavinist story of women sucking because they messed everything up. I would've thought you would know that with all your experience in the Genesis story and the "ways that had monumental impacts in the Judeo-Christian worold on our understanding of things like sexuality, morality/ethics, decision-making, the nature of good v. evil, man v. woman, God v. self, human curiosity, etc." And, to use your words, "not to be insulting, but you are quite frankly, it seems, ignorant and ill-read on the" Christian interpretations of the Genesis story of creation.

At November 9, 2008 at 10:08 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

I read your article again, and still, it seems you are forcing the chauvinistic interpretation on the Church as if it were the perpetrator of feminine bondage. While the Church is not innocent, after all, everyone back then was a little morally fucked up right?, as I said in my above post, Christian thinkers have already discussed at length everything you've brought up. Many believe it was meant to happen, so we can't have the woman to blame at all. Moreover, I do not think Eden itself is a narrow state of mind, after all, we strive to be in Eden every day, but not because of its ignorance, but because of its bliss. God gave Adam and Eve all the tolerance, peace and freedom you could possibly want. Only Wisdom lacked, but with wisdom came sin, and with sin, the never ending battle against it to reach what was so clearly everything we could have ever wanted, Eden. Whatever, I'm not trying to diss you or anything, like OMG JOO ARE SOO WRONG, merely that you should inform yourself on some teachings, just as PeterW should, to better appreciate what you yourself already believe. Good luck and Godspeed, hehe


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