Avi Garelick

Snakes on a Paradise


R. Soedirman, Naja bungarus, from The Main Poisonous Snakes of the Dutch East Indies, 1916

The fall into sin and the exile from paradise are woven into the structural fabric of the biblical myth of Eden more clearly than they are demonstrated by its narrative content. The creation story is told in two different ways in subsequent chapters in the Bible. The first version in chapters one and two creates the human as two equivalent entities—or perhaps one androgynous entity—and does not include the myth of paradise or the theme of exile. The second version in chapters two and three, which situates the creation of the human being within paradise, is the one which tells of the woman being shaped out of the form of the man as an assistant and a partner to him.

The two once lived as a single entity. It was only following the creature’s obvious alienation from each of its fellows that it was sundered into two. This initial rearrangement of the coordinates of selfhood—an estrangement from wholeness of being—was in fact the fall. Serious enough that the text itself is sundered into two as well, an act of self-mutilation designed to distract from the facts at its center. The narrative stops and begins again with a retroactively remade human subjectivity, which erases the being’s wholeness from its memory. This disjunction, both back-in-time and within-to-without itself, makes it impossible to imagine anything but a fall into sin. The imbalance of powers etched into our self-conscious—one primary being and one being as his helper—is the necessary pre-condition as well as the reinforced consequences of the fall.

This is what is meant by the following midrash:

Why is it that the snake attacks the woman and not the man? Because the man was sleepy from screwing and was taking a nap (Genesis Rabbah 19.3, paraphrased). Even before either being had eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they had already discovered how to convert their togetherness into solitude.

Fabrics and words were once recognized as identical. Which is an admittedly fanciful way of saying that texts and textiles are of common etymological origin (L. texō=weave). The Hebrew language shares this conceptual association in the word masekhes, which means both ‘weave’ and ‘talmudic tractate.’ What is the common thread that holds together our words and our clothing? Both are constructed and both construct. They articulate at the same time that they obscure. Living today in a world that is textually thicker than ever before, it may be worthwhile to return to this concept.

The driving force of the myth of paradise is the garment of mistrust and self-deception that clothes the naked indulgence of the act. Clothing is a physical instantiation of these words of trickery. That is, the need for clothing is the culmination of a failure to act honestly or in accordance with one’s words.

1. Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: ‘Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’
Why is it that the imaginative faculty is called ‘snake’?

Some (Sforno) say it is because his presence is imperceptible, but the damage that he wreaks is fatal.

Others (Dr. Devora Steinmetz) say it is because he encircles the truth with his words.

Some (Radak) say they knew nothing of sex, that nothing distracted them from the will of their creator.

Others (Sforno) say they did not know the shame of sex, or that sex for them was always awesome, never deleterious or excessive. In many cases, sex becomes a metaphor for knowledge. The eyes and the heart are pimps for sin (Palestinian Talmud Berakhos 1:8).

A question is often raised regarding the paradox of moral judgment: How can they have committed evil before they know anything of either good or evil? The sad fact that is seen and mourned by Augustine most desperately is that the dawning of moral knowledge is always preceded by rotten moral decisions (and not vice versa). Every one of us is outside the garden before we know it.

2 And the woman said unto the serpent: ‘Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’

Why does the woman never refer to the tree by its name? Because she doesn’t know what it does at all. No one told her.

There are those who would argue that the tree of knowledge and the tree of life are the same tree. It is clear in any case that the woman would not have known the difference, since she was introduced to nothing but the form of interdiction. “Do not eat of this,” she is told; the referent and the rationale are omitted while the interdiction is preserved.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman: ‘Ye shall not surely die; 5 for 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 snake acts on the presumption that the woman will never admit to her confusion. She masks her uncertainty with false certainty, reasserts the notion of the form of a rule with a rule of her own creation (“and do not touch it,” Gen 3.3).

This erasure and compensatory redrawing troubles us. It is the central mythic gesture of the text, one we see repeated everywhere we look. The continuous reinvention of the Jewish tradition uses this gesture as the guiding rule for its persistence: we have forgotten the boundary, how it exactly was, it says. Let’s not apologize too much; meanwhile we must remake the boundaries ourselves. Many today will recognize this moment of hesitation and regenerated certainty from their own struggles at asserting some kind of personhood. The woman knows very little of what she was, only what she is. This dizzying array of rules and rationalizations is too much for her; she experiences the kind of rush in the head that comes from the disorienting experience of a forcefully implanted identity. In this case the snake is an avatar of God; they are both playing the same game. One interdicts, the other contradicts; one is an act of creation and one is an act of entrapment, but both acts collude to complete the other.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.

The main operative forces in this tale are the demon powers jealousy and lies. Leo Strauss, in his essay “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” wavers between the argument that they ate of the tree out of forgetfulness, and that they failed to eat of the tree of life because they were singularly obsessed with the prohibition on the tree of knowledge. The cumulative corrosive effects of deception take the paradoxical form delineated accidentally by Strauss of at once drifting from prohibition and being unceasingly obsessed by it—which means effectively that you can convince even yourself that an object of desire is of no concern to you, that you are drifting with regard to it, when of course you are drifting straight towards it. This posture of unconcern allows the man to omit crucial information in instructing the woman, allows the woman to act alone and to justify her action as inconsequential, and allows the man in turn to eat the fruit without concern for it.

The violation of the tree was merely the very first of countless external symptoms of the fundamental disease of human interaction. There was no metaphysical transformation of the human being upon their consumption of its fruit; there was nothing in the fruit itself which opened their eyes.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles.

The tree simply stands for the moment of horrifying exposure when the man and woman see their actions unadorned and unexplained. That moment of naked truth is why they open their eyes to themselves and to their irreversible failures. That is why they need, all of a sudden, to clothe themselves.

8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. 9 And the LORD God called unto the man, and said unto him: ‘Where art thou?’ 10 And he said: ‘I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

All might thus admit that the fall of man is neither in the transgression nor the acquisition of knowledge but in averting our eyes after the fact, in hiding in the bushes from our actions.

22 And the LORD God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’ 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life.

Either paradise exists somewhere outside us and we cannot find it, or it exists somewhere inside us and we cannot expunge it.

Did the animals get banished from paradise? Not stated.

Kafka had it backwards on this point when he said, “Our destiny has been altered; that this has also happened with the destiny of Paradise is not stated.” We have stayed exactly where we are; it is paradise that has changed. A world that once cleaved to us now shrinks away from us like dead skin (cf. Gen 3.17). Paradise is the concept that exists as a foil for our feelings of unmitigated estrangement from our world.

Paradise is not unlike the famous bus stop outside the home for the senile in Düsseldorf. It is the outpost at the limits of our fetters, where an escape from ourselves is concomitant with a return to our self. Paradise is the ultimate conflation of a bus stop with the place you're trying to go. Paradise, like the bus stop, relies on the inertial confusion of its senile escapees, who as soon as they find themselves in motion are content to stop again, to wait for something new to happen. Both are short-circuits installed into an escape route, bringing it right back to where it began. Paradise presents itself as the telos of our desire, as a place where one could stop to rest before having gotten anywhere.

Our visible world is the condensation of countless paradises. One paradise transforms your experience into weightless delight. An entire living world is the accumulation of all of them in a circle around you. Why is it that Paradise is called a snake? Because it swallows its prey whole after immobilizing it by brute force.

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