Michelle Bentsman

Earth of my Earth, Flesh of my Flesh


I. My Separation

I was a toddler once. It wasn’t the best time, but it was a time of seamless integration with my surroundings. To illustrate this, I’d like to share the anthem I composed at the age of three, often performed while skipping down the stairs:

“I love my house, I love my room, I love my yard, I love the trees, I love the sky” &etc &etc.

A year later, in a new home, my sense of interconnectedness endured. I sang to geese and petted tree trunks. When a spoon slid off the table and crashed to the floor, I couldn’t help saying ouch. I smiled back at smiley faces (especially the ones I drew) and scowled at frowny faces. Every surface pulsated with sentience, every word I spoke was absorbed, and everything I looked upon had a face.

Until one day, at summer camp, I woke up from being an amoeba. Tali and I were gathering the prettiest pebbles from the fire pit by the lake. We were especially interested in the clear green ones, unaware that these were bits of broken beer bottles, tokens of the ravages of counselor negligence buffed smooth by time and water. Suddenly, Sammy inexplicably burst into tears, proclaiming that she was mad at us and refusing to say more. This had never happened to me before. I wasn’t a popular youngster, so the possibility of exclusion only fluttered at the periphery of my consciousness. About twenty minutes later (weeks in camp time), Tali whispered to me that she had heard Sammy talking to our counselor at the back of the line. Smirking, she told me that Sammy felt bad for the pebbles, that we were taking them away from their home. Isn’t that so dumb? Pebbles don’t have feelings! We both laughed.

But my laugh was a guilty laugh. I had engaged in slanderous gossip and denied the sentience of pebbles. Of course pebbles don’t have feelings! And even if they did! I wasn’t taking them away from home, I was bringing the special ones together and making them specialer...

Still, I hadn’t thought of their home. I ended before the pebbles began; the curtain between me and the rest of the world had fallen.

II. My Garden, My Body

.אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם: בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים--אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם
These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven:

The shrub of the field was yet to be within the earth, and the herb of the field had yet to spring up; for the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist rose from the earth, and watered the whole face of the land.

Then the Lord God formed man, dust from the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden–towards the east; and there He put the man He had formed. And the Lord God sprouted, from the earth, every tree pleasant to sight and good for eating–the tree of life, within the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out from Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads. (Genesis 2:4-10)

And so we learn that there was once a beautiful garden that lived in a faraway land, and the first man lived in her, long, long ago. “These are the generations of the heaven and earth,” we read, “אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת.” In the Hebrew Bible, this heading always indicates a genealogy. However, since the roles of mom and dad are played by Heaven and Earth, this is no ordinary genealogy. Who is to say what sort of offspring such a pair will bear? The narrator, for one, evades the question, writing instead that God first formed man, and then he planted the Garden of Eden. This gives us a new pair with which to grapple: temporally, we have man and garden as brother and sister–“the generations”–and spatially, we have man within garden, brother within sister, a generation within a generation–“the generations.”

These provide us with two different maps with which to conceptualize man and garden, one parallel and one nested. We usually defer to the nested conceptualization, since within one short verse, God plants a garden and puts man in it. However, this ignores the parallel structure of formed man : planted garden, as well as the parallel repetition ABAB: man (is formed), garden (is planted), man (is put in garden), garden (has special trees). These structures suggest that man and garden may be interchangeable conceptual forms, in the same way that we think of siblings as two people growing up side by side, or they may be nesting dolls, which live within each other yet share the same face. Man begins within the garden, perhaps predestined to live alongside it.

As long as man is within the larger form of the garden, his outermost border is that of the garden. God places man within this limit to tend the garden, establishing a caretaking relationship between them.

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. (Genesis 4:15)

This reflects an orientation towards land as something to be cultivated and maintained. The language employed here can just as easily apply to the body, which is also a site of intense cultivation. Dressing and maintaining the body is a lifelong charge. Following the nested model of man and garden, the garden can be understood as the body of the man.

The concept of body as place is a familiar one. As John Mayer once said, “Your body is a wonderland.” The body of man, in our case, exists in a place–the garden–which is a body. The literal example of a body within a body is, of course, pregnancy. This spatial arrangement therefore casts the garden as mother and man as son. She holds him in her umbilical arms, or in the spongy lining of a soil belly. Man is nourished by these surroundings, safe and supported, unaware of and uninterested in anything beyond.

Chronologically, man is not the son but the older brother. God puts man in the garden to cultivate–that is, to look after–his comparatively vast sister. As we see in A Short Guide to Older Brothers (for Younger Sisters), Rule #1 is: In all things, he holds the authority. Rule #2: Be careful, he is stronger than you.

Within this double schematic, man has abundant power and complete security. He can effectively control his sister-mother without sacrificing the safety of her womb’s embrace. Such is the life of a man in Paradise.

III. On the Border

Finger fruit, okay. Finger fruit, okay. Fingers fruit. Warm shiny round smooth. Smooth fruit lips. Fruit teeth, fruit tongue, and forbidden passes through mouthgates, one boundary crossed, and oh would you cut it out and pass me a fig leaf, I can see my belly button, and another boundary crossed, another, we crossed it when she spit us out, when her muscles contracted, and she couldn’t bear to hold us in any longer, and we stood outside of her, and it was like He said.

The fabric of continuous being is shattered and replaced with borders. Assimilation is not immediate, nor is it complete. What to do with all this? According to W.H. Auden’s “Prime” (from Horae Canonicae), we re-experience this expulsion every morning: “Without a name or history I wake/ Between my body and the day.” In the moment of expulsion, from sleep, from Paradise, I inhabit the liminal space between me and everything else, balancing on the border until I can accept that arm, leg, neck are mine, “...for the will has still to claim/ This adjacent arm as my own.”

Ownership and self-possession take hold, along with the realization that the garden is no longer the body. The safety of the garden is lost–we have left the warm belly. The front lines begin and end at our very skin. We stand on guard, for each day is a potential war zone, and our power has been greatly diminished. Under the shadow of a constant threat, we hurtle towards our demise.

The locus of this fear is the permeability of our borders. William Miller points out in The Anatomy of Disgust that a fear of something that has gotten inside you is “fear-imbued disgust,” better known as horror. In the face of horror, we stand paralyzed. We can’t run, because that which threatens us has possession of us, nor can we fight, since our own repulsion stands in our way. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva carves out space within the realm of horror for her concept of the abject, in which we experience horror because of the loss of meaning that results from the permeability of the boundary between the body and its surroundings: “we may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it–on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.”

Kristeva illustrates the connection between an awareness of bodily borders and the confrontation with mortality:

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit.

The abject constantly reminds us of death, yet is fundamentally derived from the experience of birth: “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be.” The violence of the expulsion from the garden parallels the violence of childbirth mentioned here. The body of man is separated from the body of the garden, and this transition sets him up for an acute experience of abjection after he realizes his separateness.

This jarring awakening may very well send man running back toward the garden, but somewhere east of Eden, a flaming sword rotates by the entrance of the garden, so as to say, once you leave the womb, you can never go back.

IV. My Body, My Garden

Man, as you may know, is a stubborn animal, and that rumor, the one according to which God places a flaming sword at the entrance of the garden, east of Eden, is not nearly enough to stifle his ambitions. It was only a matter of time until someone decided he could find Eden. After all, it’s described right there, in the Book.

According to William Douglas’s Garden Design: History, Principles, Elements, Practice, medieval men were quite earnest in their insistence on the continued existence of the Garden of Eden. But while they waited for ships and fair weather, they got to work on their own gardens. Their simple cloister gardens were henceforth called “paradise gardens.” Their functions were expanded to include eating, reading, dancing, story-telling, games, music, and holding court. The medieval garden became, quite simply, the place to be. They were having such a rollicking good time that they never got around to finding Eden.

Then the Renaissance rolled around and the explorers of the New World caught wind of the old medieval chatter. They raised their sails and set off on their expeditions, but Eden never showed up. Undeterred, the men of the time insisted on an Eden. This one would be of their own making. All of God’s handiworks were gathered up, in one place, to recreate the garden. This turned into a large-scale academic project, but no one was convinced that this was the Garden of Eden, or even a garden at all.

Gardens that are by our modern measure “successful” are often spaces that provide us with opportunities to feel stillness, peace, pleasure, purity, and a connection to the natural world. However, we are obliged to leave the garden eventually. The garden may uplift our spirits, but it is only a temporary fix. It is no gateway to Paradise.

In his essay “Love of Life,” Albert Camus describes how, while walking in a San Francisco cloister garden, he felt himself

melt into this smell of silence, becoming nothing more than... the flight of birds whose shadows I could see on the still sunlit portions of the wall… A single gesture, I felt, would be enough to shatter this crystal in which the world’s face was smiling... Only my silence and immobility lent plausibility to what looked like an illusion.

Camus, for a few moments, connects almost entirely with his surroundings. However, in order to do so, he must remain entirely still. His boundaries never break down; rather, he must sublimate them so they do not disturb the scene at all. Indeed, Camus must sacrifice all his power and give in to a deep and passive immobility in order to merge with his environment, acting as if he were merely a pebble on the garden floor. This is completely antithetical to the orientation of man in the Garden of Eden, who moves about freely and is immediately given a powerful position. The garden remains an intimate space in nature, reflecting its bodily character, and nourishing us, in its way. And yet, we cannot bear the garden even as we seek it; to remain within it would paralyze us.

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