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The Persistence of the Eden Myth
Stories explain our lives, often very badly
There are certain myths that persist and repeat in our storytelling. One of the most pervasive and destructive is the Eden myth.
Wait, you may be saying, aren’t you a Roman Catholic? Doesn’t your entire religion flow from the Eden myth? Yes I am, and yes it does, and I’ll deal with that contradiction at the end. But let’s begin with what is wrong with the Eden myth, why it is so destructive, and what it has to tell us about the power of stories and the responsibilities of storytellers.
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I arrive at this theme because I foolishly made a comment in Substack Notes about a foolish essay that suggested that it was time to ban advertising and that doing so would cure all the ills of the world. In rebutting it, I referred to my recent post, The Perils of Utopia, in which I argued that capitalism is simply the behavior you get when you grant people the rights to property and freedom of association. (This is not a newsletter about politics, but about storytelling and history, and my claim about capitalism is neither a defense nor a condemnation but simply an historical point about origins and causes.) I made the further point that before capitalism, what we had, pretty much everywhere, was a system of agrarian bondage in which soldiers owned the land and almost everyone else was in bondage to the land and thus to the soldier/landowner. (And before that, we lived in small bands constantly at war with other small bands over the best hunting and gathering territories.)
This argument produced the following response in Notes:
The natural myths capitalism uses to justify itself are clever advertising, but there’s nothing to them. For the vast majority of our species’ existence we had no concept of property rights, or any rights at all. We lived together, we held things in common. People still do today, carving out space to be human. Each advance of hierarchy needed incredible violence to catch hold. Capitalism is simply hierarchy’s newest and worst manifestation. It’s true that many folks today would rather work like machines, think like machines, even become machines. They are free to undo themselves at the seams; me and mine wish to remain human.
Let me quickly gloss over the misrepresentation of my statements, not because they matter, but simply to get them out of the way. I never said that capitalism exists in a state of nature. I said it arises when certain specific rights are granted, which, for most of human existence, they were not, because we lived in some form of agrarian bondage or tribal warfare. And in that sense, it is close to true to say that there was no concept of universal property rights or any rights at all for most of history. The notion of human rights has a specific history and development. Before it developed, there was mainly bondage to the warrior class and some system of personal loyalty bonds between higher and lower members of that class. The notion that this system was not hierarchical is patently absurd. The rights to property and free association are actually destructive of hierarchy, not supportive of it, since they grant people the room and the access to resources to act outside the direction of their hierarchical masters. Every genuine right does the same. It’s pretty much what the concept of rights means. Rights are the things you can do without asking permission. Anyone who thinks that capitalism is the worst manifestation of hierarchy should try feudalism.
But these individual errors and misrepresentations are not what is interesting about my correspondent’s claim. What is interesting is the persistence of the Eden myth and how it shapes people’s imaginary versions of history.
The Eden myth is simple. Originally, in Eden, human beings lived in peace and harmony with each other and with nature. Then the serpent entered the garden and poisoned Eden. To return to the Edenic state, we must find the serpent and kill it. Once it is dead, we will return to our Edenic existence and live in peace and harmony once again. This is what the comment above means when it speaks of “carving out a space to be human” and the wish to “remain human.”
In a world as full of pain and suffering as ours, it is an enormously attractive myth. It says, first of all, that this pain and suffering is not the inevitable lot of people living in this vale of tears, that pain and suffering is not the inevitable result of human nature and the limited resources and hostile environment of the planet itself, but that a life of peace and harmony for all once existed, and can therefore be reclaimed. And reclaiming it is not even difficult: all you have to do is find the serpent and kill it. It is a cheerful story with a heroic middle and a happy denouement. Of course it is popular.
But it is also a story that has killed millions, if not billions, of people. Stories can do that. That is why we who tell stories ought to take our responsibilities seriously.
For Hitler, the Edenic past was one of Aryan purity, and the serpent in the garden was the Jews. He killed millions.
For Marx, the serpent was the Bourgeoisie.
Mao Zedong identified various serpents in the garden during his tenure, including landlords, successful farmers, intellectuals, and simple peasants he suspected of hoarding grain. Millions were killed or died of famine.
Pol Pot believed in an agrarian Eden and identified city dwellers as the serpents poisoning paradise. Millions died.
Past or present, various groups and ideas have been cast in the role of the serpent in the garden: the police, men, white people, black people, homosexuals, witches, red-haired people, Irish, Polish, Asians, French, English, Spanish, Goths, Vandals, Vikings, socialism, capitalism, colonialism, advertising, the Internet, Elon Musk, Facebook, Twitter, billionaires, liberals, conservatives, etc.
It would be much briefer to list people and ideas who have not been cast in the role of the serpent in the garden. I would make that list, but I can’t think of any examples. Everybody does it, and everybody has it done to them. And even when the serpent is given the name of an idea, like capitalism, or a thing, like the Internet, this is really just a gloss over people. The serpent is always the bad people, even when we name it after a bad idea. Bad ideas, after all, must come from bad people. That, at least, is the logic of myth-making.
Part of what makes this story work is that in every case you can find examples of crimes and misdeeds by members of the serpent community. After all, whoever you cast as the serpent is a human being, and therefore a sinner, and for any sufficiently large group of them, some will have sinned grievously and egregiously. And even if their sins are not grievous or egregious, they can easily be made to seem so with the right headline or a photograph taken from the right angle. Tell a few such stories and pretty quickly you can blacken the whole community with the same crimes.
This is where the key difference lies between stories and rigorous principled argument. Stories argue by example. Take any issue of the day that you like, and you will find that those selling the Eden myth argue by citing individual examples and those arguing against it argue by citing statistics. Thus if you argue for defunding the police, you cite individual cases of police misbehavior towards people of a certain group. If you are arguing against it, you cite statistics showing that that group is not in fact targeted disproportionately. Logically, statistics should win an argument against anecdotes every time. In practice, they almost always lose.
That is the power of stories. Stories speak to us more vividly and viscerally than statistics. I have argued before that what sets stories apart is that they create experiences, and that experiences convince us in ways that propositions, logic, and statistics do not. They enter our minds in a different way, in a way almost indistinguishable from the way that lived experiences enter our minds. Stories are about being there and we believe them because we feel we have been there.
But the great seduction of the Eden myth is not that it causes us to believe that everyone in the serpent group is guilty of the same crimes as the worst of them, though this does certainly lead to grave injustices. No, the real problem is that it allows the myth maker to slip a much more damaging idea past our guard. The little lie is that some of these people committed crimes so all of them are guilty. The big lie is that because of the crimes of these people, we no longer live in Eden. And the biggest lie of all is that if we got rid of these people, Eden would be restored.
Thus the argument goes like this:
Capitalists are greedy (largely true)
Because capitalists are greedy, we no longer live in Eden (false)
If we got rid of all the capitalists there would be no more greed and we would all live in Eden again (murderously false)
The terrible thing is that the power of stories is so great that you never really need to make this argument explicit. Give people a few stories that all point in the same direction, and they will generalize for themselves. This is how storytelling works. It is the property of our minds that people are referring to when they say, “Show don’t tell.” We are constantly looking for patterns to explain things. Give us a few elements of that pattern and we will fill in the rest for ourselves. Give us three true but unrepresentative stories and we will fill in an entirely false pattern for ourselves. This is the mechanism that allows a novelist to paint a complete scene in a few words. Those words form part of a pattern and the mind of the reader supplies the rest for themselves. This is literary technique 101. It is also the reason that demagogues can raise up mobs to kill millions. Think your novel can’t possibly hurt anyone? Think again.
We have an inbred instinct to find the serpent in the garden and chop off its head. It is how we protect ourselves and our children. It is how we enable ourselves to walk in the garden without fear. You don’t have to persuade people to kill the serpent, you only have to show them a serpent and convince them of its crimes. Their own instincts will do the rest.
And this is why we never think twice when we make the false connection between the crimes of the serpent and the loss of Eden. We should know better. There is not a single instance in history where the purge of the serpent class has led to a return to Eden. There never will be. Even getting rid of the myriad activist groups of every stripe who peddle the various forms of this murderous and ruinous Eden myth will not return us to Eden. The serpent isn’t some of us. It’s all of us.
As readers and writers we should be extraordinarily careful with the power of story, particularly simple powerful stories like the Eden myth. We can deceive with them so easily. We can be deceived by them so easily. We can deceive ourselves with them so easily. We can so ardently wish them to be true that we can convince ourselves that the manifestly false premise that an Edenic state existed before whatever serpent we are being taught to blame entered the garden.
Take, for example, and just one of the very many examples we could choose, the idea that the natives of North America lived in harmony with each other and with the land before the white man — the serpent — entered the garden. We know it isn’t true. We know that early explorers and settlers befriended local tribes by taking part in their military campaigns against other tribes. We know, to again cite just a single example, that in 1878 an Apache raiding party slaughtered a Navajo village and stole three girls. They then holed up in a large cave, where the Navajo found them and built a large fire in the mouth of the cave, killing everyone inside. That cave, the Apache Death Cave is now a tourist attraction on Route 66. Think what you like about the conquest of the Americas, they were not an Eden before Europeans arrived.
Please don’t get hung up on this specific example. Please don’t take these two examples and spin them into a pattern and imagine I am making some general statement about every man, woman, and child who inhabited the Americas before Columbus. Examples can dispute generalities far more effectively than they can prove them. This is merely one example in support of a universal point: the world was not an Eden before the rise of the bourgeoise, or colonialism, or advertising, or the Internet, or Elon Musk, or Facebook, or Twitter. It never was an Eden. And yet, such is the power of story, and of the Eden myth in particular, that it is very easy for my correspondent above to imagine into being an Eden before capitalism was imposed on the world by what he imagines to be some extreme, if unspecified, act of violence.
To deny that there was ever an Eden is not to suggest that no violence or crime has ever been committed by one person or group against another. Rather, it is to assert that such violence and crimes are endemic to humanity, and that the pretense that they are confined to or caused by some particular group or idea has always been turned into a justification for committing still more violence and more crimes. Liberté, égalité, et fraternité always begins with a purge.
But that is not my point either. My point is the power of story to convince us through experience, or the imitation of experience, of things that it would be impossible to convince us of by argument, and thus of the responsibility that every storyteller should feel weighing upon their shoulders when they put pen to paper.
If we accept that this is our responsibility, though, we then have to acknowledge another problem. There is a reason that the Eden myth recurs so often. It is a myth of powerful seductive appeal. The same is true of many of the tropes that repeat endlessly in commercial publishing. Not every trope is necessarily vicious. But there is in many tropes the appeal of an easy explanation and an easy course of action that will set all to rights. Kill the serpent and we will all live happily ever after. It is the sweetest and most seductive of lies and it is so easy to make ourselves and others believe it.
If we are to counter that tendency. If we are to strive, to the best of our ability and by the best lights we have, to tell the truth about the nature of human experience, then we cannot simply ride the easy tropes to commercial success. On the other hand, if we do not pursue commercial success at all, our truth-telling will reach few ears, and thus do relatively little good. Devoting oneself to serious popular fiction means trying to sail the narrow seas between those two perils.
Finally, to return to the question of how I reconcile my dismissal of the Eden myth with my Catholicism, I will note two key differences between the Catholic (and Christian generally) versions of the myth and those we find in the mouths of activists and ideologues today. The first difference is that the ideologue’s version of the Eden myth involves a large population living ideal lives until the serpent — capitalism, let’s say, or colonialism, or Elon Musk, or witches — arrives in the garden and corrupts everything. The Christian version, by contrast, places the serpent in the garden at the moment of creation itself. Adam is only half finished naming the beasts of the field when Eve shows up with an apple in her hand. Second, because this “original sin” was the sin of the first parent of all mankind, all are stained by it. There are no pure people to live in Edenic harmony after the fall. We are all the serpent because we have all been corrupted by the serpent. The second difference is that killing the serpent will not restore us to Eden. Indeed, there is no restoration of Eden. Rather, Christ, by his sacrifice on the cross, opens the way to something better than Eden: heaven.
I am not attempting to evangelize here. I am simply a storyteller pointing out the differences in the telling of the myth. If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, the proof of a story is in the particularity of the living experience it gives us. Alter the story in even small ways and you can potentially change the whole interpretation of the story in the minds of the reader. In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does not have Frodo triumphantly stand on the edge of Mount Doom and cast the ring voluntarily into the fire, as almost every other fantasy writer would have done with the same material. Instead, he shows Frodo succumbing at last to the temptation of the ring and attempting to keep it for himself. The ring is then destroyed because another creature it has mastered and seduced, Gollum, comes and fights Frodo for it, eventually tumbling into the fire with it, thus carrying the ring to its destruction. This small twist in the tail of the myth changes everything. In the Christian version of the Eden myth, the serpent merely tempts. It is the man and woman who sin, and as a result we are all sinners. There is no warrant for genocide in this version of the myth.
This, of course, does not mean that Christians have not, at various times, been seduced into violence by the other version of the myth and have not sought the restoration of some second-rate idea of Eden by the attempt to rid the world of some particular class of serpents. We are, as the original version of the myth reminds us, all sinners. We are all the serpent.
But again, my point is about the nature and power of story. It is a medium filled with endless seduction, for reader and writer alike, and that seduction is not confined to fiction but extends into our politics and our economics and every other field of life. The familiar myths are retold, the familiar tropes repeated, because their appeal is so basic and so treacherous.
And thus there is all the more cause for us to seek to be truthful storytellers, and cautious story seekers. Telling a truthful story, in a way that will entice some to listen and hear the truth of it, is a perilous quest. But if we acknowledge the terrible power of story and the harm that can be wrought by telling false stories and falsifying old myths, then we must acknowledge and respect our responsibility to be truthful storytellers and careful readers, according to the best lights we have.
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