The Saddest Story I Have Ever Heard: An Agnostic Appreciation of The Book of Genesis

November 30, 2011 | 6 10 min read

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”
“Of course,” he said,  “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”
Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre”

I didn’t find out about sex through my parents sitting me down and talking me through the basics. There were, thank God, no children’s books elucidating, through combinations of colored illustrations and chummily frank captions, the preposterous mechanics of what happens when a Mummy and Daddy love each other very much. As I suspect is the case with most children, I found out from my peers. My initial induction arrived, specifically, by way of a dirty limerick. I was nine or ten years old. I don’t have that many vivid memories from childhood, but this I do remember very clearly. I only heard the rhyme once, but it has stayed with me. As I recall, it was during a lunch hour in which we were all confined to the classroom, more than likely due to rain. One of the kids from one of the poorer neighborhoods, who was the youngest of seven or eight children in his family, announced that he had a funny rhyme which we all might be interested in hearing. It went more or less exactly as follows: “There was an old woman named Schneider/Who spat in the eye of a spider/The spider got thick/And took out his dick/And said he was going to ride her.” (“To get thick,” by the way, is Irish slang meaning to get angry, rather than to attain an erection, as the context of the rhyme might be thought to imply. “Ride” is probably self-explanatory, and will be a term well known to anyone who has read even a few pages of Roddy Doyle.)

I must have already known, in some vague and possibly even a priori way, what it meant for someone to take out his “dick” in order to “ride” someone else, because when the rhymer glossed these terms by means of the universal schoolyard gesture (vigorously repeated insertion of index finger of right hand into circle formed by index and thumb of left), I did not for a moment doubt what activity this represented. I can’t remember whether I laughed along with the others — I probably forced myself to do so — but I do remember feeling instantly that something major had happened, that a strange and inevitable milestone had been reached. What I remember above all was the sense of irreversibility, the understanding that I could not unhear what I had heard. The term “ride” and its referent had now been irrevocably added to the store of things that I knew about, and this knowledge somehow implicated me in something I didn’t want to be implicated in. I became preoccupied for days afterward with the possibility of somehow forgetting it by forcing myself never to think of it again. I even became briefly fixated upon the idea that if I learned, say, a few dozen new facts in quick succession, this might somehow displace or erase this other new thing, and thereby grant my childhood a stay of execution. It wasn’t that the rhyme per se particularly horrified me. In fact the limerick itself — its compression into thirty-six syllables of the toxic, sub-Burroughsian themes of arachnid bestiality, gerontophilia, and punitive rape — seems, if anything, more insidious to me now than it did then. What I felt after hearing this rhyme was the overwhelming sense of being obliged from this point on to carry a burden, and that this burden represented, in some terribly final way, the beginning of the end of my childhood. (It’s only now, of course, that I am struck by how quaint a note this actually sounds, because Christ knows what today’s little 16-browser-windows-on-the-go autodidacts are learning. These days, you’d have to consider it a lucky break if your kids discovered through a smuttily anthropomorphic nursery rhyme what grown-up men and women do with, and to, one another.)

I think I must have been more than normally conscious of the vulnerability of my innocence, of the fact that this innocence — the raw material of childhood itself — was a non-renewable resource and that, if I wanted it to last, I would need to guard it jealously and vigilantly. I was, in my vague and childish way, anxiously aware of its transience, its ongoing erosion by a relentless tide of rumor — of intelligence — from the adult world. It wasn’t, for example, merely out of toy-hungry acquisitiveness that I was reluctant to acknowledge the unlikelihood of Santa Claus’ existence, but rather out of an understanding that once I gave up this doggedly held belief in a bearded and benevolent patriarch in a fur-trimmed leisure suit, I would thereby be relinquishing a large part of my right to consider myself a child.

A sort of companion piece to the limerick episode is provided by the recollection of an incident that took place a few months later. A group of girls (always more worldly than us boys) were huddled in a corner of the yard, trading sexual lore like diminutive cold war spies, passing on the state secrets of Adulthood. I and a couple of my friends sidled up to the periphery of this whispering congregation. One of the girls was giving a frank definition of the term “blow job,” a term and a concept that were both entirely new to me. “Basically,” we were briskly informed, “the man puts his penis in the lady’s mouth. And then she sort of blows it.” (This act I imagined as a kind of furtive penile raspberry, a misinterpretation that remained uncorrected for some time). I can’t say my interest wasn’t piqued but, again, it was largely eclipsed by the sad knowledge that this was something that I now knew about and could not un-know. I understood, I suppose, that a somehow auspicious epochal event had just taken place — that the not knowing about blow jobs part of my life had just given way to the knowing about blow jobs part, and that the latter era would last a great deal longer than the former had.

I mention all of this by way of attempting to explain why I, a more or less hereditary agnostic, have such a strong fascination with The Book of Genesis, and specifically the part about the Fall. Although I was christened as a Catholic — and am therefore still gallingly and irrevocably listed as such in some diocesan charter or other — my parents weren’t remotely religious. We never attended Mass when it was possible to avoid it, the Bible was not among the books on our household shelves, and God and his son were only ever mentioned in order for their holy names to be taken in vain. So I only got around to reading Genesis a couple of years ago. I can’t remember why I decided to pick it up, but it probably had something to do with realizing that I’d never read the Bible, and that I should probably have a glance through the highlights of the King James Version in the general service of my literary education. (As a matter of peripheral relevance, I actually downloaded it as an iPhone app so that I could read it on public transport and while eating lunch. The Good Book, with its brief chapters and nicely partitioned verses, makes for ideal phone-based reading. For some time, in fact, the iBible app sat peaceably beside the iQuran app which, in an uncharacteristic fit of multi-faith consumerism, I had downloaded at the same time. I have to confess, though, that I eventually deleted both in order to make room for more profane ephemera — an act which now strikes me as a potential instance of some wholly new form of pan-Abrahamic digital sacrilege.)

I wasn’t expecting Genesis to have any particular effect on me. Like everyone else in the western world, I already felt as though I knew the gist well enough to be getting on with (sneaky serpent, tasty fruit, eternal banishment). But when I finally sat down and read it, what I remember experiencing was a sort of mild secular epiphany — something which was intensified by, but not reducible to, the stately beauty of the KJV’s language. It was a powerful example of the idea that great works of art provoke a profound sense of recognition. I recognized something in the Book of Genesis, something unrelated to the countless times that I’d heard the story in one form or another, or with the Judeo-Christian cosmogony and moral principles it was intended to illustrate. There was, specifically, something psychologically true about the story of Adam and Eve, something that seemed to me to reflect our inability, as a species, to come to terms with our own nature, or even to understand what the term “human nature” might actually mean. One of the reasons Genesis is so poignant is because it reads like a children’s story that sets out to explain why the world is such a terrible place — why we have to suffer, and why we seem to live, as a species and as individuals, with a sense of having irretrievably lost some vast, beautiful, and unnamable thing.

Before I read it, if I thought of Genesis at all, I tended to think unfavorably of it. I tended, that is, to think of it as a story with a shadowed motive — as a story whose intention was to make us ashamed rather than one whose intention was to explain why we are already ashamed. (There’s a question of origins here, of course: is being ashamed of our nature an inherent part of that nature, or is it a culturally generated phenomenon, produced and sustained by stories like that of Adam and Eve? My half-educated guess would be that it’s a chicken/egg scenario, that each factor is inseparable from and dependent upon the other.) But I was touched by how the story captures the way in which our alienation from our own nature seems, paradoxically, to be a basic condition of that nature. It expresses, in its simple yet enigmatic way, our enduring sense that it wasn’t meant to be this way, that we must have gone wrong somewhere too far back for anyone to remember. That we lost our innocence somehow, or threw it away, or allowed ourselves to be cheated out of it. That all this — mortality, sickness, misery, evil, boredom, war, drudgery — must surely be some mistake.

The myth of the Fall arises out of our collective sense of banishment from some original innocence and harmony. To read these verses is to be reminded, amongst other things, of the way in which our understanding of the word “innocence” reflects our ambivalence about knowledge. To be innocent, after all, can mean two distinct things (which are also, in a way, a single thing): to be free of guilt or to be free of knowledge. The strange, almost preconscious connection between learning a thing and committing a sin is laid bare in this curiously emotive word, “innocence.” And I don’t think this is an incidental overlap, either; I think it’s something that touches the core of how we conceive of ourselves and our place in the world. We have, after all, given ourselves the collective name Homo Sapiens: the knowing man. We are the ones who know — the ones who are, specifically, not innocent. Perhaps when we say Homo Sapiens what we really mean, at least some of the time, is Homo Culpabilis. The fruit which God forbids Adam and Eve to eat is the one which grows on the ostentatiously named “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God, in other words, wanted us to remain in the light of ignorance, far from the darkness of knowing. Homo Innocens became Homo Sapiens at the moment Adam and Eve ate the fruit from “the tree to be desired to make one wise,” and this traumatic metamorphosis is written in a language of disillusionment: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” They come to know the truth about their condition, their nudity. Sex and shame, in other words, are brought into the world in the same awful instant. The first humans gather fig leaves to hide their newly discovered nakedness. It’s as though they have gone through an instantaneous puberty, a curse which they have brought upon themselves through learning something that should have remained unlearned. When God punishes Adam and Eve, the terms of that punishment essentially amount to the creation of what tends to get referred to as the human condition:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and has eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

One of the most fascinating and insidious aspects of the myth of the Fall is the way in which it presents human nature as somehow unnatural, as something we forced God’s hand into forcing upon us. The whole punitive rigmarole of life and death, and all the pain and suffering that comes with it, is in place as a result of our inability to do as we were told. And it is sex — that messy business that Genesis never really succeeds in tidying up with all its delicate symbolism of persuasive serpents and forbidden fruit — that leads us into this predicament in the first place. Mortality and sexuality are thus bound up together, along with lust and perversity and pain, as part of a single package of punishment in Genesis. The message seems to be this: we could have been more than merely human, but we blew it, and it’s sex that’s to blame for our blowing it; it’s sex that’s to blame for our Fall into human wretchedness and mortality. Our Fall, in other words, into adulthood.

There are countless ways, surely — theological, political, feminist, psychological — of reading the opening pages of the Bible. To read them solely as a poignant figuration of our enduring sense of having lost of some unremembered past, some notional human childhood, is probably to ignore far too much in the way of context and paternalistic intent. But when I think of poor Adam and Eve and their hapless abdication of paradise in return for some new knowledge, I can’t help thinking of my own incremental sense of impending banishment with each new rumor overheard, as a child, from across the border of Adulthood. God’s punishment of the serpent in the story strikes me as a classic case of messenger-shooting. The serpent is a tempter, certainly, but he’s also basically an emissary of maturity in the tiny prelapsarian (and prepubescent) protectorate of Eden. For all his apparent duplicity — the KJV describes him, nicely, as “subtil” — he doesn’t tell Eve anything that isn’t actually true. The serpent’s crime is to be an agent of disillusionment. For Adam and Eve, learning the truth about themselves and becoming ashamed are the simultaneous and inseparable results of the same original human moment. It’s one of the stranger aspects of being human, this seemingly near-universal and possibly hardwired shame about the basic facts of our own humanity.

We need to know things, but we lament the loss of innocence that our need — which is our nature — must inevitably bring with it. All of life, and not just childhood, is an ongoing process of disillusionment, of trading innocence for knowledge. Just being alive means losing forms of innocence we often don’t even recognize until they are lost. Which is why the myth of the Fall is one of the saddest, truest, and most beautiful stories ever told.

Image credit: wikimedia commons

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.