Foundation Texts and Foundation Tales: Genesis 1-4 and and the Feats of Prometheus

Dan Kinney, English, University of Virginia

A fairly minimal requirement for describing a text as a foundation-text is that it should have something important to tell us, something formative or something informative or, better yet, both. But when it comes to principles and origins we of course fall well short of consensus about what should count as informative or formative, what really explains what it matters to know. We have not just the long-standing quarrel or love-hate relation between myth and philosophy, at least in the West, in which too-arid theories and too-lurid fictions compete to explain and define who we are and what we can become as a race or a spectrum of races; in the Western tradition we have also a curious oppositional interdependency between Jewish and pagan, primarily Greek, narratives of beginnings in which sometimes the main story-lines are presented as mutually confirming and virtually inter-equivalent and sometimes the truth of the one, either one, seems to call for completely discounting the other. I'll conduct a provisional survey of these rival but interlinked foundation-tales featuring Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora to see what directive agendas they share and in what ways they clash or conflict with each other and even themselves; I am less interested in trying to extract a coherent and definite logos or rational meaning from each of these myths than in noting what sort of foundation-work myths can still do -- perhaps even do best -- even when their host-cultures assign to the story-lines traced in their myths no historical value at all. I will conclude with a mock-serious sketch by the Renaissance humanist Erasmus (himself famously queasy with the literal meaning of the Genesis story) in which he presents Cain as a kind of Prometheus-figure in good ways and bad; at what points does a norm-giving foundation-tale still leave room for its culture to innovate, build or advance on its formative premise, and what special inflections of language and thought work to validate just such alternatives?
     Not all foundation-texts involve foundation-tales, and in our modern Western science-forward perspective on what matters culturally it may well seem that foundation-tales are outmoded precursors of foundation-texts of the sort we are still keen to conjure with. How, for instance, are Rights-of-Man cultural charters like and unlike the formative tales that are told in the opening chapters of Genesis? Surface differences may mask important continuities; argument and bold statement displace intricate story, optimism about humankind's reach counters pessimism, but the Declaration of the Rights of Man promulgated in late-eighteenth-century France still bears careful comparison to the various contending constitutional statements we encounter in Genesis' opening, statements which that much later Declaration partly recasts and partly reiterates. The ambiguous and contrary meanings of "myth" in routine modern usage - both deficient and superabundant in terms of truth-value - find their own part-analogy in the opposite meanings routinely conveyed by the term "fundamental" - essential and crucial, and yet also reductive and entry-level. Thus in terms of their purchase on what is intractably messy and dubious in daily existence, declarations and systems and "merely" mythic charters might be vulnerable to much the same criticisms. Even if we preferred to contrast myth with those other forms in that rational and non-mythic foundation-texts - the U. S. Constitution, for one - could be claimed to pre-figure and guide their own further refinements, making this sort of claim for the permanence-in-change of such rational foundations assigns them the same sort of trans-literal meaning that others are ready to claim for both scripture and myth; at least in Christian work on foundation-designs, Genesis is where prefiguration begins, and Christ-Abel the prince of prefigurements. Thus the main working difference between "fundamental" and "mythic" may come back to the way stories make their own case constitutively if not constitutionally, more a matter of serial reworkings of loosely linked crucial concerns than an effort to settle the issue or all the big issues with just one sweeping Grundriss or platform-statement.
     With no means in this very brief talk of doing justice to all Genesis commentary I will take as my point of departure the title-concerns of a new book by one noted Biblicist, Joseph Blenkinsopp's fine recent study Creation Un-Creation Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11 (London, 2011). I address just the movement of Genesis 1-4, but that four-chapter movement affords a synoptic preview of the whole mythic sweep Blenkinsopp's book describes, a synopsis already surveying several wrong and right ways we can start, in the Renaissance phrase, to repair the effects of the Fall. Genesis 1-4 is a crash-course in purpose, God's purpose and man's, and a crash-course not least because not everything is coherent in either account. Scholars broadly agree that the opening chapters conflate more than one version of an origin-narrative, and of the origin of humanity in particular. Not to dwell on the sexual politics of these differences apart from the ease with which problem-child Eve in phase two of these narratives is aligned with pure-trouble Pandora in Hesiod's story, the first origin-narrative in Genesis represents an almost unaccountably generous maker who makes man male and female to "have dominion" over all else in creation while the second, in Gen. 2-3, represents a far cagier and perhaps more ungenerous master who makes man and woman to serve and obey, to affirm, without knowing, it seems, his mysterious will, and perhaps only then to find out what his will really means - "if you eat this mind-broadening fruit, I decree you will die, of hard labor at that" - by the drastic trial-and-error of defying it. So the story through Gen. 3 involves genesis of both life and death, knowledge helpful and hurtful alike, not to mention two quite different models of service and work, whereas Gen. 4 gives us further the genesis of sacrifice, murder, outlaw-status, city-life and the civilized arts, desperation, and hope.
     In a number of ways Gen. 4 represents a new reckoning with the dead ends of Gen. 3, more than one style of trying to improve on the Fall and undo or offset the death-sentence pronounced against Adam and Eve for the crime of forbidden enlightenment. They first bring up son Cain to proceed with his father's hard labor, that is, tilling the ground, and then afterthought-Abel, or perhaps rather second-thought Abel, to raise sheep instead, a much lighter assignment by virtually any reckoning, and one that affords wherewithal for vicarious blood-offerings as Cain's farming labor, or Adam's, quite clearly does not. God rejects Cain's own offerings of fruit, though God never says why, and in angry despair Cain then sheds his brother's blood. Cain is branded and cursed as a universal enemy and yet goes on to form the first city; as a last afterthought, to replace the dead son, and perhaps the lost, too, Adam sexually "knows" Eve again and they have a son Seth, who in turn has a son, at which point, we are told, then "began men to call on the name of the Lord." Sacrifice is propounded as a drastic and dangerous answer to the impasse and problems of death and relentless hard labor imposed on mankind in the curse of Chap. 3. God approves of Abel's sacrifice, yet it kills him; God rejects Cain's first offering (the fruit) and repudiates the second (his brother), and yet Cain and his offspring go on to found cities and invent an imposing array of the civilized arts. The Original Sin Christians ground in Chap. 3 finds its parallel in the generative iterated in Chap. 4, yet the innocent Abel is first to shed blood while the faulted son Cain in a sense takes his lead from his brother. Without going quite the way of René Girard's totalized reading of this primal violence, as if Cain in a sense simply stands for a violence submerged we all share, we can say that Chap. 4 stages blood-sacrifice as a first step of sorts on an arduous and halting retreat from a savage abyss, sacrifice looking back on the Fall but enabling a queasy sort of progress, Cain's no less than Seth's. To the down-turning arc of all lives that will end we can cautiously now counterpoise the resilience of culture itself and its tools for collective survival; what provides anti-secular thinkers like the grave St. Augustine with a kind of preemptive indictment of secular culture in the person of Cain and his heirs also offers an uneasy sanction for the secular culture he shares with his younger brother Seth, the new Abel. By the end of Chap. 4 the mixed offering of mortal self-knowledge offset with belonging to some shared intent can already consult the constitutive arc of creation, un-creation, and ironically checked re-creation that for Blenkinsopp finds its apt end in the dissemination of tribes after Babel's stopped tower and its bid for the heights, what one Renaissance print aptly styles "nations' birth," nationum origo.
     I must make shorter work of Prometheus' story, which is not hard to do if we focus on how it restages or stages a few of the crucial concerns we've already addressed. For it too like the Genesis tales we've already discussed can be viewed as a crash-course in purpose, a mythical "program of action," or what Andrew Von Hendy describes (in The Modern Construction of Myth [Bloomington, 2002], 269) as "the virtual gold standard of the consensus in classical studies," Walter Burkert's description of myth (Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual [Berkeley, 1979], 23) as "a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance" (original italics). In its two variant versions in Hesiod's poems the Prometheus myth is no simple retelling and no simple precursor of Gen. 1-4, but convergent concerns make it clear that this myth and the Genesis myth have a lot of the same work to do. This myth too is concerned with a fall into knowledge of sorts, yet not merely a fall, but a step up as well, bringing us fire and culture, and history with all its mixed blessings; this myth too is concerned a sacrifice-bargain gone wrong which has not just gone wrong, though at high cost for both gods and men and both twins in the middle, both Prometheus and his dimmer twin Epimetheus, in which each of the parties concerned wins and loses as well. To remind you what happens in the longer Theogony version of that fraught exchange, the shrewd twin sacrificing on mankind's behalf serves up bones wrapped in fat as the share the gods get while he keeps back the nourishing bits for us all; Zeus sees through the trick - but does he really? - and to punish the trickster then sends the dim brother a wife, the mixed-blessing-in-chief and in some sense a match for them both, as Zeus complicates cooking for all of us; this particular double affliction could almost as well be described as "Win"-"Win," and the dim and the clever trade places in ways that suggest they're not actually such badly matched trading-partners. In the more concise Works and Days version, all-gifted Pandora, first woman, is brought into play both as excellent prize and as terrible trap. Everyone and no one gets the worst of this bargain, despite the misogynist drift of a rant filled with telling non-sequiturs; it's all part of the art of the deal when you start in the weaker position, as humankind does in its dealings with gods; for if you don't complain, they will think you are getting away with something (cf. Prov. 20:14). The contrarian subplot embedded in myths of this sort -- of course there is a sense in which our trickster-friend wins the hand, and the protest's a hoax -- comes out more clearly still in Erasmus' mock-serious retelling of where Cain went wrong, where it's not about Cain simply botching his own sacrificial dealings with God; it's about Cain's uncomfortably fruitful Promethean finesse in enlarging our terms for negotiating.
     What the myth does in each of these richly tendentious and partial reworkings is to pose an insoluble series of gain-and-loss quandaries and their permutations, a range of contested appraisals of culture's successes and failures and its ground-assumptions. This interminable reckoning with an endless work-in-progress is not far from the open-ended-inquiry model that Greg Coulomb outlined on Wednesday, though the play of debatable meanings in myth-schemes like these and the staged application of myth-themes to our life-experience often clearly has serious real-world consequences. There are doctrinaire ways to invoke the Fall myth; there is nothing abstract or unserious about Hesiod's contentious misogyny. But if we trust the tale not the teller, as shrewd readers know how to do, there are senses in which archetypes found in myths modulate through their various permutations and variants into something much closer to prototypes, points of departure from which we can all keep on negotiating. Not all meaning of course is negotiable, but where there is negotiable meaning, to settle for what looks like more may be less after all; getting yours all in one ill-examined lump certainty-sum may well turn out to be the worse bargain.