Eve: Original Sin, Metaphor and Misogyny
by NANCY HARTEVELT KOBRIN, PHD
December 9, 2011
Eve is the mother of all human beings according to the narratives of the three Abrahamic Faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hava, as she is called in Hebrew means life giving. In fact Eve models our most critical role in how we view the female and as to how we view, treat women and little girls. Initially, Eve's status was as equal to Adam. In time as the female body image evolved and the sacred narratives were interpreted, her essence became more powerful as the mother of life and one who gives birth, Eve was envied, attacked, demoted and hence vilified.
The Eve narratives of the three monotheistic faiths became increasingly hostile to the female and women. This misogyny is explored in great historical and philosophical detail. Yet, to focus solely on Eve misses the crux of this new and exciting book since the title of it is -- Soulmates, which tackles the concept of the interpersonal -- that is, being in a relationship. In doing so the author leads us on a complex yet readable, even humorous and especially eloquent foray into the previously little explored territory of sacred partnerships. The author raises a series of questions such as what does it really mean to be genuinely human, empathic and above all bond with other human beings free from violence?
The author plumbs all the history, philosophy and theology wrapped around and wrapped up with Eve, even reaching back to parallels in Greek mythology, Prometheus and Pandora, Psyche and Eros, to argue for a deeper understanding of why there is so much violence and conflict across and within religions. The author views the political and religious violence as being intimately connected to misreadings of the sacred Eve narratives with hatred of her being displaced on to the devalued female as Other. Moreover, it is from these kinds of distortions and we learn early in our lives to fear and hate the other.
The author is Professor Juliana Geran Pilon, director of The Center for Culture and Security at the Institute of World Politics, located in Washington, D.C. is eminently qualified to have undertaken such a task. Her early works Notes from the Other Side of Night; Why America is a Hard Sell: Beyond Pride and Prejudice and The Bloody Flag: Post -Communist Nationalism in Eastern Europe certainly provided the groundwork for Eve. What I particularly was impressed by is her earnestness and self-disclosure where appropriate about her own life's experience and the psychological insight she gained applying it to her scholarly endeavor such as when her son (out of the mouth of babe's) asks a key philosophical question. This heart stirring moment cuts to the core of the problem which many in academe resist. Pilon puts it well:
"...the fundamental problem, I am afraid, is the medium itself: the language of the rational [and here I would hasten to add, the allegedly well argued] thought, which engages the wrong part of the brain, or at least not enough of it, For besides reason, we also need heart and would to penetrate the mystery of intimacy. A far more promising venue is allegory, symbol, story and legend: in brief, the language of myth. It is for this reason that in the end we can appreciate in a while new way the magnificent story of creation." p.40
In Soulmates Pilon's agenda is understatedly modest, namely to not only resurrect the image of Eve but to advance the role of women toward genuine gender equity in not only the West but as well as in the Muslim world which now spans a good chunk of the globe. There is a special chapter on Eve's Muslim Daughters. Her project is daunting and her conceptualization of the core issue facing the globalization of terrorism resides within the narratives of Eve -- she who is life giving; Eve who should have been beloved, valued and treasured became brutalized, abused, violated, disenfranchised, and vilified through generation upon generation of textual interpretation by males and some females (who are or were self-hating) who envied her life-giving force and therefore envied, attacked and sought to destroy her.
The book is divided three major sections: Male and Female He Created Them; The Misogynist Turn; Resurrecting The Soulmate. But in addition to creating a new and vibrant reading of the sacred texts, Pilon educates us to the short comings of solely focussing on Eve without contemplating her relationship to Adam as a metaphor for all interpersonal relationships holding the potential to be free from devaluation, hating and mistrust.
At a time in history when Western culture has become increasingly more narcissistic moving towards overlapping with flagrantly borderline/autistic features of violence, instability and terror, Pilon has taken up the task where perhaps Christopher Lasche left off in his seminal work The Culture of Narcissism. People, however, have grown increasingly fragile and more isolated. Here I think of Sherry Turkle's newest book Alone Together about how technology and robots have come to replace being in real relationships in real time, that is having a soulmate.
Pilon's is a masterful reflection on how mythology and narrative help us move deeper into being in the world rather than fleeing from it, into terror, defensiveness and building walls of hatred. She is at her best when she writes with tongue and cheek. Her sense of humor demonstrates the healthiness of her perceptions. This is difficult terrain to transverse yet she takes the reader by the proverbial hand as we become readerly soulmates. The story goes beyond Eve, and how Adam and Eve, our first couple, became the template for other sacred couples -- Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Mary, Jesus and Mary of Magdala and finally Mohammad and Khadijah. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts about Ibrahim and Hagar. And while Pilon is masterful at dealing with psychosexual issues in these narratives, I would also have liked to have heard her thoughts about one of the few scholarly books written from within Arab Muslim culture for a Western audience, namely Abdelwahhab Bouhdiba's Sexuality in Islam, precisely because he foregrounds the psychological obstacles ofmisogyny. Yet one can only do so much and Pilon has exceeded her goal -- resurrecting Eve. In Hebrew resurrecting is referred to as tkhiyat ha-metim, giving life to the dead, using the same root as we find in Eve's name.
Metaphorically Pilon's Eve lives. This is not just a book about myth and the Biblical Eve, it has serious ramifications for all those who seek to understand what is currently going on in this world, in the West and our relations with Islam as well as in the Arab spring, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Iran. To know and understand the position and place of the female is to deal with the images found in the sacred narratives and interpretations of Eve. One would want to put this book on the list of must reads. It is most appropriate too considering we are now in the holiday season. It would make a great gift and what better way to think of gender identity and resolving the conflict between different faiths, peoples and even within a couple.