Saturday, January 30, 2010

In The Garden

If the first creation account can be viewed as the establishment of boundaries, the second creation account can be seen as obsessed with boundaries – establishment, violation, and establishment of new and stronger ones. Seen in this way, the setting of the second account in a garden created by God is particularly appropriate.

As Jack Miles notes in God: A Biography, the humans created by God on the sixth day in Genesis 1 are given dominion over the entire earth. In Genesis 2, the man and woman hand-fashioned by God are restricted to the garden of Eden. And whereas God’s first words to the humans in Genesis 1 are a directive to practice creation (or pro-creation) themselves – “Be fruitful and multiply” – in Genesis 2, the first words to Adam are a prohibition: “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.”

Like God in Genesis 1, God in Genesis 2 establishes boundaries, but they are on a different scale. And those boundaries are bound up in the image of the garden and its restrictiveness. The Lord God walks within the garden alongside his creations for a time, but it doesn’t take long for a rift to develop out of the very creation He so lovingly crafted.

The garden is a bound and protected space, a place where nature thrives, but with strict limitations on what is allowed to grow and where. The garden must be tended, watched, minded, pruned, lest it revert to the untamed state of nature. Like other bound structures, the garden is an image that carries associations of shelter and protection, but also of control and imprisonment.

A garden, “the garden”, was the topic of my master’s thesis in architecture. I wrote about the garden as perpetually incomplete, always in the state of becoming (I was having trouble finishing the project component of my thesis: a design for a botanical research garden at the site of the home of the architect Louis Sullivan in Ocean Springs, Mississippi).

I referred only briefly to the garden of Eden in my thesis, as an acknowledgement of the primal power of the garden as an image. I wrote instead about the garden worlds into which the young heroines of several children’s books had been transported: Wendy in Peter Pan, Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and, in a more realistic vein, Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

In each of those stories, as in Genesis 2, a place that at first glance may be perceived as a utopia, strange but wonderful and wonderful in its strangeness, becomes decidedly dystopic. Paradise is invaded by despair and is exposed as, in effect, dis-Paradise.

Here’s a passage from my thesis, which was titled Something in the Nature of a Garden:
“The life of a garden depends on what goes on down below, beneath the surface, on the flow of water and nutrients to the roots of the plants, on the aeration of the soil by worms and ants, on the decay of dead matter to fertilize the living … To create a garden is to set into motion a complex of actions which must be performed rigorously if the garden is to remain a garden. Certain actions may be left to the discretion of the gardener – i.e., whether to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, whether to prune and trim or let plants grow unchecked – but in general the maintenance of a garden depends absolutely on the propagation, cultivation and placement of desired vegetation and the removal of unwanted plants (and sometimes animals). Thus the garden is as much a process as it is a place or thing.”
Each of those elements I discussed is represented in the story of the garden of Eden, in a way I find fascinating.

Let’s look first at the flow of water. Genesis 2: 5 tells us that, “On the day the Lord God made earth and heavens, no shrub on the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil (in other translations, this “wetness” is referred to as a spring or fountain), then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.” Thus life, in this case human life, is generated from the water and the soil. (In Hebrew, there is a pun at play in the words “adam,” which means human, and “adamah,” soil, which Robert Alter approximates with his use of “human” and “humus” in his translation)
A bit later, beginning in 2:10, we read:
“Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden and from there splits off into four streams. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is goodly, bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. And the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through all the land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, the one that goes to the east of Ashur. And the fourth river is Euphrates.”
Water springs from the earth and flows out of the garden. I love the image of the winding rivers because of its parallel to the serpent introduced as the figure of temptation in the next chapter. Rivers, of course, are often referred to as snaking, serpentine. The fact that here they make their way out of the garden is perfect, because it prefigures the exit from the garden catalyzed by the serpent. And to me the confluence of these images recalls the errant paths that we inscribe over the course of our lives, that snaking back and forth through the borderland between heaven and earth that I have written about previously.

We see also in these passages of Genesis 2 that new life is made from the soil, from dead and decaying matter – and here I acknowledge of course that in this original creation the soil would not have signified decaying matter, only the same “stuff” from which life is generated, perhaps a recognition by that author of the unity of the organic, chemical world.

And, inevitably, I think, a whole complex of actions is set into motion – a complex that ensures sustenance, but at the same time imposes prohibition and threatens destruction and leads to the move beyond the garden, to the outside, so that forever hence we can be assured that our task will be to try to find our way back to the space of creation. As Joni Mitchell observed in her song “Woodstock”, a poem about a journey to the famous festival:
“We are stardust, we are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back
To the garden.”
In the second creation story, in contrast to the stately progression of the first, there is a sense that details are added as afterthought. We can almost hear the Lord God saying, “Oops, can’t forget that.” In the second story, he rushes straight to what is the climax of the first, the creation of humanity. Then he has to go back and plant the garden, then populate it, first with plants and then – in exactly the way he made the humans – animals fashioned from the soil. And finally, he decides to create a partner for Adam – a “helpmeet” in the King James translation, a “sustainer” in Alter’s. Even then, after the Lord God announces his plan to create a sustainer, he first fashions the animal kingdom and only then builds Eve from Adam’s rib.

That this narrative echoes what I see as the human creative process is, I think, not just an accident of the telling. The Bible is, as I have written before, a sophisticated work of literature whose words are metaphorical, allusive and evocative of our lives in countless ways. While I do my best to respect the interpretations that others give to the words they read in the Bible, I cannot help but feel that those who read the words as “literal truth” do a disservice to the authors of this wondrous text. The story of the garden is so rich with layers of meaning to be unearthed and explored that to stop at the literal is to miss the point.

If we have been created “in the image” of the creator God, we cannot help but create. Ernest Holmes, who founded the community of faith in which I reside, Religious Science, taught that the soul is the creative medium of the universe, where seeds of thought are planted and grow into the things we recognize and interact with in the universe.

When I first talked about creation in my Bible study class, talk turned to destruction, in particular the destruction so pervasive in some communities of Los Angeles. We talked about turning this destruction on its head, in trying to recognize beauty wherever it occurs – even, I said cautiously, in the design and engineering of the instruments of destruction that both frighten and kill. A gun may be a terrible thing to those who have suffered from its misuse; it is also a marvelous object of human creation, a carefully crafted tool, made with care and precision. Someone poured heart and soul into its design; someone exercised skill and art in its manufacture.

I realize this is treading on dangerous ground. What does it mean to aestheticize an instrument of destruction? Can we turn minds away from the destructive power of the object and toward an appreciation of its craft? I don’t know, honestly. Aesthetics at this level is perhaps a sort of garden-making, a seeking of refuge that becomes its own prison, a limited world. But if we got back to that garden, would we be better off?

Some trends in modern art deal explicitly with questions of that sort. Consider Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” recently voted the 20th century’s most influential work of art by a panel of 500 British art experts. Duchamp’s work, submitted to – and rejected by -- an art show in 1917, is not something he built, but instead something he purchased, a urinal manufactured by the J.L. Mott Iron Works, turned 90 degrees from its normal position and signed “R. Mutt 1917.” An industrial object becomes an aesthetic one because the artist names it so, and turns the art world on its head. Duchamp’s work is at once a joke, an affront, a challenge and a call to appreciate the object itself, with its sensual curves, smooth white surface and precisely punched holes.

Later in the 20th century, it became common for artists to create collages and sculptures from found objects, and still later, in the art of Andy Warhol and others, commercial images were reproduced and altered – sometimes only slightly – to form works of “high” art. In one of Warhol’s most famous works, a photograph of the explosion of an atomic bomb, the ultimate instrument of destruction, is reproduced repeatedly via silk screen in varying shades of red and black.

Each time I teach a Bible class, I prepare an art board, on which I place computer print-outs of famous images that relate to the Biblical texts I’m planning to talk about. This week, alongside famous Genesis 2 images by Michelangelo and Jacob de Backer, as well as a couple of icons, I am placing a photograph of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” Barnett Newman’s “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” and several Warhol prints, including both the "Atomic Bomb" mentioned above and “Marilyn” (an icon of an icon …) to try to generate discussion about the inevitability of human creation, the art all around us and how recognition of that art can move us “into the garden” both as creator and as viewer. We’ll have to see what happens.

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