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The Generations of Adam

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This impassioned and original book is an exploration of stories - personal stories, family stories, allegories, histories, myths - and of one myth in particular: the Genesis account of creation. Eric Rhode takes the Genesis narrative and interweaves it with others: with Paradise Lost , with the wanderings of King Lear, with Piero della Francesca's painting of the Nativity, with Bunuyan's listening in to a group of women as they sat 'at a door in the sun', talking about a new birth.This is not ordinary story-telling. It is autobiographical writing against the grain. Rhode calls it a form of anti-autobiography. He suggests that our need for meaningful stories may blind us to the fact that truth of its nature does not always take symbolic forms. Rhode's re-telling of the story of Adam becomes an exploration of proto-mental states, in which tales can exist that need no tellers.

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1: A Type of Anti-Autobiography

ePub

Anyone might ask the question: what is the meaning of my life? How (if at all) may I contemplate my life, as though from outside myself? Questions of this kind preoccupy people in therapy, in much the same way as they used to preoccupy people in Tolstoy's novels. I remember a patient who dreamt of travelling by boat down a river. The opening out of the vista in his description invited the feeling that the whole of life was unfolding within the span of a journey. The more you looked, the more you saw, within some expanding conception of the imaginative vision. But therapeutic uses of the imagination of this kind are infrequent. To use thought in this way, you have to assume a certain kind of literacy, at some distance from the more fundamental processes of development. Many people in therapy sink into a torpidity of the soul, states in which they find themselves confused and lost in a multitude of particulars; they would seem to be remote from any alertness to general contexts, having moved (it would seem) close to the sources of symbol formation, states of mind that are preliterate, pre-verbal and possibly pre-human.

 

2: Psychotic Literalism

ePub

In the National Gallery in London, next to Piero della Francesca's painting of the Nativity, there is a small notice, informing the spectator that Piero painted this picture with failing sight. Piero was unable to complete the picture because he went blind. I was, and continue to be, moved by this observation. That Piero should use his dying sight to record his vision of a hallowed infant – of a birth representing the miracle of all births – and that his translucent vision should live up to the promise of the subject, has become an enduring part of my imaginative history. It nourishes me in a way that only an imaginative fact can do.

I learn that the small notice is probably in error. Piero did not go blind. The ground gives way beneath my feet: I think myself cheated. And yet the imaginative fact of Piero's going blind continues to live within me and to move me. I continue to maintain the importance of imaginative history – the history of indelible happenings in the mind – as against the history of possible facts.

 

3: The Birth of Adam

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There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states [to discover] the same single radically unchanged element. (Diamond and coal are the same pure single element of carbon. The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond – but I say: ‘Diamond, what! This is carbon.’ And my diamond might be coal or soot, and my theme is carbon.) (D. H. Lawrence in a letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914).

Adam opens his eyes in paradise. The first moment of human perception – no eye has looked on a world before. What did Adam see? Adam knew no past; his eyes were empty of the past. His eyes sought light by looking into other eyes. If he is aware of mind (I would conjecture), it is of an anima outside him, flooding, pouring in, through his eyes. The priestly version of the Genesis Creation story (Genesis 1:2, 1-4) has him open his eyes on a world so complete that he probably felt excluded by it. He had nothing to compare it with. He might have been an adult without a past, without memory, all sound and sight without sense. No experience, whether conscious or unconscious, of having been a foetus, or born, or nurtured-through infancy. He might have been someone sent back from the dead, perceiving too much of everything: trees, camels, sun, darkness, lambs, plants, sky, sea, elephants, whales. A dead man flooded by experience – yearning to retreat into the promenades of the underworld.

 

4: Between Life and Death

ePub

It becomes like a madness at last, to know that one is all the time walking in a pale assembly of an unreal world – this house, the furniture, the sky and the earth – whilst oneself is all the while a piece of darkness pulsating in shocks, and the shocks and the darkness are real. Keep somewhere, in the darkness of reality, a connection with me. I feel there is something to go through, something very important. It may be it is only in my soul – but it seems to grow more and more looming, and this daytime reality becomes more and more unreal, as if one wrote from a grave – or womb – they are the same thing, at opposite extremes (D. H. Lawrence. Letter to Bertrand Russell, March 1915, in Moore, 1962, p.330).

He looked at things with the eyes, so it seemed, of a man who had been at the brink of death and to whom, as he emerges from the darkness, the world reveals itself as unfathomably beautiful and mysterious. Existence was one continuous convalescence; it was as though he were newly re-born from a mortal illness every day of his life (Aldous Huxley, Introduction to the letters of D. H. Lawrence).

 

5: Tales without Tellers

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Hell, Heaven and other imaginable places are categories of an autobiographical kind – ways of dealing with states of confusion and not knowing. I do not understand my experience: I think to put it into categories that may make some sense of it. In the Genesis story, the categories are not given: no Hell, no Heaven, and no Satan either, or Adam's dream, as in Milton. The reader of Genesis may bring self-awareness to the story; but the issue of self-awareness does not exist in the narrative itself. A priest, following Genesis, would want to describe his rites as impersonal, tales without teller, irrefutable in ways that objects in consciousness are not. It matters little if no one attends his church, or if he should die and be replaced by another priest. The act of primal creation, and the idea of the covenant which inevitably derives from the act of creation, exist outside consciousness. The priest in his rites relives the act of primal creation automatically, in a manner only marginally related to consciousness.

 

6: The Buried Source of Light

ePub

I do not think my father ever exorcized his guilt over having survived the battlefields of the First World War. Perhaps I am writing now hopefully to exorcize a projected guilt. He did not speak about the war if he could help it. The stories he told were often the stories that silence implies. Only since the fall of the Berlin war has I think that this country, and more than this country, been released from the legacy of depression related to two world wars. In psychic reality, an object is disabled or lost, buried, forgotten. But not destroyed. It continues to exist somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered. It sets up intimations. It beams out energies. The dead continue to speak to the living. Sometimes they return like admonishing revenants and sometimes they make a more savage impression. What is this object in psychic reality? Does it mark inspiration or death, creation or destruction? Its presence can be discovered everywhere, and especially in stories.

In the Syriac Book of the Rolls, a long-lost book, probably written by Clement the Apostle in the sixth century AD (Gibson, 1901), God makes Adam so literally in his image that Adam is more deity than man. He is not properly separated out from the deity: he has not his own mind. He is foetal personality in a religious reverie. Human experience, sluiced by divinity, has the property of dream; it radiates with the luminosity of dream. In Clement's account, Adam is no thing of day or dust into which God breathes soul; or if he is, he has been transformed into a fetish of the most dangerous kind, since he is not aniconic. He is made in the image of God; and his being sublime frightens the angels.

 

7: Against the Self

ePub

The autobiographical impulse in Western culture (as I recognize it in myself) is often thought to originate with Augustine. It is a strange mixture of yearning and confession. The yearning, Platonist in spirit, is for certitudes: and these certitudes, in an uncertain world, insist on being unworldly. The one who yearns comes to the view that sensations are deceptive and inimical to insight. Experience yields up meanings confusedly at best. Evidences of a certain truth, within and without the self, are dispersed, semi-concealed and even, at times, thought to be opposed to the interests of the self. An opposition to my sense of satisfaction goads me from within. I find myself under pressure, internal pressure, to be penitent. I feel guilty, condemned without trial. I sense some presence that impels me into admitting my unworthiness and into having me examine my past life. The pressure encourages me to give it a personality in the form of an unkind object, in the case of Augustine, the presence of an exacting God. Without the pressure, or the object, the need to think autobiographically would hardly come about. Without presences in the mind, felt to be bullying, or encouraging, or easily seducible perhaps, there would be no need to find a notation for my life. (I might write my autobiography in music or in painting as well as in words.) So far as I can see, there is nothing in the living of the present moment that impels me to think about the past or my peculiar involvement with past, present and future – unless that is, I perceive in the present moment intimations of the inner presence.

 

8: A Door in the Sun

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My feelings tell me that as a postRenaissance man, I cannot avoid the semi empirical, semi-Romantic model of the self as investigating a knowable other. In Genesis I recognize an older way of describing experience. In it all coherence lies with an other that is unknowable and that has all the power. In psychoanalytic terms, I may describe the unknowable other in terms of the life and death forces that buffet the ego-to-be, the foetus as it fluctuates between life and death.

This contrast between a defence, which is perhaps a species of autism – the self as egotistic in its perceptions – and the condition of utter helplessness which it defends against, are hard to sort out, one from the other; and I am not sure that I can sort them out to anyone's satisfaction.

Descartes doubted the value of any knowledge received on trust. He observed rope-makers and cooks and sailors at work: he wished to feel on the pulses how others undergo experience. When he came to learn about human anatomy, he did not rely on text-books; he insisted on carrying out his own dissections. Scientific experiment interested him as an activity into which he himself could enter; otherwise it did not interest him at all. His creative use of egotism was characteristic of his times. Knowledge was meaningful to the extent that it could be transacted through mind. His Meditations of 1641 takes the form of a semi-secular Pilgrim's Progress (1678), and in many ways it anticipates the magnification of moral scruple that occurs in psychoanalysis. In a religious manner, it supposes antagonists and temptations and moral progressions in thought. It is unlike the revelation that (I assume) Adam experienced when he first opened his eyes: the flooding of absolutely everything into a wholly vulnerable foetal being. Descartes in his contemplation is critical, evaluatory, in quest for a method or a narrative to understanding.

 

9: The uses of Egocentricity

ePub

For man to tell how human life began
Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?
(Paradise Lost 8:2.50).

Beginning at the beginning and go on right through to the end: but where exactly do I begin? Do I begin with the beginning of my own awareness and my first experiences of nurture within the womb of the family; or do I begin with some impersonal diagrammatic account of the universe, the containments of the Aristotelian and Newtonian universe, for instance; or should I be like the Jewish theologians of ancient Alexandria who dazzled and defeated the philosophers in argument by resolutely beginning and ending every discourse with the unknowable concept of God?1

When I read Genesis I want to be like the Jewish theologians, and to start from some point apart from self-centred concerns, a point that is both unknowable and unnameable. But I cannot escape my personal entanglement with nature and a body-derived consciousness. The provisional model I revert to, and which many people work with, whether true or not, has self-consciousness at its centre like a radiant pool and moves out to take in, with a steadily increasing obscurity, the whole of mankind. The model has immediate bearing on the experience of infancy and childhood. I see the world as beginning with the boundaries of the self, then around it my family and its boundaries, and then my school, and eventually the rest of the world. The model places me at the centre of the world, as though I were the baby in the manger, as though I were the hallowed child. I do not think it is possible to be self-centred without thinking of myself as God. Giving up the delusional belief that I am God for the belief that I may be able to relate to some spark of divinity is not easy.

 

10: Stories

ePub

We tell stories to each other: stories about Noah's Ark, transmissions defending the imagination against the Deluge or the Fall. Listening to family stories as a child, I felt about them a special resonance. Of course, there was curiosity about my parents’ insides, about the atmosphere of their emotional inheritance, and how they had come together and brought about my procreation; these were issues that made an impression. But there was also puzzlement: how did things fit together? Many of the stories were about ancestors in ceaseless movement, emigrants and pilgrims, seekers after new lands and continuing cities. They certainly had it harder than I did. I was shaken, when visiting the Cutty Sark, to see the kind of quarters my sailing-ship grandfather must have inhabited. Over the years anecdotes were mulled over, and meanings looked for, that might increase the meaning of my own existence. In the past, the lives of the dead were studied for allegorical significance: I wanted the meaning printed out.

 

11: Adam and Noah

ePub

Genesis mythologizes an immense power and uncovers this power in history. The God of absolute creation is the God of absolute destruction. But how do I come to know this fact in the present moment? At one moment – the moment of the Flood – the absolute God, who created the world, destroys nearly all life on earth. ‘And all flesh died that moved upon the earth’ (7:21). A fact about the world may be a fact about mind also, if I believe that mind has some impersonal substrate determined by absolute powers, of life and death, of creation and destruction. The story of Adam and the story of Noah are the two sides of the same coin. The Bible scholar, Claus Westermann, writes: ‘There is a far reaching parallel between the creation of humans and the flood narrative. Both begin with a decision of God about humanity, both envisage the possibility of the failure of humanity as God's creation; both are concerned with the existence or non-existence of humanity. Flood narrative and creation narrative (of humans) are from the start obviously interrelated; they complement each other’ (Westermann, 1984, p.393). He relates the Flood story to other salient Genesis motifs, all of them pluralistic and threatening to monistic beliefs, motifs concerning the origins of civilization: marriages between humans and demi deities, tower-building, the scatterings of races and the multiplications of languages:

 

12: The Literalism of God's Word

ePub

To read Genesis in a way that allows it dimension, I need to read it literally, and not as a metaphor (or displacement) for something other. I cannot afford to start from the security of normative conceptions and see the text as a strange outcrop. The neurotic self is body-constrained, compelled by the issues of appetite, inclined to see any issue that is not compelling of appetite as a rationalization of appetite. Genesis, for the neurotic self, is a fanciful re-telling of the conflict between Fellaheen and Bedouin, the crop-grower and the shepherd. Hypersensitive to the frustration of his desires, the neurotic self assumes that everybody else, including the writers of Genesis, must suffer from his limitations.

But what if Genesis is the word of God, as the psychotic believes, irrefutable and unchangeable, allowing no place for the role of editor, a role which by its edgily perfectionist nature is neurotic? Not one jot or tittle can be changed of the original text, which turns out to have been written by the one author who is irrefutable, the author being nobody, and nobody cannot be denied. Genesis is a tale without a teller: and possibly without a protagonist. For its first cause, its possible teller or protagonist, is not manifest. As someone drawn to Genesis, I have difficulty in relating its ways of seeing to the world of naturalism, which I find dismally given over to issues of appetite. I am bewildered by the world's claims to be free-standing: claims that depend on the belief that the self can be separated to some extent from its environment. I am bewildered by the allusive and metaphoric manner of the world's communications; its pluralism; its innumerable agencies, each displacing energies and units of meaning among themselves. As someone drawn to the monism of Genesis, I do not understand the concepts of projection and hallucination. Nor do I understand the concept of sincerity, with the implicit importance it discovers in individual makings of truthfulness. I am drawn to Jeremiah's belief that only the false prophet speaks out of his heart. The true prophet allows God to lodge in his mouth, as though a mouth can be taken on lease. The true prophet denies his own individuality; he becomes God's voice.

 

13: The Truest Microcosm

ePub

Adam's environment issues out of him. He is foetal and therefore unable to hallucinate. His warps, and the warps of the surrounding scene, cannot be distinguished. There is no question of anything being projected, since projection implies some otherness into which to put the projection, and there is no otherness – in this, Adam is like the ancient mariner. The foetus discovers that the skin next to its skin is its own membrane. Foetal skin and its maternal surroundings are part of the same system; in the same way, the minds of God and Adam are indivisible.

Commenting on Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, Coleridge avers that ‘the History of a man for the 9 months preceding his Birth would probably be far more interesting & contain events of greater moment than all the 3 score & 10 years that follow it’ (Coleridge, 1802/1809 in 1981, p.750). Browne had written, in the Religio Medici: ‘every man is some monthes elder than hee bethinks him; for we live, move, have a being, and are subject to the actions of the elements, and the malice of diseases, in that other world, the truest Microcosme, the wombe of our mother’ (Browne, 1643, p.89; cited in Coleridge, 1802/1809 in 1981, p.749).

 

14: Finding a Focus

ePub

Feeling myself to be at the centre of things in youth and early middle age can be pleasurable: the self as explorer, discoverer, is intent on subduing and devouring all experience. But such a picture, though true of womb conjecture, as I like to imagine it, is misleading. Buccaneer appetites give only a buccaneer view of things, centring the idea of the unknowable on no more than the devouring self and its unceasing appetite. Egotism is like a medieval map. It begins with the confident areas of knowledge and moves out into blank spaces, a misleading depiction. The insights of Genesis are not accessible to egocentric thought. Years ago, I asked W. R. Bion in a public meeting if he agreed with Keats's view that a man's life of any worth might be a continual allegory. Characteristically, Bion answered the question with such a depth of insight that I found myself wondering whether he had heard the question. Life, he thought, was more like an alphabet than an allegory: its components create a never-ending constellation of meanings.1 His proposal was one of the starting points of this book.

 

15: The Grove of Holy Writ

ePub

How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Genesis 2.8:17).

For bookish men, the shrine at which they rest might be within a book. Milton toyed with the idea of an Arthuriad; it remained unrealized. Discovering how the book of Genesis lay at the core of his emotional being, at the core where the unknowable can transform into meaning, he lay down in the grove of Holy Writ, and dreamt Paradise Lost. You struggle to achieve allegory and you fail. Art, like life, makes, then breaks you, lives you out and then frees you into death. Adam does not create God in his own image; rather God, the unknowable, creates Adam.

The ‘major thing’ about Paradise Lost, according to William Empson, ‘is the fascination of its barbaric power.’ He compared it to ‘appalling’ African sculptures, bronze masterpieces from the looted city of Benin, that ‘raised my spirits no end’ (1961, p.2.76). To a lesser extent than George Fox perhaps, Milton was taken over by Holy Writ, as though it were a place that determined dreams. Text acts him out, shapes his body, gesturing cosmic lunges, upward sweeps, sheer falls. The cosmos, and the very initial moment of time, are his introspective sites. He needed absolutely the whole universe and the very beginnings of time to reach to the heart's core.

 

16: A Moderating Concerned Presence

ePub

I have a certain experience that allows me to see how shallow my feelings had been. I meet with the experience of birth or death for the first time. I think to find myself in touch with Lawrence's ‘ego according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable.’ I had not thought a seriousness of such depth existed. It puts me in touch with states of being I would deny, of my having a soul, a vulnerable foetus within the infant self, alert to the fluctuations of life and death. A presence within me has become suffused by the deeper powers of creation and destruction. At times the presence is terrifying; it comes close and seems to take me over. Alternatively, I may feel it keeps its distance in order to enable me and to moderate terror.

A man dreams that he is in a theatre or cinema. Someone, situated high up behind him, asks: where do you want me to direct the light beam? He answers playfully: up left. He gave associations to the dream. Most of them related to his desire to be the family star actor who directs the beam of a father's attention. One of the associations, of a different calibre, half-buried, almost escaped notice. It took the form of an image. His father was poring over an X-ray negative placed against a luminous screen. (His father had been long dead.) The dreamer mentioned the image and then pulled away from the idea in a way that prompted me to pause over it. He recalled how, in mid-puberty, he had contracted tuberculosis; he had been kept in a state of convalescence for over a year. He had declined to take his illness seriously. He had found reasons for not taking it seriously. He had thought obscurely that it was a form of punishment, he felt guilty about being away from school, he was already aware of his pleasure in hypochondriasis and so on. All these thoughts were ways of directing the beam of attention on to himself, so that he would be the star of a show which his parental audience would have to look at, if only with disapproval. He thought he did not know any other way to interest it.

 

17: The Creation of the World

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God's world is not the world of man's rebellious mind; and when God reveals his world to man, he challenges man's sanguine confidence in nature as a mirror to the human soul. Man's myths about nature are often myths about his own body, inclining (as he does) to see his body and its appetites as the centre of being. Genesis stands in the way of this assumption. It describes a primal creation that is non-organic and in which there is no biological coming-to-be or passing-away: no birth, no death and no nature. God might have articulated the idea of birth and death to himself; but He did so in some way that was only hinted at in the first pulse of creation. The fact that the Creation occurs in time, and time is death-imbued might, for all its effect on the narrative, have been a liturgical after thought.

Creation's rhythm is linked to the time-span of a week, discovering daily bread in the miraculous hearth. But it would be possible fairly to paraphrase the story of primal creation without referring to this time-scheme. The intellectual who organized the Priestly account of Genesis perhaps saw God in his own image: ascetic, celibate, in love with mathematical patterns and harmonies, opposed to organic fertility. The story of Noah's Ark might have been the product of the same imagination; it has the same aesthetic as well as structure as the Adam story. Both are stories of survival developed through a universal economy of effect.

 

18: Adam in Generation

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Genesis does not indicate that Adam dreamt during his deep sleep; and this is significant, since it is important to imagine Adam's sleep as being a sleep without mind, a stupor that exists where mind one day might be. However, if I think of Adam as a prototype for the other patriarchs, whom I know to have been dreamers, then I feel an inclination to follow Milton and to think that Adam dreamt in his deep sleep.

Abraham's dream, Joseph's dream and the possible dream that Noah dreamt when God advised him to build an Ark, are dreams of survival, continuation, making new commentaries on the dream that Milton was much later to ascribe to his post-Renaissance and Anglicized hero. In all these cases, the primal act of creation appears to the dreamer and offers a pledge: the present will continue into the future. The prospects of food and of breath will not cease. Life will continue beyond the next harvest. In Milton's version, the dream of continuity is of a woman, Eve, who realizes the future for Adam, in ways that God presumably had not intended. In one form or another, the source of life, of primal creativity itself, validates a depth of seriousness in the dreamer that the dreamer finds remarkable, even overwhelming. This Adam is not like Jacob at Bethel; he does not directly dream of God: he dreams of God's creativity in a form that is not immediately God-like. A fragment of actuality appears to him in a dream, as though it were a piece of sky, or a star, one of the primal furnishings of the universe. He awakes and finds its truth. Eve, as a realized being, is truth: the source of poetry.

 

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