The twentieth century was quite productive giving birth to new theories in psychology and philosophy, which give a new vision of human existence. Particular interest in archetypes and mythology brought about by scholars, enabled to see the basic patterns that the Bible has a reflection of the collective subconscious. The current paper considers the text using two perspectives: Freudian theories of eros, thanatos and Oedipal conflict, and the philosophy of existentialism.
When speaking about existential approach to text interpretation, it is worth mentioning some of the basic concepts of the philosophy. The twentieth century’s disappointment and disillusionment about faith because of domination of the evil, lead philosophers to an idea that there should not be any justification for either good or the bad happening to them. According to them, the world is totally irrational and no justice can be expected from God or any other divine force, because God does not participate at all. On the one hand, being so insecure is a tragedy of humanity but on the other hand this implies utter freedom and responsibility. There is no one to account to for one’s actions or choice, yet the very opportunity to be involved in the existence as it is means being alive. It is possible to learn what reality is only by going through a process of painful transformation and facing the darker side of existence. Responsibility is totally placed on a human, and this is rather a gift than a curse, because it presupposes freedom of choice. Existentialists have to face the reality of death and this awareness enables them to truly appreciate every moment of life.
In this sense, the story of Adam and Eve is the process of movement from a secure but not free living in paradise to acquiring existential awareness and freedom of choice as a result of their actions. When analyzing the text, it is easy to notice that Adam and Eve have several stages of their existence. The first period is security and innocence: the couple is protected by God and they do not have to care about survival. This period is close to the prenatal one, when a child lives carefree in a mother’s womb. At this stage, one does not differentiate oneself from the system, they are part of the whole. Adam and Eve are in embryonic stage of their existence because they have no awareness about their own self and their existence. “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen 2:25, the final verse of Chapter 2). The fact that the two of them felt no shame means that they did not place themselves in any moral or social context, which is obviously the result of the fact that they did not differentiate the good from the evil.
However, living in Eden, heavenly as it was, was limited by one condition from God. You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’” (Gen 2:15-17.) Thus, living a paradise presents a truly existential problem: a choice between security and freedom. The limitation that God places on humans prevents them from living through existential experience of transcendence, which means bridging one’s limits by a totally new and frightening experience in order to be truly alive. The continuation of the story covers the way of transfer from safety to responsibility. It is also worth mentioning that while existentialism treats life as irrational, it is quite natural that the process of transition is facilitated by Eve, not Adam. “The attempt to seize man in his concrete, living reality by means of a scrutiny of basic moods also has important repercussions upon the ethical aspects of existentialist philosophy. Fundamental moral decisions, it is said, are not explicable in purely rational terms.” (Grimsley 8).
In any tradition or philosophy, femininity is associated with the wild, irrational part of personality, so it is quite symbolical in this sense that Eve is the one who leads the process of transformation and initiated the break up with security and dependence. Adam, who embodies masculinity and ratio, only has to give in to Eve in her spontaneity and risk. This example demonstrates that human emotions and decisions are not rooted in ratio at all; in this sense existence is spontaneous presence in the flow of life.
It is remarkable that the price that Adam and Eve have to pay for eating the fruit of knowledge is death. However, this option is still acceptable to them in the context of existentialism because existential philosophy suggests that death can be a motivator and an essential tool of transformation. When one is immortal, there is not true motivation to change, while a chance to face death increases responsibility of one’s choices and actions. In fact, existence has no meaning without death, because this means that a person is never transformed. The cycles of life and death are ultimate transformation that nature has. Everything, which is alive, has to transform in order to stay alive. In fact, one has to die in order to stay alive. In this sense, Adam and Eve’s staying in Paradise is inevitably temporary and finite, in case God wants them to be alive. Neither absolute evil nor absolute good can be the right condition for development. A person is always somewhere in the middle, and every position is temporary anyway.
The story of Adam and Eve is existential as it contains one of the main axioms of the philosophy: people are lonely, isolated and alienated both from God and from each other. So, after exile from Eden they face a new stage of their development, which is a way to discover their authenticity. As Heidegger, one of the key philosophers of existentialism states; “Authenticity consists in a realization of one’s position in the world, one’s isolation, and one’s inevitable orientation towards one’s own death. Before this realization can be complete, one has to experience oneself as something suspended over a void. Things in the world must lose their solidity (and thus their attraction and apparent importance), and one must feel deep alarm at the vacancy which surrounds one. This, then, is the second and more dramatic sense of the word ‘Nothing’ which Heidegger uses. (Warnock 60)
So, losing stability, as it is the case with Adam and Eve , is a stage of existential transformation and facing existence as it is. They lose solid earth under their feet but acquire awareness of their own responsibility. Existentialists believe that making choice is inevitable and that restraint from making it is equal to death. In fact, God gives choice to Adam and Eve from the very beginning and because there is a Tree of Knowledge, which is forbidden, it is possible to suspect that God knows that sooner or later they will taste it. Creator is not presented as an authoritative ruler, he is rather an observer who watches his creatures to act independently in those conditions, which he creates. From the religious perspective, exile from Eden is a tragedy and sin of the whole human race. From existentialist point of view, however, it is not a tragedy at all, it is an essential step to maturing and living one’s life at full. On the contrary, staying in Eden is people’s reluctance to deal with freedom, a wish to hide from it in illusion of stability.
A serpent in this case is a mediator between the two stages of the people’s life who urges them to make a step in direction to the unknown. In fact, it is possible to say that the serpent might not be lying to Eve: ’You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’( Gen.3:1-19). In fact, the serpent speaks the truth about Adam and Eve staying alive after tasting the fruit. It is also remarkable that they are in fact become godlike in the aspect that the serpent mentions: they know good and evil. Yet, there is one more existential question, which can be discussed in this context: Are they ready for this freedom? In fact, existentialists believed that being free requires courage and maybe even heroism, because one has to refuse from all past attachments and ideas and recognize that life is absurd, that it has no other meaning except the existence itself, that one cannot hope for reward and support. A person has to become utterly lonely and give in to this loneliness, and this is apparently frightening.
The truly existential transformation is possible when sorrows and suffering take place. It is not exactly like ancient Greek catharsis that means purification by means of suffering. Yet, it is a way to transcend the scope of conventions about “the good” and “the bad”. So, in religious point of view, God’s punishment sounds like a curse but it is a true blessing in existential sense because it gives Adam and Eve an opportunity to live the life which they never lived. Their previous experience was almost blank because it was perfect. As they had no judgment about the good and the evil, they had no ability to suffer at all. They had access only to the good, so they could not compare or expect, they could not be disappointed. This is an ideal which many people strive to reach, yet this is the hell of existentialism. If a person has no idea of the good and the bad, he or she is unable to live a wide spectrum of emotions and experiences, and thus is alienated from existence completely. So, the following punishment that God thinks of looks like opening a new world of opportunities: To Eve: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”.“To Adam he said…through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust will you return.’” (Gen 3:1-19). Thus, this is a promise of hardships, which inevitably lead to new experiences.
Another approach that can be applied to the creation story’s interpretation is Freud’s concepts of Thanatos and Eros, and his idea of Oedipal conflict. The theory suggests that human life and every human motivation is determined by two primary instincts: instinct for life ( Eros) and instinct for death ( thanatos). Because no system is ever stable and the development is cyclic, these two instinct tend to change each other continuously. Every system, including human existence, has to go through a number of such transformations, which is the case in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. The very story about creation of earth and living beings reflects the idea of Eros because it reveals the creative potential: “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food”( Genesis 2:7-9). This passage embodies the initial effort of creation and integration, which is reflection of Eros as a creative force. The words “ breath of life”, “living beings”, “plant a garden” has a positive connotation. It is remarkable that God located a garden in the east, which is traditionally a place of birth, sunrise, giving a new life. The garden is a feminine archetype that is associated with growth and a concept of a mother. In the same way, breath has a strong association of life (eros), which also deals with the opposite concept of death ( thanatos).When a child is born, it has to face the opposition between life and death at the very beginning, in fact it makes a choice to live when starting to breath. This is why words and expressions used in this part of Genesis suggest the initial stage of creation and growth.
As Freud defines Eros and Thanatos, Eros is “ the life instincts, which included libidinal drives, and Thanatos or the death instinct, operating alongside but in opposition to Eros…the vicissitudes of Thanatos are such that it is oriented towards a reduction of tension and the reinstatement of a homeostatic state.” (Welman 125). This last statement is remarkable because it suggests that when any system reaches its maximum development, it stops developing Eros and the pendulum goes in direction of Thanatos. In fact, Eden is the incarnation of thrive in its utter way because it is so perfect that its perfection cannot be developed further. Yet, a system cannot be stable for a long time in case it functions, it has to be transformed in some way. When the maximum level of Eros is achieved, the cycle of movement in direction of Thanatos starts. In this sense, Eros is the highest presence ( life, creation, material world), while Thanatos is the maximum absence ( death, destruction, world of ideas). Freud speaks about Thanatos as a wish to return to “a homeostatic state”, which can be seen as Adam and Eve’s subconscious motivation to leave paradise.
It is worth of note that they are warned by God about the fact that they are going to die as a result of tasting the forbidden fruit. Traditionally, it is accustomed to believe that the reason why they taste it is to become godlike, but from Thanatos point of view they do it because they might want to die, consciously or subconsciously, They already made most of what they can have in Eden, so reverse movement starts. The serpent, who helps to do this, is an absolutely Freudian symbol, which can be interpreted in different ways. In the most general sense, it is an example of Freud’s Id, the subconscious part of psyche, which is primitive and dark. It has been ousted and repressed but it cannot stay in that tension forever. This is why it emerges to tempt a human to make a choice, the consequence of which cannot be guessed. Apparently, the serpent embodies Thanatos, because it creates a situation, which leads to the end of paradise for Adam and Eve. But what is especially alluring for people is that they do not know in fact, whether they are going to die or not. It is obviously play with death, which has a significant touch of Thanatos too.
Because of the situation, God stops being a creator and becomes a destructor: “So the Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, [c]ursed are you above all livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen 3:1-19). This passage is remarkable because it is extremely abundant of words and phrases that imply death: curse, enmity, crush, strike, crawl, dust. All of them refer to the darker and aggressive side of psyche, which is opposite to creation. Further on, after promising the curse to the serpent, Lord addresses Adam and Eve with the same kind of warning, using the words “pain”, “thorns” , “thistles”, all suggesting violence and suffering. Thus, chronologically, the selected Genesis story pictures the transfer from Eros to Thanatos, which is an essential cycle of human life. Apparently, as it is known from the Bible, a new cycle of creation will take over when the full potential of Thanatos is realized.
Finally, another approach, which is helpful to interpret the story, deals with Freud’s idea of Oedipal conflict. This concept derives from ancient Greek mythological plot, in which Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. However hard he tries to escape the lot, the fate is inevitable. In terms of psychoanalysis, “Oedipus complex Freudian term, drawn from the myth of Oedipus, designating attraction on the part of the child toward the parent of the opposite sex and rivalry and hostility toward the parent of its own.” (“Oedipus complex”). When interpreting Genesis from this point of view, it can be noticed that it contains archetypes of a father, a mother and a child. God is obviously a paternal figure, he is the one who gives life. He is also the one who commands and who puts bans on his children, limiting their freedom. Finally, he is the one who like a father punishes and beats. Creation and aggression are two opposite aspects of masculinity, represented by father God. Eve, in her turn, is a representation of maternal figure because of her relationship with Adam. Although they are usually treated as a couple, they have mother and child pattern of behavior. Eve takes decision what is best for her and her “child”, so she treats him with a fruit without even explaining what this fruit is about. This situation suggests maternal aspect of feeding, and it also reflects the idea of parents’ taking full responsibility of a child. Adam, in his turn, is an example of immature masculine energy, he rebels against his father, but he is not ready to take responsibility for it. In fact, this situation might be comfortable to him: he could as Eve about the fruit but he did not, so he consciously or subconsciously shifted responsibility to her. Finally, God’s curse of a woman is remarkable in this context: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This sentence suggests that God punishes a woman by being inferior to a man, which means that at the moment it is not the case. Eve does not subdue to Adam, in fact she is stronger than him, which confirms the assumption about her as a mother archetype.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that Genesis can be interpreted in different ways depending on the approach taken. Existentialism gives an opportunity to see a new perspective of the story as not the punishment but as rewards. This approach is based on the values that are different from the conventional religion, where heaven is the ultimate goal. Existential vision implies that freedom is more precious than paradise. When dealing with Eros and Thanatos, it should be noted that the story represent a cyclic movement from the first to the second stage, which is a natural course of life. This approach helps explore instincts of life and death as core motivators of human and explore how death instinct takes over when Eros reaches its full potential. Finally, the theory of Oedipus complex can be applied to Genesis too. According to it, God is a paternal figure, while Eve is maternal and Adam symbolizes the son. Because of Oedipal complex Adam has a tension with his father and fully trusts his mother, literally eating from her hands. So, the model develops in a traditional way, Adam shifts responsibility to Eve, and God father reacts in rage and punishment. In the end, maternal role is taken from Eve, when God commands that she is going to be inferior to her husband.