Some believe that the notion of genre is unhelpful, an arbitrary system for the selling and shelving of books. Others argue that it serves a more malicious agenda, falsely segregating “real” literature from mere entertainment. While I think both angles contain some truth, I’m interested in another aspect of genre: how it can have political, even theological consequences. For instance, lyric poets got booted out of Plato’s Republic for their alleged mendacity, and one could make the case that the lowly essay caused the fall:
Of course, I’m misreading a bit here, but I’m struck by the serpent’s verb choice and its etymological offshoot, the essay. Maybe it’s because the essay, like the fall, is an acknowledgement of human imperfection. You could say that fallibility is the essence of the essay: fallibility fuels the effort and shapes the form. As G. K. Chesterton puts it, “The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark.”
Read in this light, last two lines of Paradise Lost mark, simultaneously, the end of that epic poem and the beginning of humankind’s collective essay, our discursive wanderings: “They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (Paradise Lost Bk 12, lines 648-9).
Speaking of Chesterton, he also associated the essay with the Garden of Eden:
There are dark and morbid moods in which I am tempted to feel that Evil re-entered the world in the form of Essays. The Essay is like the Serpent, smooth and graceful and easy of movement, also wavering or wandering. Besides, I suppose that the very word Essay had the original meaning of ‘trying it on’. The serpent was in every sense of the word tentative. The tempter is always feeling his way, and finding out how much other people will stand. That misleading air of irresponsibility about the Essay is very disarming though appearing to be disarmed. (from “On the Essay”)
In The Play of Adam and Eve, Eve’s “assay” is merely the action that caused the fall, a precursor to our essayistic state. But for Chesterton, the essay is an embodiment the Serpent who orchestrated the whole catastrophe. Like the serpent, the essay is “the tempter,” irresponsible, wily, and deceptive.
Chesterton’s winking moralizing is charming and amusing, especially when you realize he authored over 2000 essays himself. But I’m fascinated with the suggestion that one of the world’s most influential origin stories sets the stage for a battle between genres/approaches to language: God’s irrefutable Word—“Let there be”s, interdictions, etc.— vs. the subtle, evasive, slippery essay.
To back up: In the extensive body of myth, folktales, and kabbalistic commentary that surround the story of the fall we find Lilith, Adam’s first partner, created separately from him (not afterwards from his rib) and therefore his equal. Lilith was banished from the Garden because she insisted on being on top during sex. According to one kabbalistic text,
Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.
Lilith’s lineage is complicated and contradictory, but some associate her with the serpent. According to the Zohar, she is the serpent. That would make Lilith the author of the fall, and in my skewed mythology, an essayist. By the way, the Zohar also claims that Lilith-as-serpent had sex with Eve.
Where’s Adam in my twisted version of this creation myth? Well, I’m going to say that, above all, he’s a poor reader of essays: he “hearkened unto the voice” of Eve, echo of Lilith. But he falls not simply because he “hearkened,” but for how he hearkened: with the same humorless solemnity with which he heard God’s word. Certainly, it is a great sin to treat an essay’s word as Truth. The serpent is a subtle beast. To read her earnestly is to not read her at all. One must respond with one’s own serpentine wiles—that is, another essay.
I recognize that the theological mish-mash above will not withstand critical scrutiny, so allow me to confuse it even more. Another great theorist and practitioner of the essay, Theodor Adorno, also discusses the essay in the context of Adam and Eve: “Luck and play are essential to the essay. It does not begin with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to discuss; it says what is at issue and stops where it feels itself complete—not where nothing is left to say” (“Essay as Form”). Adorno was righter than he knew. The essay didn’t begin with Adam and Eve. It began with a temperament more suited to the essay’s questioning, promiscuous, insubordinate, and capricious ways: Lilith.