Few topics can prove more captivating than creation myths; their universality, their recurrent tropes, and of course the essential and primordial subject matter. Mark Twain’s 'Diary of Adam and Eve' is a thoughtful, playful exploration of the Christian myth of origin, examining the pre-fall landscape, language, and lifestyle, but perhaps with one crucial difference – it is hilarious.
The book is divided into various sections, comprising segments from Adam’s diary, Eve’s diary, Eve’s autobiography, an extract from Satan’s diary and then some passages written by later ‘incarnations’ of Eve and Adam. There is a loose chronology to the book, but the individual ‘extracts’ are pretty random in themselves and allow Twain to pick out dilemmas and contradictions in the myth and play with them to full effect. The prose is quick and free, snappy and upfront, little time is given to dialogue but where it does appear it is used to full (often amusing) effect. The book is not greatly coherent and feels more like a collection of ideas for passages loosely assembled around a general historical timeline. This is a perfect sampler from Hespersus Press however, whose goal is to offer shorter works from great authors, in bite size form.
We begin with Adam, lamenting how his peace in the garden is troubled by the new arrival: “Monday: This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way…”. Amusingly, it is Eve herself who is given over to self-questioning and the obsessive desire to name and catalogue the world around her. She arrives and immediately begins to consider her situation and her surroundings:
“I feel like an experiment. Then if I am an experiment, am I the whole of it?…I followed the other Experiment around yesterday afternoon, at a distance, to see what it might be for…I think it is a reptile, though it may be architecture”.
Adam’s casual talk of being disgruntled with this new arrival is revealed as something of a courageous veneer as we learn from Eve that she:
“…tracked it [Adam] along, several hours, about twenty yards behind, which made it nervous and unhappy. At last it was a good deal worried, and climbed a tree. I waited a good while, then gave up and went home. Today the same thing over. I’ve got it up the tree again”.
After several attempts to set up home away from Eve, Adam resigns himself to a life of mutual habitation and they begin to explore their world further; Eve overwhelmed with curious abandon and Adam feigning disinterest. When a brontosaurus (yes, there were dinosaurs in Eden) wanders into their camp, Eve is enamoured and wants to make a pet of it, Adam on the other hand thinks of the practical implications in keeping a beast of such size. Eve capitulates, though not without the brontosaurus following her around for a while like ‘a pet mountain’. Twain generalises and satirises the clichéd gender distinctions of his own age.
Seeking peace, Adam spends many days testing his theory that water only ever falls downwards, while Eve berates him for his dangerous experiments:
“I went over the Falls in a barrel – not satisfactory to her. Went over in a tub – still not satisfactory. Swam the whirlpool and Rapids in a fig-leaf suit. It got much damaged. Hence, tedious complaints about my extravagance. I am too much hampered here. What I need is a change of scene”.
Within this humorous innocence, Twain carefully introduces the real issues and contradictions that lie at the heart of the myth. The overall tale may be a lampoon, but it is not without its serious side. Perhaps the most effective way he raises these contentious elements is via the complex problem of language. Eve goes on her merry way, giving arbitrary names to things simply because ‘that’s what they feel they should be called…’ Yet when she queries Adam about the infamous tree of knowledge he mutters something about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and how a ‘voice’ told him not to eat its fruit or they would know ‘death’. In their ignorance, however, and as Eden exists beyond the realm of good and evil at this stage, they do not know what these terms mean. Adam suggests ‘death’ is like a long sleep, but he isn’t sure. To which Eve joyfully replies how much she enjoys sleep and if death were a long sleep, how much she should like to experience it. Not being familiar with abstract concepts and not knowing the meaning of thse terms (as in truth they do not yet exist in eden...) they suppose ‘evil’ must be the ‘name of something’, and Eve thus suggests they should taste the fruit then they will die, they will know evil, and then they wouldn’t need to bother themselves with it again. Adam agrees, and reaches for an apple. Here is something new; could it be Adam first reaching for the fruit? Indeed it is - but alas, at that very moment a pterodactyl flies by, and our first couple, in their astonishment (having not seen one before), leap onto the backs of two herbivorous tigers that happened to be eating at a nearby strawberry bush and ride off through Eden to seek out this new bird.
Satan’s appearance in the book is brief but understandably crucial:
“She has taken up with a snake now. The other animals are glad for she was always experimenting with them and bothering them; and I am glad because the snake talks, and this enables me to get a rest.”
In his own diary extract, Satan reasons that it would be impossible to explain the terms ‘good’ or ‘evil’ to the man and woman without them being able to understand how these things feel or work. As Adam himself laments: “A person can’t think when he has no material to think with…” In order for them to understand on any meaningful level, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ must exist in the world. Satan’s is a rational argument and the logical humans agree that this makes sense. The rest is history…kind of…
As Twain is eager to point out, the stage has already been set. When Eve sticks her head inside a lion’s mouth to help remove a stuck cabbage, she remarks to Adam that the teeth seem to be designed to eat flesh. Adam immediately points out that if that were the case, flesh would have been provided in the garden. Innocence indeed. The apparent cruelty of the their predicament is subtly teased out by Twain. It is revealed that Eve ate the apple because while they had been told not to eat the ‘apples’ the serpent had assured her that these were in fact ‘chestnuts’. Adam is thus reassured as he has not eaten any chestnuts, but then Eve points out that the serpent had informed her also that the ‘chestnut’ was in fact a figurative term for a rather old and stale joke. Here Adam turns pale for he has been known to pass the time with many a weary and futile jibe. He remembers a joke he made in response to a comment by Eve that it was great to see water tumble down the rocks. To this Adam, ever the wordsmith, had replied ‘...it would be greater to see it tumble up there!’ ‘That is just it’ replies Eve, ‘The Serpent remembered that very jest and called it the First Chestnut, and said it coeval with creation’. Their linguistic innocence, hilariously captured, becomes their own ultimate downfall.
Their children also prove a desperate source of poignancy. Firstly there are the various experiments Adam carries out on their firstborn, to ascertain what species he is. They eventually accept him into the home, when his growth ad shape betrays his probable humanity. When Cain murders Abel, however, Eve does not understand Abel’s new state of being. She assumes he his sleeping, but it seems strange to her as his eyes are permanently open and he shows no sign of waking. This goes on for several days and she comes to terms that it might indeed be ‘death’ but she still is not convinced that he will never wake for she has no point of comparison. She tends the corpse and keeps food on the boil throughout the days and nights should he wake. It is tragically pathetic.
The book ends with a brief dally into their later lives. Eves recall with pride their early discoveries in the garden, including Adam’s theory that water only ever flows downward:
“That was Adam’s first great contribution to science, and for more than two centuries it went by his name – ‘Adam’s Law of Fluidic Precipitation’. Anyone could get on the soft side of him by dropping a casual compliment or two about it in his hearing. After a few centuries the discovery of the law got into dispute, and was wrangled over by scientific bodies for more than a century, the credit finally given to a more recent person. Adam was never the same man afterward. He carried that sorrow in his heart for six hundred years and I always believed it shortened his life”.
The ancient ‘spirit of Adam’ finds himself in a natural history museum gazing with wonder at a creature he has no recollection of. He asks his old friend Noah about it, and the latter immediately blushes and speaks awkwardly. He says it is his sons who are to blame for the selective bias toward certain species during the Ark construction, but he fully supports their decision of course. He tells Adam that there were two main reasons for leaving behind some of the more monstrous species:
“ (1) It was manifest that some time or other they would be needed as fossils for museums and (2) there had been a miscalculation – the Ark was smaller than it should have been so there wasn’t room for those creatures…He said he could not blame himself for not knowing about the dinosaur because it was an American animal, and America had not then been discovered”.
I think what unnerves me about the humour in this book is the very fact that for some at least, the joke will be a lost cause. Indeed the very conundrums that Twain was raising some 100 years ago are the very same ones that are coming to light again today; the proponents of the egalitarian, anti-carnivorous Eden, the ‘fossils’ that are ‘tests of faith’, the contradictions and cruelty of the genesis. This book is obviously a playful one, it isn’t intended to be a challenging text, and yet it is precisely because of its playful tone that it packs so much of a punch. The whimsical prose and the loose overall direction make pawns of the characters, and who would argue that Adam and Eve are anything else?