Myths about the creation of the human race generally tell us what we are made of - dirt, divine breath, images of our gods, the mundane pressures of life, consumable products, designer brands, hardware, software, microchips - and what we are for - to subdue the earth, cultivate our gardens, build egalitarian societies, inhabit semiological lifestyles, surrender ourselves to the pleasures of hyperreality, compile and order memories, or transcend our finitude and become like gods. The plots of these myths, however, have an unfinished feel until they reveal some disruption, some mishap or malicious act that occurred in the distant past and helps to explain - at least in the logic of myth and in a way that rings true to life -our pervasive sense that things are not the way they ought to be. This is often done through the plotline of a lost paradise.
Paradises are found in many traditions. According to Eliade, primordial paradises typically have the following traits: at that time humans were immortal, free, spontaneous, happy, had access to the gods, were on friendly terms with animals and had knowledge of animal languages, and did not have to work for food because either nature freely provided it or their agricultural tools worked magically by themselves.4 But paradise is always lost. It might occur through some petty indiscretion, such as the Dinka myth of the woman who while planting millet inadvertently struck the Creator with her hoe. In response the god withdrew to the sky, leaving human beings to fend for themselves, increasing the labor required to produce food, rendering them susceptible to sickness and death, and forever separating them from the god who had brought them into existence.5 Paradise might also be lost through some grave act of disobedience committed by the ancestors. This loss often results in mortality, the necessity to work, alienation between the sexes and between bloodlines, and the loss of access to the gods. This loss, according to Eliade, always amounts to "a fall into history"6 - and history is the travail in which we find ourselves; it is life as we know it.
Appetite is frequently associated with the loss of paradise. This is true, of course, with the Genesis myth - Adam and Eve eat fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, and the curses that constitute life as we know it are the consequence. It is also true of the Buddhist myth, which describes how the spiritual ancestors, after ages of disembodied bliss, caught a glimpse of the earth in the distance with its delicious savor:
Even as a scum forms on the surface of boiled milk rice that is cooling, so did the earth appear. It became endowed with colour, with odour, and with taste. Then, Vasettha, being of greedy disposition, said: Lo now!
what will this be? and tasted the savoury earth with his finger. He thus, tasting, became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into him. And other beings, following his example, tasted the savoury earth with their finger. Then those beings began to feast on the savoury earth, breaking off lumps of it with their hands____Feasting on the savoury earth, feeding on it, nourished by it, continued for a long while. And in measure as they thus fed, did their bodies become solid.
The more they ate, the more matter they took on as penalty for their appetites. This myth goes on to relate the differentiation between the sexes, the origin of sexual passion, the necessity to build huts to hide immorality, the eventuality of having to cultivate rice instead of just harvesting what grew on its own, and the first theft.7 Here, too, the loss of paradise and the fall into history follow from a momentous surrendering of pure beings to their appetites.
It is fair to say that popular culture is in broad agreement that things are not the way they ought to be, that something is amiss. What petty indiscretions, bold acts of disobedience, or inordinate appetites does it offer to account for this? Or, more likely, what external forces are responsible for it? Listening to popular culture, what reasons are given for sickness and death, immorality, the necessity of hard work, unhappiness, adversity, alienation between genders, races and classes, violence, the degradation of the earth, and the silence of the gods? How does popular culture understand sin?
Two lost paradise scripts have been pressed into service of late to help Americans catalog their sins, and the evils that have been thrust upon them. Both have long and honorable literary pedigrees, but have been surging in print, cinema, and television in the last few years: the covenant/ jeremiad cycle and the Gothic. These two offer narrative frameworks that assist us in our coming to grips with what, in the view of important segments of popular culture, has gone wrong.
Was this article helpful?