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ELH 67.4 (2000) 873-903
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The Embrace of the Fig Tree: Sexuality and Creativity in Midrash and in Milton
Jeffrey S. Shoulson
It is by now something of a commonplace to observe that the separate versions of the creation of humanity detailed in books 7 and 8 of Paradise Lost reflect John Milton's awareness of and struggle with the apparently distinct accounts reported in Genesis 1.26-31 and 2.7-9, 15-25. The Bible's duplicate narratives of creation have been attributed by biblical source critics to the Priestly, or P text, which is normally aligned with Raphael's grand description within the sequence of the seven days of creation in 7.505-50, and the Yahwist, or J text, which is said to parallel Adam's rendition of his own coming to consciousness in book 8, where his perspective is more fully privileged than in book 7's hexameron. This correlation of sources fails to account, however, for a far more complicated splicing of the P and J texts in book 7 and, more important, for the third version of human creation, Eve's narration of her awakening, which precedes books 7 and 8. Clearly there is more to these varying accounts than a distinction between theocentric and anthropocentric perspectives. By including Eve's story, Milton draws a second distinction, between the masculine and feminine perspectives on coming to self-awareness. Indeed, the presence of Eve's story in book 4 inevitably confounds many recent attempts to recover Milton's misogynist or proto-feminist sympathies. 1 Eve's version of her own creation depends, for biblical precedent, on the brief pronouncement in Genesis 2.22, "and [God] brought her unto the man." 2 Most of the narrative details grow out of the Greek and Roman classics, specifically Ovid's story of Narcissus in the Metamorphoses. A poem that constantly negotiates the relative value of its precursor texts, Paradise Lost always seems to find the classical sources wanting. As the corrective to these fallen pagan models Milton inevitably posits the Bible. Thus, any representations of characters or figures that draw on these classical sources will necessarily suggest some form of devaluation. 3 The absolute scale upon which Milton's poem seems to place the Bible and classical romance suggests that, even at the level of source-text, Paradise Lost subordinates Eve--her creation, her sexuality--to Adam. 4 [End Page 873]
Genesis Rabbah, a collection of Midrash Aggadah from the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., offers a similar dichotomy, meditating explicitly and--more often--implicitly on the differences between a nascent rabbinic ontology and a Hellenistic (Platonic) one. 5 With notable frequency, these rabbinic encounters between Hebraism and Hellenism occur over matters concerning the body, sexuality (especially, though not exclusively, female sexuality), and human imagination. These thematic parallels between Paradise Lost and midrash may account for an ongoing interest in Milton as a Hebraic poet, potentially influenced (directly or indirectly) by the writings of classical and medieval Jewish scholars. 6 Yet, for neither Milton nor the rabbis are the associations of sexuality with paganism or Hellenism entirely consistent. Both Paradise Lost and the Midrash stage conflicts between the sacredness of female sexuality, as a version of human creativity and imagination, and its profanity. At the same time, these texts both pit non-biblical, Hellenic influences against Hebraic ones. Despite the temptation to map these tensions onto each other, in neither case do we find a simple textual marking of sexuality as inherently corrupt, or a consistent association of sexuality with the non-biblical or romance genre.
Many commentators on Paradise Lost, especially those who have been interested in the epic's Hebraism, attribute some of Milton's less conventionally Christian views on sexuality to his familiarity and sympathy with Jewish thought. Indeed, the very notion of pre-lapsarian coitus, unique to Milton among his widely diverse Christian contemporaries and predecessors, is an idea that can be traced to numerous rabbinic sources, including Genesis Rabbah (18.6). I shall not argue, as...