An Eden Full of Dudes

The end is the beginning is the end (that’s a Smashing Pumpkins line), and all are in Eden. Today at Religion Dispatches, Brook Wilensky-Lanford and I talk about her brand new book, Paradise Lust, out this week. It tells the stories of some bold explorers from the past few centuries who have tried to figure out where Eden actually was, and whether we can get back there again.

As I read the book, I kept coming across lots of parallels with my own work-in-progress about proofs for the existence of God. One thing about both that certainly sticks out: it’s all dudes.

I’m the questioner in bold, Brook is the answerer:

You note that most of the searchers you write about, maybe “not surprisingly,” are men. Why is that not surprising? Not surprisingly, too, I’ve found something similar in my work on the search for proofs of the existence of God, which has turned itself by virtue of the fact into a study of masculinity, at least implicitly. I’ve had to think a lot myself about what thinking about proofs has to do with being male. How about you, though? What does all this thinking about Eden-searchers have to do with being a woman?

The “not surprisingly” is just my little bitter feminist joke. It actually was sort of surprising, or certainly disappointing to me as a woman writer working on this book, not to find any full-fledged Eden-seeking women. I kept running into historical women on the edge of the search, who were always sort of “tsk-tsking” dreamier male Eden-seekers. The feminist Victoria Woodhull gave an entire lecture in 1871 refuting the idea; she said that any “schoolboy over the age of 12” who would read Genesis 2 and think it describes a literal place “ought to be reprimanded for his stupidity.” Others were more diplomatic. Gertrude Bell, who lived in Iraq for much of her adult life, only mentioned Eden once in her diaries: her friend William Willcocks had come to town, to discuss “Eden and other reasonable things.” She called him “dear old thing.”

I feel like this kind of biblical musing was a creative canvas for men, but it brought out a certain practical streak in women. Then of course there’s the stereotypical demonization of Eve—if Eden is the origin of women’s villainy and/or victimization, why would we want to go back there?

Also, keep an eye out for the review of Paradise Lust in the New York Times Book Review this weekend.