Ana M. Acosta. Reading Genesis in the Long Eighteenth Century.
Ana M. Acosta's excellent recent study of Genesis and utopianism in the long eighteenth century is structured chronologically, with a chapter each on Milton, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley. It begins, however, with an introduction in which Acosta discusses Giacomo Casanova's 1788 utopian novel, Icosameron. While Casanova's novel is not historically prior to the others, in the context of Reading Genesis in the Long Eighteenth Century, it may be regarded as conceptually prior: the premise of Casanova's utopianism is also the problem that drives Acosta's study, for Casanova conceives his ideal state by means of an idiosyncratic reading of the tensions within the Genesis text.
Casanova's conceit is to take the documentary hypothesis--the claim that the creation narrative in Genesis consists of two occasionally contradictory sources, P and J--one step further by suggesting that the two sources diverge because they describe different events. While J, the account that describes of the creation of Eve from Adam's rib and the fall of mankind, refers to the origin of humans, in the Icosameron P, whose account of the genesis of persons is the simple "male and female he created them," refers to the creation of an unfallen hermaphrodite species living inside the crust of the earth.
If Casanova perceived that the divide between the two narratives of Genesis had implications for the utopianism of his day, Acosta describes what those implications were, and why they matter. Recent theoretical works, including Michel Foucault's The Order of Things and Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future, have made reference to the relationship between narratives of origin and utopia, but a systematic work on the subject has not been written. In order to investigate this relationship, Acosta's study uses "the interplay between the inaccessible 'no-where' of the abstract first creation and the fallen and earthly, yet gripping, story of the garden of Eden" in the works of Milton, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, and Shelley, as a point of departure (1).
Reading Genesis in the Long Eighteenth Century is also, as the title suggests, a period study. In this respect, Acosta's principal effort is to challenge the perception of Enlightenment as practically synonymous with secularization. She does so by revealing "the complex ways in which the traditional authority of the first chapters of Genesis was neither superseded nor simply secularized but continued to influence and, in fact, to structure the paradigmatic projects of many writers of the early modern period and the long eighteenth century" (2).
Because Milton set many of the terms for later reimaginings of Genesis, Acosta begins with Paradise Lost although, as she notes, it falls outside the usual chronological limit of eighteenth-century studies. The argument that frames this chapter is the idea that Eden has a "suburban" atmosphere; that is, it sits just past the limit not only of the metropolis of Pandemonium but also, and more importantly, of the transcendent ideal of heaven. Paradise does not have the vast scope suggested in the P text but the more confined one described in the J text. The characters', and occasionally the readers', mistake is substituting the one for the other. Compared to heaven, paradise is an imperfect realm; but it is imperfect to good purpose since it both mirrors and corrects for the tendencies of a humanity that has not reached the height of its fulfillment even in its prelapsarian condition. Paradise is a place where an ethos of work, hierarchy, and order is meant to counteract some native tendency toward disorder, the tendency that makes the Fall possible. Even this sort of paradise, Acosta notes, becomes impossible after the Fall. However, it remains useful as a model of Protestant order, a true utopia in that it provides an object lesson through its very nonexistence.
In chapters on Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, Acosta describes the role of personal authority in legitimizing projects of utopian reform. Rousseau, she argues, rewrites the J narrative of Genesis, but his desire to reverse the fall of mankind requires his own fall--into culture--as a kind of messianic sacrifice. While Rousseau's depiction of his life, with its paranoia and self-mythologizing, has been an uncomfortable counterpoint to his work for students of his philosophy according to Acosta, it provides a framework that structures and authorizes his program for reform. With regard to Wollstonecraft, however, Acosta argues that the continuing tendencies of scholars to use biographical details to justify or dismiss her writing is the unintentional result of "an enlightenment dream of an aesthetics of transparency" between public and private life, without "collapsing the one into the other" (128).
A final chapter discusses Frankenstein. That Mary Shelley's critique of Enlightenment ideals took the form of an attack on Genesis myths is one of the stronger indications of the basic validity of Acosta's premise. Because the creature is denied the happiness of an unfallen state--even his innocence is monstrous--there is never a real possibility of his attaining any ideal of communal life. Instead of being the product of a nature that can be adapted to utopian ends, he is "the representation of dead artifacts under the pretense of new" (176). Even the weak utopian aspiration of a flight to America proves incapable of fulfillment, Acosta notes, and is replaced in the end by a voyage to the desolate north. In Acosta's analysis, the creature is Mary Shelley's means of criticizing the optimism of Enlightenment attempts to escape history through a return to fictional, paradisiacal origins--that is to say, the attempts of Milton, Rousseau, and even Wollstonecraft.
In the final sentence of the chapter, and hence the concluding sentence of the book, Acosta writes, "I give the last word to the creature, in his final, perhaps apocryphal, statement" and proceeds to quote, not Mary Shelley, but a pastiche of lines from Eliot's "East Coker." Acosta's attempt to mimic Shelley's creation from fragments is ingenious enough in the context of her reading, but it is out of place here. So small a misstep is only worth mentioning when it points to a greater want--in this case, the lack of a conclusion or postscript of any kind. Acosta's first chapter presents a coherent project, but the work inevitably splinters in the course of the next four chapters, each devoted to discussions of single authors. This is not to suggest that Acosta's thesis is any less coherent than she made it seem in her opening discussion, but simply that, after an interval of over a hundred pages, readers would benefit from being reminded of its unity before putting down the volume. It should, however, be taken as a sign of the quality of Acosta's work that it is possible to criticize it on the ground of being too short.
Reading Genesis in the Long Eighteenth Century will be of interest to those who study Milton, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, or Shelley as well as the many thinkers who were directly influenced by them. Yet, one suspects that it will ultimately prove just as influential, if not more, to scholars interested in utopianism. Acosta's work is a reminder that Karl Kraus's "the origin is the goal" has been a fundamental premise for many utopian authors since the invention of the genre in More's Utopia. The nature of utopian studies mandates that scholars focus on ends; Reading Genesis in the Long Eighteenth Century is an excellent reminder that these often emerge in their full clarity only through the study of origins.
Reviewed by Julianne Werlin, Princeton University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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