Hell on Earth: Work and the Fall of Man [sic]

by on Sep.01, 2014

God_judging_adam_blake_1795[Note: I typically let these kinds of lexical slips slide, but every time I hear “man” or “mankind” as boilerplate applied to human beings (as in the title above) I can’t help but cringe and append impulsively an imaginary “[sic]” – to me the gendered, generalizing concepts “man” and “mankind” are specific to God’s lower level contract with Noah detailed below, that is, a global system of life predicated on subjugation and suffering]

In honor of the “labor day” celebrated stateside today, I want to talk about human beings and work, by way of Northrop Frye’s systematic analysis of the Bible in relation to literature, The Great Code (1981).

The preamble begins on page 75 with Frye commenting that he can’t find any consistent astrological symbolism in the Bible, aside from allusions to divination and patterns of correspondence such as the emphasis on sevens and twelves in the Book of Revelation. Frye speculates that this correspondence, at the time it was written, probably comes out of the number of days in the week and the number of planets (7), and the number of months in the year and the signs of the Zodiac (12). “Hence these numbers would suggest, more than others, a world where time and space have become the same thing.”

I’ll quote him the rest of the way here:

But correspondence does not seem to be the central thing that the Bible is saying about the relation between man and nature. We get instead a strong feeling that there are assumed to be two levels in that relation. The lower level is outlined in God’s contract with Noah, after the deluge has receded:

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.

Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. (Genesis 9:2-3)

We notice, first, that no restrictions are placed on what man is to eat, in striking contrast to the elaborate dietary laws later imposed on Israel alone. It was to this general contract with Noah that Christianity decided to return, after rejecting the Jewish law as no longer binding on Christians (Acts 10:15). Second, man’s attitude to nature is assumed to be one of domineering exploitation, a reign of terror over all “inferior” creatures, and illustrating Schopenhauer’s remark that the animals live in a hell of which mankind are the devils.

The upper level of man’s relation with nature is the one assigned to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, where man lived only on the fruits of trees and in which all animals were domestic pets to be given names (Genesis 2:16, 20). This world has disappeared, and with the “fall” of Adam and Eve man descended into the indifferent and alien nature that we see around us now, where he was forced to work. But there is an element in work, we saw, that is an image of the world man has lost and has still to regain. He will never really gain it until he knows thoroughly what hell is, and realizes that the pleasure gained by dominating and exploiting, whether of his fellow man or of nature itself, is a part of that hell-world. Once we separate ourselves completely from that world, the natural order takes on a very different appearance:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them…

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6, 9)

… [W]hat the Bible gives us is not so much a cosmology as a vision of upward metamorphosis, of the alienated relation of man to nature transformed into a spontaneous and effortless life – not effortless in the sense of being lazy or passive, but in the sense of being energy without alienation [emphasis mine]:

And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. (Hosea 2:18)

The ultimate secrets of nature will not be revealed until man has stopped the self-destructive activity that prevents him from seeing what kind of world he is really in. The real world is beyond time, but can be reached only by a process that goes on in time. As Eliot says, only through time time is conquered.

___

Every creature
on Earth

waits for
the nightmare

to end.

Every morning
the rooster

cries out
for the day

you wake up.

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