Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Clinging to the Umbilical Cord

Mark Thorn wrote this essay last month for his "Political Theory and Utopia" course at Bowdoin College.

When confronted with the trials of life, one often yearns for a return to the simplicity of early childhood. The security, nourishment, and freedom from conflict provided by the womb could certainly seem preferable to the dynamic and potentially dangerous world in which we live. There even exists a branch of psychology, founded by Otto Rank, which proposes that the human gestation period and birthing process have such profound effects upon human life that all of life’s subsequent pleasures are derived from subconscious attempts at returning to the intrauterine situation. The womb, however, prohibits exposure to external forces and precludes its inhabitant from initiating any significant act. To progress in life, one must abandon this setting and be governed no longer solely by his needs but by objective truths; the seeds of ambition are sown by the frustration of internal wishes by external circumstances. The cave passage in Plato’s Republic symbolically parallels the birthing process; one dwells in a dark cave, a common symbol of the womb, bound in chains, suggestive of the umbilical cord, and must be “dragged” out into a world for which his eyes are initially unprepared, as would a baby during labor.[1] The Garden of Eden, through symbolism more abstract than that of the cave, also represents the infantile situation; nourishment is provided and worry is alleviated for Adam and Eve under one stern prohibition, which we shall reveal later as the forbiddance of maturation. Both the cave image from Plato’s Republic and the Garden of Eden represent fantasies of this infantile state of security and stagnancy which precedes the birth of conflict, the former described disparagingly while the latter wistfully.

While both passages describe essentially the same situation, each accentuates only the characteristics consonant with its theme—for Plato, the ills of the life of ignorance, in the Bible, the benefits of the life of permanence and purity. Plato emphasizes the lack of freedom in the cave, while Genesis stresses the lack of responsibility; Plato critically describes the lack of change within the cave, while the Bible passage extols the lack of conflict; Plato reveals the perceived truths of the cave as illusions, while the equally surreal truths of the Garden are ascribed to divine power. It becomes apparent that none of the components of these pairs are mutually exclusive: restriction and absence of obligation, stagnancy and security, fallacy and ethereality may coexist, and do coexist during infancy. Thus, the hypothesis that Plato’s cave image and the Garden of Eden, although manifestly discrepant, describe a situation similar to that of early childhood is bolstered further.

Though both settings represent the infantile environment, a distinction must be made between the manners by which they obstruct human development. The chains in the cave bind intellectual development, as those who liberate themselves are dubbed philosophers; the prohibition in the Garden, although it pertains to the Tree of Knowledge, aims primarily to stifle sexual maturation, as those who violate it suffer consequences pertaining to sexuality[2]. Because sexual satisfaction is an instinctual need and acquiring knowledge is not, the obedience of the prohibition in the Garden requires the denial of a component of human nature while remaining bound in the cave entails mere intellectual complacency. This subtle disparity, though seemingly minor, represents a significant difference in the underlying messages of the two scenes. Plato believes that the preponderance of humans could remain satisfied in a state of stagnancy, while the Bible passage illustrates that impediments to human development, even if ordained directly by God, will eventually be questioned and overcome. The philosopher leaves the cave only because of his extraordinary ambition, while Adam and Eve eat from the tree out of necessity—to not indulge in the tree would be to frustrate one of the most powerful human instincts. In this way, quite probably far from its intent, the events in the Garden of Eden portray the potency of human nature in the book which otherwise revolves around the omnipotence of God.

Similar fates are dealt to those who leave the cave and those who leave the Garden. Both are ostracized from their environments, never to return to things as they once were—like babies from a womb. These consequences, however, bear different implications for the former cave and Garden dwellers. After exiting the cave, the philosopher takes pity upon those remaining inside for their obdurate ignorance; to return would be either to practice an intellectual lifestyle among toddlers or to renounce intellect completely—equally unattractive options. Once outside the Garden, Adam and Eve may recollect their Garden experiences fondly, as an adult would those of his childhood; to return, however, would necessitate a regression to utter naiveté—a seemingly unattainable end.

The divergent evaluations of human qualities constitute perhaps the most fundamental difference between Plato’s cave passage and the Garden of Eden. While the traits most contrary to infancy, insight and intellectual ambition, are most venerated by Plato, innocence and purity are the characteristics most desired in the Garden of Eden. Plato believes that all aspects of life should be examined so they may be addressed properly—that conflict should be handled maturely—while in the Bible passage it is suggested that negative influence, embodied by the Tree of Knowledge, should simply be proscribed from the human realm—that potential problems should be childishly evaded. The respective admired characteristics are consonant with generally held views of philosophy and religion, as the former strives to satisfy an objective quest for truth, and the latter, as it relies upon not fact but dogma, views exposure to diverse perspectives as a threat to its existence.

The teachings of the two parables are thus antithetical—one proposes that intellectual curiosity is essential to a true life, while the other cites it as the cause of the fall of man. The pieces’ underlying messages about humanity, however, are opposed on a different plane. Plato depicts man generally without vision, without ambition, while the man of the Garden allows not even the dictates of God to encumber the path to his goal. Because of its indirectly flattering portrayal of humanity as defiant and motivated, the Garden of Eden proves a more compelling allegory. Like reading of humans who have overthrown an oppressive power to effect a change beneficial to their commonwealth, reading of the exploits of Adam and Eve is vicariously empowering; their oppressor, however, was internal: the force of stagnancy that was ultimately usurped by the instinctual need for development.

But why are these passages so powerful? According to Otto Rank’s theory, they may provide us the vicarious satisfaction of returning to the womb. More generally, they may stimulate subconscious reminiscence of our own early childhoods. The cave, despite its negative tone, could achieve this satiating effect as a tale of mischievous children could pleasantly revive memories of one’s own misspent youth—a period which one may recollect fondly (consciously or subconsciously) but the conclusion of which is unlikely to elicit conscious regret. The two pieces allow us, as do many effective pieces of literature, to exit the harsh, dynamic world that surrounds us and afford us sanctuary in a world without conflict, without consequence, without progress.


The Infantile Core of Genesis Uncovered Further
Through Deeper Psychoanalytic Analysis

Further evidence of the infantile sexual roots of the Garden of Eden may be furnished through its comparison with analogous symbolic returns to naiveté in folklore and dreams. Disregarded nudity, as in the Garden of Eden, is a common theme in dreams, as one often dreams of himself walking naked through some public arena without heed from his fellow citizens. These dreams are classified as exhibitionist fantasies, attempts at returning to the infantile state of sexual naiveté—not a period devoid of sexuality but rather one in which sexual acts, such as exhibiting oneself amidst a crowd, have not yet succumbed to the forces of repression.[3] The folktale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Hans Christian Andersen, provides another example of ignored nudity symbolically representing a wish of reversion to sexual ingenuousness and further supports the view of the fall of man as a sexual awakening.[4]

While the Garden of Eden certainly is rooted in infancy, Freud argues that religion altogether is based upon the premise of early childhood—that God is merely an exalted father figure. The departure from the period of early life during which all needs are satisfied by a seemingly omnipotent father figure, he asserts, creates anxiety and a general feeling of helplessness. To alleviate this feeling of absolute vulnerability, man creates a Providence, God, by whom he is protected, rewarded if worthy, and punished if culpable. God, the Father Almighty, is assigned control of all forces out of the human domain and appeases his “children” through the assurance of a higher justice, as the father figure once did to assuage the worries of his little ones. For Freud, the Garden of Eden represents not merely a component of Christian myth but the epitome of religion altogether.

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans C. The Emperor's New Clothes. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

"Bible, Revised Standard." Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. University of Virginia. 20 Sep. 2005 .

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, 1955. Questia. 29 Sept. 2005 .

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Revised ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1964. Questia. 11 Oct. 2005 .

Plato. The Republic. 2nd ed. United States of America: Basic Books.

[1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford (London: Oxford University Press, 1945) 227, Questia, 26 Sept. 2005 .
[2] Both Adam and Eve become ashamed of their naked bodies, and Eve is assigned the burden of childbearing, a punishment inappropriate for any but a sexual act.
[3] Sigmund Freud, ed., The Interpretation of Dreams, 1st ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1955) 244, Questia, 26 Sept. 2005 .
[4] In this tale, the emperor is shown a suit of purportedly fine threads. Though he sees nothing, he acquires it to ensure that his reputation as a keen critic and dapper dresser is maintained. The suit is in fact merely air, and as the emperor parades around the town in his new garb, his constituents suppress their reactions for fear of political repercussion. Just as in the Garden, nakedness is ignored. Andersen, Hans C. The Emperor's New Clothes. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


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