Neil Folberg: Photographer.
Home base: Jerusalem.
Explained: The Story of Adam and Eve.
I hadn’t intended to take something quite as iconic or challenging as the story of Adam and Eve—it’s crazy to take on a story like that. On the other hand you have the advantage that everybody thinks they know it.
It’s a somewhat romantic view of the world. It’s not so popular today in the art world. The trend, especially in most post-modernism is away from stuff with meaning, and I was interested in meaning, in telling a story. For my subject I was looking for those kinds of things that are ambiguous—it’s not clear what they are, what they’re about, what’s going on, if you weren’t involved in it you wouldn’t know what to make of it—I was looking for a story like that. And I was very familiar with the Jewish oral tradition, which is sort of an oral storytelling tradition that fills in the gaps in the printed word in the Bible. This midrash encompasses all the things that could have happened, did happen, didn’t happen, would have happened—and there’s no time, either, there’s no past present or future. Things that we think of as being today could easily be integrated into a story from yesterday, it’s just a jumble of time and place and, it’s like, if you want to put it in terms of modern cosmology, the idea of having multiple universes or something, that all have a possible existence and we just live on one of them. The moment every decision you make, you move to another universe, because you leave the other universe of all the other possibilities behind you.
It asks all those questions that if you were an astute reader you really should ask. For example, if Adam was created alone by himself, how is going to feel? Every other creature has a mate, and he’s by himself. What kind of an idea’s that—that’s paradise? That’s loneliness. It’s begging for something to happen. And so somebody else is created for him according to his desire. But once she’s there she has her own will. He thinks that she was created for him, but she thinks she was created for herself. So there’s going to be conflict immediately—there’s going to be a contest of will, who’s going to be stronger? It has to be a situation where there’s discussion and sometimes conflict. So that’s not paradise either, that’s struggle. That’s what we all do all the time. The moment that you want to accommodate somebody else you have to start making compromises. You look at the story and you read it as some kind of a fairy tale, and you realize it’s the essence of human relationships.
There are some interesting ideas in this Jewish oral tradition—some of which you have trouble reconciling with the text if you didn’t know it really well in Hebrew. For example, the oral tradition which is called the Midrash says that men and women were created as one creature, two faced—two sides: one side female, one side male. Well actually, that they were joined at the hip. So man and women were created, joined together at the head and then split apart. What does that say, metaphorically? It says that neither one is complete without the other. And that in order to be happy there has to be another kind of unity achieved—and this time it’s not a given kind of physical unity but something you have to work at. Adam thinks, ‘God told me that I shouldn’t eat the fruit of that tree, so if I tell you you shouldn’t eat the fruit of that tree, you might be tempted to touch it and smell it, and if you touch it and smell it, you’re not going to be able to resist eating it. He gives her different instructions, he says; ‘if you touch the tree, you’ll die.’ That’s not what God told him. This third character, the serpent, hears that and thinks, ‘All I have to do is show her that if you touch the tree you don’t die, and then she won’t believe the rest of it either.’ And what is this tree? This tree is a tree that gives you knowledge, and what kind of knowledge? You can see generations after generations, you can see the entire history of the world, so if she would eat of that tree, she would be able to see the generations that are going to come from her, she would see the entire history of the world spread out in front of her—and the snake has already been doing this, he already has this knowledge. Man is created innocent—but it’s clear that Eden isn’t meant to be that way—in other words, they weren’t meant to remain innocent, they were meant to get into trouble, they would have to deal with complexity in life. Whatever you do you’re going to have to struggle with conflicts—things that you want that you can’t have, things that you’d like to achieve that you’re unable to, something you would like to be that you can’t become. Life is struggle. So this ‘Garden of Eden’ is meant not to be paradise, but sort of a testing ground for learning to deal with failure. It’s a story about that—that’s something everyone can relate to, because it’s our lives. So you think it’s a very simple kind of fairy-tale like setting where if you believe it literally then you think that, ‘we’ve fallen from grace and can never get back’, but the truth is we were never meant to be in that state of grace. We were always meant to struggle. And that’s the lesson behind the story.
So Eve takes this fig, and she sees all of the history of the world unfolding in front of her—she has now complete knowledge of everything that is and will be. And she also sees that she’s going to die. Now she’s mortal. Man was created with an immortal aspect—in other words they weren’t intended to die and now she’s done something and she’s going to die.
And as they’re forced to flee Eden, an angel comes to them and says, ‘you have to leave, you can’t stay. But if there’s something here you really like you can take it with you as a memento, to give you some consolation. And what’s remarkable about Eden and its idyllic state is the light—it’s pervaded with this spiritual light. In other words this knowledge, this all knowing—nothing hidden in the universe, where nothing is at least in some way even intuitively understood—we don’t understand what happens around us. You know if we live in a city like [New York] we think the world is under our control and the universe is more or less understandable, this is a human environment. But every once in a while sometimes something vast or disastrous happens, like unfortunately what just happened now in Japan we realize our lives are not under control, that there’s something beyond us, there are forces that are greater than we are. And that we haven’t got control over everything. But they didn’t feel that, they saw this light. And so he sees diamonds scattered around Eden, and so he says ‘I’ll take one of those because it has the light refracted, it’s the essence of the light—anytime I look at that diamond I can see beauty and wonder and know that there’s something beyond whatever physical difficulties I’m having now. And so he picks up the diamond, and they start running, they have to flee. And as they cross the river he drops the diamond in the river, and he bends down, she’s running, and he reaches down for it and he finds not one diamond but many, and he’s shocked—he looks at the angel, and the angels says ‘Did you think you were the only one? Did you think you were the first? There were thousands before you, they all took diamonds, and they all lost them in the river.
He’s not even longing for the thing itself, the light—he’s only longing for the remembrance of the light. All he wants is the memory, and you can’t even have that, you can’t take it with you. Every once in a while in your life you get a glimpse of that kind of light—you can see something and for a moment it happens—it happens to artists, it happens to people who think, to people who are sensitive, to people who are spiritual—under certain circumstances you sometimes get a glimpse of something beyond you and you feel for a moment that you really understand the universe and your place in it. It’s not knowledge, it’s just a feeling. You can make it last, you can talk about it for the rest of your life, you can forget about it and move on, you can do anything, but there are those moments where sometimes you get a glimpse of something bigger than yourself, and that’s what he wants. But you can’t take it with you.
Visit Neil’s website here.