We all emerge from unity with our mothers, willingly or no. That blissful cohesion of mother and child is temporary, and at its inevitable end, we are met with one fundamental truth of human existence: we are detached–separate. For most of us, we spend the remainder of our days seeking that which will produce an artificial simulation of that initial cohesion.
According to Erich Fromm, the myth of the Garden of Eden symbolizes the estrangement we all experience. Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their eyes are opened to their nakedness, but not in the sense that they feel shame over their anatomical differences; rather, they are aware, at last, of their separateness. Prior to this, like the animals with whom they shared the garden, Adam and Eve lacked insight regarding their bodily division. Now, they saw–not phallus, but disjunction. Unfortunately, the pair had little to reunite them to one and the other; for, they had no love between them, which was “made very clear by the fact that Adam defends himself by blaming Eve, rather than by trying to defend her” (Fromm, The Art of Loving).
“The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love–is the source of shame…The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
Thus, from the healthy process of detaching from mother, comes a drive to recreate that union. The human struggle defines itself by a compulsion to overcome separateness.
“Man–of all ages and cultures–is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s own individual life and find atonement.”Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
I find Fromm’s word choice, atonement, both compelling and in need of explication. Atonement signifies reparation of wrongdoing, but via his interpretation of the creation myth, it seems the wrong committed is less about action and more about awareness. We come to know we are separate; we cannot unknow this. Therefore, the only means of atonement is to find a way to establish a connection between things which were always, already, disconnected.
He proffers that “the answer varies. The question can be answered by animal worship, by human sacrifice or military conquest, by indulgence in luxury, by ascetic renunciation, by obsessional work, by artistic creation, by love of God, and by the love of Man.” I ask, can we bridge a gap that preceded our knowledge of its very existence? If so, how? Fromm says “The history of religion and philosophy is the history of” the answers to these questions, “of their diversity, as well as of their limitation in number.”
Historically, as a race of beings, we have cycled through repetitions–re-imagining, re-assessing, re-establishing the exact same methods in attempt to achieve a lost intimacy–one which exists only in our minds, as a shade–a memory of something that never was. Is this a project we will ever surmount?