Last Saturday evening, as I was sitting in the metro on my way to dinner with friends, a group of teenage boys got into my carriage. Concerned for the box of patisseries balanced on my knee (which a previous passenger had already very nearly sat on), I was at first disposed to regard them with disfavour as they crowded in. In the event, they were pretty harmless, though loud – I was soon trying my best to tune out the boastful banter and profuse bad language that went hand in hand with the air of studied nonchalance and strategically low-slung sweat-pants. But one particular snippet of conversation caught my attention and made me look up in sudden amusement:
“But what about Eve’s apple?” one boy was saying. “I thought it was her apple, not Adam’s!” The group got off before I could hear what explanation his comrades would offer up, which was probably just as well, as the incongruity of the situation was threatening to overcome me entirely.
Inevitably, as the metro rattled onwards, I ended up pondering the boy’s question myself. ‘Adam’s apple’ is such a part of everyday language that I do not think I had ever paused before to consider the Biblical meaning of the expression. Religious iconography and literature have focused almost exclusively on the figure of Eve in the Garden of Eden, on her outstretched arm, the bend of her wrist and the curve of her fingers about the apple as she proffers it to her companion. Then comes the well-known sequence of events: the fatal bite, the wrath of God, and the flaming sword barring the couple from Eden. The apple has become so linked with Eve that it requires a moment’s thought to remember how it wound up in Adam’s throat.
The Bible gives only the bare facts: “[Eve] took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Genesis 3:6, King James Version). The simplicity of the text inevitably leaves it open to interpretation. The forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, for example, is not identified as an apple: scholars have argued that it could just as well have been a pomegranate, an orange, or a fig. That early on it came to be assimilated with the apple is the result both of the confusion caused by the Latin word malum in the 4th century Vulgate, which can be translated either as “evil” or as “apple”, and of the Renaissance conflation of the Biblical fruit and the golden apples of immortality in the Greek myth of the Garden of the Hesperides. The verb “eat” is similarly vague: nowhere does the text specify just how much of the fruit Adam ate – for all we know, he may have guzzled down a dozen of them before his conscience kicked in. However, the single bite and thunderclap version which has taken such firm root in the collective consciousness is infinitely more dramatic.
So too is the popular addition that depicts Adam so overcome with remorse at that one bite that he actually chokes on it. It remains lodged in his throat, and the tell-tale bulge is passed on to his sons and down through the generations, as an eternal reminder of man’s weakness and guilt. However, one element at the heart of this fable strikes an ambivalent note, which allows for a less pessimistic reading – or, at any rate, enables a glimmer of hope to penetrate the pervading aura of guilt and gloom: whatever it is, something prevents Adam from swallowing that fateful bite; so that weak and sinful though he may be, he is perhaps not wholly corrupt. In this light, the piece of apple stuck in his throat stands not only as a punishment, but also as a promise of redemption – significantly, Christ, too, is often represented with an apple in his hand. The apple’s midway location in Adam’s throat reflects the duality of man’s nature – his “lying in the gutter but looking up at the stars” destiny, to misquote Wilde – and suggests the possibility of his one day being able to cough up the offending mouthful and thus save himself (hello Snow White!).
The story of Adam’s apple certainly isn’t a scientific way of explaining this particularity of the male physique, yet it is interesting to note how it has persisted through the centuries, despite countless religious, political, and cultural upheavals, becoming an unquestioned fixture of the English (and French) language, to the exclusion of any other terminology. There is only one other way of referring to it, but somehow I cannot imagine anyone saying or writing (with a straight face, at least): “His prominentia laryngea bobbed up and down as he swallowed nervously”…
© Florence Berlioz 2012