Suppose the Garden of Eden’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil had hallucinogenic fruit? Suppose the Creator in our origin story were not omnipotent? Such musings are explored in Eden Revisited, a novel by Hungarian writer and scientist Laszlo Z. Bito, coming out this month from local publisher Natus Books. A launch event for the book will be held at Bard College on Saturday, October 22, from 1:45 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
“The book takes the foundational story of western civ and rearranges our perception of that beginning so we can make a new beginning,” said Sam Truitt, co-founder of Natus Books. “Bito shatters the usual way in which we in the Judeo-Christian world approach the beginning of time. If we go back and change it, we are making a different potential future.”
Bito fled Hungary in 1956, due to his role as a local organizer of the Hungarian Revolution. He graduated from Bard College with a BA in chemistry and biology, then earned a PhD in biophysics and cell biology from Columbia University. His research in a lab at Columbia led to the development of a drug that became the gold standard for the treatment of glaucoma.
At the age of 63, Bito retired from science to concentrate on writing fiction. At the time of his death in 2021, his literary work included six biblical novels. Eden Revisited is his second novel to be published in English.
Bito had a long relationship with his alma mater and had donated a building to the college. Bard’s Institute for Advanced Theology, headed by religious scholar Bruce Chilton, is co-publishing the book, which had already appeared in Hungary. When Chilton and Bard president Leon Botstein obtained the manuscript for the English version, they weren’t sure what to do with it, as Bard does not have a publishing imprint.
They turned to Kenneth Wapner, who had partnered with Truitt to create Natus Books, a small press that publishes in conjunction with institutions. When Wapner started reading the manuscript, he said, “I was hooked in the first pages. It took a question that was always subliminally there for me in the Bible: how did the first family procreate? It looked at that question imaginatively, and from the energy of that initial probing, it created an alternate reading of the original story that’s inventive and fresh.”
At the book launch, two scholars will deliver papers on the concept and story of Eden, and Chilton will moderate a discussion. Botstein, who knew Bito well, will speak about the author and his career. This winter, Chilton will be leading a series of scholarly discussions about Eden.
When asked what compelled the founders of Natus to publish the book, Wapner said, “It seems useful to rethink what Eden is and bring it into the forefront of what people are talking about, environmentally, politically, socially. We need to think about that original garden and how we’re still aspiring to get back there. Having grown up in Woodstock, a center for utopian aspiration, this idea is near and dear to me.”
Truitt feels the book can make a difference in how we relate to our world. “We’re all working in our various ways to find little cracks in the construction of our collective reality and expand those cracks so we can see a way forward.”
Looking out from his home in the hamlet of Shady, Wapner appreciates the beauty of the Catskills and feels we’re living in a paradise. “The more we can recognize that and treasure it and respect it and love it, the better off we are as human beings. I hope Laszlo’s book pushes into that, in a deep philosophical sense of reimagining and pushing that initial primordial story into the present, how it’s still alive in us and filled with possibilities rather than dogma.”
A book launch and colloquium for Eden Revisited will be held at Bard College on Saturday, October 22, from 1:45-3:15 p.m. at the performance space in the Bito Conservatory Building, located at the end of Blithewood Avenue, where parking is available. The Conservatory is behind the Avery Center.
In Search of the Once and Future Eden
Bruce Chilton will moderate a series of discussions about the Eden story, to be held at Bard College, with presentations by scholars in the field of Biblical studies. Eden is both a place in the mythic past and the prospect for a balanced, ecological, and human civilization in the future. Gnostic writers in particular have portrayed how the idyllic garden could have been lost, and why regaining its richness has proven elusive. Laszlo Bito, a Bard alumnus from the class of 1960, investigated these issues in his novel Eden Revisited. The series is designed to join in that quest, in order to press the issue of Eden’s deep promise.
The panels will be held on Thursdays at 5 p.m. in John Bard Hall, Bard College, on December 1, 8, 15; February 23; and March 2, 9 and 16.