O Felix Serpens
Genesis 3 in Recent Songs of John Darnielle
A K M Adam
St Stephen’s House
Whereas in many popular interpretations, the Bible figures as an oracular repository of sacred law, or as a textbook of science and metaphysics, or a sourcebook for general spirituality, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has developed a repertoire of songs that draw on the Bible as an utterly human expression of how the world is (and will be), even in the face of appearances that suggest otherwise. In so doing, the Mountain Goats make the moral and theological ambivalence of the Bible audible again without resolving that ambivalence into cloying pieties, defiant blasphemies, or historical criticism.
Darnielle frequently invokes the crisis of Genesis 3 — without, however, focusing on “man’s first disobedience.” Instead of telling tales about temptation and fruit, Darnielle parses the effects of the primordial transgression: exile, alienation, labour. The serpent in particular draws his attention. In the lyrics of “Cobra Tattoo,” “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature,” and “Supergenesis,” Darnielle draws out ways in which the snake of Genesis 3 not only shares the curse that falls on humanity, but shares, and expresses, some aspects of humanity as well.
The earliest of the songs, “Cobra Tattoo,” narrates at the same time three interactions — perhaps more. In one setting, the song follows a scene of courtship and flirtation between two human contemporaries, a singer and a tattooed woman. At the same time, a figurative reading may regard both characters as snakes; the singer self-identifies with the serpent of Genesis 3 (“You will bruise my head, I will strike your heel”), and the girl bears the totemic tattoo identifying her with the cobra. Or one may finally see the scene as an interaction between the Genesis serpent and Eve (marked by the serpent’s prior seduction). On this last reading, the snake imagines wooing the marked woman from a position of celestial authority — Darnielle cites from the Daystar/Lucifer passage from Isaiah 14 in the second verse — “Higher than the stars / I will set my throne” — but then adds to it John the Baptist’s warning to the crowds, “God does not need Abraham / God can raise children from stones.” The serpent of “Cobra Tattoo” patiently awaits the time when he will be transformed from his reptilian condition to the dominion to which he aspires; he urges the girl to “dream at night,” in which dreams he may communicate with her (“Try to let these garbled transmissions come through”).
On a more recent album, Darnielle returns to the serpent’s longing for transformation with the song, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” As in the earlier song, the most prominent aspect of “Swamp Creature” concerns two ordinary humans (in this case they’re ex-lovers who meet one another and embrace in a perhaps-spontaneous encounter after they’ve broken up). Here the refrain makes explicitly impossible what “Cobra Tattoo” leaves undefined — that the two lovers, or would-be lovers, belong to two different species (“I’m out of my element / I can’t breathe”), as in comics and films that portray male aquatic monsters who lust after, and ultimately kill, human women. Thus the resonance with the third possible dimension of “Cobra Tattoo” — the singer again identifying himself with the reptile aspiring to a relationship with a human woman — comes to the fore. Although in the first half of the first verse he knows himself accursed with serpenthood, the second half reflects the perspective of the human visitor who stands in a doorway with his arms at his side. In this song, then, Darnielle invokes the myth of the Swamp Creature to characterise the situation of an ex-boyfriend, neither stranger nor lover, simultaneously human and reptilian. As in “Cobra Tattoo,” the singer is ultimately barred from the connection he longs for; Cobra Tattoo’s invocation of Isaiah 14 foregrounds the snake’s aspiration to be a star, but neglects Jehovah’s implacable determination to stymie any such transformation; in Swamp Creature, the way back into the Eden of the lost relationship is barred by the flashing swords of the cherubim. Although they may for one night fulfill God’s command that they be fruitful and multiply (“but not in those words,” as Woody Allen said), no more good can come of this liaison than did women’s unwilling encounters with the Swamp Creature. He’s out of his element, he can’t breathe; he panics and flees.
The transfigured serpent reappears in “Supergenesis,” although in this song Darnielle sticks solely to the snake’s longing to regain use of his lost limbs, so as to mount an attack against the forces that hobbled him. He “tries] to hoist myself up right / Again, try again,” because “someday, someday the call will sound / We all, we all are gonna get up from the ground.” (Darnielle also refers to Genesis 3 in the most recent Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, but this song (“Genesis 3:23”) concentrates solely on the expulsion of the human occupants from Eden: “See how the people here live now / Hope they’re better at it than I was / I used to live here….”)
Though the serpent in these songs looks forward to a rebellion, indulges in ill-planned sex, and imagines a battle for revenge, none of the songs vilifies him for these actions as do traditional interpretations that ascribe to him diabolical evil. But neither does Darnielle present the snake as the wronged victim of an unjust judge; “in the twinkling of an eye, my sentence gets passed” (“Supergenesis”), but the snake doesn’t protest that he was innocent. Darnielle describes how it might be to be the serpent, perhaps eliciting sympathy, but mainly opening up a rich imaginative connection to serpentine existence (and specifically to the existence of a Genesis serpent). In contrast to biblical scholars’, and most popular interpreters’, determination to prove a point for or against God, Darnielle doesn’t damn or praise his subject. He listens for the serpent’s voice, and finds the serpent in very human predicaments.
In so doing, Darnielle defies the binary mania of the recording industry by refusing both the controlling embraces of categorically Christian music (on one hand) and the defiantly secular (and in many cases “anti-ecclesiastical”) mainstream rock marketplace. The Mountain Goats’ presentation of biblical tropes is generally sympathetic, even when it’s contrarian; the frustrations and challenges that characterise The Life of the World to Come remain as steadfastly within the ambit of the biblical world as do the Psalms and Lamentations. Nonetheless, Darnielle’s qualified fascination falls far short of the norms expected of official, Gospel Music Association-certified Christian rock (even more so when one considers the catalogue of Mountain Goats’ songs with Vedic and Meso-American religious themes). The Mountain Goats sing of a more ambivalent sort of faith — steadfast and wounded, sin-soaked but hopeful — and instantiate it as a standpoint their audience may recognise, and may identify with.
They also exemplify a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t comport well with the sorts of distinctions that conventionally inhabit the interpretive discourse of professional biblical criticism. One would seek in vain for Darnielle’s lyrics to suggest that a historical reading of a particular verse legitimates his exposition. Neither, of course, does he back up his interpretive approach from creedal or magisterial authority. The standing of the Bible relative to Darnielle’s compositions derives from the extent to which he and his audience sense that he is telling the truth about the world in his (biblical) idiom.
As we theological professionals range from smoky concert venues and solitary mp3 players to the fluorescent lights of seminar rooms, lecture halls, and conference panels where we propound our own interpretations, we do well to bear in mind the limitations that arise from excluding middle terms. The texts we study provide ample grounds for complementary and contradictory readings, historical and theological, social-scientific and liberatory-political. Our best, most enduring interpretations derive their power to convince not from overheated claims about bias, ideological correctness, or methodological legitimacy, but from reading carefully and well, and from attending well to the myriad ways of heartbreak and hope in this world, for men, women, and serpents.