Making Me Understand: “Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom”

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or an artist means to me right now.)

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. There have been enough gigabytes of text expressing the outrage we feel here in the United States about the disasters that Tr**p, that Toddler in Chief, wrought, both those disasters that were immediate and those delayed-action ones, like the recent spate of terrible Supreme Court decisions. I feel for Justice Jackson, just sworn in to a hostile work environment — an important and historic event that is now diminished by the downgrading of the institution she joined.

I am always turning to music at difficult times. It’s my coping mechanism. I didn’t expect this Robyn Hitchcock song to be the one I’d latch onto, however:

Serpent at the gates of wisdom
Curling ’round a tree
With your eyes so dark and empty
Looking straight through me
How did you get so unwinding?
Do you know my sins?
When you’re so close to the answer
Why don’t you go in?

Serpent at the gates of wisdom
Who did you deceive?
She was weak, but that’s no reason
For what you did to Eve
You’re a fool, you broke the stillness
She gave birth to desire
Rolling down the frozen highway
Like a burning tyre

Serpent at the gates of wisdom
Where do you belong?
Wisdom cannot be transmitted
It keeps you hanging on
Do you really serve the Devil
If it’s all God’s plan?
Good and evil need each other
Honey I’m your man

Serpent at the gates of wisdom
Like a purple scar
Leering at me round the dashboard
As I reach my car
I close the door, I start the engine
And I will take control
God above, and all his angels
Have mercy on your soul

It’s all in there, the hallmarks of a Robyn Hitchcock song: devotion to Bob Dylan, extended metaphor twisted into interesting and even unrecognizable directions, lapsing from Biblical discourse to an intentionally cliche pop singer trope (“Honey I’m your man”).

I’ve latched onto this song in the past week, and on reflection it’s no surprise at all. It meets the six-headed serpent of Supreme Court justices who would have America become a White Christian theocracy on their own turf: at the beginning of the Bible. There is no reason for what they’ve done to Eve, other than pure cruelty disguised as religious doctrine that then dons the carnival mask of judicial originalism — when the fact is that our Founding Fathers would recognize very little of the United States’ current reality.

I’m having a very hard time celebrating anything about this country as we approach July 4, because the feeling that shit needs to actually blow up is somehow not consistent with watching fireworks displays. I’m finding the last verse of this song particularly empowering, because it involves gaining the upper hand over evil, which is something I really need to feel is possible. And perhaps also because the last couplet carries the implicit threat of meeting an untimely end. I’m learning to play the song on the piano, and I’ve been singing the last verse pretty loud.

In a performance of this song in Italy in 2013, Robyn changed God’s pronoun to “her.” Thank you, Robyn, for all of it.