The Darkening Garden: Serpent’s Egg

The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the eighth entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors

Image © Diana Sudyka

The title of a 1977 film by Ingmar Bergman (1918- ) set in 1923, in early Weimar Berlin, when hyperinflation and deep cultural stress and growing Nazi influence seemed both to express to the fullest a sense of the Aftermath of the world, and to work as a literal (though literally distorting) Mirror of times to come. In the course of the film it is revealed that a paradigm set of citizens of Berlin — whose behaviour has become increasingly so amoral and dysfunctional and desperate that many viewers of the film came away with the impression that Bergman himself had lost his touch — are victims of ruthless experiments in social engineering designed to formulate a “new society [that] will be based on a realistic assessment of man’s potentials and limitations”. As victims of this Infection, which they ingest through their drinking water, their behaviour in the first three quarters of the film comprises an ideogram — an iconography — of human behavior in general, later in the century. Bergman’s final argument — or revelation — is therefore that the mirror on our state exposed by these experiments is not a distorting mirror. “Anyone who makes the slightest effort,” the experimental institute’s head scientist tells the victimized protagonist, “can see what is waiting in there in the future. It’s like a serpent’s egg. Through the thin membranes you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile.” In a sense, every moment of the film is a Serpent’s Egg.

In this lexicon the term Serpent’s Egg is used to help illuminate the Bound Fantastic nature of Horror texts to the passing of time: that the process of Horror is, at least in part, a process of uncovering the true future out of the false rind of the past; the term Serpent’s Egg points to realized moments when apparent metaphors of our state turn out to be literal descriptions of birth pangs, when it can be seen that Horror is simply a vision of history to come: when the world to come turns out to be exactly what we feared. In terms of the full model of Horror, the future is what happens when you find out. Bound to the world, whose constant transformation is necessarily the undertext of any full Horror tale — a constant burn of transformation that exposes our viscera to the light — texts of the Bound Fantastic work as manuals of instruction, in which Serpent’s Eggs can be understood as maxims. For such a maxim to work in a text, what is actually seen through the thin membrane of the Egg need not necessarily be described, or exposed, to the reader. The closing moments of a Club Story like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899 Blackwood’s Magazine) — as Marlow, the teller of the tale, gazes “into the heart of an immense darkness” — can be understood as a terminal gaze of outward regard at the “already perfect reptile” of the new century (when it is remembered that Marlow at this point can be seen as analogous to the New Zealander gazing across the same commercial Empire-sustaining Thames at the ruins of London in Gustave Doré’s famous 1872 illustration, this last scene of “Heart of Darkness” gains the poignant snowglobe clarity of the best examples of the Serpent’s Egg). The blank gaze of the “converted” Donald Sutherland character at the end of the 1979 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a Serpent’s Egg gaze, analogous to the one-eyed idiot gape of the eponymous god in Fred Chappell’s Dagon (1968), who is reality ground down to the nub, who is the wasted world to come: “the god was omnipotent but did not possess intelligence”: it was

Reptilian. Legless. Truncated scaly wings, flightless, useless. The god Dagon was less than three feet long. Fat and rounded, like the belly of a crocodile. He couldn’t see the mouth hidden away under the body, but he knew it: a wirelike grin like a rattlesnake’s; double rows of venomous needles in the maw.

The eponymous hotel in D M Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981), also an historical tale about the working of history on humans, is a Serpent’s Egg.

A Serpent’s Egg within a tale does not argue the future; it grasps it. Nor, technically, need examples of the Serpent’s Egg be confined to horror — it is simply that the course of the twentieth century has been most profoundly adumbrated through visions of what the opened eye — the rind of the eye peeled — has seen. Here is Thomas Mann, ending Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des Deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, Erzählt von Einem Freunde (1947 Sweden; trans H T Lowe-Porter as Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend 1948 US), a Pact-With-the-Devil tale ostensibly about Germany (but hence about Europe) at the edge of a Serpent’s Egg gaze into the abyss of 1940: “Today,” the book concludes,

clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, down [Europa, hence us] flings from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss?