Robert Crumb states that his illustration of the Book of Genesis is, for the most part, a literal representation of the text. This is very different from his usual controversial, “creative” pieces. However, there are moments in the story where it seems as if he is straying away from the words and using his artistic license to make a point about a particular topic. In Chapter 3, Crumb portrays the serpent who encourages Eve to eat the apple as a mutant creature eerily similar to the image of man. Rather than portraying him as a different animal, Crumb makes the direct physical connection between the serpent and man. Crumb emphasizes the human characteristics in the serpent to show that humans have always possessed evil attributes and are inherently sexual animals. His depiction of not only humans, but also God as an evil being shows his internal struggle with humanity and his overall frustration with his life.
Snakes, especially in ancient texts often symbolize evil or trickery. Christianity uses snakes as a primary symbol of evil, not just in Genesis but throughout the Bible (Nicolaus 53). James H. Charlesworth, a professor of theology at Princeton, references several examples in the Bible and other Wisdom literature of snakes as symbols for wickedness, including Leviticus 11:41-43, Wis 16:5, and Sir 25:15 (20). In Crumb’s Genesis, the serpent is initially introduced in the first image of chapter 3. He is depicted as having two arms, two legs, and a facial structure similar to a human. The image is oriented so that the serpent is a mirror image of Eve. Their legs are even positioned equidistance apart showing that in every part they are the same (The Book of Genesis). The concept that man (in this case, woman) looks at himself and sees a serpent begins the connection between the serpent and man. The text that accompanies the image states, “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the beasts that the Lord God had made” (The Book of Genesis). Crumb is making the clear connection between the wickedness of man and the evil of the serpent. In the next frame, the reader can clearly see the serpent’s face. It is a close-up showing the serpent’s 5 fingers, 2 eyes, nose, and open mouth. Even the pectoral muscles mimic that of man (The Book of Genesis). Crumb goes even farther by implying that it is not the serpent that causes man to be sinful, but that man is inherently immoral which the serpent simply reveals. Crumb believes that the serpent is not the worst creature, rather man is instead. Lord Byron, a leading poet in the Romantic period, wrote in “Cain: A Mystery” that “The snake was the snake—No more; and yet not less than those he tempted” (Charlesworth 23). Byron argues exactly what Crumb implies, that the serpent’s apparent evil is actually the evil of man; the serpent is simply a symbol to show man as such.
Serpents also represent sexuality, primarily because of the anatomical and literal connection between them and the fall. In the documentary Crumb, Robert Crumb personally admits that he is someone who is obsessed with sex (Crumb). He states that as a child, he was even sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny, and his sexual desire only increased as he grew up (Crumb). In mirroring man and the snake, Crumb implies that humans are not only inherently evil creatures, but also highly sexualized animals. He has never tried to fight his sexual nature, and he admits that it has been evident in himself at a very young age. He seems to think that this applies to everyone else as well as himself.
In many of Crumb’s works, including the Book of Genesis, he depicts humans as beast-like creatures. He shows the brutal abuse that humans can inflict on each other including fighting and murder. He also shows humans as very muscular, hairy, animalistic creatures, rather than beautiful, poetic forms. Even the scale in which humans are drawn is on an animalistic level. In the image of Eve looking at the tree of knowledge, she is shown as almost giant in size, looming over the fruit (The Book of Genesis). The portrayal of people on a greater-than-human scale, with the parallelism of the snake as a human shows Crumb’s ideas that humans are inherently animals by nature. Since he implies that they are snake-like, he suggests that humans are evil and sex-obsessed animals. His sexualized drawings of humans throughout the book further promotes the ideas that they are extremely sexual animals. Crumb often draws human genitals, yet he distinctly chooses not to draw the genitals of the snake. While it may seem as a way to move away from the connection between man and the serpent, instead he is doing the opposite. The lack of sexual organs imply that the snake is younger than man, showing that man (and therefore his inherent evil) is in existence long before the serpent.
In the Bible, the serpent is the creature that makes man aware of the evils of the world, but Crumb is arguing otherwise. He is stating that, in fact, man is evil from the start: man is the true basis of sin. Man, as revealed in Crumb’s serpent, is showing himself the evils of the world. In a sense, the serpent could be a projection of man’s subconscious revealing its true self. The serpent is portrayed like man to show the deceit in humans and the wickedness they possess. Crumb does not call for a reformation of society, instead his view is darker. Augustine of Hippo, the ancient theologian and bishop, argued that the act itself of taking the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil shows that Eve must already possess sinful attributes (Woodhead 25). He went as far as to argue that since Adam and Eve are the parents to the whole human race, every person must possess these attributes (Woodhead 26). Man’s “total corruption” makes it impossible for humans to fight their inner desires, especially ones of sexual nature (Woodhead 26). Crumb’s dark views of human nature are similar to Augustine’s ancient ideas. He does not think that man can improve from the destructive nature he has and will always possess. As someone who has never fit in socially, Crumb may even be emphasizing the sexual characteristics of humans to show that sex is the only positive attribute that humans possesses. He states: “I decided to reject conformity when society rejected me” (Crumb). His desire to not only illustrate the Book of Genesis, but to stretch the connection between Eve and the serpent, show that he “allowed the dark part of me to come out” (Crumb). He personally accepted the evil that he could not overcome and showed it to the world by ironically making something less “evil” in many ways than his traditional pieces.
An image of the serpent is also engraved on the back cover of the novel. The image is a circle with the serpent in the middle. It is depicted in faux gold plating and there are lines as if the serpent is radiating. On the back cover, the serpent is purposely depicted like God is depicted many times throughout the book: as a radiant, divine being (The Book of Genesis). Crumb’s clear similarity between the “most wicked” creature and God, the most divine of all beings, creates a bizarre parallelism. Crumb argues that not only does man have an evil side, but so does the divine God. Crumb was raised in the Catholic Church and left it at the age of sixteen (Conan). He describes his spirituality as such: “I don't associate it with any particular traditional religion. I think that the traditional Western religions all are very problematic in my view” (Conan). Crumb could be described as a modern-day Gnostic. Many Gnostics believed the stories of Genesis should not be read literally, but instead as spiritual allegories, and that humans do not have free will (Pagels 64). The Valentinians, a group of Gnostics supporting the ideas of Valentius, argued that “suffering is built into the structure of the universe itself” (Pagels 74). Crumb shows similar beliefs about the inherent evil nature of man in the symbolism he uses, in contrast to classical beliefs about the fall of man.
Classical interpretation shows that due to the Fall, God is the only way for one to be saved (Woodhead 31). However, by showing the serpent in a similar manner as God, Crumb implies that God cannot save one from his sins. Crumb does not believe that the Lord is perfect, nor a savior. Instead, he thinks of Him as the same as us, flawed with an evil that cannot be fixed. Again, some Gnostics share this belief about the Fall. One Gnostic idea describes the serpent as a manifestation of God himself, banishing Adam and Eve due to jealousy (Pagels 74). Crumb argues that the fact that God even made evil creatures such as man and woman show that He is evil. In an interview with National Public Radio, Crumb expresses his personal exasperation with the human race: “And [God] is very severe. You know, he doesn't have much patience for the human race, and who can blame him? If you were God, would you? It would be very tempting to wipe out the human race if you were God, you know. This experiment's not working. Just forget it. We'll start over, clean slate. You know, you can see the temptation” (Conan). He describes the way God feels about the human race the same way he feels himself. If he could, he would eradicate the human race to remove the evil from the world.
The serpent represents Crumb’s overall views of humanity. His display of the serpent is an example of his work being his own “satirical and self-indulgent orgy” to show his inner beliefs (Crumb). He thinks that man is rooted in evil and has no chance of improvement. His choice and depiction of the snake not only emphasizes the evil of man, but it also shows the inherent sexual nature of humans. Crumb’s overall depiction of humans as beasts, shows that he views humans as evil animals which is consistent with his own life experience. He deals with humans’ evils by utilizing their sole positive attribute: sex. Furthermore, he makes a clear connection between the serpent and God, implying there is evil in the Lord, and that there is no hope for mankind, not even in God’s salvation. Everyone, including himself and God, have evil characteristics that will never go away.
The Book of Genesis. Robert Crumb. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009. Print.
Charlesworth, James H. The Good & Evil Serpent: How A Universal Symbol Became Christianized. Yale University Press, 2010. 3-42. Print.
Conan, Neal. Interview with Robert Crumb. “ ‘Genesis’: R. Crumb Illustrates the Bible.” National Public Radio, 2009. Web, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2009/11/02/120022241/genesis-r-crumb-illustrates-the-bible
Crumb. Dir: Terry Zwigoff. Sony Pictures Classic, 1994. DVD.
Nicolaus, Peter. “The Serpent Symbolism in the Yezidi Religious Tradition and the Snake in Yerevan.” Iran & The Caucasus. Vol 15.5, 49-72. 2011. Web. http://rt4rf9qn2y.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/summon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:journal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=The+serpent+symbolism+in+the+Yezidi+religious+tradition+and+the+snake+in+Yerevan&rft.jtitle=Iran+and+the+Caucasus&rft.au=Nicolaus%2C+Peter&rft.date=2011&rft.issn=1609-8498&rft.eissn=1573-384X&rft.volume=15&rft.issue=1-2&rft.spage=49&rft.epage=72&rft_id=info:doi/10.1163%2F157338411X12870596615359&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=362033888¶mdict=en-US
Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Random House, 1988. 60-74. Print.
Woodhead, Linda. “Christianity: A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford University Press, UK, 2004. 24-45. Web. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/pitt/reader.action?docID=10254461&ppg=139