In June 1848 (that fateful month, a thousand times cursed by the bourgeoisie), […] the working class took over the stage, and they have never left it since.–Mario Tronti
The recent New York Times article about Decemberists songwriter Colin Meloy noted his fondness for bygone characters, for “songs set in a fantastical world of Victorian chimney sweeps and dockside prostitutes, infant ghosts and exotic royal parades.” But the Times misses the way that Meloy’s narrators’ anachronisms are an attempt to decode modern life by resetting contemporary scenes in the characters and social relationships of previous eras.
“The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” from the Decemberists’ latest record, Picaresque, is exemplary. An epic narrative from the point of a view of a son avenging his widowed mother’s death, which was caused by a “rake and roustabout” who became her lover and whose gambling, whoring, and drinking left her penniless, consumptive, and insane, it is also a seafaring adventure in the mode of Melville’s early novels. The narrator joins a privateer to capture the offender, who has become the captain of a whaling ship. But just as they are about to apprehend the captain, a giant whale capsizes both ships. By chance (“But, oh, what providence! What divine intelligence!”), the captain and the mariner are the only survivors, and they have landed inside the whale. This is where the song both begins and ends.
The song, then, is a compendium of 19th-century literary motifs. But it contains, in the opening lines, a clue that something else is at work:
We are two Mariners
Our ships’ sole survivors
In this belly of a whale
Its ribs are ceiling beams
Its guts are carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill
The narrator has deterritorialized a situation, displacing an interior, modern scene onto the thematic, narrative, and stylistic elements of premodern literature.
Meloy performs such displacements in nearly all of his songs, and many of them, particularly when the narrators are of bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie stock, enact a mid-19th-century setting. The Times referred to Meloy’s fixation on Victorian archetypes. This is correct, but they are the archetypes of the early Victorian era, before the 1848 Continental revolts, when working class dominance asserted itself, when it took center stage, as Tronti says, and bourgeois faith in progress and liberal ideals hardened into reaction. This is why Meloy’s characters most closely resemble Dickensian and early Melvillian archetypes. The narrators of these songs long for a return to simpler times, before the massive increase in the industrial proletariat, the rise of unions and working-class organizations, the civil war of the 1860s and economic calamities of the 1870s, the anarchist and communist movements of later decades. In the bourgeois imagination, this was a time when class antagonisms were more concealed and bourgeois supremacy seemed undisputed.
These maneuvers by Meloy’s narrators aren’t just fantasy, however, a mere striving to re-create times of greater clarity and more favorable social relations. Their real interest is in setting up barriers to present experience. The creation of modes of mediation attempts to blunt the impact of encounters with the outside and to recode them in ways that are familiar, comforting, and safe. In true bourgeois fashion, these evasions take place in the realm of the purely intellectual and involve a complete abnegation of the body and all its messy contradictions. It is due in part to the endless performing of this dualism that the bourgeois finds itself unable to retake the stage.