Dada Polka: The Absurd Aesthetic in the Partial Work of Stephin Merritt

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In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes of a metaphysical honor in delivering our humble cosmic absurdity through aesthetics. “Conquest or play-acting, multiple loves,” he writes, “absurd revolts are tributes that man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance.” Camus’ section on absurd creation – that is, creation of artistic works and not creation in the ontological sense – is primarily concerned with the inquiry of whether or not and to what degree of success (success!) the “absurd”, as a species of worldview, is amenable to meaningful articulation in the fictional medium. The answer to his question and whether or not he arrived at the correct one and for the right reasons, &c. is not the project of this essay. Rather, it is the question itself that delights the instant keyboard. For the present writing, Camus’ inquiry is significant for what it invites, for what brooding it stirs, and for what doors it leads us to and asks us to open.

Before turning any knobs, it is perhaps useful to describe – briefly I say – Camus’ answer to the absurd problem, so that a philosophical footing may at least be laid. What is bluntly called absurdism is a discipline that presumes all efforts by humanity to discover inherent meaning in the universe will necessarily fail because no such meaning exists. What is termed the absurd grows out of the conflict between the individual’s quest for meaning and the failure of the universe to provide any. In Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard explains that “[t]he absurd is not one of the factors which can be discriminated within the proper compass of the understanding: it is not identical with the improbable, the unexpected, the unforeseen.”

According to Camus, “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” resulting from the absurd, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Camus’ statement of the problem is a reaction to the absurd universe. When confronted with the absurd, what is one to do? Camus argues that suicide is not the solution to the absurd quandary (suicide would only extend the absurdity). Instead, one must acknowledge the absurdity of existence, and with knowledge and understanding of it, advance oneself to a state of freedom not previously contemplated or realized. For Camus, three conclusions follow from the absurd, which are his revolt, his freedom, and his passion.

In his section on Absurd Freedom, Camus describes the precipitance of development from unconsciousness to revolt to what culminates in liberty:

But at the same time the absurd man realizes that hitherto he was bound to that postulate of freedom on the illusion of which he was living. In a certain sense, that hampered him. To the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty. Thus I could not act otherwise than as the father (or the engineer or the leader of a nation, or the post-office sub-clerk) that I am preparing to be.

The absurd man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

The Myth of Sisyphus is not a fictional work. It is a philosophical essay. Clearly Camus considered the instrumentality of essay as capable of transmitting the essence of the absurd (how else could he have justified writing Sisyphus?). What impressed him greater was whether the absurd is capable of survival in the fictional aesthetic, and if so, how the absurd problem is demonstrated in the narrative and to what achievement.

Ultimately, Camus concludes that the absurd endures in fiction. Yet he is convinced that the absurd cannot, with justice to the essence of the fictional enterprise, be presented there in the same exhibition as the essay. The task of the fictional author, says he, is in advancing the absurd without explicit arguments in its defense: championing the absurd without the block and print of a discernible objective. He is especially sensitive to and interested in the distinction, however subtle, between the overtly philosophical broadcast of the essay and the more shadowed exposition conveyed in the novel: the difference between “this hideous world in which the very moles dare to hope” and the ambiance of The Trial, for example.

In Absurd Creation, Camus refers to great novelists as philosophical novelists, mentioning “Balzac, Sade, Melville, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Proust, Malraux, Kafka, to cite but a few.” In these writers, Camus observes a “preference they have shown for writing in images rather than in reasoned arguments” that is “revelatory of a certain thought that is common to them all, convinced of the uselessness of any principle of explanation and sure of the educative message of perceptible appearance.” What follows is an “often unexpressed philosophy” that by its nature is “complete only through the implications of that philosophy.” [Insert Nabokovian cringes here].

How then are we to perceive such an unexpressed philosophy, if in fact one exists? The endeavor presents a genuine epistemological problem. There is no instrument or mechanized calculus, surely. There is no dumping the hundreds of thousands of words composing The Brothers Karamozov into a machine with the expectation of a normative conclusion printed out conveniently for the curious. How then may one apprehend with justice the head of the octopus while grappling only with its tentacles? Camus provides guidance to overcome this inherent complication:

The true work of art is always on the human scale. It is essentially the one that says ‘less’. There is a certain relationship between the global experience of the artist and the work that reflects that experience, between Wilhelm Meister and Goethe’s maturity. That relationship is bad when the work aims to give the whole experience in the lace-paper of an explanatory literature. That relationship is good when the work is but a piece cut out of experience, a facet of the diamond in which the inner lustre is epitomized without being limited. In the first case there is overloading and pretension to the eternal. In the second, a fecund work because of a whole implied experience, the wealth of which is suspected. The problem for the absurd artist is to acquire this savoir-vivre which transcends savoir-faire. And in the end, the great artist under this climate is, above all, a great living being, it being understood that living in this case is just as much experiencing as reflecting. The work then embodies an intellectual drama. The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. If the world were clear, art would not exist.

Finally, Camus asks of absurd creation what he required from thought: revolt, freedom, and diversity:

In that daily effort in which intelligence and passion mingle and delight each other, the absurd man discovers a discipline that will make up the greatest of his strengths. The required diligence, the doggedness and lucidity thus resemble the conqueror’s attitude. To create is likewise to give a shape to one’s fate.

None of this has any real meaning. On the way to that liberty, there is still a progress to be made. The final effort for these related minds, creator or conqueror, is to manage to free themselves also from their undertakings: succeed in granting that the very work, whether it be conquest, love, or creation, may well not be; consummate thus the utter futility of any individual life.

Camus’ hand in advancing absurd creation is manifest in his own works. The Stranger – unaccountably the most popular of Camus’ novels (your author is prejudiced to The Fall) – is spectacularly simple in its acknowledgement of the futility in any principle in explanation, allowing the deepening penal horrors and ensuing disruption of assumptions to work themselves on the reader, as in The Plague (the latter being less disguised, perhaps, in its theological pronouncements). His shorter prose, The Rebel for example, is illustrative of a similar delivery. A comparable modus in presentation exists in the short fiction of Guy de Mauppasant, e.g. The Piece of String – a terse accounting of a man whose life is literally destructed by his picking up a string in the road; or Mademoiselle – a story of revolt and awakening in which a man who has always considered himself female suddenly realizes his masculinity and attempts to ravage a woman – and I won’t admit of the end. Camus explored absurd creation in his section on Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka. The absurd runs throughout Kafka. If the reader has read The Trial, The Metamorphosis, or The Penal Colony then the reader can appreciate Kafka’s gift. And now that enough titles have been mentioned, the reader may have read one or two or all of them, and I’ve side-stepped an avoidable esotericism.

Like great novelists there are great lyricists, and it follows that there are philosophical lyricists. Stephin Merritt, most famous for his work in the band The Magnetic Fields, is regarded by many critics and devotees as a genius lyricist and composer (anyone who has witnessed the creation of “A Man of a Million Faces” will agree). Merritt has been described as the best songwriter since Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In the words of NPR’s Sarah Handel, Merritt is an “incredibly prolific, creative, and nimble songwriter with the perfect dose of temperamentality needed to attain the moniker of artistic genius.” But is Stephin Merritt an absurd artist? In answering this question, the present essay presupposes that absurd existence, as in fiction, is capable of presentation in lyrical composition, whether by the telling of a story, the relation of an experience, the description of an emotion, or even the voice’s inflection in the utterance of a word (perhaps the last is taking it too far, but perhaps the reader is taken by such maudlin antics).

In reading Merritt’s lyrics on their face, one observes the marriage of an exquisite melancholy and profound wit – and this without the accompaniment of instrumentals and the shiver-inducing gratification caused by Merritt’s bass-baritone voice and singularly haunting velvet timbre. There are moments (many) of obvious despondency (“I’ve been trying to give myself reasons to live. But I really can’t think of one thing.”) There are also moments of terse jesting (i.e. the song “Three-way” which contains the words “three-way” pronounced three times throughout the song’s three minutes).

There is nothing penetrating in offering these kinds of observations on the lyrics. There are thousands of melancholic lyrics and as many of a jocular turn in the span of the lyrical aesthetic throughout music’s history. This piece does not seek to discover whether Stephin Merritt is witty, or cerebral, or depressed or profound, or happy or blue (a fine word for rhyming) or anything else apart from whether he has produced the essence of the absurd creation with the kind of “lustre” described by Camus.

This article contains few if any presuppositions, and certainly does not begin by assuming without consultation that Merritt intended absurd creation through his writings. While Merritt’s articulation of his work would certainly be interesting if described by him, it is irrelevant to the central thesis of distant speculation, which seeks an answer from the four corners of the songs, examined separately and as a collection. Has Merritt, whether intended or the contrary, illuminated the universe’s absurdity in his verses? If so, has he done so with all the hideous lace-paper of an explanatory literature, or has he, on the contrary, epitomized the inner lustre of the absurd without tipping his hand in an ugly fashion? In other words, does the “work illustrate thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason”? These are the fundamental questions that we take up presently.

Before doing so, a qualification if the reader has the patience: this short essay is not more things than it is. In other words, the scope of this essay is limited, as is the whiskified brain responsible for its existence. Stephin Merritt’s work product is aplenty. While an exhaustive scrutiny of every comma is possible, that enterprise is reserved for a more enthused and buoyant drudge. This approach is not representative of an indifference by the author to the finer points, only a confession of the author’s refusal to submit himself to the rigors of an academic endeavor that would have him hunting down footnotes in a loose leaf journal kept by Merritt’s third-grade teacher. A review of the lyrics and a critical inspection of them in part must suffice. It must also be noted that this essay is limited to Merritt’s work under the auspices of his principal aperture The Magnetic Fields. A dive into his other projects – The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, &c. would indeed be interesting. To quote someone someday, “alas and alack” we shall not have it all.

Prior to any discussion as to whether Merritt acquaints his listeners with the savoir-faire of absurd creation, it is necessary to discern whether his work even contains what might be called an absurd constitution. This is the easier of the two tasks, and logically the one that must be taken up first. If the reader is agitated over the order, try a glass of gin. It works wonders on one’s disposition.

An examination of the lyrics sans the labor of their ver batim quotation here allows for a strong case in favor of Merritt’s appreciation for the absurd, and moreover, a demeanor not unlike the reaction rhapsodized by Camus in his selection from Nietzsche: “It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth, as for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind – something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine.” Merritt’s lyrics are brimming with a statement and reaction to the absurd thus qualified.

Take “Dada Polka” from the album Realism. At the outset, one is struck by the dada/realism dichotomy existing between the track and album names. It is itself a generous statement on the absurd: it is the absurd conflict. Merritt begins the track by addressing the “people of earth” as if some transcendent voice in the universe is calling them to attention. He then directs that they “dance the dada polka” seemingly because “life is only a dream”. One imagines the dada polka as one must: a flailing of the limbs, hips and head (gyrating like a gyroscope as Merritt writes) without regard to form, style, or reason. The song invites a meaningless dance in a meaningless existence, yet still invites the listener to “do something” if even “anything” and moreover, to do something “true”. The lyrics represent a renunciation of the purpose-to-life façade while heralding the vanity of warring with such a fate and its variegated brilliance and inspiration – inspiration begotten by an acceptance of life without consolation, but that still allows for some dancing in the interim and the search for what we might call Truth.

The following is taken from “Old Orchard Beach” on the album The Wayward Bus: “The wind will blow or it won’t. The stars come out or they don’t. The world goes round or we get thrown into the stars.” There is an obvious nihilism on the surface, yet taken in conjunction with the chorus that follows, it is clear that Merritt has again confronted the absurd: “When we go dancing underneath the city in the catacombs, when we go dancing the strobe lights and the disco will bring us home.” In spite of the fatalistic observations on the wind, stars, and the rotation of the earth, there is a reactionary renaissance in which one does the dance, as it were. In a word, it is the liberty of the dance that becomes home, dancing upon a dispensed yet irrepressible fatalistic urge.

“California Girls” from the album Distortion is illustrative of an absurd identity. Merritt is able to capture, in vivid and familiar portraiture, the vanity and worthlessness of the modern custom to sacrifice everything for the perceived virtues of affluence and celebrity. “See them on their big bright screen, tan and blonde and seventeen. Eating nonfood keeps them mean, but they’re young forever…. They ain’t broke, so they put on airs, the faux folks sans derrieres. They breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star…. I hate California girls.” Later in the song, Merritt writes: “I have planned my grand attacks. I will stand behind their backs with my brand-new battle ax. Then will they taste my wrath.” Here Merritt smashes the gilded crust of the “California Girl” – essentially annihilating the enchantment of the pre-absurd struggle and provoking the listener to emancipate herself from the same superstition. The “California Girl” is in plain essence the shelled creature, striving for the “someday” of celebrity, naively hoping that such a status will provide some form of consolation. But it won’t, nor can it.

The nicking pains contained in “Please Stop Dancing” on the same album may be analogized to the struggle of Sisyphus outright. “Please stop dancing in my head, I have cried till I’m half dead.” “Please stop dancing in my mind, I have cried till I’m half blind.” “Please stop dancing in my heart, I can’t seem to make it art.” “Please stop dancing in my soul, I can’t make it rock and roll.” “Please stop dancing in my sleep, I can’t make it twang and beep.” The dancing never halts, anywhere. The ailments of mind, body and soul that plague the singer are more than latent Sisyphean aches. The song strikes of a man or woman held in a durance, tremulous at the weight of the predicament, and lamenting on the damnatory and unceasing imprecation of the human condition. But it’s a myth in “Please Stop Dancing” as much as the Greek allegory. We might say with justice that the struggle in both is enough to fill a man’s heart. Sisyphus keeps pushing, Merritt keeps singing. And all is well, kind of.

The absurd is a force throughout Merritt’s lyrics: “100,000 Fireflies” (“I have a mandolin. I play it all night long. It makes me want to kill myself.”); “Strange Powers” (“What a golden age, what a time of right and reason. The consumer’s king and unhappiness is treason.”); “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget” (“But I’ll turn into a supernova and burn up everything. Well I’ll turn into a black little hole and you’ll turn into string. But I’ll turn into God Himself and then you’ll come to me. Well I will not believe in you and then where will we be?”); “Meaningless” (“Just like everything I guess it was utterly meaningless. Sucking meaning from the rest of this mess.”); “Queen of the Savages” (“You should see the things we see when we smoke. We think all of life is a funny joke.”); “All the Umbrellas in London” (“If I live through the night I could be all right. It’ll make a good song or something.”); “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” (“All the world is turning prettily. Everyone’s awaiting Sunday. Where can that Sunday be?…”); “The Dada Polka” (“People of Mars you too must do the Dada Polka. It’s the meaning of life.”); “Infinitely Late at Night” (“The hour on the bar clock, it isn’t finite. It’s all black and white without the white. It’s just infinitely late at night.”); “Lonely Highway” (“Some people don’t believe in dying, but some of us don’t believe in life.”). Numerous other songs announce the backbone of the absurd constitution in Merritt’s writings.

So then, the first of the two questions has received its answer. There is an accessible and voluble presence of the absurd in Merritt’s lyrics. We’re content with the superscription, but itching with speculations as to the envelope’s contents, viz. whether the knelling tides and rollicking bon mots of Stephin Merritt’s verses capture that peculiar essence of absurd creation romanticized in Sisyphus.

In his section on Don Juanism, Camus writes:

[M]elancholy people have two reasons for being so: they don’t know or they hope. Don Juan knows and does not hope. He reminds one of those artists who know their limits, never go beyond them, and in that precarious interval in which they take their spiritual stand enjoy all the wonderful ease of masters. And that is indeed genius: the intelligence that knows its frontiers.

Coupled with that peculiar aesthetic posture, there remains the task of gifting the absurd aesthetic to one’s audience, in the case of the literary drama, or as here, the libretto, with a discreet attention to an implied experience, and by avoiding the banality of the unblurred philosophical tract. The relationship between the global experience of the artist and the work that reflects that experience is distinctly relevant. It has been stated previously that that relationship is good when the work is but a piece excised from the experience, “a facet of the diamond in which the inner lustre is epitomized without being limited.” We embark then, on a quest for an answer to our second question, and charge ourselves in search of a more veiled glitter glistening.

In the song “Famous” on the album Get Lost, Merritt captures the pre-revolt constraint. There, Merritt writes: “I know you’ve tried. I know you’ve cried. I know you’ve died a little inside. But baby you could be famous…. If you could just get out of this town.” The song is less about a physical restraint than an intellectual one. In this sense, the song probably has an even broader claim to the general psyche – it taps into that human itch to create something new, something never done before, something erudite or heartfelt. “Famous” reflects an image of the human condition: the longing desire to be recognized and the narcissistic (and usually adolescent) tendency to presuppose that with the proper surroundings or new town, one will become the next Picasso or Proust, or other dead person. At the same time, “Famous” rejects that image, and by implication smashes the kind of egotism underlying such a tendency. Merritt writes “You are the queen of every scene. You are the king of everything.” These are mocking observations on the self-aggrandizement that leads people to believe they are remarkable. Inherent to Merritt’s statement that the individual in the song is essentially the best at everything is a contrasting caustic sentiment that the person is essentially the same as everyone else, including their ailments of hubris that instigate the very delusions of grandeur that lead them to believe they are unique. These are descriptions of the absurd climate: ones that are masterfully consummated without reliance on the overt statement. It tickles where it could otherwise lacerate, saying less than it might need to the same purpose.

Merritt’s predilection for capturing an absurd essence, while avoiding the kind of drab lecturing that would lead to listener discontent, is a common thread throughout the several albums. We witness a conscious revolt in such songs as: “Desert Island” (“I’ll be the madness that carries you away…. Desert island that’s what I want to be.”); “Take Ecstasy With Me” (“You had a black snowmobile. We drove out under the northern lights. A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes. We got beat up just for holding hands.”); “Old Fools” (“Old fools who believe that they can dance and sing and fall in love. After all: love?”); “Too Drunk to Dream” (“Sober, life is a prison. Shitfaced, it is a blessing.”); “The Nun’s Litany” (“I want to be a topless waitress. I want my mother to shed one tear.”).

And then there is the topic of love. In entering this field, one must admit of a certain temptation. Merritt’s lyrical writings are replete with wide-ranging comments on prevailing notions of love: longing for it, questioning it, and mostly hating it. There is at once a passionless and zealous obsession with the subject. Ultimately, one must conclude that while Merritt is very much animated on the topic, he is pessimistically deterministic in his belief that his love will remain forever unrequited, or that if it is returned, it is not worth seeking (after all, his only love may have been the evanescent Andrew in Drag). One sees here the absurd parallel. On the album 69 Love Songs, there is a track entitled “No One Will Ever Love You” with the following lyrics: “No one will ever love you honestly. No one will ever love you for your honesty.”

Other tracks on the three-disc album contain the same kind of candid and sullen gloom: “(Crazy for You) But Not That Crazy” (“I performed acts of devotion as if you were Ganesh, but now I’m crazy for you but not that crazy.”); “My Only Friend” (“Some of us can only live in songs of love and trouble. Some of us can only live in bubbles.”); “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” (What a dark and dreary life. Are you reaching for a knife? Could you really kill your wife? Yeah! Oh, yeah!”); “Meaningless” (“And if some damn bulb should say, we were in love in some way, kick all his teeth in for me, and if you feel like keeping on kicking feel free. Meaningless.”); “All My Little Words” (“Now that you’ve made me want to die you tell me that you’re unboyfriendable. And I could make you pay and pay, but I could never make you stay.”); the list goes on. 69 Love Songs is exactly what it proclaims itself as: 69 songs on the topic of love. The album is so woebegone that it is almost uplifting, and therein sits the mastery on its throne. Merritt’s other Magnetic Fields albums are rife with conflicting amorous tendencies and materialized coldness of heart.

The temptation I’ve mentioned exists in interpreting Merritt’s quest for an elusive love as a quest for an elusive meaning to life, with the consequent deduction that over the course of his years, Merritt has found no such meaning and is convinced he won’t. If meaning to the universe or some similar such denomination is grafted over love or in place of their spirit, then I should say our second question is answered the more easily. In the lovesick song “Save a Secret for the Moon” on the album Get Lost, Merritt writes: “I know all the names of your tears, the numbers of your lonely years. I know all the someone somedays, don’t believe them anyway.” According to Camus, the absurd man is capable of the realization that he is not really free, but that before such realization occurs, “[h]e weighs his chances, he counts on ‘someday’, his retirement or the labour of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed.” Merritt’s assurance that he “know[s] all the someone somedays” announces an appreciation for the pre-absurd fantasy, and a rejection of its futility. Later in the song, Merritt writes: “In a darkened room, write it on a black balloon. Then watch it fade from view. Save a secret for the moon.” This remedy (if one may speak loosely) in consequence of an unanswered love, this call to destine one’s total affections to utter obscurity further betrays Merritt’s recognition of a grand futility: a futility learned through heart-wrenching experience.

So then, one may appreciate the enticement of the temptation. But it is perhaps an unfair conclusion. After all, the author has not consulted Merritt and has no access to the man (though I note Claudia was nice enough to write a rather generous e-mail). The lyrics singly are available as resources, and inferences from their four corners are permissible only to such-and-such a degree. There may very well be something to the love/meaning tautology aforementioned: a not unjustified conclusion to be drawn from the depths of amorous abstention and despair that strikes of the lucidity expressed by Camus, where “the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity.” We must, therefore, approach the subject with the care for complexity and nuance (a damned word favored by the national public radio) the question requires. We must, I say, seek an answer to the second question, within the context of “love”, without committing the foppery of an overly simplistic disambiguation.

Yet we have already undertaken the task. The very statement of the temptation smacks of its truth. We have answered the question in advance and are now required to defend ourselves post-hoc. In his section on Don Juansim, Camus writes “If it were sufficient to love, things would be too easy. The more one loves, the stronger the absurd grows.” And there we may have it. Merritt loves intensely, but cares even less. As he writes in the song “Zebra” “So we got married in Venice in June. So what? We circled the earth in a hot air balloon. So what?” So what? Precisely. Merritt’s “So what?” encapsulates the entirety of his written work on love – stripping the concept to its perceptibly meaningless core.

De Maupassant authored a short story called Love, which begins as follows:

I have just read among the general news in one of the papers a drama passion. He killed her and then he killed himself, so he must have loved her. What matters He or She? Their love alone matters to me, and it does not interest me because it moves me or astonishes me or because it softens me or makes me think, but because it recalls to mind a remembrance of my youth, a strange recollection of a hunting adventure where Love appeared to me….

The narrator then relates a story in which he and a cousin went hunting in the frigid hours of an early morning in rural France. They succeed in shooting some foul, and the narrator kills a teal, leaving its partner to circle overhead lamenting the death of its companion. “You have killed the duck,” said the cousin, “and the drake will not fly away.” The narrator is clearly moved by the cries in the sky overhead by the “poor bird which was lost in space”. The narrator’s cousin eventually shoots and kills the second bird, and de Maupassant gives us a perfectly terse and wonderfully absurd ending: “I put them – they were already cold – into the same gamebag, and I returned to Paris the same evening.”

For his part, Merritt’s writings on love are flooded with absurdist reaction. Merritt loves passionately, and within that passion dwells the brilliant competition between Merritt’s futile struggle for love and his boredom. The infusion tickles of an unspoken and perceptively worthless experience. Merritt’s struggle is pervasive. We witness a song like “Absolutely Cuckoo” in which Merritt cautions a prospective mate against loving him because “[w]e only recently met. True I’m in love with you but you might decide I’m a nut. Give me a week or two to go absolutely cuckoo then, when you see your error, then, you can flee in terror like everybody else does.” This struggle, this piece cut out of Merritt’s experience, implies that the struggle for love is worth the human cost, but one must accept its ridiculousness at the outset. And of course, we cannot perceive the lyrics as a series of isolated testimonies. Taken together, and roughly shed of their stanzas, commas and periods, Merritt’s work evokes four successive fundamental qualities of being – struggle, revolt, ennui and freedom.

Anyone who has read The Metamorphosis must admit of an almost tangible feeling of bondage on reading the story of Gregor. Reading of a man waking in the body of an insect, unable to move about freely and confined to a single room, and engendering fear and hatred in his family against him is as displeasing as it is familiar to a conscious activated by Kafka’s prose. One writhes when one reads of Gregor attempting to obscure himself from his family:

And yet just on this occasion he had more reason than ever to hide himself, since owing to the amount of dust which lay thick in his room and rose into the air at the slightest movement, he too was covered with dust; fluff and hair and remnants of food trailed with him, caught on his back and along his sides; his indifference to everything was much too great for him to turn on his back and scrape himself clean on the carpet, as once he had done several times a day.

Gregor, the insect, is a pathetic prisoner, depressed by alienation and finally convinced of death’s exigency in a loveless galaxy. The absurdity of his existence and his ultimate acceptance of it before a cold and languid demise are unfolded by Kafka with an attentive splashing of connoted savoir-faire: the implied experience we are searching for.

In “Deep Sea Diving Suit” Merritt captures the absurd shackling with the kind of subtle disposition we may delight in: [chorus] “I’m sorry, but how can I get to you stuck in my fifty-pound lead boots, stuck in my deep sea diving suit.” The imagery of a deep sea diving suit necessarily engenders imagery of an oceanic abyss, at the bottom of which stands a man in leaden boots unable to move. This is essentially the alienation of the room-ridden insect Gregor. In the beginning of the song, Merritt writes: “You didn’t have to say that I’m no good, ‘cause I know. There’s no point pointing pistols at me now, I’ll just go. I never should have asked you to be kind, but I’m slow.”

The individual in “Deep Sea Diving Suit” is aware of his limitations, and conciliatory without explanation. There is an implied history involving a wrongful act or alteration of circumstances that places the individual in a position of dejection, regret, and solitude, but we’re left wondering just what happened. Perhaps something happened. Perhaps nothing happened, and the crestfallenness and separation are products of the absurd realization. In any event, the lyrics are universally appealing. Merritt presents us with the ostracism of the struggling man prior to his revolt, banished to the depths of an abyss where he’s made to consider the weight of nothing. The reader may think this goes too far, but consider the following by Kafka in Reflections:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Is Merritt drawing us toward such a realization or experience? Does he even care? Maybe, is all we may hope to say.

We stand now hardly at an endpoint. There is a lot going on, and we’ve merely scratched the surface of an intensely interesting and painfully amatory drama of lyric and sound. If anything may be said of Merritt’s lyrics, it is that they invite continual critical inspection. This because they are ultimately on the human scale. His songs are flooded with intellectual lucidity and ironic charm, yet are contrasted by a moribund resignation to a life without meaning. I again emphasize “The Dada Polka” – that perfect achievement of the absurd lyricist. Merritt succeeds like no other in rolling out the absurd without the overt broadcast, and in giving the absurd world such subtly familiar and timeless emphases. So what does all this mean for the listener? Nothing really: none of all this has any real meaning. And we may be satisfied by that.

One Response to Dada Polka: The Absurd Aesthetic in the Partial Work of Stephin Merritt

  1. Adam Johnson says:

    Rife Machine. I demand satisfaction.