Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)

Cargo culte


In the closing track to Melody Nelson, Serge delivers an impromptu lesson on the so-called “cargo cults” of the South Pacific, speculates on the fate of Melody after her crash — and reveals that he’s been praying to the cargo cults himself.

Paroles de Gainsbourg

Je sais moi, des sorciers qui invoquent les jets
Dans la jungle de Nouvelle-Guinée
Ils scrutent le zénith
Convoitant les guinées que leur rapporterait le pillage du fret

Sur la mer de Corail au passage de cet appareil
Ces créatures non dénuées de raison
Ces papous
Attendent des nuées
L’avarie du Viscount
Et celle du Comet

Et comme leur totem n’a jamais pu abattre à leurs pieds
Ni Boeing ni même D.C. Quatre
Ils rêvent de hijacks
Et d’accidents d’oiseaux

Ces naufrageurs naïfs
Armés de sarbacanes
Qui sacrifient ainsi au culte du cargo
En soufflant
Vers l’azur
Et les aéroplanes

Où es-tu Melody
Et ton corps disloqué
Hante-t-il l’archipel que peuplent les sirènes?

Ou bien accrochée au cargo dont la sirène d’alarme s’est tue
Es-tu restée?

Au hasard des courants
As-tu déjà touché
Ces lumineux coraux des côtes guinéennes
Où s’agitent en vain ces sorciers indigènes
Qui espèrent encore des avions brisés

N’ayant plus rien à perdre
Ni Dieu en qui croire
Afin qu’ils me rendent mes amours dérisoires
Moi, comme eux
J’ai prié les cargos de la nuit

Et je garde cette espérance
D’un désastre aérien
Qui me ramènerait Melody
Mineure détournée
De l’attraction des astres

Tu t’appelles comment?
Melody comment?
Melody Nelson


So ends Melody Nelson — in a completely unexpected way.

Ever since a chance visit to Vanuatu, I’ve been fascinated by the so-called “cargo cults” of Melaneasia — which I had never heard of before setting foot on those islands.

I won’t try to explain them here — it’s a vast topic — but it’s worth noting that they have been a persistent focus of anthropological attention since before the time this song was written, and that the understanding of their nature and origins has developed significantly in the decades since Melody. The little lesson that Serge gives here is off in a lot of ways — which is to be expected, given the fifty years that have passed.

But it’s a more sympathetic account that you might expect given the source.

Jane Birkin informs us that Serge learned about the “cargo cults” in the 1962 blockbuster “shockumentary” Mondo Cane. Having just watched the whole thing on YouTube, I can inform you that it’s a hodgepodge of faux-documentary and sham-anthroplogical footage designed to shock, disgust, and titillate a Western audience: dogs being butchered, geese being force-fed, naked indigenous peoples performing various obviously staged ceremonies.

The sequence about “cargo cults” is the one that ends the film. Although it is deeply racist, reeks of imperialist ideology, and is badly out of step with current anthropology — it’s probably one of the more watchable sequences of the film. If you’re interested, this link will take you to a currently-working YouTube copy, right to the relevant part. You will at least be able to see what material Gainsbourg was working from.

(You’ll also notice that Gainsbourg wasn’t only inspired by the images or the ideas — the sequence ends with a decidedly Melody-like chorus chanting ominously in a grand crescendo.)

But more importantly: what on earth is all this “cargo cult” business doing in Melody Nelson? Why does Gainsbourg end this album — widely regarded as his magnum opus — with it?

I’m really not sure. It’s a weird choice. But here’s my best guess.

Gainsbourg must have seen something touchingly, familiarly tragic in the “cargo cult.” He must have identified in some way with these indigenous people who are witness to something so beyond their comprehension that they mistake it as divine — and then give themselves hopelessly to it in a false, impossible, futile devotion.

Certainly that’s how the speaker of the song, Serge, feels. In Mondo Cane, the Papuans are there to be laughed at or pitied — you’re on the outside, looking in, judging.

That’s not the case here. Serge aligns himself with them, sees his own experience from a parallel perspective. That’s what he tells us in the climax of the song:

N’ayant plus rien à perdre
Ni Dieu en qui croire
Afin qu’ils me rendent mes amours dérisoires
Moi, comme eux
J’ai prié les cargos de la nuit

With nothing left to lose,
And no God to believe in —
Begging for the return of my pathetic loves,
I, like them,
Prayed to the cargos of the night.

Melody Nelson ends with a “cargo cult” because… Serge sees his love for Melody as a cargo cult. He has encountered something miraculous, beyond his reckoning — then has lost it — and then has built a little temple to it, hoping fruitlessly (pathetically, as he puts it) to draw it back.

That temple — Serge’s mountaintop runway, his bamboo airplane and straw-bale watchtower — is… the album you’ve just listened to, L’Histoire de Melody Nelson.

Traduction de “Fluid Makeup”

Me, I know of sorcerers who cast spells on jets
In the jungle of New Guinea.
They scan the skies,
Dreaming of the guineas they’ll get from pillaged planes.

On the Coral Sea, when aircraft fly by,
These creatures not denuded of reason,
These Papuans,
Divine in dense clouds
Damage to a Viscount
Or a Comet.

And since their totems haven’t managed yet to strike down
A Boeing or even a DC4,
They dream of hijacks
And bird strikes.

These primitive wreckers
Armed with blowpipes,
Make their sacrifice to the cargo cult thus:
By blowing
Into the sky
In the direction of airplanes.

Where are you, Melody,
And your mangled body?
Does it haunt the islands where sirens dwell?

Or are you caught on the wreckage of
The plane, whose siren long since stopped sounding?

Moving with the currents,
Have you reached
The coral shores of New Guinea,
Where indigenous sorcerers shake themselves in vain,
Still hoping for broken airplanes?

With nothing left to lose,
And no God to believe in —
Begging for the return of my pathetic loves,
I, like them,
Prayed to the cargos of the night.

And I cling to the hope
Of a disaster in the skies
That will bring back Melody,
Hijacked minor,
From the pull of the stars.

What’s your name?
Melody what?
“Melody Nelson.”

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