Children’s Songs interpreted through a Modernist Philosophical Lens — Row, Row, Row Your Boat

In amongst the many joys of hav­ing a baby is the strange re-learn­ing of a whole bunch of nurs­ery rhymes and kids songs that have been float­ing around some­where at the back of your con­scious­ness since your own child­hood, and then are able to be re-deployed to paci­fy or enter­tain a new gen­er­a­tion. However, and per­haps this is odd, I fre­quent­ly find myself apply­ing Barthes essay on the Death of the Author and amuse myself by imbu­ing these songs with new mean­ing, usu­al­ly ones far removed from the sim­plis­tic inten­tions of the rhyme itself. While dual mean­ings are present in many nurs­ery rhymes, Ring a Ring a Rosey as a com­men­tary on the Plague comes to mind, I gen­er­al­ly find it far more amus­ing to imbue them with mean­ings that are clear­ly not the inten­tion of the song.

As such this may be the start of a new series of Philosophical Whimsy, where I will post a range of philo­soph­i­cal­ly odd inter­pre­ta­tions of children’s rhymes and sto­ries. Today we will start with one of Caleb’s favourites: Row, Row, Row Your Boat. The base form of this song goes rough­ly as fol­lows:

 Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, mer­ri­ly, mer­ri­ly, mer­ri­ly,
Life is but a dream.

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
If you see a croc­o­dile
Don’t for­get to scream!

Rock, rock, rock your boat
Gently from side to side
If you see a croc­o­dile
Throw him off the side!

While this sim­ple lit­tle dit­ty has been pre­vi­ous­ly used to ask ques­tions about the exis­ten­tial nature of real­i­ty, and the per­cep­tion of the uni­verse, a la Lewis Carroll at the end of Through the Looking Glass, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; I think that anoth­er fit­ting philo­soph­i­cal frame­work is pro­vid­ed for us by Karl Marx.

You see this sim­ple children’s dit­ty is actu­al­ly prop­a­gat­ing a form of cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny, where the row­er in the boat is a mem­ber of the bour­geoisie ‘row­ing’ upon the stream of the pro­le­tari­at flow­ing beneath him. It teach­es that life is a dream when sup­port­ed from below by those who are there to do the work, and that the pic­ture of peace­ful­ly bob­bing and float­ing down a riv­er on a summer’s day is a metaphor for rul­ing over the mass­es, and bend­ing them to your will. Furthermore, when the hap­less pro­le­tari­at rise up, as rep­re­sent­ed by the ter­ror of the croc­o­dile ris­ing out of the sta­tus quo of the waters, the real­i­ty of the oppres­sive rule and attempts at the pro­le­tari­at revolt, as evi­denced by the scream­ing of the bour­geoisie at the revolt­ing croc­o­dile. However, this ter­ror is short lived as the revolt is quick­ly repressed in the third verse. The bour­geoisie rapid­ly reestab­lish the dom­i­nant class organ­i­sa­tion by repress­ing the pro­le­tari­at that are seek­ing to rise up out of the class based sta­tus quo, and throw them back into the milieu of ‘the riv­er.’

Thus by the end the short song has gone through the three stages of nar­ra­tive struc­ture: set­up, con­flict and res­o­lu­tion. Firstly it sets up the soci­etal expec­ta­tions of bour­geoisie and pro­le­tari­at, sec­ond­ly it intro­duces the con­flict of a pro­le­tari­at revolt, and final­ly draws togeth­er the repres­sive res­o­lu­tion of the revolt being quick­ly quashed.

Thus I present the first in the series: Row, Row, Row Your Boat from a Neo-Marxist Framework.

What do you think? Which song/story/poem should I inves­ti­gate next?

Chris

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