“I’m On A Boat!” is a post-modern expression of high existentialism

Sometimes, I am embarrassed to admit that I indulge in certain types of media: for example, I love me some Slipknot, revel in Eminem, and even enjoy things like “I’m on a Boat!” I have to ask myself, “Self, are you just being base and falling for stuff that diverts your mind from reality for a bit?” And self says, “Yeah, I; but maybe, there’s something about all this that actually helps me understand reality, too!” In other words, I really enjoy stuff like Eminem; it makes me happy; it seems that there is something good that should follow from that happiness. So, … seeing as how I will be on a boat ferrying in between Scotland and Ireland with the SGA juniors this summer, and seeing as how we plan to visit a small, lonely island off the northern side of Scotland, the following is a brief attempt to justify my enjoyment of “I’m On A Boat!” in terms of what it can teach us about art and reality.

“I’m On A Boat!” is a post-modern expression of high existentialism. First of all, we need to get over the sterile, misunderstood formula for existentialism that is promoted to those who wish to have a shallow understanding of what is actually an important philosophy of life in the modern age. Thumbnail definition (which is false) of existentialism: “things exist, but they don’t mean anything.” This might apply more to what might be considered the absurdist imagination, such as presented in Camus’ masques, or Beckett’s tragedy; but let’s look at existentialism. Jean Paul Sartre is one of the theoreticians behind this school of thought; he promotes the “theatre of situations” as opposed to the “theatre of characters.” We have all wondered, I’m sure, What if I was alive when Christ was proclaiming the Good News? What if I went to TAC? What if I was born as Peter Kane’s twin? Well, the theatre of situations seems to attack one of mankind’s universal illusions: that our life situation is a contingent, interchangeable circumstance through which moves our unchanging self. Existentialism rather violently destroys any false dreams. I think that’s why my favorite lines in “I’m On A Boat!” include the following brilliant observations: “**** land, I’m on a boat, mother******! / ****trees, I climb buoys, mother******! / I’m on a boat with my boys, mother******! / This boat engine making noise, mother******!” See, existentialism is good in that it forces awareness of the reality of our situation in life. Only the unique, definite, particular experiences of our life allows us as selves to come to an awareness of our “me myself” (using Whitman’s term rather than Freud’s, the ego, to designate Whitman’s much more vital understanding of the self). This character, indeed all of the characters in the song and video, reject any alternate realities; they realize that it is only by grasping the situation of their being on a boat can they make any sense of their lives. They don’t reject other situations for other people (“You at Kinko’s straight flipping copies”), they just reject other possible situations for their selves. For example, some of my favorite lines are, “This ain’t Sea World, this is real as it gets, / I’m on a boat, mother******, don’t you e’er forget!” Or, “You can’t stop me, mother******, ’cause I’m on a boat!” Or (and this is my favorite line), “This boat is real!”

Dante, in a letter to Can Grande alle Scale (this is the source for Dante’s understanding of the fourfold method of biblical exegesis, too, so you know the letter’s good), says that one thing by which a work may be judged as artistically correct or not is whether the title of a work is appropriate to the content of the work. (This is similar, too, to Maritain’s understanding of the poetics of the novel: the “harmonious or appropriate expansion” of a theme or idea.) Well, the artistic merit of an existentialist understanding of “I’m On A Boat!” is that every line in the poem serves to reveal and expand the subject mentioned in the title. Do we need to know about T-Pain’s love life to appreciate the situation he is placed in by virtue of being on a boat (“I ******a mermaid”)? Do we need to know T-Pain’s background (what he did before he was on a boat) to understand that the situation he is placed in on a boat is different than what he expected from himself (“I never though I’d be on a boat / … I never thought I’d see the day, / With a big boat coming my way”)? See, one of the brilliant things about “I’m On A Boat” is that no superfluous background material interferes with the unfolding of the situation given in the title of the song. One of the more annoying things in life would be a work of criticism that tracks down every little biographical detail about the characters of the song; or that chases down every reference to things that are not of the boat (much like the Road to Xanadu). Don’t such biographical footnotes distract from the work of art? To explain by digression a bit, I love the Albertine of Ivan Blatny’s poetry. Well, it kind of ticks me off that it turns out that Blatny actually is referencing some guy that Marcel Proust fell in love with, and that all of Blatny’s poetry is an expression of desire for another man! That footnote ticked me off. Heck with that, I say; who cares whether Albertine’s character is supposed to be male or female; she is a beautiful woman in the situation of Blatny’s poems and a beautiful woman she remains for me. Anyway, it seems that learning anything about the singers of “I’m On A Boat” (as a true “character analysis” would try to do) would reveal nothing about what the song is trying to say.

Ah well. I need to return to Dostoevsky’s Mitya’s three torments of the soul, so here’s a final remark about the possible importance of existentialism. We need to look at great events of humans in terms of how they apply to our situation in life. We can’t really come close to the faith that Abraham put in God; Abraham was absolutely absurd to believe that God would make him the father of the nations after He told him to sacrifice his only son! But, Abraham did; and He did; we cannot really have faith like that. We can only be rational, non-absurd beings. We cannot relate to the characters that do great events; we can only look at the situations we are faced with in everyday life.

That concluding remark looks like it could be said by one of Kierkegaard’s “knights of infinite resignation.” I hope I’m not one of those.

Anyway. Here’s why I like “I’m On A Boat:” it provides a forum for a meaningful discussion about art, literature, reality, life, etc. Hopefully, I will be able to justify my enjoyment of Slipknot and Eminem in a similar manner at some point in the future.

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2 Responses
  1. John P. Bloch says:

    Bravo sir! This was a truly delightful read. One so imminently to be on a boat would also do well to remember some of the cautionary tales from "I'm on a Boat;" for example, should you happen across some porpoises, remember that they have been known to "[get] e'erbody all wet."

  2. buttercream1 says:

    That was masterful, John. Your concluding comments on Kierkegaard and Abraham call to mind something that's been bugging me. I ran across a passage in "Magnificat" that seems to disagree with the whole Kierkegaard spiel. I may be misinterpreting this scripture, but it sounds to me like Abraham had some reason along with his faith:

    Hebrews 11:17- "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, 'In Isaac your descendents shall be called.' He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type."

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