The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie

Back to Prose


(ArtWork 89 - December 1997/January 1998)

"I likened Richard Demarco's 'Voyaging beyond the Bathtub' to 'The Drunken Boat' - that is, Arthur Rimbaud's surreal poem 'Le Bateau Ivre' which recommends sailing down-stream as you please. Its first line is...'As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers' and, until recently, I usually glossed over the irritation of the word unconcerned, but now it insists that I should understand its significance in this poem.

It is easy to think of the open sea as being cruel, but the unruffled motion of a river suggests a flowing tranquillity; but in his first line, Rimbaud puts paid to that notion. It appears he wants to emphasise that should you ever fall overboard when your boat is drifting down the stream, the plunge and the splash will be the signal shock to remind you that the river is truly unconcerned.

The poem should be read by anyone who feels safe in their job, for it is a caution to the conceit of anyone who believes they are secure and indispensable. But Rimbaud is also a positive force, and his poem suggests some surreal exercises to flex the mind into an attitude which can help the distressed navigator to swim to the bank, and there to contemplate the inevitable continuity of uncertainties. He gives imaginative examples of the unreality of surrealism, but ends with a hard complaint about the real reality of those, say, who live in cardboard boxes.

If life aboard the ship has been particularly comfortable prior to becoming a victim of affluence, then the cold plunge will be all the more frightening - for the greater the height of luxury, the deeper the despair of the fall. Conversely, poor men hardly move from one state to the other, and, by virtue of there being nothing in it for them, do not feel moved towards remedial action. The victim of high-flying affluence, however, will have every reason to consider ways to overcome the fall. It is obviously preferable if this can be done prior to the tumble, but expediency doesn't work that way - anyway, the latter practice is usually overlooked by affluence in overdrive.

The accident of falling overboard, like the realisation that we are not immortal, does much to concentrate the mind. The priorities which arise at the inset of uncertainties might be regarded as expedient requirements for salvation. Do-ers of good works like, say, Andrew Carnegie knew how to handle the irritations of conscience by donations to concert halls and libraries. It was the same with the ancient Greek merchants who wanted to say 'sorry' to their gods by building small 'thank you' churches - but what about the populace? This brings us back to where we were, for as far as the punter is concerned expedient action is hardly worthwhile one way or the other.

Sound the French horns, for Rimbaud rides again! Clippety-clop, here he comes galloping to the rescue. I know you are wondering how he disembarked from his 'Drunken Boat', mounted a horse and rode so quickly through the 25 verses of his poem; but let me tell you that in surrealism anything is possible. Enough - back to the 'Drunken Boat' and the concluding verse, its poetic logbook...

'I can no more, bathed in your langours O waves,
sail in the wake of the carriers of cotton,
nor undergo the pride of the flags and pennants,
nor pull past the horrible eyes of the hulks'.

...Sound the horn!...Look out for the hulks!...Remember the cardboard boxes!...The River is, understandably, Unconcerned."

Essay reproduced from My Words by George Wyllie, with permission.

The Paper Boat

George Wyllie Education Initiative

Managed by Media Matters Education Consultancy