"The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" as a Critique of Existentialism
The Camus references are too obvious to ignore
Every once in a while, perhaps no more than once or twice in one's life, one is introduced to a piece of art so revolutionary, so subversive and yet so enticing, that one can do nothing but stand in awe of it. The role of the critic in the face of such an achievement is nothing short of impossible: how can one capture perfection in words? Is it possible to expose the beauty and careful construction of the piece without spoiling its magic? Should we deconstruct it, and risk explaining away its layers of meanings and ambiguities? Or do we simply stand in reverent silence of a masterpiece and leave those who do not see its subtleties in the dark? I am speaking, of course, of The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.
It is, as a matter of course, impossible to properly interpret a work without first understanding its historical context. The first written copies of the work appear in the late 1940s (the scholarly consensus is that the infamous 1910 Camp and Camino edition is most likely a forgery), in a world just beginning to recover from the horrors of World War II.
The song is almost certainly a response to Camus' commentary on The Myth of Sisyphus, from which it derives its basic plot. Sisyphus, the story goes, defied the gods by defeating death and thereby making humanity immortal, and was given a particularly mind-numbing form of punishment: he was to painstakingly push a rock up a mountain until it fell down, at which point he would start pushing it up again, for eternity. Camus sees this as a metaphor for life: Sisyphus eventually becomes conscious of the absurdity and meaningless of his situation, at which point he can accept his fate and become free to define his own meaningful inner life, both aware of and in conscious rebellion against his situation. Camus, believing that life is meaningless, sees this as essentially normative for the human condition, and it is this position that is stunningly critiqued by The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.
While of course we can never be sure about questions of authorship, our discussion so far seems at least to this critic to be strong evidence that The Itsy Bitsy Spider was written in Paris in 1947, probably in a house on Rue Legendre by a man named either Jacques or Friedrich. (We will assume Jacques for the remainder of this essay, although I do not think it is impossible that it was indeed a Friedrich.) The use of the "children's rhyme" genre seems to be ironic - Camus' position, Jacques implies, is more fit for a childhood game than a serious philosophical discussion. (Although we will see later that the expectations surrounding the genre will take on a meaning of their own in Jacques' sophisticated hand.)
It is now, and only now that we have sought to understand the background of the work as a whole, that we can dare to give a line-by-line analysis.
The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.
(Some versions have "climbed" in place of "went". There are numerous textual reasons to suppose this is not the original reading, not least the author's otherwise studious avoidance of silent consonants. However, the word choice here does not significantly affect the reading of the line.)
Here the spider begins its task, with the water spout clearly taking the place of Sisyphus' rock. As is often the case, what is left unsaid is as important as what is explicitly given to us. In particular, there is no indication that the spider must go up the water spout, nor is there any reason that the spider should want to go up the water spout. Sisyphus (as we may as well call the spider since the allusion is so glaring) is no longer bound to his thankless test by some long-forgotten sin, but by a poorly-thought-out choice.
This fact is indeed the interpretative key to the whole puzzle: Camus' Sisyphus climbs the hill because his live has no other meaning, but Jacques' Sisyphus climbs the spout because he lives in ignorance of his life's meaning. Spiders, after all, make webs and catch insects, and we have no reason to believe that a spider doing so will face anything like the existential emptiness of Sisyphus. A spiderweb made, for example, next to the water spout, will certainly be able to withstand the coming rain. This subtle change allows Jacques to reframe Camus' existential dread not as the desperate cry of a man in an absurd world, but merely as the confused ramblings of a spider who has seen that he was not meant to climb water spouts and concluded that he must not be meant for anything.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
We must begin by rejecting the so-called "theological readings" of this line that have until quite recently dominated Itsy-Bitsy Spider scholarship, which seem determined to see the rain as a sort of apocalyptic type: an unforeseeable and horrific intervention by a cruel world. The attraction of these readings lay in their connections to the historical moment: the "rain" would then be a metaphor for something like World War II and the power of such a sheerly inhuman event to wash away one's beliefs as easily as the poem's eponymous spider. But, unfortunately for the would-be critic, the interpretative burden is too much for the text to bear. Are we meant to believe that when the spider climbs the water spout the second time, he will succeed? Is there really any possibility that somebody went to the effort of building a water spout (and the attendant gutter system) in a world surprised by the existence of rain? To see the rain as anything more than a fully-expected, fully-normalized fact of life is thus to leave the world of the text and enter a world of pure fancy, where some so-called critics seem quite happy to remain.
Nevertheless, our reading must be theological in at least one sense, and that is Jacques' overwhelmingly Catholic worldview. Just as spiders exist for web-making, it is entirely clear the Jacques believes that people exist for Roman Catholicism. If anything, the symbolism is almost too overt: spiders have eight legs, which is four fewer legs than Jesus had disciples (four being the number of gospels in the bible) and one more leg than the traditional number of God (one being the number of popes), and precisely one-fifth the number of legs as days Jesus spent tempted in the desert (five being the sum of the numbers of gospels and the number of popes). The rain, and particularly the message of washing, is a rather heavy-handed metaphor encompassing both baptism and Jesus' crucifixion, and the repeated use of the word "out" of course brings to mind the famous ecumenical councils of the 1400s and all the accompanying theological baggage.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.
This plot point is not present in Camus' original, and seems to have come entirely from Jacques' imagination, but it serves to underscore his well-deserved reputation as a theological thinker. The dark world of Sisyphus consists of only two things: the stone rolling up, and the stone rolling down. Here, Jacques has added a third element: the sun, whose rising is clearly representative of Jacques' Catholic belief in Jesus as the "Son of God". After a brief but surprisingly explicit dig at Camus with the word "came", we come to the crux of the matter: Sisyphus has been given a second chance. The rain has ended. The sun is out. All has been made new, and forgiveness has been offered. All the remains is for him to embrace his true purpose and spin a web.
We should not suppose, as more naive critics often do, that the clumsy repetition of the words "out" and "rain" is merely a mistake. In a poem where every word has been carefully chosen, we should offer the author every benefit of the doubt or we risk, to put it crudely, "missing the point".
And in this case, the "mistake" that critical scholars seem so determined to find is revealed to hold a subtle but crucial philosophical point: redemption came through the suffering, but could not erase it. Our modern ears are perhaps tone-deaf to the overtones Jacques is singing, but to an original audience who had just lived through two of the worst world wars in history, the point would be both welcome and abundantly clear: the sheer human cost would not be forgotten. The lives of soldiers and civilians lost fighting the Germans were not meaningless casualties but sacrifices to prevent a permanent Nazi empire. The tragedy was setting the stage for something better, something happier, and something (against all hope) more peaceful. At the same time, the new-found peace could not escape the misery and death that predated it, just as the appearance of the sun did not mean that it had never rained.
The itsy-bitsy spider went up the spout again.
Early Itsy-Bitsy Spider scholars made much of the fact that Jacques' story ends the same way as Camus', and thereby took the poem at face value as an endorsement of the existential viewpoint. (Such scholars presumably also see "Apocalypse Now" as an endorsement of the Vietnam War and "The Winter's Tale" as a work of literary merit.)
I - to put it bluntly - cannot see how this mistake could possibly have been made. The focal point of this line, and indeed of the entire work, is the failed rhyme - a line ending with "rain" has been followed by a line ending with "again". This is part of Jacques' genius: he has undermined the conventions of the children's rhyme precisely where they mattered most, and has done so to great effect.
Our disappointment with the slant rhyme is matched only by Jacques' disappointment with his spider's decision. Rather than use the appearance the sun and its attendance blessings follow his true calling to web-spinning (or, to unpack the metaphor, to embrace Jacques' religious convictions), the spider has tried, yet again, to climb the water spout. It has embraced an empty existentialism that told it to create its own meaning and instead it has adopted a hollow scaffolding it will be washed out of come the next rainfall. Camus' willingness to champion the apparent meaninglessness of life, Jacques tells us, is not merely wrong - it's so disappointingly wrong that it doesn't even rhyme. It creates the appearance of a life-well-lived and gives its adherents a hope certain to be dashed. Indeed, the spout-climbing exercise Camus has embraced as necessary prevents the spider from finding it's life's true purpose and presumably happiness, and instead traps it in a repetitive and soul-crushing cycle of climbing and falling. This bitter irony (that Camus has constructed for himself the thing he is forced to accept only with the deepest scorn) is not lost on Jacques, who places this accusation on the tongue of a child, the most relentless of mockers. This is, I suppose, meant to be Sisyphus' personal form of hell: for rejecting Jacques' proposed meaning of life, he is to be eternally surrounded by a chorus taunting children as he makes do with his rock.
It is no surprise that The Itsy-Bitsy Spider continues to resonate with a modern audience. Its fundamental themes - the meaning of life, the response to failure, the way out of a seemingly absurd existence, are both timely and universal. While its clumsy and heavy-handed references to Catholicism seem somewhat outdated, modern performances typically do a good job of toning them down to tell a story relevant to a modern era. (I should like, for instance, to see the rain replaced by an elephant, to explore how the spider's dilemma plays out in the Age of Trump.) It is my sincere belief that anybody who does not accept Jacques' position as the greatest children's songwriter in human history has simply failed to grasp the core meaning of his work, which only coincidentally lines up with what I already believed.