MAY’S MINIATURES – S.01 E.03: Kurt Schwitters – ‘The Idiot’ (1941)

Ooh ah surrealist folk tale welcome!

This story was written in 1941 by a great and not well known enough German artist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was born in 1887 in Hanover, West Saxony, in North Germany. I first learned of him via an exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, London, in April 2013. I borrowed a friend’s membership card so got in free! Schwitters’s art is a wonderfully everyday surreal art, collaging advertising slogans and material objects from the consumer capitalist society he far preferred to totalitarianism. Lots of sources call him non-political, like Piet Mondrian, but really this his work does embody a worldly liberalism historically embodied from the 12th to 19th centuries by the Hanseatic League. Hanover was a part of the Hansa, a trade confederation of merchant guilds in cities and market towns clustered around the Baltic.

Schwitters’s art work had been publicly ridiculed in the now Nazi Germany of 1935. His close friends the Spengemanns had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1936 and Schwitters fled Germany in January 1937, joining his son Ernst in Norway. Schwitters died in Kendal in 1948, after his experiences in 1940-41 as an ‘enemy alien’ internee in the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. His most famous work the Merz Barn was airlifted in the 1960s from the stone cottage in the Lake District it was made in to Newcastle upon Tyne where it now resides. I’ve seen it – it’s in the Hatton Gallery. It’s a towering, odd assemblage that has been well restored in recent years. Visit it yourself if you happen to be in Newcastle under non-lockdown conditions…

This is a powerful, very simple, folk tale-like short story from Schwitters which I’m sure you’ll enjoy:

Broadcast on YouTube here on 23 June 2020.

On their island, the fisherman and his wife – ‘a god-fearing couple’ – live well enough, depending on nature: ‘excellent fish and lobster’. The nearby townspeople – the fish merchants – are also ‘as innocent as a well-trained house cat, at least to outward appearances’.

The fisherman’s unnamed wife comes up with a scheme to make money – understandable as ‘everything is so expensive’. This involves employing an idiot to assist them with catching and selling the fish; who will also benefit them in that ‘The government will give us money to feed him’.

The idiot, however, shows more cunning than his nomenclature would suggest, selling the same lobster on from one merchant to another; he put the lobster into each pot, but then removed it, finally selling it at a lower price to the communal kitchen. The second merchant wanted the lobster to sell to the ‘big hotel’ that ‘needed’ it for the tourists.

In the saloon bar, the idiot ‘drank so much that he thought it was the best day of his life’. He enjoys the company of Rosa here, but she takes the remainder of his money when he was drunk. The idiot gets thrown out. Then come ‘regret’ and thoughts of the ‘future of his soul’ as a lady from the Salvation Army appears. He does regret, and thus gets coffee and cake and engages in religious singing. He takes the Panglossian view, as satirised by Voltaire in Candide (1759) that everything is as it should be on earth and that things will get better.

When the idiot then returns to the story’s original island, ‘feeling quite depressed’ and expecting to be ‘severely punished’ for his enterprising he also gets coffee and cake from the fisherman, for he was a very good man, or at least he appeared to be.’ (my emphasis) The fisherman heartily and gladly welcomes the idiot for his enterprising plan, as it accorded with his own dislike of the fish merchants.

Clearly, the fact that the idiot finally sells the lobster to a communal kitchen at a low price suggests a more socialist reading of the story. However, the idiot’s is clearly an individual agency; his act of generosity is the result of having money in the first place to paraphrase our not-so-glorious Prime Minister of 1979-1990. Schwitters shows generous largesse as bound up with personal gain.

The idiot does not invest his money, but he has a good time in the saloon: implying the carpe diem attitude within European working-class culture. However, he does ultimately benefit as he has inadvertently picked a side in the turf wars between the apparently ‘good’ lone fisherman and the fish merchants who are also associated with the ‘big hotel’. Surviving within the economic system requires aligning in power formations to rival what already exists – these have historically included guilds, trade alliances like the Hanseatic League, or, indeed, trade unions. It is implied that the idiot’s clever trickery might lead to a profitable arrangement with the fisherman and his wife in future, or, even… a beautiful friendship?

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