oh, well, whatever . . .

kurt schwitters and the empty box of fate

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I spent last week staying in a cottage at Under Loughrigg close to Ambleside. I usually have a week away walking in the hills in December, and last week was an especially good time to go this year as it meant I escaped the mayhem of Margaret and Brenda trying to post off all those slippers in time for Christmas. But last week wasn’t such a good week weather-wise. It rained almost every day and on a couple of days rained very hard. Some nights I could hear the Rothay running high and rushing by below my bedroom window.

Monday wasn’t a bad day. There was still quite a good covering of snow on the mountains. In the morning I left town by the old coffin road going north towards Grasmere. As I made my way up the hill toward Rydal Hall fugitive glimpses of sunlight were catching the snow high up on Fairfield, my destination. As I often do when walking where he lived, I tried to put myself in Wordsworth’s shoes and to imagine how walking this path must have felt to him. I often convince myself that this is a futile exercise: even my footwear and map militate against it. Wordsworth had a relationship with the weather and the place that I can hardly begin to imagine, I suspect.

It was cold on Fairfield and felt damp. I made my way down the snowy descent to Grisedale Tarn, which lay below me like a slab of grey pewter in its bowl of broken rock and white snow. From the tarn I followed the bridleway back down to Grasmere. I wandered around the village and had a cappuccino before making my way back by way of the paths to the south of Grasmere and Rydal Water. It turned out to be the best day of the week. After a frosty start on Tuesday the rain began.

Each morning I opened the curtains and looked out to see rain on Wansfell. Last Christmas I had a cottage over that way, not far below Jenkins Crag, close to where Kurt Schwitters lived when he first came to stay in Ambleside in 1945. The weather was better last year and I spent several good days up on Wansfell looking for Schwitters’ footprints and walking the paths he must have so often walked in the last years of his life.  

Because it was raining much of the time last week I found myself spending more time than usual in the cottage. Sometimes I’d sketch, sometimes I’d read or listen to music. Sometimes I even watched daytime television. I saw programmes I’d heard people talk about but never seen before.

Late one rainy afternoon I sat watching the dusk closing in, descending like a dark amorphous cloak over Wansfell. I turned on the television and Deal or No Deal appeared, hosted by Noel Edmonds. Edmonds has bleached blond hair, oiled and slicked back, and a scraggy goatee beard. He reminded me of Richard Branson, who also has this cheesy swashbuckler look about him. I initially simultaneously recalled both Amundsen and the Aryan Nation. Putting those echoes aside, I noticed how much of the Barnum and Bailey Ringmeister Edmonds had about him. A small, middle-aged man, perhaps no taller than a vacuum cleaner, he was clad in seasonal browns and russets, perhaps with a little gold or scarlet trimming here and there. He was wearing a high shouldered sort of jacket with a collar of a different colour to the body. It may have been velvet and for all I could see may have had a fitted waist and tails. I think he was wearing a waistcoat and he was in a collar and tie. His look seemed to encode a sort of amiable if vaguely counterfeit authority and expertise. He reminded me of a medicine man of some sort, the sort of quack doctor who at one time in America travelled from town to town in a caravan selling hair restoring potions, wonder cures for warts, patented tonics, snake oils for every occasion, that sort of thing. Dr Swapshop, perhaps, or Dr Houseparty.

It’s easy to dismiss a programme like this as cynical, manipulative poppycock just because that’s what it happens to be. But maybe this programme actually shows us a lot about how we construct, imagine and deal with risk in our society. It appears to set desire and dream against reason, but the hero(ine) of the show is always the (relatively poor and needy) contestant, and we are quickly persuaded – as are the studio audience – to identify with the contestant’s wishes and fears and to believe in the dream. The Dream of course is the usual fairy tale that if you want something enough you will get it. The hapless viewer is sucked into a regressive world of magical thinking. We join the contestant and the audience in believing that wishing can alter the way things are. The scrupulous – and inscrutable – sealed boxes seem to suggest that as no-one can tamper with them a rational decision can be made knowing there can be no cheating. But the inscrutability of the boxes means that until they are opened they could potentially contain any amount of money, and magical thinking leads us to think that we have the power to change that amount – or rather that whatever amount is in there will be the direct consequence of our fears and wishes. The boxes are the property of providence and contain nothing until the future reveals them. It’s another version our old esse est percipi conundrum. The future is empty. It will only be filled by events that have yet to happen.

The other player in this game is the banker, whose money it is that we are to suppose the contestant is playing for. From time to time this inevitably somewhat metaphysical banker intervenes by telephone via the dapper little Dr Swap to make the contestant an offer for the box in front of him or her, the box that contains the amount of money the contestant will win if he or she chooses to go that far. The banker’s interventions are supposed to be cold, rational and driven by a calculation of self interest. But within the context of the game of course they are as dubious and manipulative as any other element. Our mistrust of bankers comes into play: how do we know this banker doesn’t know what’s in the box all the time?  The banker’s offer can never be taken at face value, even if he (let’s assume he’s male!) appears to merely respond to the fortunes of the contestant. If he offers a large sum to someone who’s on a winning streak it might mean that he actually knows there’s a bigger sum in the box and he is trying to prevent the contestant winning it. The offer can therefore be seen as evidence that the contestant is indeed in for a big win; the offer should be rejected. On the other hand a small offer to a contestant on a losing streak might look like an attempt to make them think they’re bound to lose when the banker actually knows all along that there’s a lot of money in that final box. So this offer too, which in rational terms may also represent as much as the contestant is ever likely to win, is rejected. Similar self-deceptions occur if we assume the banker doesn’t know what’s in the box. A good offer in this case encourages the contestant and his or her audience to see this as evidence of the efficacy of magical thinking. It says the banker too knows that wishing hard enough really does change the future. A bad offer has a similar effect, because it too can be read as the banker attempting to discourage dreaming or encourage fear because he knows the power they have. In this world of fortune and fate every sign must let you believe that you can be a winner too.

Of course in this game the truism that the future has not yet happened and therefore no-one can know what it holds is entirely illusory. The inscrutable boxes that contain the future cannot be changed. Not unless you believe that wishes and fears do determine the future. If you believe this a swan will hatch from the duck’s egg that was irrevocably laid in the contestant’s box, or, if your fears are too strong and you don’t wish hard enough, your immutable treasure will dwindle to a trifle.

As the thick saturated mass of night fell on Wansfell that afternoon a young woman with a toothy smile had a run of good fortune: by chance she opened four boxes in a row that had only low amounts in them, thus increasing the probability – and belief – that her box contained one of the large sums. The banker responded by offering her £10,000. On a balance of probability basis this was more than the contestant was likely to win: most of the remaining boxes contained less than that, even though one did contain £250,000. But faced with the go for it, girl dream that drives these things, reason went to the wall. Encouraged by her boyfriend and the rest of the audience the young woman chose to open more boxes. She lost three of the remaining four large amounts in quick succession. The banker made another offer: £1,200. Again on a balance of probability calculation this was a reasonable offer, but as there was still a one in eight chance that she might win £35,000, she pressed on. She eventually opened the box in front of her and won £5. The offers the banker made were never enough to coax her out of her belief in the power of wishing, and that’s probably the only real calculation our make believe banker ever made. At the end the young woman with the toothy smile said sorry to her boyfriend for failing. Perhaps she felt that she hadn’t wished hard enough or that she had feared failure too much, although I imagine she later rationalised it all as a failure to make a rational choice based on probability when it became advantageous to do so. ‘I should have just taken the ten thousand, shouldn’t I?’ she’ll say.

The next contestant that afternoon was Gordon Brown. Gordon, like the young woman with the toothy smile, began well enough and had some early success in eliminating a better than chance number of low amount boxes. The telephone rang: the banker was offering Gordon £20 for his box. Little Dr Swap, standing on some books to enable him to see over the table top, rolled his eyes. Gordon smirked knowingly. He’s a man who knows all about bankers: when they act like this you can be sure they’re up to something, and that something is probably feathering their own nests.

‘I, er, owe it to the nation to honour our manifesto promise on this, er, issue. I am able to announce today that in respect of the, er, Honourable Gentleman’s offer our position is this: er, no deal,’ he said. He laid his hands on his inscrutable future, as if it was the dispatch box at question time. He had about him a smug certainty. If there was ever a man to defeat the banker, Gordon was that man. The audience cheered. Gordon winked at his wife Sarah, who was sitting in the front row of the audience with one of their children on her knee.

Gordon next opened box number seven, the one in the possession of The Man in a Cowboy Hat.

‘I’m prayin’ for you, pardner,’ The Man said.

‘Go for it, Gordon,’ someone from the audience called out.

The box was opened. It contained only £1.

The audience cheered. Gordon smiled bashfully, and turned to look at Sarah. He was visibly chuffed. He went over and shook The Cowboy’s hand, as if to thank him for his act of exceptional good will. The Cowboy smiled, as if he was a hero too. ‘I guess my prayers were answered,’ he said.

The phone rang. The banker upped his offer to £2,000. Gordon smirked again. He looked like a man who thought he had already all but vanquished the possibility of defeat.

‘It is my, er, responsibility to manage the nations asset prudently. Through prudence and good management this government has established the healthiest set of unopened boxes in a generation. I am confident that we can withstand any, er, minor, er, mis, er, fortunes. We are therefore in a position to say again to the Honourable Gentleman: no deal, sir.’

The audience loved it. St Gordon could do no wrong. But then, just as it had with the young woman with the toothy smile, fortune took a turn for the worst. In what seemed like no time at all Gordon was reduced to only four unopened boxes. Three of these boxes contained amounts of £15 or less; the fourth contained £250,000. The telephone rang. Standing as tall and proud as a pepper mill Dr Swap lifted the handset slowly to his ear. He nodded and then nodded again.

‘He’s now offering you . . . ‘  Dr Swap paused and took a deep breath. For a moment he reminded me of a miniature Kirk Douglas. ‘£15,000. Deal or no deal?’

Gordon smirked and smiled knowingly.

‘No deal,’ Gordon said, without hesitation. Here was man who felt the hand of history on his shoulder. ‘I have not come here today to make a deal. I have come to restore pride to our nation. I have come in the can do spirit that has always characterised our nation. I can win the £250,000. I will win the £250,000. Anything less will be failure.’

The audience went bananas. The tension in the room was electric. Sarah had her hand over mouth.

‘Which box do you want to open next?’ Dr Swap asked.

Gordon looked at the three remaining choices. He chose to open box number nineteen, the box belonging to The Swiss Cheese Girl.

‘Good luck, Gordon,’ she said. ‘Vee all vont you to vin.’

The Swiss Cheese Girl opened box nineteen. The audience gasped and the studio fell into a dreadful silence: the £250,000 was lost.

Gordon hung his head. He suddenly looked ten years older. The phone didn’t ring. Gordon opened another box and the £15 was now also gone. There were now only two boxes remaining: £10 and 10p, and one of them was definitely his.

The telephone rang. Little Dr Swap listened attentively.

‘Oh, that was nasty,’ he said.  With an expression that resembled a bewildered chicken he turned to Gordon. ‘He’s offering £7.50. Deal or no deal?’

Gordon looked back over his shoulder. Sarah was sitting with Alistair Darling. They both smiled half-heartedly, shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders. Gordon looked down at his unopened box. Surely all hope was now gone. But Gordon was not a man about to smile bravely at the cruel hand fate had dealt him. No, Sirree.

‘I have an offer to make the Honourable Gentleman,’ Gordon said.

‘You have?! That’s new!’ Dr Swap said, suddenly as upright and tall as a meerkat standing on its hind legs.

‘I want to ask the Honourable Banker to allow me to put half a million pounds into each of the two remaining boxes,’ Gordon said. ‘Deal or no deal?’

The audience gasped; the audience murmured.

‘Well, I never!’ Dr Swap exclaimed. He put Gordon’s offer to the banker.

‘He says it’s highly irregular. But he is prepared to consider it. But first he wants to know what happens to money in the box you don’t open,’ Dr Swap asked.

‘That money will be his,’ Gordon said. ‘I only get to keep my, er, winnings from the box I open, in accordance with the, er, rules of the game.’

The offer was put to the banker. The banker’s reply came back immediately.

‘He says it’s a deal!’ the dapper one said, with a gnome-like gleam on his face. He carefully placed the phone back into its cradle.

The audience clapped, stamped, whooped and cheered. Sarah and Alistair gazed at Gordon in what looked like a mixture of amazement and adoration. Little Dr Swap was again looking around the audience in much the same way as a meerkat might look across a desert. He was in new territory too. Gordon nodded to Alistair, who made a quick mobile phone call and confirmed that the money was now in the boxes. The game could go on.

‘Well,’ Dr Swap said. ‘I think I know what you’re going to do now.’

Gordon was just about to answer when the phone rang again. Our Little Swashbuckler assumed an expression of frozen disbelief. He slowly picked up the receiver. You could have heard a pin drop in the audience.

‘Okay. Yes, I see. Okay, I’ll put that to him.’  Dr Swap turned to Gordon and paused. ‘He wants to make you a final offer.’

Gordon smiled, almost smirked again. Self-satisfaction was returning to his face. He was truly back in the game.

‘The banker wants to offer you the amount you would have won originally had you been left with only the highest value box. He is offering you . . . £250,000. Deal or no deal?’

The audience emitted yet another collective gasp. This was a game like no other. The banker had never before offered that kind of money to anyone.  Gordon nodded and again smirked just a little. He looked over his shoulder. Alistair and Sarah were nodding enthusiastically. They had manic grins all over their faces.

‘It has always been our hope to bring success to this country,’ Gordon said. ‘To act in the interests of all of the people, not just some of them. We have not achieved what we have by taking unnecessary risks or behaving in a reckless way. By following a policy of sound financial management we have become the envy of the world and restored this nation’s stature in the world. Now is no time to abandon the successful course we have set. Tell the banker I will accept his offer. Tell him he has a deal!’

The audience cheered enthusiastically. Sarah and Alistair sprang from their seats and ran across to Gordon and embraced him. Little Dr Swap shook his head and smiled. He sidled over and shook Gordon’s hand.

‘That was quite amazing, Gordon,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever see a game like that again. Against all the odds you achieved your goal – you won the £250,000. Gordon, you are a winner!’

Later that evening the rain eased off. I walked into town and went to Zefferelli’s to eat. It’s always a very good place to go and for me the most comfortable and pleasant place to eat in Ambleside. I ordered garlic bread followed by vegetable chilli and rice. As I waited for my food I listened to the conversation the two couples on the table next to me were having. They were obviously well-educated and well off. I think one of them perhaps lectured at a university, perhaps in politics or sociology. He also seemed to speak fluent Italian and at times demonstrated this a little too loudly.

They were debating Gordon’s performance that afternoon. Three of the four took the view that it would increase his poll ratings significantly. The lecturer bloke wondered if a snap election early next year wasn’t now a possibility. The other man felt the Conservatives should be given a chance. The lecturer argued that both major parties would follow very similar policies and that winning an election at present would be a bit of a poisoned chalice. Things could only get worse.

After I’d eaten I wandered around Ambleside for a while. There were a few Christmas lights dangling above the street and strung across shop windows and their reflections shimmered darkly on the wet pavements. It looked very seasonal. As I walked I remembered that Schwitters is said to have sometimes gone to the cinema that now also houses Zefferelli’s restaurant. I began to wonder what films he might have seen there. I like to think he would have gone to see It’s a Wonderful Life and perhaps also The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall. I like both of those films and decided that when I got back I would see if I could get DVD’s of them both.

On Friday it rained very heavily. In the morning I wanted to visit Schwitters’ grave but it was chucking it down. I sat drinking a cappuccino and watched the Jeremy Kyle Show instead. Kyle appears to be the ratfaced scourge of the Chav Nation, television’s self-appointed grand inquisitor of the underclass, who appear to submit themselves to abuse and humiliation as if it is in some way their version of living the dream. If you worship the Great God Celebrity it seems to matter little how you get yourself to its altar. Kyle would never get away with talking the way he does to any other group in society, of course. The powerlessness of his victims is a key element in his show, although perhaps one we only become aware of if and when we reflect critically on the power Kyle himself appears to exercise, the way he mistreats his guests with impunity. Would he talk to Andrew Sach’s granddaughter like that, or Kate and Gerry McCann? Kyle’s programme is one of those that seems to enable the middle classes to feel superior but which in reality is fascinating and reassuring because it acts out the secret nightmare of their own lives, the dark shadows of what they really are. Kyle’s programme revolves around sexual intrigue and betrayal, infidelity, promiscuity, paternity and disordered family life. He deploys the DNA test and lie detector test with much the same cavalier brutality that a witchhunter might have deployed thumbscrews or the ducking stool. I think the grotesque enjoyment we might get from watching this programme is superficially sadistic, but ultimately secretly deeply masochistic. We may be the witchhunter, but we are always also the witch. On Friday Gordon Brown was on the programme. Remind me to tell you about that some time.  It was really quite revealing.

Early on Friday evening the road south to Windermere and the road north to Keswick were both flooded for a while. The Rothay was running high behind the cottage and once or twice I went out with a torch to check that it wasn’t about to burst its banks. By midnight the level was beginning to fall again. I went to bed and listened to its rush. In the morning I left early. I needed to talk to De Kooning about the empty box of fate. I was hoping all the slippers had gone.


Written by yammering

December 24, 2008 at 11:30 pm

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