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the political tinker

15 november 2016

Like his Jeppe of the Hill, Ludvig Holberg's Political Tinker takes a poor sap and tricks him into believing that he occupies a place far above his station. And like Jeppe of the Hill, the joke turns out only to be partly on the poor sap.

At least I think that's how these plays have to be read. Otherwise they're just nasty; otherwise, Jeppe is a play about how peasants are dirt-stupid and The Political Tinker is a play about how small-businessman are dog-ignorant.

Key to reading the plays as multidirectional satire is the fact that although Jeppe and Herman (the political tinker) are mocked by their "betters," the "betters" who show up in these plays are not perceptibly "better" on any scale except that of power. By transmuting Jeppe and Herman into a baron and a burgomaster (respectively), Holberg shows us how idiotic and corrupt barons and burgomasters can be. His plays are not sentimental about the capacities of the "lower" classes, but they are not reflexive validations of any kind of quality among the "upper" classes, either.

Herman takes a smaller (phony) step up the social ladder than Jeppe does. Jeppe is a peasant who morphs into a baron; Herman is a petty-bourgeois tradesman who morphs into a civic official. Herman thus doesn't "rise" as much or have as far to "fall." A hundred years after The Political Tinker was translated by Oscar Campbell and Frederic Schenck, the connotations of "tinker" in English give the image of an itinerant pot-mender, or even an outright beggar. But Herman is not an itinerant, and shouldn't be a beggar. He's a master craftsman with a business and household to run, your standard 18th-century rise-of-the-middle-class kind of guy.

Except that Herman is obsessed with politics. If it were 2016, he'd be trading conspiracy theories on a low-information web forum; but it's 1722, so he's holding weekly bull sessions with other artisans in their workshops, discussing stuff like whether Austria and Bohemia should build navies and whether France is landlocked. All are convinced that Hamburg (the setting for the play) would be better off if they were in charge. Meanwhile nobody does any work and the bills mount up while these guys pursue their talkative hobby.

Again, it's a lot like 300 years later, only without an Internet. Like Argan in Molière's Hypochondriac, who is so mad about medicine he wants his daughter to marry a doctor, Herman can't give away his own daughter unless his prospective son-in-law is a politician. The guy is round the bend.

So some wags get the idea of telling Herman that he's been chosen burgomaster, and must now set policy for his city-state, entertain delegations, adjudicate local disputes, and the like. His much cannier servant Henrich realizes at once that the way to feather your nest in the higher service professions is to limit access to your boss, and he tries to try to extort bribes out of people who come by pretending to have business with the new burgomaster. Life in urban government turns out to be a farrago of frivolous styles, nugatory concerns, paltry pecking-orders, and contradictory bureaucratic demands. Herman takes to spending much of his time hiding under his own burgomagisterial desk.

And then the bubble bursts and everyone descends again. But not before we see that if tinkers are idiots, so are burgomasters; the thinnest of pretensions separate worlds populated by much the same kinds of people. Each can look across at the other and say "there but for the grace of rank go I."

Holberg, Ludvig. The Political Tinker. [Den politiske kandestober, 1722-1731.] Translated by Oscar James Campbell and Frederic Schenck. New York, 1914. Project Gutenberg.