Thursday, January 10, 2013

“Believe Six Impossible Things before Breakfast”: Absurdity and Twisted Sexual Logic in "Winkie" (Clifford Chase)


Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying, one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the White Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

(Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, p. 251).

 

 

I found Winkie to be an intriguing and thought-provoking book with a lovable and, best of all, odd main character. The story has great depth and it certainly warrants a second reading due to its intricacy and openness to interpretation. As a member of the Chicago Surrealist Group, I have always been a great admirer of books which contain a healthy dose of weirdness and absurdity. Having enjoyed many books, short stories, and poems which dealt with twisted logic, dreamlike imagery, parallel universes, automatic writing, and truly bizarre characters, and I must say, I think that Winkie is well on its way to becoming a classic in that genre.

            Absurdity in literature is a very useful tool in interpreting our surrounding environment. By the act of turning events and behavior on their heads, absurdity teaches us to view such things from multiple angles and asses the true logic behind them. Absurdity strips away the smoke and mirrors in our society and can show us exactly how bizarre societal norms, the status quo, and human behavior can be.

            Winkie uses absurdity in a very unique and creative manner. By making the main character an animated stuffed teddy bear come to life, the book presents us with a truly innocent victim of circumstance. It is obvious that he is innocent of all the outlandish accusations that are attributed to him (Chase, p. 85). If Winkie had been a human being, the absurdity of the accusations and the hostility of his jailers, the judicial system, and the public at large may not have come across in such an obvious manner. If a human being were the main character of the book, he/she would have gender, race, age, economic background, political belief system, sexual orientation, social network of friends, etc, and thus wouldn’t have the “blank slate” nature which Winkie possesses. Many attributes, such as gender and sexual activity, as well as political and religious associations were all projected onto him by the people around him (Chase, p. 61). For example, the chief detective interrogates Francoise, stating, “We know for a fact that the two of you had sex, that Miss Winkie seduced you, and that’s how you were drawn into this conspiracy” (Chase, p. 59). Since Winkie has no gender, he (and I use the word ‘he’ lightly in this instance) has no sex organs to use for intercourse. Being a teddy bear, Winkie comes across as an innocent child who doesn’t understand his surroundings and is confused by the behavior of the humans around him.

            I found many interesting parallels between Winkie and Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, classics in literature of the absurd. The Alice books have been a great inspiration to me as an artist. As Penelope Rosemont, the doyenne of American surrealism, stated, “Surrealists like Alice in Wonderland: it fits the surrealist idea perfectly” (Telephone interview, 1 April 2009). Both Alice and Winkie are transplanted from their familiar domestic surroundings to a realm where twisted logic reigns supreme, most of the characters they encounter are rude and even hostile, and they have few resources, save for a handful of understanding individuals who help them navigate their way through a world gone mad.

            Winkie begins his journey to this new existence by smashing a bedroom window and jumping out into the garden (Chase. p. 120). Alice begins her trip by falling down a rabbit hole (Carroll, p.26) and walking through a mirror into a looking-glass house where backwards logic prevails (Carroll, p. 184). Winkie arrives in this new world and he finds himself alone in a strange environment which bears little resemblance to the world he once knew.

            Winkie’s defense attorney, Charles Unwin, appears discombobulated as he stutters and stammers throughout Winkie’s trial, yet he proves to be of great value at the end of the trial, when the prosecutor’s favorite assistant, Judy, reveals that the office of the prosecution withheld important evidence, thus enabling Unwin to discover the hermit’s notebooks which exonerate Winkie (Chase, p. 225). Unwin holds some similarities to the White Knight in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice, who is a pawn, is protected by the White Knight from any attacking chess pieces. The White Knight is a rather clumsy character who falls off his horse after every move he makes (just as a knight in an actual game of chess moves two squares, then one square to the side). In the end, he does succeed in giving her guidance and safeguarding her from attack (Carroll, p. 314).

            The political climate in which Winkie finds himself is very hostile and the authorities are aiming for a speedy guilty verdict and possibly a sentence for Winkie’s execution: in essence, a kangaroo court (Chase, p. 195). Alice also finds herself at an insane trial in which the King’s messenger, the Mad Hatter, is accused of stealing the tarts. This trial is also a kangaroo court because the Queen of Hearts says, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards”, and yells, “Off with his head” throughout the trial (Carroll, p. 161). The White Queen tells Alice that the King’s messenger “is in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all” (Carroll, p. 248). Similar backwards logic takes place in Winkie, in which Winkie is being punished by many of his captors before the trial even started. One example is when the prosecutor addresses the entire courtroom and says, “The people move that this trial be ended now and the defendant be executed immediately” (Chase, p. 194.) He is already seen as being guilty before there was any verdict.

            The authorities have a tough time believing that Winkie is indeed a stuffed teddy bear. Instead they keep insisting that he is a master of disguise, despite the testimony of the teddy bear expect, Penelope Brackle, who reveals that Winkie is in fact, a stuffed bear manufactured in London in 1921 (Chase, p. 200). Haigha, the King’s Anglo-Saxon Messenger, says, “This is a child”, as he introduces Alice to the Unicorn. To which the Unicorn replies, “I always thought they were fabulous monsters! Is it alive?” Alice responds, “I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!” “Well, now since we have seen each other, “says the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?” (Carroll, p. 287) If only Winkie had had such an easy time making the authorities believe that he was just a teddy bear!

            Winkie contains numerous references to figures and events in history, most notably, the trials of Socrates, Oscar Wilde, and Galileo (Chase, p. 85). One absurd historical reference pertains to the Afflicted Girls: Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard. These are three girls who testified in the Salem Witch Trials, which started in the winter of 1692 (Nash, p. 84). The instant Winkie gazes upon the three girls as they sit in the witness box, the girls all fall to the floor and display bizarre theatrics. For example, Putnam says, “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t sign the devil’s book” (Chase, p. 187). The prosecutor then states, “Judge, if the accused be allowed to look upon them no longer, and if he should only then touch them but once, their fits surely will cease.” With Winkie’s touch, their hysterics come to an abrupt end (Chase, p. 188).

            In Through the Looking-Glass, the Lion and the Unicorn fighting for the crown refers to the dissatisfaction of many of Scotland’s citizens after the Act of Union in 1707, during which the Scottish and English governments joined to form the United Kingdom. (Carroll, p. 283) The British coat of arms consists of a shield in the center, a golden crowned Lion on the left representing England and the Crown, while on the right is an uncrowned Unicorn, representing Scotland. In the coat of arms used by the Scottish Office, a crowned Unicorn is on the left, with the crowned Lion on the right (Willcox, p. 35).

Absurdity has also been used in a very creative way in Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics. In the book, Alice shrinks to the size of a nuclear particle and encounters various strange individuals who each take turns demonstrating different aspects of quantum physics to her. Quantum physics is rather quirky and full of paradoxes to begin with, thus using bizarre and twisted logic to illustrate these theories is a brilliant idea. Just as Winkie wishes himself into existence (Chase, p. 119), there is a theory in quantum physics which postulates that one can wish things into existence. With the use of mind over matter, an Emperor can utilize his conscious mind to make his new clothes real. The Emperor illustrates this thesis to Alice by asserting that, “The whole world is indeed governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, but the human mind is outside the material world and not so restricted. We have the ability to see things uniquely. We cannot choose what we see, but what we do see becomes reality in the world, at least for the time we observe it. When we have finished our observation, then of course the world can once again begin to enter its customary set of mixed states.” (Gilmore, p. 58)

Lastly, I would like to touch upon how Winkie and Alice both use the blurred line between dream and reality to question what has truly transpired and what may have been a dream. After Winkie wishes himself into existence and jumps out the window, he falls asleep in the garden. Upon awakening, he finds himself on the shelf in his room again, as if he had never escaped. He again wishes himself into existence and finds himself outside again. Winkie “seemed to be traveling in time” (Chase, p. 122), and felt that “perhaps time itself had stopped” (Chase, p. 121). These feelings are sometimes encountered in a dream-like state. It isn’t really clear whether Winkie dreams all his adventures as he continues to sit on the bookshelf, or whether everything is real. Alice, in turn, wakes up at the end of her adventures down the rabbit hole, only to find herself sitting next to her sister in the garden. Alice in Wonderland ends with Alice’s sister dreaming of Alice in her wonderland (Carroll, p. 162). In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice encounters the sleeping Red King, and she is told that the King is dreaming of her, and he should not be awoken, otherwise Alice would cease existing. Tweedledum tells Alice, “If the King was to wake, you’d go out -- bang! – just like a candle!” (Carroll, p. 238) Since Alice is dreaming of the King, and the King is dreaming of Alice, and so on, it creates a truly peculiar state of being, like two mirrors facing each other.

 

A Dream Within A Dream     

 

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow –

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream:

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

 

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand –

How few! Yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep – while I weep!

O God! Can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! Can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

 

Edgar Allen Poe, 1849

 

 

 

Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through

The Looking-Glass. New York: Wing Books, 1998.

 

Chase, Clifford. Winkie. New York: Grove Press, 2006.

 

Gilmore, Robert. Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics. New York:

            Copernicus Books, 1995.

 

Nash, Gary B., Julie Roy Jeffrey, John R. Howe, Peter J. Frederick, Allen F. Davis, and

Allen M. Winkler. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. New

York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986

 

Rosemont, Penelope. Telephone Interview. 1 April 2009

 

Willcox, William B., Walter L. Armstein. The Age of Aristocracy: 1688 – 1830.

Lexington, MA, D.C. Heath and Company, 1988.

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