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The Truth in Winkie

The stoic hero of the novel Winkie is a teddy bear who not only hopes, suffers, and muses on the mystery and misery of life like all teddy bears do, but who walks, talks, eats, poops, and gives birth “although x-rays showed only his metal parts.” The author, Clifford Chase, inherits the teddy bear from Ruth, his mother, who as a child calls Winkie (then a girl bear) Marie. After Cliff shelves his toy for the last time before a hurricane in New Orleans, the adventures of the balding, old bear with the glass eyes that open and shut—only now one gets stuck—begin. Winkie marks a significant moment not only in teddy bear, but also human history, the moment when the eyes of prickly backed irony, which for several decades has ruled over the domain of art and letters, suddenly soften, and irony lies down, rolls over, and bares its soft, pink belly. Music, as usual, is what tames the wild beast. That is, it seems that Winkie as Marie gets the idea that tools or toys have souls (anima) from a violin that stridently protests against its given inertness and comes to life in a symphony:

Marie was almost ripped in two by the sudden, forceful stroke a single violin—ringing, smoky, gorgeous, and alone. It was like a spotlight on a dark world. ‘Here I am!’ it seemed to say. and it didn’t care what the consequences were… It was the scratchy woodiness beneath the sweetness that thrilled the bear most. She could hear clearly, the very real, mundane substance of the instrument itself, and she could have wept, if her glass eyes had let her, to be witnessing its brave struggle to be more than wood, strings, varnish, matter.

After the reader follows the writer on one roll after another and another across a gently hilly and utterly lovely landscape of language, Winkie, whose children have all grown up, finally jumps down from his shelf, escapes into the woods, gets his digestive and reproductive systems working, goes into labor, and produces Baby Winkie, who is abducted by a mad professor resembling the Unabomber. Like a pretty, little Frankenstein, except she turns her anger and thirst for revenge inward, Baby Winkie teaches herself to read from the books in the hermit’s hut. Cut off from the outside world, she comes to speak only in quotes and finally assumes the role of a character floating through the timeless space of literature. Meanwhile, the wizened Winkie, as overheard by the professor, sounds “like he could have been a department head at a cocktail party.” At one point the F.B.I. circles in on Winkie in the professor’s hut, and his subsequent trial in which he is accused of witchcraft, heresy against both Christian and Greek gods, and masterminding a host of major rebellions from ages past morphs Kafka (already invoked by a reviewer) with Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita.

Still, my favorite parts of the novel are not farcical, but lyrical, when, as the author winks, the inert toy and the hero of the story nuzzle up against each other. Here, when non-fiction touches and rubs against fiction, there’s no friction, but it’s still electric, with the rising warmth often exploding into gently falling sparks that multiply the lights in the starry sky of the open-air theatre of the mind.

In sympathy with the bear himself, my Winkie will soon be frayed, yellowed, and torn from multiple readings in the bathtub, subway, and detox unit where to their delight I show the pictures of the teddy bear in his prison stripes to the ex-cons in the art program I run in Brooklyn Hospital. Soon I must have Winkie rebound as the next in a series of volumes by Dante, Proust, Mary Shelley, George Elliot, Joyce, the four apostles of Christ, and Dr. Seuss, among others. When these works began to fall apart, they looked both sad and scary, very remotely like shivering members of an impoverished motorcycle gang, so I got them brand new, black leather jackets. Then, to tame, and also honor the works, I embossed on the jackets the words “WHOLLY BABBLE;” for these, Winkie now among them, are the perfect works—their flaws are beauty marks—the novels that, like all living forms, are self-similar, reflecting at every scale the nature and structure of the larger animal—which is language itself—of which they are formed.

He wanted to trace the thread of his life backward further, but then he got literally lost in threads—in cloth, stuffing, the spool of what was to hold him together—in these thoughts faded into smaller and smaller filaments. His soul seemed to have been gathered together along minute fibers. Was this abnormal? Was it magic? It seemed quite natural to him and inevitable that there was now a will where there had been no will. For whatever reason here had been everything necessary to create a soul.

So the story of the teddy bear Winkie admonished by the ghost of his cub to “Think back.” is inextricably woven into its immediate context, which is not the year or the city that hovers around it, but what swathes it tightly, the textual textile, the printed words and language itself seeking the roots and seed of its own desire and will.

“Just as dreams and stories take on lives of their own, Winkie came to life. And just as every meaning gives rise to a deeper meaning, so Winkie gave birth.” So also the violin as a rubbed, aroused, phallic extension produces now ecstatic, now tormented moans and howls as it gives birth to its own mother, the music. So also Winkie, the toy come to life, engenders Baby Winkie, who takes the place of Marie, the mother who engenders Winkie from within him. Baby Winkie, the child as virgin mother, shimmering, dissolves into language—“Baby Winkie as the longest, most beautiful sentence in the world. Baby Winkie surrounded and supported by the beauty of language.”—glows brighter and brighter, is called a saint, and then fades away. Then, when Chase describes the mourning of the teddy bear for his lost child, the being who has melted into the light of language is resurrected in what to my mind are indeed some of the most beautiful sentences in the world. So much so that I’d rather not quote any here, but suggest you visit the cathedral of the book to see the frescoes in situ.

All this clearly has nothing to do with empty, sectarian theology, but this is the gospel tooth, and it bites hard and sinks in deep. Child giving birth to the virgin mother giving birth to him. Future and past collapsing into a timeless present. The attributes of the physical instrument bleeding into the veil of music that barely divides the playing from the hearing of it. Here we are very close to the vortex of language, where the story of the word crystallizing in the body of a mongrel being, “a thing that had never before been seen in the world,” woven of love, fully mortal, yet made wholly of language, scandalously violates the boundary between what can and what cannot be. I mean not only what cannot be from the point of view of the fictional characters in the novel, but seen from outside the fiction, Winkie as a metaphor cannot exist either—the second coming of Christ as a teddy bear? On the other hand, why not? Where language ends and begins is where what scorns all distinctions and compunctions crosses over and for an instant fuses with what creates them.

Now idols eventually shatter themselves, for they are partial worlds that need to break through their own boundaries in order to find fulfillment. We do better, however, not to wait for the self-shattering idols to explode attended by much wailing and knashing of teeth. To leave the idolatrous state behind and enter into the ongoing state of perfection, we must self-animate and pass through the crossing of the sublime and the ridiculous. So I will eat the sawdust—dry, dry, oh so dry—and fully incorporate that weird, blinking Boo Boo Bo Bo and all his internal, metal parts. He brings along with him all the “protean creatures always in the midst of change” who inhabit (some, like Winkie, simultaneously) the twin cities of the imaginary and the inorganic. And finally even nothingness, even empty space is befriended, humanized, and woven into the re-sewn oneness:

In his head he drew fantastic mathematical triangles from himself to the newly planted tree to the peak of the neighbor’s house and back againâ?¦. He saw that by the lovely, infinite, and specific combinations of such triangles, he was located in naked, ancient, mangy existence.

In fact, mathematicians have been getting to know and make friends with the coordinates, belonging to one of the four, noble families of numbers—real (muscular), rational (structural, bony), irrational (mangy), and imaginary (thoughtful)—that meet at each and every node of those triangles. When mathematicians discovered and named those four kinds of entities, the number line became continuous, hole-free, and wholly whole as well as revealing its well-rounded human personality. To arrive at the coordinates of each node, we project number lines into Cartesian space, which can also be extended in time. This four-dimensional field of Cartesian space extended in time is the perspectival space that unwinds in a movie yoked to a story until a dream sequence disrupts the Aristotelian unity of space and time.

As dreams (among them the dream of modern art) inform us, perspectival space is not the only space there is, but as the space in which human dramas unfold, it is a space of fear and trembling, of birth, life, and death, a space we still endow with authority. Perspectival, mathematically constructed space is, in fact, the only space that both secular societies and theocracies today recognize in a court of law. That is, some may punish rapists, some the raped, but so far as I know, no jurist on earth would deny that an invasive act occurred when there is enough related and internal evidence to authenticate a video consisting in perspectival images of the event.

In analog photography, each photon counts, and when the shut eye of the camera clicks open, each node of the framed surface of perspectival space burns its image on the film. When the eye clicks shut, the image develops. We then open our eyes, take in the light, and then effectively shut them to connect the dots and read between the lines to recognize the image. If we read closely and deeply enough, we discern that the camera—a shiny Winkie, also in his old age reduced to one, functioning shutter—is included in the image and that all images are included in each image. There is only one, continuous, perspectival space or experience, just as there is only one body of legal evidence. The perfection, that is, the ongoing process of perfecting our understanding of that body depends simply on our willingness to do so.

Admonishing us to limit ourselves in courts of law to the one body of evidence pinned to coordinates in space and time measured by common standards, Winkie on trial is also the body of evidence itself on trial. Guilty or innocent, that body known by the light it produces or reflects is neither inert nor disinterested. It is rather a weird, animate animal, “always in the midst of change,” made of the stuff of stuff, each part and the whole moved by and toward what it desires, what it loves. We are woven and sewn together in a world wide web not of “information” (a dubious concept, bound as much to break us apart as to bind us), but of knotted material.

Autonomy, then, is not other than dependence; for to be able to move oneself is simply to participate in the first mover, which still lives in all (ah!) that is wholly whole, alive, and undivided. Alas, it is impossible for a body—which is a party of parts of the wholly whole One—to wake up and jump down from the shelf without also creating a division between itself and parties still stuck in disempowering belief systems. And to shift metaphors, almost nobody can win the timed race for autonomy without sprinting at the crunch and over-running the end line into a second field, with the losers left behind to languish in the first. Oh but the winner has, in over-running the end line, overstated her own case, for with two fields instead of one, the won One now is lost.

Now the game is on again. Your clock is running. You’ve got the ball and barreling toward you is the heavy-weight champion of the world: historical precedent. You can’t recollect one case with a favorable outcome. You’re trying to “think back,” but there is no time to think. All you can do is turn around, let go, and watch the ball careen into the void. In the far rear and remote periphery of the whole field lingers the palest memory of a memory of a memory. The memory is now moving yet further back and out to the side, until it fades away altogether. Then suddenly, as when the softest breeze causes a dying ember to burst into flame, the memory rushes up, grows more and more vivid, until it can’t be distinguished from the thing itself, which leaps up to steal the ball out of the air, double over around it, and fly all the way down the field. There, crumbling under and then flattened by the enormous, loosely coalesced blob of all that seeks to crush it, the thing itself reaches across to graze the end line, just as the crowd floods onto the one field. Everyone (even the tacklers, for this is New York, where we cheer the opposition if the play is good enough), every body, thing, and space in all the universes in the universe swaddled in one, loving embrace cries “Winkie! Winkie! Winkie!”

(Slowly, oh so slowly, too too slowly it leaks into the hollow of the gut, penetrates the tissues, enters the bloodstream, and passes into the world by osmosis, and one day the meek will inherit the earth.)


Veronika Sheer


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2006

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