Monday, August 4, 2014

SFF names #1: Winnie

Winnie and Willie are characters in Beckett’s disgustingly cruel 1961 play Happy Days. Winnie speaks unremittingly, and mostly gaily, as a mound of earth rises over her.

Winnie is an eternal optimist: “[…] perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out” (so compare the association of “winning.” Though also, sometimes, “whining” is relevant).

Willie is quiet and a little itinerant – but, like their names, Winnie and Willie share in common more than they hold in distinction. 

Together the names Willie and Winnie synthesize the haphazardly spontaneous (willy-nilly) with the inescapably coercive (will he, nill he).

More specifically will he, nill he links Winnie with Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who was legally responsible for her descent into the water – according to the play’s gravedigger, perhaps sarcastically paraphrasing Plowden’s 1571 Comentaries? – responsible, whether she willed it or not.

However, in Beckett’s early drafts Winnie was called “Mildred.” The association of millet from classical heap paradoxes seems a significant loss. Happy Days is a play about a heap.

Beckett might have known a joke version of this paradox -- the punchline is "We've already established what kind of a woman you are, now we're just haggling" -- which nowadays mainly propagates as vintage misogynist charisma via apocryphal attribution to George Bernard Shaw.

There is also a sort of torturing-small-animals version of the paradox. If you tip your frog direct into a bubbling pot (runs the ancient wisdom) she will leap out if she can. But if you put her in cold water, and lift the temperature little-by-little, you may scald her down to her small anuran skeleton without agitating any motion whatsoever.

It's just a stupid proverb, but people take it into their heads to test it.

Compare Beckett in “Dante and the Lobster,” the first story of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934):
She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.
Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.
It is not.
Eubulides’s version of the paradox is probably the best known: removing one grain from a heap doesn’t turn it into a non-heap; adding one grain to a non-heap doesn’t turn it into a heap. Where do you draw the line? Can there be a line? Clov mentions that version in Endgame: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

It’s Zeno’s version (as recounted by Simplicius) which actually mentions millet: a single grain of millet makes no sound when it falls, whereas a sack of millet makes a thud.

So why the name Winnie? Why not go with Mork and Milly, or something?

Unless Beckett, in typically brutal form, has named this gradually heaped-over life – this life full of the makings of freedom, that merely cannot sort its wheat from chaff – after the word winnow?


Note 1.

Did Beckett write science fiction or fantasy?


They are desperate in Beckett Studies to prove that he did. Generations of scholars have trussed themselves in knots tracing the full brain emulation subtext of Molloy: "I mean found him ready-made in my head." What else can explain the mysterious relationship between Molloy and Moran, if not that they are both corrupted back-ups of the same individual, each living file vying to not be the one used to reincarnate him in the aftermath of a fatal bicycle crash? 

Not a day goes by without a new Call for Papers on some new aspect of the corporate governance of the hypothesised dystopian megacorp running Project Lost Ones and Projects Without Words I & II and "Project Ping."

There is also a decent case to be made for Waiting for Godot as military sf. The bit with Lucky, you see.

Really. Beckett is one of the reasons I can't subscribe to Darko Suvin's elegant and influential definition of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement. Estranging but not cognitive (in Suvin's sense; very roughly "this-worldly")? Then it's fantasy, myth, fairytale. Cognitive but not estranging? Then it's realism. But Theatre of the Absurd doesn't fit anywhere. Unless it's neither?

Note 2.

"A quick death". Quick of course can mean alive. Beckett's interest in vague boundaries includes an interest in that between life and death. Cf. Mercier and Camier:
Mercier rose to his feet. Help me! roared Camier. He tugged furiously at the cape, caught between the head and the cobbles. What do you want with that? said Mercier. Cover his gob, said Camier. They frieed the cape and lowered it over the face. Then Camier resumed his blows. Enough, said Mercier, give me that blunt instrument. Camier dropped the truncheon and took to his heels. Wait, said Mercier. Camier halted. Mercier picked up the truncheon and dealt the muffled skull one moderate and attentive blow, just one. Like a partly shelled hard-boiled egg, was his impression. Who knows, he mused, perhaps that was the finishing touch.

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