Crews' 'Postmodern Pooh': Real culture wins the day

Books

October 14, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Today's the 75th anniversary of one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century. I can't think of more than a dozen figures, personalities, in all literature that can compete with Winnie-the-Pooh for enduring enchantment. Given the nature of publishing, the date is a bit arbitrary, but for the sake of felicitations, Oct. 14, 1926, is the recognized publication date of Winnie-the-Pooh, Alan Alexander Milne's introduction of what is now Earth's most famous bear and his friends and neighbors.

The Pooh oeuvre consists of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), The House at Pooh Corner (1928), and the two collections of poetry to Milne's son, Christopher Robin, When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927). In total, more than 50 million copies have been sold, including editions in 33 languages. Of course, anybody who has not read them suffers from a hideous gap in personal culture. Having gone back to it a half-century or so after my first hearing and reading, I cannot doubt its charm and nourishment for any new reader.

The strength of Milne's work is that it's humane. It's profoundly ethically grounded and loving. And it invokes defining human truths, including the magisterial truth of irony.

Above all, it is clear and direct and unapologetically forthright. It is storytelling in the finest and deepest senses.

As much has been written about Milne and Pooh as about all but the most enduring classics. Now comes Postmodern Pooh, by Frederick Crews (North Point Press, pages, $22). Professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley, Crews has been a major, incisive critic for almost four decades. He leapt into popular awareness in 1963, with publication of his Pooh Perplex, a brilliant satire of academic pomposity and obscurantism, presented as a series of scholarly papers examining Milne's work. I doubt anyone was more astonished than Crews that his quilt-work of parodies sold more than three-quarters of a million copies, a huge success.

In the ensuing 38 years, much has happened to academic literary theory -- virtually all of it, to my mind, bad. Facing those tides of change, Crews has risen to the challenge, rocketing forward from the old New Criticism of a long generation ago to the concept of "Teaching the Conflicts."

Wuzzat? In his introduction, Crews quotes one of his imagined scholars explaining its curriculum, "Here is Husserlian phenomenology, here are the Jungian archetypes, here is Jakobsonian structuralism, here is Zizekian Lacanianism, here is Counterhegemonic Post-Gramscian Marxism, and here is the Deleuzoguattarian Anti-Oedipus; now you [the undergraduate English major] decide which hermeneutic should prevail." (The horror of it is that all of that bunkum is being taught today.)

The book is arranged as eleven "methodically acute papers" delivered to an apocryphal 2000 convention of the Modern Language Association -- the actual and immensely powerful bastion of culture-theory cultism.

The first -- "Why? Wherefore? Inasmuch as Which?" -- is delivered by Felicia Marronnez, Sea & Ski Professor of English at the University of California at Irvine. Among her plethora of pronouncements is this declaration: "Consider also that the enchanted forest is presided over by the seeming child-god Christ-opher Robin. ... However, it becomes increasingly apparent that Christopher is coming under the thrall of that deadly Pied Piper, Western culture. His mind soon will be warped by the lexical and calculative disciplinary -- that is, by spelling and math -- imparted, no doubt, with the mnemonic aid of thwacks from a sadistic schoolmaster's ruler."

And so it goes for 10 more essays. With pyrotechnic scholarship, Crews footnotes each essay with citations to actual, legitimate sources, which archly sharpens the edge of his broader satire.

In "The Courage to Squeal," by Dolores Malatesta, Pooh is seen as a repressed memory case, scarred by Satanic-cult sexual abuse. Carla Gulag, who is Joe Camel Professor of Child Development at Duke, clarifies the subject with her "The Fissured Subtext: Historical Problematics, the Absolute Cause, Transcoded Contradictions, and Late-Capitalist Metanarrative (in Pooh)." She begins it: "Power to the people!" She then Marx up all of Milne.

Crews does not go after only the Marxist, multicultural and gender-driven left, however. His most sophisticated yet crisply delightful send-up is devoted to Harvard's "Orpheus Bruno" -- an obvious stand-in for Yale's Harold Bloom, a classicist who's reviled by the left. I argue that Bloom is the greatest critic writing in English today. In Crews' "The Importance of Being Portly," he has Bruno applaud that assessment:

"Milne deserves to be ranked not with Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss but with our finest heretics -- with the Gnostic Valentinus, the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero, the Sufi Ibn al-'Arabi, the Shi-ite al-Hallaj, and, if you must know, with their modern avatar, Orpheus Bruno."

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