Postmodern Poohby Frederick Crews
A sequel of sorts to the classic (and bestselling) sendup of literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex
Thirty-seven years ago, a slim parody of academic literary criticism called The Pooh Perplex became a surprise bestseller. Now Frederick Crews has written a hilarious new satire in the same vein. Purporting to be the proceedings of a forum on/i>/i>… See more details below
A sequel of sorts to the classic (and bestselling) sendup of literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex
Thirty-seven years ago, a slim parody of academic literary criticism called The Pooh Perplex became a surprise bestseller. Now Frederick Crews has written a hilarious new satire in the same vein. Purporting to be the proceedings of a forum on Pooh convened at the Modern Language Association's annual convention, Postmodern Pooh brilliantly parodies the academic fads and figures that hold sway at the millennium.
Deconstruction, poststructuralist Marxism, new historicism, radical feminism, cultural studies, recovered-memory theory, and postcolonialism, among other methods, take their shots at the poor teddy bear and Crews takes his shots at them. The fun lies in seeing just how much adulteration Pooh can stand.
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"Sparkling wit and brilliant parodies ... make this a funny book." Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times
"Really good academic fun." Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe
"Postmodern Pooh should be required reading." Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
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By Frederick Crews
North Point PressCopyright © 2001 Frederick Crews
All rights reserved.
Why? Wherefore? Inasmuch as Which?
Felicia Marronnez is Sea & Ski Professor of English at the University of California at Irvine. All of her degrees, however, were awarded by Yale University, and it was from Yale's English department that she relocated to Irvine in 1990, with the specific aim of helping to narrow the sophistication gap between our two coasts. In view of her prizewinning dissertation, "Heidegger Reading Pooh Reading Hegel Reading Husserl: Or, Isn't It Punny How a Hun Likes Beary?," Marronnez has been well situated to demonstrate how the ethically serious Derrideanism of the Yale school illuminates the subtleties of the Pooh books. That promise was fully realized in her subsequent monograph, (P)ooh La La! Kiddie Lit Gets the Jacques of Its Life (Yale University Press, 1992).
"Well," said Pooh, "we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we'd be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really."
ONE might say that the reader who has grasped the full significance of this passage has seen to the bottom of both Winnie-the-Pooh and its author. Yes, one might say that. But "one" would thereby be branded as a simpleton, a theory-starved dunce. "Grasped the full significance"? "Seen to the bottom"? Not very likely.
Pooh, it's true, manages, through byzantine byways that I will track below, to body forth the key principles of Deconstruction with uncanny fidelity. And that fact, given the apparent temporal priority of Milne over Derrida, would seem to prove the timeless pertinence of the latter's approach to textuality. Yet what is the leçon of Derrida, that consummate rhetor of the iterable and the dehiscent, if not that clear sight, the grasping of significance, and even historical precedence (to say nothing of timeless truth) are all illusions, effects of that very différance that constitutes the only legitimate object of critical scrutiny?
I wonder how many of you went for my feint that we might learn something here about the author of Winnie-the-Pooh. C'est pour rire. Pooh Bear, at least, knows better:
I sometimes wonder if it's true
That who is what and what is who.
After all, J. Hillis Miller has pointed out that "there is not any 'Shakespeare himself,'" and Derrida once observed that "there is not, strictly speaking, a text whose author or subject is Jean-Jacques Rousseau." It's fairly clear, then, that Miller is right when he characterizes every author as merely "an effect of the text." "A. A. Milne" himself or itself concedes the point in the preface to When We Were Very Young:
You may wonder sometimes who is supposed to be saying the verses. Is it the Author, that strange but uninteresting person, or is it Christopher Robin, or some other boy or girl, or Nurse, or Hoo? ... you will have to decide for yourselves.
As for "the reader," spare me! The term elides difference, attempts to inscribe on a bubbling bouillabaisse of potentialities one model of a stolid, passive, tabula rasa receptor. Grant yourself a "reader" and you automatically become a writer — worse, a communicator with a plain message that "the reader" will supposedly open like some ersatz telegram announcing that he has been declared a finalist in the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
Now that we've dispensed with both author and reader, you will be interested to learn that I'm going to go right on discussing them. And the same holds for both truth and literary meaning, notions at once fallacious and essential to the work of Deconstruction. After we have registered the fatal instability of our concepts, they still remain our concepts, all the more precious for our awareness that they, and therefore we, fail to intersect with "reality" at any point. As Pooh shows in numerous ways, we cannot do otherwise than yearn for unwobbling transcendence, especially when we see it dissolving into linguistic supplement and remainder.
Think of the scene in which Winnie-the-Pooh, supposedly on a purposeful march to call on his friends, pauses squarely in the middle of an entropic stream. Oblivious of its unilinear flow toward oblivion, slack-jawed Pooh, stubby arms at perfect rest on beloved belly, sits on a rock as solid as the one Dr. Johnson kicked to refute Berkeley. Using a passing dragonfly as a quadrant, he aims his nose straight at the warming sun. Heliotrope: that is Derrida's stunning metaphor for our arching toward the Logos, source of all the false light by which we (think we) "discern the significance," "see things in perspective," "apply the light of common sense," or "develop a vision."
Pooh's eyes, however, are closed. Paunchy Panza, catching the rays without reflection. He seeks nothing, perceives nothing, propounds nothing, but merely sings the noncommittally conditional, innocently egoistic "I could spend a happy morning / Being Pooh."
Being — Dasein! What is Pooh in this tableau if not the personification (ursification?) of Man stripped of all striving, truly attuned, for once, to that discursive impossibility, a Nature without cultural excess or archive? No dispersal here, no deferral or dissemination. But look what happens next:
The sun was so delightfully warm, and the stone, which had been sitting in it for a long time, was so warm, too, that Pooh had almost decided to go on being Pooh in the middle of the stream for the rest of the morning, when he remembered Rabbit.
"When he remembered Rabbit." Rabbit the nosy busybody, the restless, envious brain, the all-around expert who always gets it wrong. Rabbit is discourse itself, particularly in its most seductively "present" form, speech. And though Pooh never wants anything from Rabbit but food, it is no coincidence that the activation of his bodily need co-insides with the prospect of his vulnerability to the Pooh books' most logorrheic talker. There is no free lunch, not even in the sacred forest of childhood. Once having felt a pang, we can gain our sustenance only by becoming dealers and supplicants within the web of signifiers, that differential network of traces both producing and exceeding "meaning" without ever duplicating the object of desire.
Now we can discern why Pooh, in Rabbit's company somewhat later, gets "into a comfortable position for not listening to Rabbit." Here he attunes himself, defensively, to gentle forest sounds "which all seemed to be saying to Pooh, 'Don't listen to Rabbit, listen to me.'" But Rabbit, of course, prevails, and Pooh is swept from trance into transaction yet again. To submit to Rabbit is to be drawn into the "present" as it attempts to "be itself," the advancing edge of nervous conative (go native?) will. Pooh, however, doesn't have to like it. He senses — or rather, we sense through him — the speciousness of such contemporaneity. As Derrida — drawing from what Seán Burke has called his "apparatus criticus ... awesome in its relentless invagination" — points out:
An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby also dividing, along with the present, everything that is thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance or the subject.
Some auditors, I know, will consider this line of inquiry a bit too theoretical for their taste. That's a pity, but Hillis Miller and the late Paul de Man proved long ago that Deconstruction, reading, and theory are all exactly the same thing. If you attempt to reject that conclusion, you will only be generating more theory and thus illustrating Paul's law. Hillis put it succinctly in his famous, feisty presidential address to the MLA: "If the resistance to theory is the resistance to reading, theory is itself the resistance to theory, therefore a resistance to the reading it advocates."
Although all literary works, when rigorously analyzed, yield what Paul de Man called "allegories of the impossibility of reading," the ethics of Deconstruction require that we favor the "strong misreading" instead of the "weak misreading." We wouldn't want to claim, for example, that Winnie-the-Pooh is really about the U.S. Patent Office, America Online, or Fermat's last theorem. Instead, we must first establish what the text is "trying to say," so that we can then go about discovering its antiphonal, antipodal antiself. In Pooh's case, that manifest theme is the need to practice tolerant sociability — a virtue that supposedly redeems the protagonist's near absence of gray matter. But is that fixed intention of "A. A. Milne's" realized without breaching, effraction, or polylogue? Deconstructors, start your engines!
Attend to Pooh without sentimentality and ask yourself what positive social traits he can plausibly be taken to represent. He is a freeloader whose affability extends no further than his next honey fix. Deconstructed, he is just a mouth and a digestive tract in charge of some rudimentary powers of rationalization. And when he is confronted with a different genus (the apian) pursuing its own programmed livelihood, he shows himself utterly incapable of acknowledging the Other. "The only reason for making honey," he deduces with infantile self-in-fat-uation, "is so as I can eat it." Community values? One for all and all for one?
Furthermore, Pooh's selfishness is no greater than that of the whole kapok menagerie surrounding him. It is only his inability to disguise or dignify raw need that renders him the touchstone of value-in-reverse. While the hidebound "Milne" is musing complacently about rectitude and cooperation, his principal creation embodies a brute-all Brechtian forthrightness about the priority of aliment over intellect — and therefore of his majesty the ego over moral claims. Every gregarious sentiment in these books stands self-refuted in the very act of articulation.
Consider also that the enchanted forest is presided over by the seeming child-god Christ-opher Robin, who, from the animals' occluded point of view, is assumed to be utterly loyal and attentive to them. As we progress toward the dissonant climax of The House at Pooh Corner, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that Christopher is coming under the thrall of that deadly Pied Piper, Western culture. His mind will soon 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, its numbingly identical spaces marked off with vertical lines forming a lockstep zombie parade of Baconian/Newtonian "units." During his ever more frequent absences, we can infer, he is becoming just the sort of know-it-all bore lampooned in the pushy schemer Rabbit and the insufferable pedant Owl. The text, chewing away like an army of termites beneath "Milne's" conscious mind, has included those ridiculous "intellectuals" precisely in order to facilitate our strong misreading.
Is this at last, then, the "meaning" of Winnie-the-Pooh: the falseness of every overtly proffered ideal? If you suppose so, I want you to listen carefully from here on. A strong misreading is still a reading, with all its loose ends tucked neatly out of sight. Since meaning, as one of "Milne's" poems proclaims, "isn't really anywhere! / It's somewhere else instead," the meaning of nonmeaning must itself be deconstructed if we are to keep pace with the text's self-dissolution.
Jonathan Culler once memorably defined this task for us. A critic's role, he wrote, is that of "sawing off the branch on which one is sitting":
One can and may continue to sit on a branch while sawing it. There is no physical or moral obstacle if one is willing to risk the consequences. The question then becomes whether one will succeed in sawing it clear through, and where and how one might land. A difficult question: to answer one would need a comprehensive understanding of the entire situation — the resilience of the support, the efficacy of one's tools, the shape of the terrain — and an ability to predict accurately the consequences of one's work.
Note, here, how Culler, much in the spirit of Pooh and Piglet carefully pondering how best to trap a Heffalump, eschews premature closure. Just what will happen when the branch is severed remains a topic of meticulously — perhaps even permanently — postponed investigation.
The branch on which we wielders of critical discourse sit is logocentrism: the assumption, both delusory and irreplaceable, that the signifiers we employ actually denote their signified objects, nothing more or less. But the Pooh books continually saw away at that very premise. "This writing business," as Eeyore puts it. "Pencils and what-not.
Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it." Naturally, Eeyore does not mean to challenge Derrida's point that language in general is just a special case of writing. Quite the contrary: he perceives, as does Derrida, that writing as a direct conveyor of meaning, with necessary connections between word and object, begs to be devalued. By ascribing this lesson to Eeyore, the text implies that any ass could learn it.
It is, once again, the emergent pupil Christopher Robin, the apple-polishing regurgitator of potted "facts," whose stock declines in direct seesaw linkage with the uncerebral Eeyore's rise. By comparison with Milne's pampered but incipiently regimented offspring, even the numskull Pooh, whose mouth remains in readiness at all moments for regression from emitting speech to ingesting snacks, appears deeply wise. Indeed, he sounds on occasion like a shrewd postanalytic philosopher: "You find sometimes that a Thing [ein Ding] which seemed very Thingish [dinglich] inside you is quite different [différent/différant] when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it."
Not only Pooh in the flesh but Pooh as a text habitually concretizes social constructs, reversing the sinister process whereby mere things were once promoted to signifiers. You may have thought that the North Pole, for example, means something as abstract as latitude 90° and longitude 0°, but for Pooh it's just a stick in the ground. Other sticks appear to constitute Eeyore's house, which is then disassembled, only to rematerialize as the very same house. But is it the same, plunked down on an alien plot? Here the text, with Heraclitean panache, puts into question self-identity itself, the principle lying behind all Western thought from Plato through Husserl.
Again, it is noteworthy that Owl's letter box, rendered useless for its original logocentric function, serves as the escape hatch through which Piglet emerges to become, himself, a parodic incarnate missive. Derrida's recurrent pun, in La carte postale, between l'être and lettre, showing that Being can never be captured in language, echoes in our minds throughout the episode. The postcard, you will recall, is Derrida's image for the modern world's fondest illusion:
Everything in our bildopedic culture, in our politics of the encyclopedic, in our telecommunications of all genres, in our telematicometaphysical archives ... everything is constructed on the protocolary charter of an axiom, that could be demonstrated, displayed on a large carte, a post card of course, since it is so simple, elementary, a brief, fearful stereotyping.
If you catch the heavy irony here — the culture of "communication" rests on the fib that signifiers can make their way from one party to another with no fading or twisting of informational content — you will see why Pooh reduces the standard literary notion of rescue (that is, salvation) to a self-mailed postcard consisting of a timid little pig. Having a wonderful time, wish you were oink oink oink.
Excerpted from Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews. Copyright © 2001 Frederick Crews. Excerpted by permission of North Point Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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