Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews

North Point Press, New York
Xvi+175 pages. $22.

By M. L. Raina

There is a scene in Kingsley Amis’s novel, ‘That Uncertain Feeling’, in which two characters are discussing a performance. They are intrigued by expressions like ‘in the Word was the beginning’. Finally they decide ‘dear! dear! the thing must be symbolical all right’. That was when symbolism was the badge of literary sophistication.

I was reminded of this scene on reading Federick Crews’s sequel to his 1963 send-up of the period’s critical practice titled ‘The Pooh Perplex’. Just as the earlier book parodied the then prevalent critical trends, ‘Postmodern Pooh’ takes on the currently fashionable schools of critical theory that take postmodernism as their rallying slogan and go off at a tangent in its name.

The wilful obfuscation of critical intelligence is the target of Crews’s parody, done in a gutsy, funny and hugely tonic fashion. If parody is a variety of exaggeration by confusing categories of actuality, Crews’s is an all-stops-pulled ridicule. It spares neither the critics nor their works. The result is a hilarious spoof on post-structuralism, feminism, Lacanism, post-colonialism and the whole caboodle of today’s critical establishment flourishing on Anglo-American campuses and creeping not so stealthily onto our own.

Contrary to the utter opacity of the critical schools, Crews’s parody is entertaining, laughter-raising and highly mock- sophistical. It is liberating in the best sense of the term for, apart from showing up the hollowness of the new prophets of critical change, it reiterates faith in what Dr Johnson would call ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’. Any one who values his/her franchise as a highbrow English professor or a newborn status seeker in academe will find Crews a timely warning against pedantry and over-subtle effusions.

We thought the postmodernists of the book’s title were emancipating when they first appeared on the scene following the historic Johns Hopkins conference in 1967. That arch punster, Jacques Derrida (derider-raider) was there, tilting his lance at the western philosophical schools and cocking a snook at the entire tradition of language use. His American converts listened in solemn awe as he went on about ‘differa-nce’ and ‘ free-play of signifiers’, his grating English accent causing nary a tremor among them. Behold, they screamed, a new era in literary criticism was upon us! For a while it really seemed true. English departments would never be the same again! The old fogeydom was on the run, or so it seemed.

Remember Harold Bloom telling us that a new poet does not absorb the old one, as Eliot had said, but fights him? Or Jonathan Culler reading from his ‘Structural Poetics’ to select audiences at Mussorie in late 1974(I happened to be there)? Or Edward Said ruffling the colonial dovecotes with his ‘Orientalism’ and a much better book ‘ Beginnings’? Or Frederic Jameson stepping on to the footlights with “Marxism and Form’ and later ‘Prison-house of Language’? Or Gilbert-Gubar tracing the mad woman in every novelist’s attic? Or Julia Kristeva smelling abjection and horror in the Freudian-Lacanian linguistic bran-tub?

One could go on in this vein. Yes, these new voices came and blew the tea cosies off our bland complacencies. They told us, as did the child in the story, that incumbent critical emperors wore no clothes or, if they did, only see-through ones. Their rock-’em- sock-’em prose style rustled the pages of journals and echoed from classrooms. The renegade anti-philosopher Derrida became their sage overnight and Foucault, Barthes, Lacan and Deleuze-Guattari the anointed saints of the new secular theodicy.

As the entrenched professoriat looked on helplessly, the vandals-turned repairmen took over the academy and captured the Modern Language Association, the hallowed congregation of literary eggheads in America (parodied here as Modish Languid Association). Driven to the wall, they cried ‘murder and rape’; William Bennet, the Education Secretary, giving the loudest of toots on his worn out cultural blowhorn. The wheel not only turned full circle but stood upside down as well. We entered the age of Discourse and instability of meanings.

Alas, like all revolutions, this one too started devouring its children. Literature got bonded to theory; authors disappeared leaving only traces and ‘aporias’ behind. Very soon we found ourselves victims of what Raymond Tallis called ‘Theorroea’, an affliction from which we haven’t recovered yet nor hope to in the foreseeable future. Barthes and Foucault called upon us to celebrate the death of the author and spawned new arcana intelligible only to the initiated. Today literary criticism has become a one-sided game, played by stodgy academics displaying a know-all pretentiousness and, more often than not, an upstart expertise.

Crews’s parody reveals a theory-choked critical terrain stricken with terminal jargonitis. One constantly receives the impression that contemporary critics, self-begotten offspring of Derrida, Spivak, Bhaba, and Deleuze-Guattari, write mostly for their peers. They would have been better advised to send letters to each other instead of perpetrating books. They ignore Mahasweta Devi’s mild rebuke to Gayatri Spivak about misrepresenting authors.

They neglect Umberto Eco’s advice to authors and critics to be accessible. They conveniently forget that Eco demonstrated this maxim in his multi-layered, best-selling novel, ‘Name of the Rose’ which castigates the medieval Church’s monopoly of knowledge and expression. Brother William in the novel always nudges his listeners to remember this maxim. They go on cranking on their ‘wordy-gurdy’ (To quote Beckett) utterly unmindful of sense and meaning.

Time now to pay closer attention to “Postmodern Pooh’. Crews adopts a typically American technique of collecting a cast of bright upwardly mobile academics at the MLA convention and letting them fling their ‘insights’ on an innocuous children’s book, ‘Winnie the Pooh’. This story, almost eighty years old, has delighted generations of children across English-speaking countries. The cuddly Bear, Christopher Robin, Kanga, Piglet and other minor characters in the story have won the hearts of children and adults alike. Their adventures, like the adventures of Alice in Wonderland, have made them laugh and cry every time they read this book.

Children in particular have made their adventures part of their own growing-up regime. Now come the fun-spoilers, the literary theorists, and tell us that a harmless children’s story is loaded with ominous signals designed to destabilise the social order and directed against gays, women and minorities. A. A. Milne, the author, did not live to see his tale colonised by busybodies out to ensure their hold on the academy. Here are a few samples from the lit-crit guff heaped on this simple tale by different theorists. While reading, suspend disbelief in the rationality of communication!

The Discourse Theorist: “ Rabbit is discourse itself...It is no coincidence that the activation of his bodily need co-insides with the prospect of his vulnerability to the book’s most logorreic talker… That is Derrida’s stunning metaphor for our arching toward the Logos”. Mark the punning of coincides and co-insides.

To compound the confusion, the critic finds a political message in the text. “Pooh is trying to say that nothing short of a thoroughgoing revolt against the equivalence of word and thing… the signature and certification can overcome the stifling of our pre-linguistic freedom”. Hold on before you cry ‘enough’.

The New Historicist: “Works such as Pooh don’t drift toward a banal meaninglessness. They become active historical players.. shaping the public’s illusions about …conquistadorial predation, witch trials and the castrating of preadolescent countertenors. Given their physical resemblance, it seems fair to say that both Pooh and Winston Churchill profited, in their social dealings, from Arctophilia.”

Gay and Lesbian Theorist: “Sexually inhibited with most of the adults he must dominate, Rabbit vents his damned up libido on a boy-child…. Rabbit turns up to be a humping bunny after all.”

Post-colonialist Theorist: “As Gayatri Spivak says, the rememoration of the present as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of-no-particular-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the postcolonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator…Here is Western solipsism in its most grandiose and ominous mood…It can’t be an accident that Milne’s prototypical subalterns are characterized as ‘Indian’. For a Britisher, who has been weaned on colonialist propaganda, all Indians are alike, from Asia”.

By now you must have correctly guessed why Spivak was awarded a top American prize for abominable grammar and syntax.

Feminist Theorist: “A smother-mother like Kanga snuffing out that healthy desire before it can properly take hold hurries her son prematurely to the next stage of pseudo-masculine identity formation in order to exchange the access to Phallic Mother for mere male subjectivity”.

“Books like ‘Pooh’ get their staying power from a pathological struggle between revolting impulses and repentant ones. But if it comes down to a choice between self-respect and literary immortality, so be it: give me self-respect every time.” Needless to remind ourselves that Andrea Dwarkin wanted to abolish the male sex altogether!

Marxist Theorist: “We Marxist intellectuals have our own Mao, a secular fisher of men (Frederic Jameson) who could be prefigured in Christoper Robin. Instead of sitting around reading a tame modernist text like ‘Pooh’, a good postmodern Marxist might want to order a vertically integrated knockoff such as a My Interactive Pooh or a Bounce Around Tigger. Even a hotel can harbour a teasing political unconscious that invites us to loosen up and live a little”.

Rightwing Theorist: “What you make of a classic like ‘Pooh’ depends, of course, on your pedagogical vision, should you happen to have one. But how many here can even recall that the proper function of education was once understood to be fashioning of a gentleman?”

“Of course, the noisy propagandist of English as it is currently (mal) practiced revel in the sheer variety of schools as evidence of openness, and ‘multicultural’ diversity. But plural ways of sodomizing poems for the sating of political and methodological lusts hardly add up to genuine pluralism. As for interpreting ‘Winnie-the Pooh’, the characters’ well-trimmed fur and feathers, their diffident and tactful manners…all attest to the author’s transparent aim, that of imparting Western Values to conservatively attired little lad of sound English stock”.

I have quoted extensively from Crews’s book in order to convey the satirical thrust of his style and the concern of humanist scholars for the integrity of a literary and artistic text. Years ago Frederick Crews spoke for humanist values when he espoused E.M.Forster’s work. He has lived and taught in turbulent times for the American academy. Liberal critics such as Crews are genuinely worried that the new conspiracy is proclaiming the death of literature and enforcing a cultural totalitarianism a.k.a. political correctness. He is not alone. George Steiner has been lamenting this situation more stridently as has Jacques Barzun.

It is one thing to approach literature from diverse viewpoints, quite another to replace it by theory, as has happened in Anglo-American literature departments. Alexander Pope foresaw it all two hundred odd years ago: “Such shameless bards we have, and yet it’s true/there are as mad, abandoned critics too. /The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read/with loads of lumber in his head/with his own tongue still edifies his ears/ and always listening to himself appears. / All he reads, and all he reads assails/from Dryden’s fables down to Durfey’s tales”.

Shouldn’t we stop assailing and begin assessing? Or do I hear the wolf pack baying for my blood?