Thirty-eight years after The Pooh Péerplex , Frederick Crews's casebook on A. A. Milne's kiddy classic, gently ribbed the litcrit industry's obsessions and obsessives, Postmodern Pooh assembles the papers purportedly given at the December 2000 Modern Language Association convention in a Pooh panel organised by N. Mack Hobbs (aka Stanley Fish). And of course, like its predecessor, it is extremely amusing. But this time the fun is not really funny at all. One laughs only, as Lawrence Sterne more or less put it, so as not to cry.
The critical madness being mocked is, alas, quite of our time. Deconstructionist Felicia Marronnez, new historicist Victor S. Fassell, Jamesonian Marxist Carla Gulag, gynocritic Sisera Catheter, portly gnostic Shakespearean Orpheus Bruno, East Indian post-colonialist Das Nuffa Dat, and the rest of Crews's post-theory theorising, cultural studying, biopoeticising, repressed-memory-syndromist team rampage over the Pooh text in what are by now glumly familiar ways: they are all utterly sincere, chirpily intelligent, witty often, and quite, quite off their trolleys.
Owl's letterbox fills up with Derridean cartes postales ; new- historical contexts previously unthought of, and unthinkable, are keenly touched on (Edward Bear: Edward VIII; Winnie the Pooh: Winnie Churchill); Christopher Robin's Maoist tendencies are revealed; the gay marriage of Piglet and Pooh is rescued from the crypts and repressions of Milne's text; Eeyore gets his tail back in a spurt of post-orgiastic tristesse ; Kanga's potential for écriture feminine is contemplated; author Milne is exposed as a satanic ritualist who forced his son into multiple exploitation; the plump Harold Bloom-alike thinks he is the immortal Pooh as well as the truly immortal Falstaff; Stanley Fish's persona struts his all-knowing pragmatical last word ("You Don't Know What Pooh Studies Are About, Do You, And Even If You Did, Do You Think Anybody Would Be Impressed?").
And the grim truth is that unlike some satirists driven by awful states of affairs to the saeva indignatio that is the genre's modus vivendi , Crews has not had to make anything up, nor even exaggerate much. Self-condemnatory opinion comes spilling out of every critical authority Crews's critics have reached off the nearest library shelf: their quoted daftnesses - J. Hillis Miller's "joyous prophecy", say, that "the millennium would come if all men and women became good readers in De Man's sense"; or Geoffrey Hartman's deploring "the automatic valuing of works of art over commentary" - are all too actual. The discourse of a fully liberated Kanga would be a "discourse of the clitoris in the mucus of the lips", thinks Ms Catheter - in the words of Gayatri Spivak. "The discerning critic, attuned to 'hybridity as camouflage, as a contesting, antagonistic agency functioning in the time-lag of sign/symbol which is a space in-between the rules of engagement'", can see that Pooh himself is a psychological hybrid - "a would-be overlord whose will has been sapped by subliminal identification with the very subjects he has subjugated." Thus Das Nuffa Dat, drawing on just one of Homi Bhabha's cheerfully opaque lines.
And so it goes with the panel's truly bad day's work: being here, thinking such things, comprises, as the humanist gent and MLA scourge Dudley Cravat III wearily puts it, "a linguistic lunatic ward"; these critics are all Hollow Men, their "head-pieces stuffed with postmodern straw". Cravat's contribution is, according to N. Mack Hobbs, a "vile diatribe" (Cravat is an "outright racist, sexist and homophobe"). But, tellingly, Cravat admires The Pooh Perplex , and his stuffed-shirt let-the-text-speak reaction is far less mocked than any of the other Pooh readings on deck. He is clearly the closest this disturbed and disturbing book gets to having a spokesman. And I would not at all quarrel with that.
Valentine Cunningham is professor of English language and literature, University of Oxford.
Author - Frederick Crews
ISBN - 0 86547 626 8
Publisher - North Point Press
Price - $22.00 (£15.53)
Pages - 175