Postmodern Pooh

Frederick Crews

North Point 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Purporting to be the proceedings of a December 2000 Modern Language Association seminar on Winnie-the-Pooh, Postmodern Pooh is a biting and wickedly funny parody of the whole spectrum of modern literary theory. It ranges from the absurd and near-slapstick to more subtle allusions which may only be fully appreciated by those "in the business", but anyone who has touched on recent literary theory should enjoy Crews' ambitious conceit.

Crews clearly understands the theories and theoreticians he is parodying, capturing both their style and substance. The setting and contextual elements are also nicely done: the preface and the biographical notes that precede each piece, the footnotes that reference real publications, and the way the contributors attack one another and drift away from Pooh when something too good to leave out comes along (Derrida's analysis of apartheid, for example, or psycho-sexual studies of Henry James). The brief summaries and excerpts that follow can give a feel only for the more local humour.

Felicia Marronnez, "Sea & Ski Professor of English at the University of California at Irvine", opens proceedings with a demonstration of "how the ethically serious Derrideanism of the Yale school illuminates the subtleties of the Pooh books", complete with puns and wordplay.

Then there is a New Historian (calling himself a "Negotiationist") with a penchant for obscure historical connections.

"We have shown that works such as Pooh don't drift towards a banal meaninglessness; they become active historical players in their own right, shaping the public's illusions about the important issues of the day, such as conquistadorial predation, witch trials, ius primae noctis, and the castration of preadolescent countertenors."
"The immediate issue here is whether the Pooh animals realise they constitute a de facto nudist colony."

A hero-worshipper of Frederic Jameson situates Pooh in the context of late-capitalist metanarrative, suggesting that Christopher Robin prefigures Jameson, in whose form the Dialectic may have "suspended its usual tortuous course and intervened directly in human affairs".

Sisera Catheter provides a gynocritical perspective.

"Seeing himself castrated and thus ineluctably "female", Eeyore bends his head between and behind his forepaws, evidently attempting an acrobatic autoerotic feat that, if successful, will not only restore his depleted narcissistic libido and give him something to chew on that's nicer than thistles but also exchange his former adult self for a polymorphous perversity whereby the oral, anal, and genital stages can merge in an endless preoedipal, nonphallic loop. In short, he is so unsure of his maleness that he now hopes to transform himself into an unborn baby woman."

Orpheus Bruno (a parody of Harold Bloom) compares Pooh to Falstaff and argues that the Pooh books are too good to have been written by A.A. Milne and were probably written by Virginia Woolf.

Das Nuffa Dat, with whose appointment as professor it was announced that "marginality now takes center stage at Emory", applies postmodern postcolonial theory to Pooh, concluding

"If the ravages of imperialism are ever to end — if the colonising Heffalump one day lies down with the formerly colonised lamb — history may record that the first tremor of productive change was felt here, today, as we dear friends and scholars recontextualised a mere space of interrogation as a veritable site of intervention and, dare I say it, of contestation as well."

Renee Francis, who has "specialized in the application of scientific rigor to the study of children's literature", deploys sociobiology and biopoetics in a piece "Gene/Meme Covariation in Ashdown Forest: Pooh and the Consilience of Knowledge".

In "The Courage to Squeal" a repressed memory theorist argues that there is evidence in Pooh for Christopher Robin having been abused as a child. "And it's suggestive, to say the least, that the record of satanic cult activity in Milne's England of the twenties appears to have been very carefully and completely effaced."

A speaker who has changed his name to BIGGLORIA3 offers a piece "Virtual Bear", the presentation of which was accompanied by "taped, surround-sound, MIDI-generated white noise".

"So — is fanfiction, including P/P (Pooh/Piglet), a sure bet to be the future of writing? I thought so for a while, but then something bigger came along in the nineties: online social games. All of a sudden, it looked like you could forget about tender romance between Tigger and Rabbit or Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, because now we were going straight for what everybody really wants, flat-out interactive sex with lots of strangers."

Right-wing journalist Dudley Cravat III spends most of his paper attacking the other contributors, and indeed the whole MLA, but finds room to present some of his own ideas.

"... the immortal Pooh series. We know these books to be classics because they have withstood the test of time. Admittedly, less time has rolled by since Pooh's publication than since the appearance, say, of the late-Roman author Theodosius Macrobius's lively Commentary on the Dream of Scipio."
"Children are, after all, not a breed apart but merely very short people whose self-control and range of allusion still want improving."

And to close proceedings seminar organiser N. Mack Hobbs (apparently a parody of Stanley Fish) explains how much cleverer he is than everyone else in a paper "You Don't Know What Pooh Studies Are About, Do You, And Even If You Did, Do You Think Anyone Would Be Impressed?"

It is true that most of this stuff is self-parodying, that Crews could just as easily have pulled apart real papers to make his points. Postmodern Pooh, however, is vastly more entertaining and probably more effective than direct attacks on the abuses of literary theory: it will be read by students and academics who would never touch the latter. Most of the ideas targeted are relatively harmless and just need their pretensions pricked, some are positively dangerous — but in either case humour is a valuable tool for making people think.

Postmodern Pooh is the successor to a 1963 work The Pooh Perplex. Looking back at that, the foibles of mid-century critical theory now seem positively benign — and indeed the more recent work is far darker and harsher.

May 2002

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%T Postmodern Pooh
%A Crews, Frederick
%I North Point
%D 2001
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0865476268
%P xvi,175pp