by Frederick Crews
Published by North Point Press
175 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Nearly 40 years ago, a young literary scholar by the name of Frederick Crews had an inspired idea: to portray his trendsetting peers in the act of applying their critical acumen to the adventures of that deceptively simpleminded teddy bear of storybook fame, Winnie-the-Pooh. In incisive chapters entitled "A Bourgeois Writer's Proletarian Fables," "A la recherche du Pooh perdu," and so forth, Freudian and Marxist, New Critic and Neo-Aristotelian alike had at the Pooh texts, dredging up their hidden layers of meaning for the enlightenment of the hitherto unsuspecting reader. The Pooh Perplex became a bestseller, a must read discussed at sherry-and-cheese gatherings from coast to coast.
Postmodern Pooh picks up where The Pooh Perplex left off all those years ago. Purporting to be the proceedings of a forum on Pooh convened at the Modern Language Association's annual convention, Postmodern Pooh parodies the academic fads and figures that hold sway at the millennium.
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
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 took 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 coincides 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. | September 2001
Copyright © 2001 Frederick Crews
Frederick Crews is professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley.