The Tribune - Spectrum


, April 14, 2002

Hilarious spoof on post-structuralism
M. L. Raina

Postmodern Pooh
by Frederick Crews.
North Point Press, New York. Pages xvi+175. Price $22.

Postmodern PoohTHIS book is a sequel to Frederick Crews’ 1963 send-up of the then prevailing critical practice, ‘Pooh Perplex’. It takes on the currently fashionable schools of literary and cultural 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’ parody, done in a gutsy, funny and hugely tonic fashion. 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 lately on Indian campuses as well.

Contrary to the utter opacity of the critical schools (highlighted by Crews’ take on Spivak and her acolytes), Crews’parody is entertaining, laughter raising and abrasively mock sophistical. In this way it reiterates faith in what eminent critics from Johnson to Leavis have called ‘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 cant and pedantry.


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, 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 ‘difference’ and ‘freeplay’ of signifiers, his French-fried English accent lending an exotic touch to his pronouncements. Behold, they said, a new era in literary criticism is upon us! English departments would never be the same again! The old fogeydom was on the run, so they believed.

Remember Harold Bloom telling us that a new poet does not absorb but fights his predecessor? Or Jonathan Culler reading his new gospel, Structuralist Poetics at Mussorie in 1974? Or Edward Said ruffling the colonial dovecotes with his Orientalism? Or Frederic Jameson stepping on to the footlights with Marxism and Form? Or Gilbert and Gubar tracing the mad woman in every writer’s musty attic? Or Julia Kristeva smelling abjection in the Freudian-Lacanian bran tub?

Yes, these new voices blew the teacosies off our bland complacencies. They told us, as did the child in the story, that incumbent critical emperors and empresses wore no clothes. Their rock-‘em- sock-‘em prose style rustled the pages of journals and echoed from classrooms. The renegade anti-philosopher Derrida became their sage and Foucault, Barthes, Lacan and Deleuze-Guattari anointed themselves as the latest saints of the new theodicy.

As the entrenched professoriat looked on helplessly, the vandals-turned repairmen took over the Modern Language Association in America (here parodied as Modish Languid Association). Driven to the wall, they cried foul: William Bennett, the Education Secretary giving the loudest of toots on his worn out cultural blowhorn. We had entered the age of discourse and unstable meanings!

Alas, like all revolutions, this one too started devouring its offspring. Literature got bonded to theory; authors disappeared leaving only traces and ‘aporias’ behind. Writing was afflicted with what Raymond Tallis called ‘Theorrea’. New arcana intelligible only to the initiates were spawned. Criticism became and has remained since a one-sided game played by dilettante academics with upstart expertise.

Crews’parody (based on how pretentious exegetes can emasculate an innocent children’s story, Winnie the Pooh) reveals a theory-choked critical terrain stricken with terminal jargonitis. It seems that critics now write only for other critics ignoring Mahashewata Devi’s rebuke to Spivak not to misrepresent authors. They neglect Umberto Eco’s advice to authors and critics to be accessible, conveyed through Father Williams in Name of the Rose. They go on cranking on their ‘wordy-gurdy’, to quote Beckett, utterly unmindful of sense and meaning. The best parody is of Gayatri Spivak and her impenetrable, ungrammatical prose—now being sedulously cultivated by some Indian academics as well. It is good to remember that she was awarded a top American prize for writing abominably.

It is one thing to approach literature from diverse viewpoints and quite another to replace it by undigested theory. Alexander Pope foresaw it all more than 200 years ago: "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 Durfy’s tales."

Frederick Crews assures us that it is possible to be an important critic and be accessible to boot. Genuinely sceptical of the new conspiracy replacing the teaching of literature, he points out the totalitarian tendencies inherent in the so-called flurry of political correctness. He is in the safe company of George Steiner and Jacques Barzun. among others.