Monday, May 2, 2011

Pooh Plex Plaza

[This is Part II of my discussion which began on April 24 ("Crews & the Perplexing Pooh").]

Imagine a world in which only caricatures of real people would exist. Each person would be an exaggerated version of him/her-self, rather in the way that cartoonists stretch aspects of character and appearance, making immediately recognizable potato-heads and cooties out of familiar public figures for our delectation. In fiction, writers are free to make up imaginary characters, composites, or supernatural beings not based on specific people. But with parody, burlesque, or satire, imitation of real people is almost de rigueur. If you wish to poke fun at some aspect of popular culture or respected officialdom, you generally have to call a spade a spade, else your poison-tipped arrows won't find their mark.

When Frederick C. Crews published his crafty little parody of academic critics (and criticism),The Pooh Perplex: A Freshman Casebook [New York: Dutton] in 1963, he had in mind some very specific kinds of targets. Post-War American academic criticism had spawned some very peculiar birds, indeed, whose familiar peccadillos and conceits verily cried out for jeers.

The subtitle of the book, "A Freshman Casebook," placed it well within the context of the undergraduate introductory literary textbook. As most people know, the writing and editing of textbooks is a big business in the academic community (or teaching profession). Traditionally, aspirants to full professorships (promotion to tenured status and increased job security and pay) are expected to "prove" their eminence and worthiness through the placing of serious academic writing in periodicals or books. These may take the form of papers, ongoing studies, or full-length treatments of works or figures in the field, or relevant areas of thought and theory considered useful or previously neglected. Introductory "casebooks" of literature or critical theory may have widespread use, and become influential throughout the educational system. A "casebook" should provide a firm basis for further study, and offer varying points of view in considering an individual author, work, or period of history. In Crews's book, the subject-matter is the notorious academic "types" who write such texts themselves, which become the virtual specimens of their identity. A familiarity with such casebooks is not a requirement for understanding, or appreciating Crews's satire, but it's very familiar territory indeed for anyone who majored in English during the American post-War decades. If the portraits seem a bit exaggerated, it is only because Crews is being kind. Extreme distortion may be the only answer to the claim of cruelty against parody, lest charges of libel or character assassination be leveled against the transgressor. And parodists often publish under a pseudonym, another handy tool for dodging rancor.

Here are the titles from the table of contents:

Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh by Harvey C. Window.

A Bourgeois Writer's Proletarian Fables by Martin Tempralis.

The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse Notations on the Hums of Pooh by P.R. Honeycomb.

Poisoned Paradise: The Underside of Pooh by Myron Masterson.

O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh by C.J.L. Culpepper, D.Litt., Oxon.

Winnie and the Cultural Stream by Murphy A. Sweat.

A la recherche du Pooh perdu by Woodbine Meadowlark.

A Complete Analysis of Winnie-the-Pooh by Duns C. Penwiper.

Another Book to Cross Off Your List by Simon Lacerous.

The Style of Pooh Sources, Analogues, and Influences by Benjamin Thumb.

A.A. Milne's Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex by Karl Anschauung, M.D.

Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Winnie-the-Pooh by Smedley Force.

Each essay in the book includes a preliminary one-page biographical profile, and a "Questions and Study Projects" section at the end. Each portrait/essay describes a distinctive academic stereo-type, and all are male. There is the scornful and scolding old 'Thirties Communist Martin Tempralis, the Oxford Medievalist and Christian dogmatist C.J.L. Culpepper, the propounding majisterial Duns C. Penwiper, securely in possession of the Chicago tools of criticism, the Freudian Karl Anschauung (M.D.), and so on.

Perhaps the most striking theme which emerges from this exercise in parodic lampooning, is that the actual matter under examination is somehow irrelevant to the preoccupations of its readers. It is as if Winnie-the-Pooh is on a par with Proust, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Melville and Faulkner. Indeed, it almost doesn't seem to matter what comes under the scrutiny of these mad-hatters of analysis and exegesis. Under their bespectacled perusal, any work of literature, be it ever so humble or innocent, is fodder for the consuming. Building the collection of parodies around an innocent children's classic also tends to soften the effect of Crews's implied criticism. Crews was, and is, of course, himself a card-carrying member the academy, so any sense that he might be trying disassociate himself from the world he is describing, would have to take into account the fact of his own participation. Ultimately, it isn't the industry of textual criticism itself that Crews is really attacking, but the failures and pretenders and clowns who insinuate themselves into the cozy world of college teaching, whose private or partisan agendas, unsupported by legitimate scholarship or inspired insights and discoveries, represent the worst aspects of the institutions of higher learning. Or--to take a lighter tack--we might simply observe that Crews's academic caricatures signify nothing more than a desire to find amusement in what is routinely a very dry field of endeavor indeed. By fostering an atmosphere of resilient levity, Crews offers students and professors an alternative to high church probity, in judging the world they inhabit, incidentally throwing some much needed frigid well water on the preposterous, the pompous and the puerile.

Because of the limitations of space, we shall have to content ourselves with a sampling (of four) of the "bio" notes to the essays, since a full-scale deconstruction of the parodies themselves would involve at least as long a book, as the original text itself [149pp].

"MARTIN TEMPRALIS wrote the following piece ("A Bourgeois Writer's Proletarian Fables") in 1939 for the New Reporter. It is, as recent graduates of American high schools will recognize, an essay rather strictly governed by the application of a certain political dogma to literary questions. Your editor reprints it here (not without some misgivings) because it represents a particular style of criticism that was once in fashion. We live in a free society where virtually any opinion may be defended, including those of Mr. Tempralis in 1939. Your editor would like only to reassure all readers that he in no way subscribes to, supports, or, as it were, travels along with the views expressed in this essay. Naturally it is for each class, or rather for each student individually, freely to make up his mind about the merit of Mr. Tempralis's argument. Teachers may, if they so choose, accompany this selction with an extra-credit, outside-reading assignment of Mr. J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit. Mr. Tempralis, formerly a New York journalist, returned to his native Jackson, Mississippi in 1946 and retired from the public eye for several years. He is now both publisher and editor of the Jackson White Democrat. In 1956 he was commended by a Committee of the U.S. Senate for turning over his address book from the 1930's."

"WOODBINE MEADOWLARK describes himself frankly as "a perpetual graduate student." Though his face and name have become legendary in Harvard Yard over the years, and though he is praised by all his teachers, he has never bothered to present himself for his doctor's orals. "I love literature too deeply to put up with the botanizing that is done upon it in graduate work," he explains. " I attend some classes here and there, but I insist upon remaining a free spirit, unfettered by academic routing. Literature is the very breath of my life; and, as I happen to have an independent income, I can afford to live exactly as the caprices of my whimsy dictate." The following essay, which once circulated in manuscript among Mr. Meadowlark's most intimate friends, is said to have found its way to an editor's desk by sheerest accident, without the author's knowledge. Since its first appearance, however, it has been reprinted several times."

"SIMON LACEROUS is perhaps the most feared and respected critic in England. An implacable foe of sentimentality, flabby aestheticism, and inflated reputations, he has made English authors tremble since the publication of his first volume, Assassinations, thirty years ago. Though he is a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, he despises the entire English University system. Of his fellow Fellows he has said: "They can all go to hell. Of course, some should go before others. One has a responsibility to make discriminations." He and his wife, Trixie, were the guiding spirits behind the now defunct but extremely influential quarterly, Thumbscrew. Several of the younger critics who have taken up the battle against sentimentality, flabby aestheticism, and inflated reputations owe their start and their moral guidance to Dr. Lacerous."

"KARL ANSCHAUUNG, M.D., one of the last survivors of Freud's original circle of Viennese followers in the first decade of this century, died in 1960 after an extremely active career as an analyst. In an autobiographical memoir written just before the end, he declared that "I have never swerved one inch from the basic teachings of Freud. Never, never, never. Not one inch. I have remained faithful to Freud through thick and thin. This is the justification of all my work." In the last years of his life Dr. Anschauung turned his attention to literary problems, "in the hope," he wrote, "of clearing up one or two matters on which the Master left us incomplete formulations." One happy result was the following article, here reprinted from the journal Lustprinzip and translated into English by Dr. B.B. Braille. Dr. Braille, incidentally, wants your editor to mention that he was among the first and best translators of Freud, and commends your attention especially to the original jokes he substituted for Freud's in translating Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious."

Thus endeth the lesson.


J said...
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J said...

Crews' criticism/satire of Freudians I vaguely recall (in another work as well, right)--and that's commendable, I guess --though would need to review the essay. He opposed marxism as well.

Crews seems a bit...positivistic in ways--that has positives and negatives. The early Freud of the ego psychology , dream analysis and so forth is odd and ...conjectural (though I would not call it pseudo-science exactly)--and his theory rather difficult to verify, per the Oxbridge demands .

The later Freud of Civilization and Discontents however was quite a sage, actually--a poet of pathology if you will, regardless if Karl Popper and pals agreed or not. Besides, assume a Popperian criteria and 3/4s of the UC faculty would be pink slipped today.