Literary Criticism so long ago slipped over the edge into self parody that when I first found an old dog-eared copy of The Pooh Perplex at a book sale many years ago it took me more than a few pages to figure out whether it was meant to be serious or not. In a series of essays, various critics, of dubious but seemingly impressive pedigree, read the Pooh stories through the distorted lenses of their own literary/political/philosophical/psychological perspectives. It turned out of course that the book, published in 1964, had been the work of a young English professor at Berkeley (of all places) and was a parody, skewering several of the then current schools of criticism. Now, nearly forty years later, retired from academia, Professor Crews gives today's critics the satirical drubbing they so richly deserve in this manufactured set of lectures to the Modern Language Association convention. Happily, this second effort is just as funny as the first, though it is somewhat depressing to realize that his targets have become even easier to poke fun at because, one shudders at the thought, their theories are even more ridiculous than those of their predecessors.
I'll not pretend to understand all the nuances of what Professor Crews has written; heck, I don't even recognize all the schools of thought he's sending up, nor all the specific people he seems to have targeted. Everyone will discern Harold Bloom in the person of Orpheus Bruno, whose lecture is titled The Importance of Being Portly, and whose last three books are titled : My Vico, My Shakespeare, My God!; What You Don't Know Hurts Me; and Read These Books. And one assumes that Dudley Cravat III, whose contribution, Twilight of the Dogs, is one long bellow against the "sickness unto death" of the modern university, must incorporate at least a significant touch of William Bennett. Knowing who the victims are in these instances definitely adds to the enjoyment. Unfortunately (no, make that fortunately) most of the other models for these characters will be so obscure to anyone outside academia that the reader, at least this reader, won't know recognize them.
You can figure out, without too much trouble, that specific lectures are aimed at Deconstruction, Marxism, Feminism, Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, Evolutionary Psychology and so forth. Much of the enjoyment of the book lies in the way Crews can make the Pooh stories fit these absurd theories. He'll leave you half convinced that the Hundred Acre Wood is alternately a seething pit of repressed homosexual longings or pedophiliac torture; the oppressed colony of a brutal imperialist master; and a laboratory of Darwinism. The very capacity of these simple children's stories to bear the weight of each of these ideologies only serves to undermine them all. Such infinitely plastic criticisms must ultimately be about the theories themselves, not about the text that is supposedly under consideration.
One final feature of the book is particularly amusing, and especially frightening. Though the lectures are obviously made up, the footnotes appear to all refer to genuine sources, with titles like "The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination" and "The Vestal and the Fasces: Hegel, Lacan, Property, and the Feminine". I suppose someone trying to complete a doctoral thesis will write just about anything, but, please God, tell me no one has actually ever read them.
It all makes for very funny reading, but with a serious subtext. This is the kind of garbage that kids are being taught, with a straight face, in our schools today. That scares the heck out of me. Hopefully Professor Crews will keep that skewer pointy. We need someone to puncture the pretensions of these self-important intellectual nitwits.
GRADE : A