POSTMODERN POOH

By Frederick Crews

North Point. 175 pp. $22

Thirty-eight years ago, a young Berkeley English professor named Frederick Crews published The Pooh Perplex, in which imaginary writers of various persuasions then extant -- Leavisite, Marxist, Freudian -- each provided his (they were all men) interpretation of A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. It was, and is, a very funny book, and surprisingly barbed for a junior professor, but in the donnish way of a gentler time.

Things have changed. Thanks to the rise in the last 30 years of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and identity politics in literary criticism, and the ensuing backlash against them, the politics in academia has become even more bitter, in part because (the old saw notwithstanding) the combatants believe so much is at stake.

Frederick Crews has lived through this paradigm shift, having spent (remarkably) his entire career at Berkeley. He has certainly never restrained himself, having taken on, as a critic, psychoanalysis and the recovered memory movement, but now more than ever, as an emeritus, he has the luxury of being able to say whatever he wants. Postmodern Pooh, an entirely new collection of lit-crit parodies, pitched as a panel discussion at the MLA, is energized and enriched by the combination of Crews's freedom and his four decades of experience as an English professor. The result is a brilliant and savagely witty skewering of the combatants on all sides of the academic culture wars.

Some of Crews's fictional academics are types, not necessarily identifiable (at least not by me). In some cases the goofy names tell you all you need to know, as in the case of Das Nuffa Dat, a South Asian postcolonial theorist, and the Maoist Carla Gulag, who opens her talk with "Power to the People!" and ends it with "Venceremos!" Especially funny is Sisera Catheter, an angry queer theorist who is bitterly determined to "queer" the text of Winnie-the-Pooh, especially the chapter where Eeyore loses his tail. Finding a homoerotic subtext in one of Ernest Shepard's illustrations of Pooh and Eeyore, Catheter writes that Pooh "nervously checks his crotch, which offers no more reassurance of phallicity than he has gleaned from his voyeuristic, but also distinctly priapic, gazing at Eeyore's rear end. In this split second when Eeyore appears most invitingly available to be sodomized, the abashed Pooh realizes that the requisite tool is missing." And she ends her paper, entitled "Just Lack a Woman," with a hilariously we-will-bury-you exhortation: "Pooh looks ahead, despite its best contrary intentions, to an eventual dismantling of the patriarchy. Until then, boys, I don't care which orifice you choose for sharpening your little pencils; they'll just be useless stubs when e{acute}criture fe{acute}minine becomes the official idiom of power."

Equally arrogant and angry, and hilarious, is the conservative journalist Dudley Cravat III (read Tom Wolfe, Hilton Kramer or P. J. O'Rourke), who in "Twilight of the Dogs" relishes aiming his finely honed invective at an audience of pomo barbarians: "According to the anti-anti-Communist rainbow coalition now dictating the mono/multiculturalist line, our Pilgrim fathers were mere pow-wow crashers; San Antonio is a suburb of Mexico City; and the rest of our native land ought to be signed over forthwith to aborigines and be transformed into one vast combination sweat lodge and casino, where ecologically brainwashed college girls can wriggle out of their very tight jeans to worship the Great Spirit in mystic pelvic gyrations while their parents fork over what's left of their wampum at the blackjack table."

These are pitch-perfect lampoons of opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, and of the prose style of intellectual rage, but Crews's best efforts come when he's nailing somebody famous to his own rhetoric. Orpheus Bruno is his parody of Harold Bloom, who heaps erudite abuse on his pomo enemies -- "Your symbol hunting, don't you see, differs only trivially from that of the innocents who doze through your required courses and whom you despise without good reason." Especially priceless is the list of Bruno/Bloom's recent publications, directed at the reading public at large: "My Vico, My Shakespeare, My God! (1991), What You Don't Know Hurts Me (1995), and Just Read These Books (1998)."

The book ends with Crews's version of Stanley Fish, in the form of the power-hungry, career-mad N. Mack Hobbs, author of Donne Undone; The Last Theory Book You'll Ever Need to Read. The entire chapter is hilarious, a dead-on caricature of Fish's arrogance and wit, but one passage in particular captures his adolescent pugnacity, his I'm-right-and-you're-not swagger: "I don't mind explaining where most of my fellow panelists went off the rails. The problem was left-wing puritanism. Of course there's nothing wrong with being on the left; I myself am all for multiculturalism, affirmative action, and the rest of the progressive agenda, which has never posed much of a threat to my career."

If it weren't contrary to my own professional interest, I'd say this is the last academic satire you'll ever need to read. Indeed, it's become fashionable in recent years to say that the culture wars are over, but that's wishful thinking. The war sputters on, but it has devolved from the clash of overeducated armies by night to a kind of wasting trench warfare, in which little groups of identity politicians and old-school canonites are dug into hilltop fortresses like competing warlords, sniping uselessly at each other while the university is being remade by the Internet, budget-conscious administrators and corporations.

As incisive and hilarious as this book is, one comes away from it struggling with a creeping despair. For all the brilliant jokes in Postmodern Pooh, the book's greatest accomplishment may be in evoking the deadly sameness of its combatants' rage. The only thing the academics in this volume have in common -- radical and conservative, gay and straight, male and female and all points in between -- is a desperate arrogance, resulting in the kind of raised voices people adopt when they begin to suspect that nobody's listening. *

James Hynes is the author of "The Lecturer's Tale" and "Publish and Perish."