Monday, April 14, 2008

How Not To Be a Christian Literary Critic

From the essay "O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh," by C. J. L. Culpepper, D.Lit., Oxon:
In every case of authentic literature – and the reader will be able to supply innumerable examples from his own experience – the literary value results from a kernel of serious moral doctrine that is surrounded by a superficial appeal to the eye and ear. The business of criticism, as I comprehend it, is to peel away this outer husk, discard it where it will do no further harm, and expose the core of sententia for all to understand. The responsibility I am currently imposing upon my modest analytic powers is that of finding the central meaning in Winnie-the-Pooh.

It comes as no surprise, I feel sure, to most readers when they are told that this charming little volume contains exhortations to virtue. The hasty view of Robertus Tracy, that from Winnie-the-Pooh "Educatio ethica clementer abest," cannot be generally shared. It may well be doubted whether any children's literature, much less a book that has proven its durability so convincingly as this one, is lacking in instruction. What remains at issue, however, is the far more interesting question whether the moral teaching is of a Christian or merely a generally "moralistic" nature, as is unfortunately the case in most such stories. It is all very well for little red engines to huff and puff up steep gradients to illustrate the necessity of Trying Harder, but this doesn't bring us any closer to salvation, does it? The Iliad, in contrast, though its author labored under the inconvenience of a painful anachronism, points us heavenward as surely as does the want of Mercury in Botticelli's "Primavera." The task before us is therefore clear: first, to certify Winnie-the-Pooh as legitimate literature by demonstrating that it contains Christian dogma; and secondly, to raise it to the level of great literature by showing the historic purity of its connection to the traditional sources of Christian thought, in opposition to the erroneous whimsies of Latitudinarians and Enthusiasts.

Let me proclaim at once that, although there are few overt citations of Holy Writ in Winnie-the-Pooh, the subject of the book is nothing other than the central drama of our faith: the Fall and Redemption of Man. We Christian critics learned long ago not to be put off by a secular or even an impious tone in literary works. If one is convinced that a particular book contains greatness, and if that book persists in refusing to come out forthrightly and preach to us, the only answer must be that its dogma is communicated allegorically. This, by the way, was exactly St Augustine's principle in recommending the study of the ancient classics, and gentle Chaucer expressed the same sentiment: "al that written is / To oure doctrine it is y-write, y-wise." When we return to Winnie-the-Pooh with the exemplary tradition of Spenser, Bunyan, and Milton in mind, we perceive without difficulty not one allegorical point, but many – and all tending, I need hardly say, to the moral education of the Christian gentleman, the very purpose that guided Spenser unflaggingly through 3,850 thrilling stanzas of the Faerie Queene.
This, in fact, is satire. Anyone who has ever suffered through an English class in an institution of higher learning must acquire Frederick C. Crews' The Pooh Perplex: A Freshman Casebook, from which this excerpt is drawn. Perhaps my favorite line in the book is from the mock Aristotelian scholar Duns C. Penwiper, in his essay "A Complete Analysis of Winnie-the-Pooh," in which he writes: "Now the great contribution that Aristotle made to our understanding of the concept of plot was his discovery that a plot should have, first, a beginning; secondly, a middle; and last but not least, and end." This is in fact a complete summary of Aristotle's Poetics, so you can cross that one off your to-read list. Crews has recently produced an in dispensable sequel, Postmodern Pooh. Both works should be on your post-Paschal reading list.

For more reflections on Pooh, see here and here.

1 comment:

Esteban Vázquez said...

As one who has "done time" among Comparatists and other vile Theorists, I hold Crews in the Highest Esteem, and his books adorn my nightstand, along with a few other essential volumes.