Winnieing With Delight

The Bear of Very Little Brain was a contemporary philosopher in disguise.

This week the media announced that Winnie-the-Pooh is celebrating his 75th birthday. My instinctive reaction to that congratulatory message rumbled straight from the depths of my bearish being: "No thanks! I may be older now, but 75 - no sir! I haven't hit that number yet!"

And why do I say that? Because when I was a radio actor in my younger days, not only did I hee-haw the part of Eeyore the donkey, but I was the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh on a children's program that was aired on Israel radio every week throughout the 1950s and `60s.

People were so used to me being "Pooh the Bear" that my friend Amnon Achi-Naomi, interviewing me on his radio show when I was already a university lecturer in the psychology of dialogue, accidentally called me "Pooh" in the middle of the interview.

So many kids would ambush me outside the television studio that the late children's author, Uriel Ofek, who wrote the script for "Pooh the Bear," prepared a special Purim skit about Pooh masquerading as Eeyore so that I could show off my bear growling and donkey braying.

With no television back then, I was hired to appear before groups of children at the YMCA in Jerusalem, so anxious were they to see Winnie-the-Pooh growl, sing and philosophize in what the newspaper critics called my "deep, husky, silly voice."

Upon hearing author Yehuda Atlas declare on TV this week that "Winnie-the-Pooh" is the smartest book he ever read, I picked up Aviva Krinsky's "Pooh the Bear and the Philosophy of the Other" ( Am Oved, 2000) and discovered, to my astonishment, that the radiophonic ramblings of my youth have been the stuff of academic research for the past 20-30 years.

Krinsky's book analyzes Pooh the Bear's "wisdom" in light of the inter-subjectivity theory of Edmond Husserl, the father of phenomenology. This complicated philosophical idea posits that even a subjective view of the world around us (including our perception of other human beings) is anchored in an objective view of objects and entities. If it were not, interpersonal communication would be impossible. People may perceive things differently and have their own Rashomon-style slant on what is transpiring around them, but "we are still capable of understanding our neighbors and establishing an objective, factual world ... that exists for all of us."

Husserl calls this approach to the world "inter-subjective" because it is objective and subjective simultaneously. However, the unbearable ease with which the existentialists have urged us to relate to existential experiences subjectively has been widely criticized. Husserl never explained in concrete terms how such an approach could be put into practice. Winnie-the-Pooh, on the other hand, endowed with childish wisdom and simplicity, shows us that the psychologist's shopworn mantra about "empathy" helping us to understand the other is just a lot of talk.

In analyzing Kanga the kangaroo's confrontation with the animals of the forest, who decide there is no room for unfamiliar creatures like her (i.e., the other) in their kingdom, Krinsky focuses on Piglet's attempt to jump into Kanga's pouch. According to Husserl's theory of existential phenomenology, an inter-subjective relationship is supposed to materialize through the power of the empathy: When the subject tries to experience what the other experiences by exchanging places, presumably everything is put right and it becomes possible to accept the other.

But an example from life in the forest - every Tuesday Kanga teaches Pooh the art of jumping into a kangaroo's pouch - is enough to convince us that putting oneself in someone else's shoes in order to understand and accept him is not that simple.

For years, I have been telling my students that dialogue requires study and acquiring a religious-cultural understanding of the world of the other. Without it, there is no coexistence and mutual acceptance. In her epilogue, Krinsky illustrates, with the help of Winnie-the-Pooh, that "empathy" and blurring the boundaries between the subject and the other are not sufficient to bring about the inter-subjective acceptance of the other (Kanga) as an equal member of the animal kingdom (symbolizing, if you like, the jungle in which we live).

"Up until this point," writes Krinsky, "the story appears to follow Husserl's model of attaining familiarity with the other. The efficacy of changing places, however, is cast in doubt. Will Pooh learn how to jump like Kanga? Very doubtful. And what about Piglet, who is scrubbed clean in Kanga's bathtub? The moment he escapes from her strangulating embrace, he rushes home, rolling on his back to restore his beautiful old color." Evoking the verse from Jeremiah "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" Krinsky rightly asks whether a harmonious, coherent world has indeed been created.

I myself have been pondering for years whether it is possible to create inter-cultural dialogue founded on textual pluralism, in keeping with the saying of our sages that "Torah has 70 faces." According to this model of dialogue, equal weight is given to the narratives of both parties in a dispute, and no narrative is superciliously foisted on the other. Recognizing the psychological need of human beings to tell their life story, I have developed what I call the "recomposing method," in which a person rewrites the melody of his life. My inspiration comes from the world of religious repentance and midrash (homiletic interpretation of the Scriptures), which allows a biography to be rescripted: The failures of the past can be read in a new way.

A.A. Milne says that of all the stories in the world, Winnie-the-Pooh's favorites are stories about himself. With the help of these stories, Pooh goes back and reinvents things. But the story must be grounded in reality in order for the storyteller to be able to live with it.

My re-acquaintance with Pooh through Aviva Krinsky has done more to convince me than countless academic tomes that when I sang "the rain rain rain came down down down" on the radio in that "deep, husky, silly voice" of mine, so that the bees would think I was a little black rain cloud, I did a better job of conveying to my listeners that the bees didn't buy it than I ever did in the books I wrote later on. The bees knew it was a hoax because the recomposed melody of life must harmonize with the cultural melody a person must sing if he wants to belong.

Congratulations Winnie-the-Pooh! Happy birthday! May you live to 120!

Mordechai Rotenberg, a professor at Hebrew University, specializes in psychology and religion.