Pooh and Bears
BEARS THAT ONLY LIVE IN THE IMAGINATION.
Winnie-the-Pooh has been brought out of his hermetically sealed glass cabinet in the New York public library and sat in the august Mayor's lap, in front of the international press. Pooh Bear, originally a stuffed teddy bear whisked out the arms of A.A. Milne's children to promote his book characters 'Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga and Piglet' looked like he could do with a cuddle. But such intimacy, such homage to childhood symbols was distinctly marred by the surgical gloves worn by the benign Rudolph Giuliani.
It was a case of the hyperreal getting the better of this quaint story of bear homelessness and cultural displacement. For Pooh bear is out of reach of children's bacteria harbouring hands. Far too precious to us grown-ups as a symbol of childhood, Pooh bear can only be handled with latex, not even kid, gloves.
If it seems that poor old Pooh is being exploited by yet another show of "American Cultural Imperialism" (as it goes) there are worse things to consider in the history of stuffed teddy bears.
The New York major might think he was making wiley use of the media, championing Pooh as another rather eccentric New York resident, but he is small fry compared to the attention won by the President of the United States, one Theodore Roosevelt, when he refused to shoot a cub bear while on one his numerous hunting expeditions, in Mississippi in 1906. He'd been quite happy to shoot its mother, it seems, and who knows what happened to that poor little bear, left to his own devices.
So Pooh bear's precedent, the stuffed bear, was born out of a similar indeterminacy of identity. He was also not only orphaned in real terms, but in cultural terms his symbolism also orphaned the cub bear, or left him out of our reach. And similar to Pooh, this terrified cub gave rise to a craze of symbols including the popular sheet song hit "The Teddy Bear March" and a number of short films further lampooning the president, 'Teddy' Roosevelt. Both bears have been swallowed up by their own significance, devoured by the symbols accrued to them.
This process of symbolic devouring has been given much thought by cultural theorists with intimidating names and complex ideas. Jean Baudrillard calls it 'simulation' an argument which claims that the 'real' America is in fact Disneyland. While we may have once claimed some relation between symbols or signs and the real things they represent, it is 'the condition of postmodernity' that we no longer seek such a connection.
Signs like Pooh Bear and stuffed bears devour real bears. Pooh bear and stuffed bears don't even refer to real bears, instead they serve to mask the fact that they have been left out of our cultural scene, absent to the whole sit-in-the-mayor's-lap media enterprise. What we have in place of real bears is nostalgia, simulation, and I would argue a weird cultural disavowal of the plight of real bear populations right across the earth's surface, an indifference to their rapidly diminishing numbers born of a beatific obsession and childish indulgence in our own symbols.
This is not to say Pooh-Bear is unworthy of our attention and affection. It is to say that this kind of attention is a symptom of losing our way with 'reality', even if this is a term in hot dispute.
In May 1996, SBS took a ratings risk and ran a news story about bears being poached throughout North America, Asia and Russia, for their gall bladder bile and body parts used in Chinese Medicine and to supply the exotic food trade. The bile is worth its weight in cocaine and it is believed the Russian Mafia have become involved using helicopters and highly sophisticated arms.
It should come as no surprise that the bile is used in cosmetics and shampoos.
I suppose everyone has a saturation point of being witness to atrocities, screened on the other side of our living rooms. This footage was mine. The images of a bear screaming, trying to shake a bullet from its head while clinging to a tree, and its cub being cut from a tree while hunter's dogs literally tore it apart still wakes me at night two years later. At the time I barely ate or slept for a week.
Despite Disneyland, Pooh-bear, and the joys of stuffed bears this footage has lodged stubbornly in my consciousness, like the bear's bullet, and has come to stand in the place of the manifest despair I carry in the background about the fact that our natural world is dying around us, and when it goes, we go too.
Canadian Airlines has plastered cute bear pictures on Melbourne trams, asking us to "Bear them in Mind". Truth is, Canada's Black Bear population will come close to ceasing to exist in the wild in only three short years if the current rate of poaching keeps up.
Worth bearing in mind?
There may be times when questioning the 'reality' of representations, say of the Gulf War, is a very good way to place some of our most damaging myths in jeopardy. In the case of bears however, we have three years to reconnect our nostalgia and symbols to real bears who are in dire need of media attention and glove's off defence.
Pooh bear might make whimsical copy. The last sight of the cub I watched being torn apart was a circle of hunters, his flesh and limbs being strewn at their feet. Its an image for which Pooh bear offers small comfort.