Several weeks ago we at Tenured Radical received an email from Historiann, who was reading Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings (HarperCollins, 2010.) She notified us that this book — a combination of memoir and cultural criticism — was right up our alley. Several days later, when this slim volume by a Stanford English professor I have long admired had arrived by three-day shipping (and all household activities had been put on hold indefinitely as we went on a binge of reading and downloading Art Pepper albums), Tenured Radical and Historiann agreed that a blog-to-blog conversation was in order.
Tenured Radical: OK, Historiann, here goes. Much as I want to cut straight to the essay about The Professor Herself, I think we owe our readers a little introduction to Terry Castle. I have been a fan since one of her articles, “The Marie Antoinette Obsession” (Representations 38, Spring 1992) showed up in a pile of submissions for the Berkshire Conference article prize. For people who haven’t read it, the article is both historical and literary, and concerns a fin de siecle phenomenon in which Victorian women wrote vivid accounts about imagined relationships with Marie Antoinette’s spirit. One woman had a fantasy about having been the doomed Queen’s lover in a past life; another pair of women “encountered” her while they were touring Le Petit Trianon. The stories, which overlapped with the emergence of homosexuality and the definition of lesbianism as a female sexual category, became a recurring phenomenon in a very narrow time frame when sexology had emerged but was not yet dominant. In other words, Marie Antoinette encounters were occurring at an intellectual/cultural moment that followed the Oscar Wilde trial in which the idea of “homosexuality”carried legal and social stigma but the idea of sex between women did not, nor was lesbianism more generally understood as a scientific description for women who loved each other. Since it was widely rumored that Marie Antoinette had had affairs with women (it was one of the charges at her trial, along with the accusation she had committed incest with the Dauphin), she became a tragic figure into which late nineteenth century women inserted fantasies about “who they were.” I remember thinking that this was one of the most intelligent and imaginative articles I read that year, and I wondered, who is this person?
But I never bothered to find out until you suggested I read this new book, The Professor and Other Writings, a collection of essays that are pleassantly un-academic, but equally imaginative, intelligent, creative and quirky. And of course, you were exactly right when you said that Terry Castle is a blogger manque. Who knew the Stanford English Department harbored someone like us?
Historiann: Who, indeed. At first, her essays seemed rather discursive and not terribly argument driven, which is what made me think that they were written in more of a bloggy fashion than in traditional essay form. But, as on blogs that mix the personal and the quotidian with the professional and the profound, it works for her. For example, in “My Heroin Christmas,” she explores her fascination with jazz musician Art Pepper by listening compulsively to his recordings on a DVD walkman and reading his semi-pornographic 1979 autobiography, Straight Life while visiting her mother over the holidays. (She calls Straight Life “the greatest book I’ve ever read. . . It knocked my former pick, Clarissa, right out of first place. As Art himself might say, my joint is getting big just thinking about it,” 42. That was a pretty clever bit of foreshadowing there–pay attention!)
Towards the beginning of the essay, she notes that she’s staying in a room in her mother’s house that used to belong to “Jeff.” Jeff? When I first read that, I thought, “how odd–or even sloppy–to mention a character who hasn’t yet been introduced to us.” But over the course of the essay in which she explores Pepper’s outrageous, reckless life, Castle makes it clear why she is thinking and writing about Jeff and his role in her troubled family life. At the
end of the essay, it makes sense that she riffs off of Pepper’s music and autobiography in exploring the family life she lived as the child of divorce whose parents both remarried and introduced stepchildren into the family.
I also really enjoyed “Sicily Diary,” a hilarious description of a holiday with her girlfriend in 2004 in which she memorably sees the Capuchin catacombs full of mummified corpses, picks up a stomach bug, and feels conspicuously middle-aged and Anglophone. Here’s a sample: “Like a fool I kept trying to eat that night: had some tortellini with Maalox for supper, washed down by a large bicchierri of orange flavored Metamucil, the healthful fiber supplement B. [her girlfriend] had brought with us from California. Tottering around Lipari town that evening–everyone else in thongs and mini-shorts and see-through beach wraps–we looked pale and Victorian and ridiculously out of place. Lady Hester Stanhope and her Special Friend. Why hadn’t we gone to Lesbos instead?” Another memorably funny passage inspired by her new dachshund pup, Wally: “Though only eight months old, Wally is as slutty and insouciant as Private Lyndie England. All she needs is a dangling cigarette and a tiny pair of four-legged camouflage pants,” 84.
“Desperately Seeking Susan” is one of the two essays that has received the most attention in this collection, and anybody over the age of 35 will probably flip to this one first, because it recounts Castle’s sort-of friendship with Susan Sontag, a public intellectual of great interest to many girls or young women who ever dreamed of living in New York and having people listen to them and take them very, very seriously. Castle got acquainted with Sontag when Sontag sent Castle a fan letter (really!) and then had a stint as a writer-in-residence at Stanford. But, being friends with Susan Sontag sounds like a lot of work and a lot of self-repression, because like a lot of smarty-pants people (regardless of celebrity, but magnified by it undoubtedly), Sontag sounds like she was mostly a condescending pain-in-the-a$$. Castle tells several stories of how she’s reminded clearly and in no uncertain terms that she’s not in with the kool kidz in New York: “I was never quite sure what she wanted. And besides, whatever that was, after a while she stopped wanting it. I visited her several times in New York City and even got invited to the London Terrace penthouse to see the famous book collection. (Of course, Terry, mine is the greatest library in private hands in the world.),” 98.
Who talks like that? Have you ever had a friend who repeatedly called you by your first name like that? I have, and I find it terribly condescending, as though I might forget my own name or my place (subordinate, always!) in the relationship.
Tenured Radical: Not exactly. But I do think it is a not uncommon experience for popular, non-academic writers to cling to academics with a combination of lust and loathing. And really famous people can be dramatically insecure – often all those dinner parties, fans and bombast are about bolstering their own egos. The public intellectual and the academic can be a perfect combination made in hell, if you think about it. They don’t have the credentials, and we do; we don’t have the audience we crave and they do. So it’s this nasty little circle of envy and dependence, where we are pretty much always the supplicants – except, as in the Sontag case, where the playing field was initially leveled because Sontag was out of her element during the Stanford fellowship and it triggered all her insecurities. I’m guessing that glomming onto Castle was her way of reassuring her self that she was still “Susan Sontag.” She needed someone to perform in front of who also knew the ropes and customs of academia.
Historiann: Great point. There’s a similar kind of envy and loathing that characterizes the relationship between scholars and journalists in particular. They hate it that we have tenure, but we don’t have the audience that they do. (At least off-blog!)