Tenured Radical: I want to come back to the question of whether brilliance and suffering go together, which is a critical theme of the Art Pepper essay that we both loved. The way Terry Castle tells the story of her affair with the Professor, as you suggested yesterday Historiann, is a dramatic tour de force. But another way of summing up what we discussed, and what compels me, is the portrait of a young person who was so tightly wound and suffused with class anxiety, but also had access to depths of courage that are quite rare. What I wonder is, had she continued down the road she was on, might she have had a nervous breakdown anyway? On a certain level it was a mercy that it was a broken heart, rather than the anxious scholarly habits of her youth, that drove Castle into therapy and a lifetime of self-reflection. We are talking about someone who read all the books for a course before the semester began; and memorized, word for word, the essay she would write for a proctored exam. Something had to give — or, arguably, maybe nothing would have given, and she would have ended up being a frightened, uptight, conventional little plodder instead of the fabulous Terry Castle.
But to shift gears slightly, I would like to expand the context for The Professor’s predatory eroticism for our readers, and Castle’s vulnerability to it. One of the things I love about this difficult essay is that Castle evokes the excitement and the contradictions of a 1970s lesbian feminist world. Lots of different things were going on sexually then (a former Zenith professor alludes in her memoir to what I have been told were rampant faculty affairs with undergraduates) and everyone queer was half in and half out of the closet. This is why Castle begins with a reflection on Alix Dobkin’s music, which was coy and coded but to young lesbians seemed to really be about sex. It is also why, even though Castle frames the whole genre of “wimmin’s music” as deeply dorky by today’s standards (musical, feminist or lesbian), she bridles when her partner, Blakey (who came out a decade later), joins her in mocking it. Not so veiled references to masturbation in the lyrics, paeans to gym teachers, using the word “lesbian” over and over in a song — it was a big deal back then. Someone who came out in the age of ACT-UP and Babeland might find that impossible to understand or misperceive the music as only dorky. One of the moments when I howled with laughter was when Castle did a textual analysis of Dobkin’s “The Woman In Your Life,” ending it with the command: “Ladies, start your labia!” (159)
Because of this, I think Castle makes a great move when she raises the question of who was responsible for what in an affair that would now fit squarely in the category of sexual harassment. Now a middle-aged professor herself with a younger and clearly very self-sufficient lover, Castle wants to better understand her own agency in this affair, “just what it was about her that drew me to her: what peculiar pathos she evinced, and why I was so vulnerable to it.” (201)
What follows, I think, is that to become a succe
ssful professor is to necessarily become an object of desire. It is a burden and a great responsibility. The evening Castle and The Professor meet, this insecure, lonely graduate student experiences for the first time what it might mean to be an object of desire herself. “[The] Professor’s eyes lit up with pleasure,” Castle writes; “she kept a light sardonic gaze trained on me for most of the evening.” (236) Castle is first welcomed as a guest into the beautiful, cultured world that can be hers as an academic when she sees The Professor’s home. That moment really got me, because Castle is being introduced to the life she wants and will have, but she’s really going to pay to get it.
The Professor suing one of her former student-lovers for a sum of money she could have perfectly well afforded to give her strikes me as a parallel to contingent faculty paying back graduate school debt on meagre adjunct salaries.
Historiann: Good point. (And of all The Professor’s cruelties, that one really frosted the cookie for me. Unbelievable! It makes one wonder about the depths of humiliation and fear of intimacy that must have been at the root of The Professor’s compulsive seductions and manipulations.)
However, individual professors are personally responsible for seducing students. They may be complicit in a broken system, but professors are not personally responsible for the current state of the academic job market their students will face. Where I see the parallel here is in the willingness of the students to be seduced and taken advantage of. This goes back to what you called “the logic and erotic appeal of a secret affair,” and the denial you note. It’s not just that “she wouldn’t lie to me,” but also when faced either with a sex life that’s an exploitative cliche or a life as a permatemp, it’s a consoling belief in the face of the facts that “it won’t happen to me. I’ll be the exception. I will be loved/employed someday.” This kind of denial may be necessary not just in some romantic entanglements, but also in the minds of people who want to pursue an academic career. We’re all Clarissa, friends.
This returns us to a theme we discussed earlier–the working-class girl who makes it to Stanford. “The Professor” is fascinating because it makes her survival of her disastrous first Big Love appear to be a bigger triumph than her academic career. (Maybe that’s the way it feels to her, and to many of us who made it to employment and tenure.) I still maintain–Pollyanna that I am!–that cruelty, abuse and exploitation aren’t necessary either in romance or in our work lives. I really don’t think it makes us better people or better at our jobs. But, as Samuel Richardson showed us centuries ago in Castle’s second-favorite book of all time, it sure makes for a hell of a story.