Hearts and minds

Terry Castle's fearlessly frank essays range over sexual identity, family, jazz, lesbian kitsch and a devastating affair with an older academic. Matthew Reisz reports

May 5, 2011

Although her heart was never really in it, the young Terry Castle had a few brief brushes with heterosexuality.

In one case, her partner turned out to be very well-endowed. However, as she recalls in The Professor and Other Writings, which has just been published in the UK, "I was too ill-informed at the time to know there was anything out of the ordinary about this astonishing pink saber, or the explosive clumsiness with which its inexperienced owner wielded it. (A similar cluelessness would beset me again, many years later, when friends tried to teach me to play bridge.)"

The Professor is a series of autobiographical essays notable for their fearless frankness, and full of startling moments such as this. Castle examines the rather sick appeal of interior decoration magazines and her masochistic devotion to the critic Susan Sontag. She visits her great-uncle's First World War grave and reflects on "the near-total exclusion of (her) own sex from such primal dramas of unflinching physical courage". She has a great eye for what can only be described as lesbian kitsch, and incorporates digressions about Dolly Parton and her own mother's "Brit Group" online chat room, an ideal source of information about "the doings of the royal family and how to find Marmite in Kansas". Yet the book's central focus is sexual orientations and identities, not least within the academy.

Castle, who is Walter A. Hass professor in the humanities at Stanford University, writes with an academic's broad range of cultural references and ability to see both sides of a question. Yet once she started to produce more confessional essays, she was determined to avoid all "academic pieties and decorum".

"I have a certain buffoonish element in my character," she explains, "and I like getting that across, because pomposity drives me insane - and it's the besetting sin of academic life. I can't stand all that preening and vanity, often combined with an absurdly exaggerated sense of political importance or meaning.

"I've had feelings of disaffection about the world of scholarship over the past decade. Writing has become an ossified and artificial process that doesn't leave much room for anything direct or plain-spoken."

While this may be a general problem, it applies particularly to writing about something as exciting and messy as sex.

"I feel tired of queer theory," Castle reports, "to which I was always somewhat ambivalent. Wonderfully salacious things - cruising, sex in public places - became increasingly dull and lost any charge whatsoever, because you'd go to a conference and hear someone droning on about them in a completely absurd way."

It would be hard to imagine a book less pious, or less concerned to present its author in a favourable light, than The Professor. Castle takes her 81-year-old mother to New Mexico - a very belated 70th birthday present - and seems determined to use the trip as a way of demonstrating her own cultural superiority. She declares that the autobiography of the jazz saxophonist Art Pepper is "the greatest book I've ever read", partly for its "superprurient" accounts of the musician's sexual adventures, but mainly because Pepper was the exact opposite of her sociopathic stepbrother Jeff. Since his suicide, she reflects with characteristic and unnerving honesty, she has had "two decades to think about (Jeff) dead, always with the deepest sense of relief".

The book ends with a lengthy essay on what Castle calls the "mock-heroic spectacle of myself in middle age". Preparations for her wedding, just before it seemed that same-sex marriage might be abolished in California, lead into reminiscences of her "Sapphic salad days (the 1970s)".

These include an affectionately satirical account of the rather puritanical lesbian-separatist movement and the moment when it was challenged by "a rebellious horde of self-described 'sex-positive' lesbians (who) proclaimed the coming era of strap-ons, nipple clamps, and black silk negligees". But at its heart is an account of how the young, scholarly but immature Castle - "shy, feral, and still emotionally frozen at twenty-two" - was devastated by a brief affair with a much older woman professor.

This too turns out to be truly bizarre. The unnamed and now dead professor is said to have possessed "supercharged allure", despite "sporting (a) peculiar Elvis-crossed-with-Pippi-Longstocking look" and basing her repertoire as a gifted amateur folksinger around "grisly Appalachian murder ballads". Other oddities, Castle recalls, included "the Withered Leg, the Loaded Pistol in the Bedside Drawer (often to be taken out and examined during lovemaking), the Room in Her House One Was Never Allowed to Enter".

But Castle leaves us in no doubt about how deeply she was hurt and "morally flattened" by the end of their relationship - and how it was her academic discipline of 18th-century English literature that largely saved her from suicidal despair.

"I was drawn to the 18th century because the writers are so funny, the satiric spirit is so pronounced, the prose style is very straightforward and interested in a kind of clarity, combined with a sort of oppositional sensibility," she notes. "In Pope, Fielding, Austen, Dr Johnson and Aphra Behn, the humour emerges from deep, deep pain and dissatisfaction with being alive. I found reading such writers bracing, because they encourage one to turn anguish and depression to some hilarious end. That seemed a better way of dealing with them than moaning."

Her own writing technique, she says, often involves thinking up some really good jokes and then finding a way to connect the dots.

All this left Castle "somewhat immune to the forms of 'continental theory' that turned the heads of the American academy in the 1970s. I don't see the world that way. I want to be understood."

It also gave her a deep sense of literature's value as "an emotional and ethical tutorial".

"That has been largely lost in English departments," she adds, "to a sort of pseudo-scientific sociology. When I'm in a pessimistic mood I feel that the crisis in the humanities is in large part self-inflicted, through critiquing away the object of study to the point where there's nothing left of sustaining value or requiring a life's dedication."

When she considers her past, Castle feels that she "had to go through a kind of ordeal as a young person - and, if I were going to survive, it was because I could use the ordeal rather than being destroyed by it. That is how I tell myself the story now, although I don't know if I would have described it at the time in this almost mediaeval way."

But if her affair with "the professor" was necessary as well as damaging, it was followed by a celibate phase and then eventually, in the early 1980s, by a relationship with a graduate student that she describes as "the first seriously good relationship I'd ever had, at precisely the time I needed it most".

All this took place before the days of harassment codes, but today would be completely verboten. So what does she feel about universities' attempts to police consensual sex?

Although she is concerned by "the way academic life in the US has been increasingly codified to prevent litigation of countless different kinds", Castle is cautiously "glad that the regulations are now in the system". Yet, stubbornly contrary about sexual pieties, she also wants to challenge this conclusion, since she is "not sure if same-sex student-teacher relationships are the same as heterosexual. The classic story is the older male professor harassing a young female undergraduate - that was the form people were most worried about, because it was the most likely to happen, given the number of male professors.

"I've been struck by how many lesbians of my age had relationships with female teachers and looked back on them as a kind of initiation rite," she says. "When everything was closeted, there was something in those relationships that produced a sense of history and transmitted a lot of underground information."

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