If you recall, when Tenured Radical and I broke off yesterday in Part I of our discussion of Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, we were talking about the odd attraction and revulsion that characterizes relationships between academics and public intellectuals. At least, it’s why I’ve always forgiven Gore Vidal for his nasty swipes at the “Assistant Professors” of his imagination, who according to Vidal were always scurrying off to write something narrow and pointless. Vidal never went to college. (The Deuce had a lot to do with that, since he was Philips Exeter Class of 1943.)
So here we are again–gossiping about Susan Sontag! Today, we’re moving along to some of the even knottier issues that The Professor raised in our minds, those of desire, longing, and the price one pays to join the academic club. And as some of you have reported here, sex is one way young scholars can gain admission, or at least imagine that that’s what they’ve done.
The second paradox you raise is that we academics seek out larger than life “female/heroes” like Sontag and The Professor, but inevitably, the heroism of such people is not unconnected to their narcissistic need to humiliate us. The question is, are we drawn to them because somehow we actually know that they will do that thing which we fear the most? In this sense, all the essays strike me as exercises in coming to terms with humiliation and the longing to be part of the most exclusive club. It’s no accident, I think, that Castle’s obsession with Art Pepper, maniac cockmeister and a sublime, brilliant drug-addicted jazz musician covered with tattoos, takes hold at the exact time she is driving around in her persona as a respectable professor with a trunk full of research intended for an article she knows, in her heart, she will never write.
One might argue that visiting the childhood home she fled at eighteen to become a fancy literature professor, bound by rules and conventions, triggers an ongoing fantasy of becoming a brilliant outlaw. If I go back to “The Marie Antoinette Obsession,” I see that not only its structure and style has a jazz sensibility, but it displays a keen awareness that humans have experiences that evade rational scientism. Hence, fantasy and improbable narratives become bridges to the modern, since people do not necessarily understand what they are experiencing at the moment it is happening, even if technically the language exists for it.
I’m taking too long to get back to “The Professor,” I know, but I think this, and the Sontag essay, set us up for that final, blockbuster title essay about what it means – and what it it might cost – to join the “club” we all belong to as professional scholars. Castle’s living memory of the first approach from Sontag – “when I replay it in my mind, I still get a weird toxic jolt of adolescent joy, like taking a big hit of Krazy Glue vapors out of a paper bag” (93) – is a hint of things to come as she reflects on her calamitous introduction to both lesbianism and the academy, and of the craziness that she will agree to in her affair with The Professor. It is a craziness that nearly destroys her. Part of what I admire about the essay is how naked it is about both these things. She is able to describe the filthiest forms of abuse and, at the same time, make us understand the logic of the affair, the intensity of her desire and why she sought it out something that nearly destroyed her. In fact, part of how I read the essay was as a lesbian bildungsroman, a heroic journey of suffering that will liberate her to become not just a scholar but an artist. The Professor is her heroin. Because of this affair, in which Castle demonstrates no small capacity for offering herself up for abuse, she is transformed from being a desperate, conventional little workaholic drone to being a profoundly imaginative and original scholar.
Historiann: You raise a number of interesting issues here. I like your angle that this is a collection of essays about “coming to terms with humiliation and longing,” and that it’s connected to her passing as an elite intellectual when she’s really “just” a working-class girl. Her writing reminds me of Sarah Silverman’s comedy—there seem to be no limits on what she’s willing to reveal about herself, frequently to the point where the reader is cringing on her behalf because she’s so exposed. (This apparently guileless exposure is another connection back to the style and substance of the Art Pepper autobiography.)
What reader doesn’t cringe in “Desperately Seeking Susan” when Laurie Anderson smiles and waves at Castle, who is initially flattered until Anderson makes it clear that she just wants her to pass the wine? But, of course, there are limits. “Terry Castle” is a character in these essays, and self-exposure is just part of that character’s realization. Still, I admire her willingness to make “Terry Castle” look pathetic, or foolish, or desperate. (I don’t think I could write like that, anyway.)
That’s part of what makes the essay “The Professor” so sad and so wrenching—and, I’m afraid for some of our readers, perhaps—so recognizable. She embarks on a passionate love affair with a professor in her department who is charming but also deeply manipulative and needy. At every turn in the relationship Castle describes, as a reader I felt like I was in the audience at a horror movie in which I and the rest of the audience are all screaming, “NO! Don’t do it! Don’t look behind that door!!! Don’t go in the basement alone!!!”
But of course—she will meet the professor for dinner. She will embark on the affair. She will go back to bed with her, after the Professor not only admits but boasts that she’s been sleeping with at least two other young women. She will fall for the line that the other women don’t really mean anything, that the Professor is going to bed with them to help them in their development, until they’re emotionally stable. She’ll fall for the line that she (Castle) is special, and the only person who really understands the Professor.
Tenured Radical: And isn’t this always the logic and erotic appeal of a secret affair? The notion that everything that is passing between you in this hermetically sealed world that you are lying to all your friends about is exquisitely authentic and unique? (“Oh, she’s lying to her partner about me, but she would never lie to me.”)
Historiann: Exactly. “The Professor” is an excellent portrait of the kind of professor who compulsively sleeps with students. As you say, professors who sleep with students are characterized by “their narcissistic need to humiliate the rest of us,” as Castle shows, and they do it through through seduction, deceit and manipulation. The essay also captures the essence of what it’s like to be a smart but naïve kid just starting graduate school, believing passionately that her capacity for hard work will b the key to success. At least, I identified with her description of herself at that age, trying to navigate the adult world, adult expectations, and an adult sex life for the first time, and being so unprepared to do so.
Do you really think “Terry Castle” wouldn’t have turned out to be Terry Castle without her having endured this abusive relationship? Do you really think she wouldn’t have become such a “profoundly imaginative and original scholar,” or is that just what “Terry Castle” tells herself to justify the affair, to redeem it in some fashion, or at least to justify telling us the story? I don’t think she needed to suffer in order to achieve brilliance. I think she could have become Terry Castle if “Terry Castle’s” sexual awakening had been a more typical adolescent passion and tristesse (but far less damaging and less humiliating).
It’s a very human impulse to insist on making meaning out of failure and disappointment, and to construct narratives of lessons learned that culminate eventually in personal or professional triumph. Often, these stories end up rationalizing or justifying the treachery of the villains, because without their treachery, there’s no triumph for the protagonist. Without a cannibal-witch, Hansel and Gretel are just two kids who get lost in the woods, right? This gets back to your comments about our need for “larger than life ‘female/heroes.’” The Professor’s mendacity and manipulations permit Castle to become the hero of her own story.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the final installment back at Tenured Radical. And now, because I think it captures the mood here quite nicely, I give you the sounds of humiliation and longing by Art Pepper: