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A Great Memoir! At Last!

The public expression of contempt for professors is one of our cherished national pastimes and is that rare thing—bipartisan. We need a commander-in-chief, not a law professor, is a Sarah Palin applause line. Recently on its front page the New York Times invoked “the classic image of a humanities professor … tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular—and liberal” in a story on a sociological study of the power of typecasting. And in the annals of egghead bashing, the perennial butt of the foolproof punch line has long been the English professor. For decades Hollywood has dined out on this stereotype—Dennis Quaid’s bloated, bleary, and insufferable literature professor in Smart People is only a recent entry in a long parade of fatuity—but the Times has also loyally done its part. Their reports on the MLA convention are always good for a laugh, with their generous sampling of silly and sex-addled paper titles (who can forget “Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture”?) that the Times cited a few years ago as proof that "eggheads are still nerds” with too much “sex on their minds (and time on their hands)." Whether the accusation is justified or not is less the point than the casualness of the contempt, the easy assumption of a license to scorn. Almost no group is more safely maligned and mocked. 

This reflexive ridicule of the professor seems by now a middle-class entitlement, and even its targets are not above enjoying it. If this means self-humor replaces self-contempt then the development is not unwelcome. In an indelible scene from her much-discussed essay “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a memoir of her rocky friendship with Sontag, Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford, is brought by her famous friend to a SoHo loft with the promise of a “real New York evening.” It is a dinner party attended by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson—“elfin spikes of hair perfectly gelled”—and various others, including “the freakish-looking lead singer from the cult art-pop duo Fischerspooner,” who wore “booties and tights, a psychedelic shawl and a thing like a codpiece.” Castle finds herself adrift. “Yet it wouldn’t be quite right merely to say that everyone ignored me. As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I was so ‘not there,’ it seemed—so cognitively unassimilable—I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of antimatter.” Sontag’s brief attempt to introduce her—“with the soul-destroying words, Terry is an English professor”—only made things worse: “I might as well not have been born.” Just after coffee, with Sontag oblivious and sleepy in her chair, she exits “back to the world of the Little People.”

Castle’s incisive sociological eye here for status hierarchy and her own place on the bottom rung testifies to her witty, merciless accuracy—one of the pleasures of The Professor and Other Writings, her irresistible new collection of personal essays. In it no one is left unbesmirched, including Sontag, whom she also reveres, for Castle always insists on the untidy and uncensored response. Her radical candor makes it hard to enlist her under any ideological or political banner, and this recalcitrance alone gives her book an invaluable civic function.

As is already apparent, Castle partakes of the culture’s sense of entitled contempt of the “English professor,” while also complicating that entitlement. Her essays turn her painfully won capacity to see herself and the world “mock-heroically” into a source of bracing truth-telling that, in turn, becomes an unexpected source of insight into the power of literature, art, and music in shaping a life. Castle’s book can be read as a ribald young-girl-from-the-provinces bildungsroman: how a person of “zero rakish charm,” socially and physically shy and maladroit, but also, thanks to insatiable book-worming and listening, possessed of an erudite, subtle, and pungent sensibility, made her clumsy way in and out of a raw blue collar world replete with a violently sociopathic step-brother and a pill-popping stepsister. “The prissy aesthete in me shuddered even to hear about these step-relations.” Like it or not, she had to spend the summer between a three-year fellowship at Harvard’s Society of Fellows and the start of her Stanford job on a relative’s “fold-out couch next to the gun cabinet and the pinball machine.”

Castle learned mock-heroism the hard way—above all, as the title essay recounts, by surviving a humiliating, scalding, passionate affair as a graduate student with a self-intoxicated, regal, promiscuous female professor—a “connoisseur, a sensualist, skilled in the arts of homosexual love,” a wounding eventually and partially healed by abundant reading in eighteenth-century satire. The books taught that “[n]othing was sacred … even the grandest and most imposing monuments might be defaced. We were all rolling around in the muck.” She dove in to join her already filthy teachers—Austen, Pope, Swift. Inspired by the “rococo lightness and drollery” of their tutelage, and of Watteau’s paintings and Mozart’s operas, in all “a deep moral seriousness humming away at the core,” she accepted the loss of her “Bambi” innocence and relished the plain facts of survival: “I was fat; I was mean; but I was alive.” 

Getting dirtied and staying dirty encouraged Castle not only to take a “debunking attitude toward the self,” but also to become insouciant about seriousness and easy about “self-burlesque.” She can be absolutely hilarious. And this suppleness puts her on both sides of the public/academy conflict: she expresses the general public’s contempt for the academic literary intellectual and the genteel sense of superior refinement that the profession cultivates in its members. At MLA she bristles at a “drifting throng of rabbity academics”—an “unprepossessing” mass of “tweedy jackets, sensible shoes”—and also describes herself as an “effete little twit” full of “aristocratic disdain” not only toward her collegial brethren but particularly, in her youth, toward her earnest lesbian separatist sisters.

Castle is a lesbian (and a major contemporary scholar of lesbianism) and also an ironist and aesthete who in the 1970s was impatient with lesbian group pieties and the “strange puritanism” of its humorless, hirsute “Sappho-Spartan aesthetic.” Her acute aesthetic sense pokes fun at whoever and whatever lacks it, or worse, takes pride in the lack. This makes bedfellows of ’70s lesbian consciousness-raisers and of purveyors of listless academic prose. In her previous collection, Castle began by noting that a “strong personal style is—still—the most difficult thing for the female critic to achieve,” because the “well-behaved academic” has her marching orders: “[h]ow best to stun one’s reader into submission with jargon and pedantry” and “sadly congealed semiprose.” Tired of this dismal regimen, with its “ideological posturing” of purity and righteousness, Castle now wants to write “more directly and personally,” she says at the start of The Professsor.  

After two decades laboring in the “dusty groves of academe,” relying on a “neutral, sober-sided academicism,” she has paid her dues. No more Ms. Well-Behaved. And so The Professor lets it rip. Its centerpiece is the title essay, one she deferred writing for years, a near two-hundred-page retrospective account, novelistic in its density of detail and its emotional intricacy, which seeks to make sense of Castle’s psychically masochistic affair as a first year graduate student with a brutally manipulative woman nearly twenty years older. Castle discovered she had enrolled in “Intro to Savage Irony 101,” a course that permanently shattered her hyper-serious intellectuality, her “twatty little Simone Weil wannabe” insulated existence.   

The timing of The Professor is propitious: as everyone knows by now, we are living in the Age of Memoir. (No doubt it will soon spawn memoirs of the age of memoir.) “Reality hunger” rages, to borrow the title of David Shields’s just published book. His self-described “manifesto” on behalf of the “lyric essay” (he lists one of Castle’s essays as an example) addresses readers “bored by invented plots and invented characters.” Castle’s turn to the personal essay is certainly not opportunistic. It is, rather, organic to her ambition to reject the decorum of the academic plodder and to lift the “yoke of the genteel,” as another sufferer, Santayana, put it.

This liberation turned out to require neither self-reinvention nor splashy épater le bourgeois slumming, but simply writing about where she came from: a working-class and broken family life in Southern California in the ’60s. “[O]ne mother, one sister, no money, palm trees and crabgrass and canned-soup meals at a folding card table.” Her point is not to elicit sympathy nor to offer up the working class as her ace-in-the hole “reality” credential in a game of one-downmanship with the solid bourgeois reader. Rather, Castle’s special gift is to braid her family life to her life as an academic intellectual, and to explore the incongruities of this American comedy: there is never a moment when she leaves the reader marooned on her tiny island of subjectivity, where all one hears is an endless drone of self-indulgence. And Castle is immune to another celebrated mode of self-disclosure: the chilly narcissism of Joan Didion, whose neo-Hemingway self-stylization in The Year of Magical Thinking asks us to believe that her feelings are so profound she must submerge them iceberg-like beneath a deadpan surface of stoic monotone.

The exuberance and the wit of Castle’s style enacts her embrace of vitality—her pleasure in language (her splendid vocabulary will have you Googling) and in the cultural artifacts, high, middle, and low, that she lives with, analyzes, delights in. Sentence by intensely responsive sentence, at once careering and precise, she brings her world alive in all its color and absurdity. “Travels With My Mother” begins: “Off to a great start at lunch at the Phoenix airport: Terrorist Threat Level Orange for ‘high’ as usual, women’s restrooms jammed, and then the waiter in Aunt Chilada’s Cantina—garish, faux Mexican with a jalepeño pepper theme—calls me ‘sir’ when he takes our order. Fume for a second, then descend into bath of elemental shame. Why does this always happen to me? Do I really look like a guy? No doubt I will suffer the lonely death of the sexual pervert. Can’t get mad about it though: my mother, thankfully, seems not to have heard the waiter’s mistake.”

They are on their way to Santa Fe; her aged, widowed, wheelchair-bound mother is, like her daughter, an amateur painter, and is eager for this chance to soak up the touristic delights of Georgia O’Keeffe’s fabled town. The essay affords a look at mother-daughter rivalry and ambivalence (Castle cannot abide her mother’s sentimentality) as refracted through a less familiar subject: the everyday comedy of status anxiety lived by those whose careers encourage them to cultivate sophisticated taste in a democratic republic. Castle is dreading the ritual obeisance to the ubiquitous O’Keeffe, an artist she regards as kitsch. “I’ve secretly inoculated myself with what I consider the ultimate Connoisseur’s Good Taste Vaccine. Everywhere we go, I tell myself, what I’ll really be doing is looking for the Agnes Martins. Agnes, I’ve decided, will be my private talisman, my anti-O’Keeffe … My aesthetic invulnerability assured, I’ll be able to enjoy everything else ironically.” 

Yet Castle is not simply enlisting Agnes Martin for her own snobby purposes. She pauses to describe in detail the look and the artistry of Martin’s severe and radiant art, the autonomous beauty of her nearly invisible coral pinks and delicate blue pastels. Castle brings alive “the whole chaste package” even as she admits that “the artist would no doubt be appalled to hear” that “admiring her work aloud is now a fail-safe way for the upwardly mobile poseur to signal intellectual depth and all-round head-of-the-curveness.” But guess what? Mother turns out to be an Agnes Martin fan: “My snob-self is frankly stunned at this unexpected display of maternal hip: it’s as if Wally and Charlie, my dachshunds, were suddenly to begin discussing Hans-Georg Gadamer.” And there is another surprise—the disdained O’Keeffe turns out to be, at least in her early work, quite compelling. Mother and daughter agree that “like it or not, O’Keeffe really makes you look.” A startled Castle finds herself losing her “surly-insecure edge—feel suddenly less tormented by filial ressentiment and incipient acid-reflux.”

I think the collection’s masterpiece is “My Heroin Christmas.” Here the book’s deepest themes—Castle’s craving in life and literature for fearless exposure, for “shame-free storytelling” and a “certain uncensored verbal fluency”—find their objective correlative in art with a capital A. That is, Art as incarnated in Art Pepper. Her title refers to Castle’s swooning plunge, during the 2002 holidays at home, into the pages of Straight Life, the autobiography of the famous jazz saxophonist, heroin addict, and jailbird. “Mainlining Art nightly without shame,” she calls it “the greatest book I’ve ever read. … It knocked my former top pick, Clarissa, right out of first place. As Art himself might say, my joint is getting big just thinking about it.” 

It—Terry and Art—is a match made in heaven or, more precisely, in the “Southern California white-trash fellow feeling” she has for him. Art is “so painfully human” she can hardly bear it: he “offered himself up with such astonishing vulnerability I found my eyes welling up repeatedly.” She finds irresistible his “superprurient adventures”—voyeurism, masturbation, chicks, needles, rage, and booze—but never stops asking herself why she is obsessed with this terminal macho man: “what a self-destructive (and self-deluding) bastard Art Pepper must have been. And what’s up with you, Terry Castle, that you claim to like this guy? I admit it: it is strange.” She takes on the skeptics and they push her to grasp the “Core Emotional Truth”—that success in art demands that “you have to stop trying to disguise who you are. The veils and pretenses of everyday life won’t work; a certain minimum truth-to-self is required.”

So inspired, Castle faces the ghost that her Art obsession has dredged up: her vicious stepbrother Jeff who twenty years earlier, on the day after Christmas, blew his brains out in his sister’s house. A chronic marauder, who once killed a man with his bare hands in a bar fight, Jeff had “no language other than brutality.” And it was “Jeff’s fate to stay locked up inside himself. He did not have the genius, the munificent resources” of fellow outlaw Art Pepper. And what about endowed Professor Castle, who, as she says, prides herself “on having a language, of course, and on being able to put her “thoughts into words”? She calls that gift a genteel way to “stomp on people,” and ends the essay recalling and cherishing her mother’s instantly suppressed smile when, years before, Jeff fell from a balcony and broke his leg. “I too was glad when Jeff fell … I hated the fucking punk—frankly wished him gone from the earth—and would have laughed out loud if I could.”

This embrace of the inadmissible is what comes from mainlining Art, be it Pepper, be it Pope, be it any other “shame-free storytelling.” Philip Roth’s great Sabbath’s Theater comes especially to mind. The Professor goes places no book ever written about professors has ever gone. And it understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years. It is a superb weapon for tearing up that soul-destroying cardboard figure of fun its title names.

Ross Posnock is Professor of English and American Studies at Columbia; Philip’s Roth Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity (Princeton) is his most recent book.

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