Storming Terry's Castle

Emily Colette Wilkinson | Posted on 03/15/10

But the point of "Desperately Seeking Susan" is not merely to catalogue Sontag's personal failings; it is Castle's attempt to square her reverence for Sontag the thinker - her own long-cherished archetype and hero of the life of the mind, "Pallas Athena...most august Goddess of Female Intellect" - with her knowledge of Sontag's character flaws and her "fantastical Mrs. Jellyby-like absurdity."

The Professor and Other Writings, By Terry Castle, Harper, 352 pages

First - caveat lector - a confession: I, your reviewer, know my author rather well and must inform you here that I am to be, in the words of Jane Austen, the ur-lady scribbler herself, "a partial, prejudiced" critic. My compromised objectivity, however, might serve to illustrate the aesthetic philosophy at work in Stanford English professor and London Review of Books essayist Terry Castle's beautiful new book of memoir qua literary criticism, The Professor and Other Writings. The Professor's philosophy of literature (and history, music, film, painting, intellectual idols) is deeply - at times, excruciatingly - personal. Castle's deliberate mingling of the personal and the aesthetic is itself an argument about how messy and intimate and inevitably personal the relationship between an intellectual and her objects of obsession and contemplation are. Kant did not get it entirely right when he argued that judgments about beauty are necessarily disinterested.

Intellection and aesthetic judgment, after all, do not take place in a psychic clean room; there is always a personal context, emotional and physical, in which a certain book or literature was read and found essential. Having narrated the tale of her devastating affair with a disturbed but captivating professor while in graduate school studying English literature, Castle offers the specialty she chose in the wake of her shattering breakup as a reflection of it: 

I ended up writing my dissertation on Richardson's Clarissa (1749) - a massive, morally ambiguous, relentlessly tragic epistolary novel about an intelligent young woman who is tricked, seduced, and harried to death by a charming, amoral rake. Gosh, I wonder what made me choose that for a subject.

It is, as a friend who's getting a PhD in clinical psychology calls it, a classic case of "research-me-search" - a scholarly project whose purpose is actually deeply personal - a phenomenon which is apparently just as common among aspiring psychologists (the child of an alcoholic researching the effects of alcoholic parents on children), as it is among literary scholars (I, for example, a perpetually digressive, disorganized thinker whose life became a series of unfortunate events as I began my dissertation with Terry Castle, wrote about digressive, disorganized eighteenth-century books narrated by dispossessed, debt-ridden, and otherwise hapless individuals).

But Castle also concludes that eighteenth-century British literature, the wider field she chose out of her slightly unwholesome obsession with Clarissa, was part of the cure for the personal frailty - "that unholy mixture of conceit and insecurity...the shocking neediness" - that had drawn her to the Professor in the first place:

Above all, reading the classic works of satire, lampoon, and burlesque was a tonic.  Consoling indeed the realization that some illusions were meant to be shattered; that a clear comic light might be cast on the chaotic devil-murk of human emotions...Instead of merely confirming - like some of my intellectual fads of yore - a sense of isolation, my new interest in comedy suggested a way out of danger: an escape of sorts, from the lonely and damaging egotism of adolescence.

And so, for all the devastation it caused her, Castle's affair is a felix culpa, a fortunate fall.  It brings redemption in the perhaps unlikely form of eighteenth-century literature. Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift teach Castle the "debunking attitude towards the self" and "self-burlesque...otherwise known as self-examination," which is everywhere apparent - to guffaw- and humility-inducing effect - in The Professor.  Even if you think you have no interest in eighteenth-century literature, World War I battlefields, "house porn" addiction, Susan Sontag, Georgia O'Keefe, Agnes Martin, or "the higher yearning" (aka professor-student romance), I would still urge you to read The Professor as the most rigorous model of self-discourse and self-examination the world has seen since Marcus Aurelius's Meditations of the 170s BC, or at least Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury's Restoration-era Philosophical Regimen. In an effusive mood, I might even say that the Brogdignagian Castle stands a little taller than these giants of moral self-discourse because she manages to do what they did without the extravagant Shaftesburian anguish and chilling Aurelian severity. By her example, self-examination actually seems rather fun - as well as psychically liberating. Even in the midst of the most painful and delicate of self-dissections, Castle keeps her comic sensibility, her Shandian certainty that the absurd and the sublime, pathos and bathos, are on rather intimate terms. Though, too, you're always aware, no matter how blithely she recalls the foibles of former selves, that real (sometimes grotesque) suffering and loneliness are the seeds of her literary-autobiographical-burlesco-picaresques.

Castle's willingness to show herself vulnerable, foolish, and self-obsessed makes her exquisite portraits of other intellectuals' foolishness and self-obsession more compelling.  The most famous essay in The Professor is "Desperately Seeking Susan," a piece about Castle's occasional friendship with Susan Sontag that appeared in the London Review of Books in 2004, shortly after Sontag died. The piece incensed a lot of Sontag devotees. I was once cornered in a bar in San Francisco by a young Berkeley professor, a self-appointed Sontag champion, who'd discovered that I worked with Terry Castle. He seemed to view me as a proxy for my advisor and was intent on getting from me some sort of vicarious recantation of the essay - which he thought petty, malicious, and tasteless.

I did not know Susan Sontag personally, nor had she ever been in my pantheon of most beloved intellectuals, so for me Sontag wasn't really the point.  The reason I wouldn't recant - and why I'd read the essay with a cosmic sense of revelation and a veneration for my advisor possibly on par with her own youthful worship of Sontag - was that it told a painful truth about the intellectual-artistic temperament and about how disillusioning it can be, as a mere mortal, to achieve some sort of intimacy with an intellectual luminary, especially when that luminary has long been a personal idol. The truth is this: the gifted tend to be a little grotty in the moral character and humanity department - even when, sometimes especially when, their objects of study suggest them as guardians of the humane. Sontag, as Castle knew her, was no exception (morbidly self-obsessed, condescending, casually cruel, ungenerous). She could also be buffoonish, as when she took off dodging and weaving down a crowded Palo Alto street in a demonstration of evading sniper fire.

But the point of "Desperately Seeking Susan" is not merely to catalogue Sontag's personal failings; it is Castle's attempt to square her reverence for Sontag the thinker - her own long-cherished archetype and hero of the life of the mind, "Pallas Athena...most august Goddess of Female Intellect" - with her knowledge of Sontag's character flaws and her "fantastical Mrs. Jellyby-like absurdity." (You might think of the essay as a version of Judd Apatow's Funny People, but about female intellectuals instead of male comedians: Adam Sandler in the role of Susan Sontag, Seth Rogan playing Terry Castle.)  And so, yes, the essay diminishes Sontag, insofar as it asks you to see her plain and whole. Unlike us middling sorts, who must make ourselves obliging in order to get along in life, gifted people are usually allowed to get away with rather a lot of rudeness and unkindness. We lesser mortals let them misbehave because they're so wonderful in other ways; we take the nastiness and inhumanity with the scintillating conversation, or in the belief that proximity to genius begets genius. It feels a little spineless and unjust, yes, but it's sort of reflexive. At the end of "Desperately Seeking Susan," though, as Castle urges herself to "judge [Sontag] by her best work, not her worst," it's already too late: the genius has been judged as a human being and found wanting.

 I wonder sometimes if Castle's ever-increasing writerly taste for rigorous and often humiliating self-dissections developed in part out of a determination not to end up like Sontag or the Professor, Castle's fateful seductress, who shares many of Sontag's less savory personal qualities. Did reflecting on these gifted women - both once her ideals of professional and mental life, both now dead - and their profound failures in self-awareness and kindness lead Castle to some version of the epiphany Marley's ghost hopes to affect in Scrooge (The anguished ghostly regret: "Mankind was my business!")?

Yes and no. Yes, because there is a moral quality to Castle's writing. She is not bashful about her faults.  Her willingness to grab them by the lapels, to laugh at them rather than cherish or defend them, is something to aspire to - breathtaking, really. But for all of this wariness of the conceit, foolishness, and inhumanity that the disciples of the life of the mind are particularly prone to, she hasn't renounced their self-obsession. She has, however, adapted it to the higher end of self-critique and self-parody. Nor is she willing to disown the irresistible allure of virtuosity, even when accompanied by unrepentant selfishness and brutality. In the essay "My Heroin Christmas," Art Pepper, the gifted jazz alto sax player, womanizer, prison inmate, and "lifelong dope addict of truly Satanic f-k-it-all grandeur," for example, seems to earn Castle's admiration absolutely.  (And, indeed, Pepper's "f-k-it-all grandeur" is quite something.) But as the musician becomes a hallucinatory doppelganger of her own violent, delinquent step-brother, you start to feel that Satanic grandeur isn't quite as grand when you have to live with it.

The Professor ends with a beastly postlude: Castle's account of watching a crocodile feeding in Sydney Harbor. The "sluggish yet majestic" creature improbably seizes its afternoon meal of barramundi in a "balletic, crack-the-whip, zero-to-sixty": "This lady croc was one awesome predator. What a smile! What personality! What teeth!  One couldn't help adoring her."  And one can't - though one is also, Castle notes, mightily glad not to be on intimate terms with her reptilian majesty.




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