In a new book of essays, Terry Castle rips through literary and cultural allusions at breakneck speed, citing obscure folk musicians and cult novelists in the same breath.
The dust jacket of The Professor and Other Writings, Terry Castle’s newest collection of personal essays, proclaims Castle heir to a rich critical tradition, ranking her among Joan Didion, Camille Paglia, and Susan Sontag. It’s not a perfect analogy: Castle is less atmospheric than Didion, milder than Paglia, and more introspective than Sontag. Nonetheless, her ferocious analysis, caustic wit, and rigorous philosophical inquiry carve out a place for her on that Mount Rushmore of female cultural critics.
The Professor collects seven of Castle’s pieces and takes its title from the longest, a nearly 200-page essay detailing and untangling Castle’s secret relationship with a female professor during her doctoral studies. In this essay, Castle turns her critic’s eye to the journals she kept as a young adult, quoting passages at length and giving a play-by-play of a shattering, three-month affair with the mysterious older woman she refers to only as the Professor. Prompted by her approaching wedding, Castle meticulously combs through the fragments of this long-ago liaison in order to examine how the affair influenced her sense of self.
“The Professor,” complete with mini-chapters, functions more as a memoir than a long essay. Castle narrates the parry and thrust of this relationship down to the minutiae: every phone call and moment of disquiet seems to be described. It’s a brave account, full of bright spots, but it’s also wearying in its comprehensiveness. When Castle asks, towards the end, “Is there some very, very, very embarrassing self-knowledge stuff I’m still missing?” a reader will certainly doubt it.
The six other pieces tackle subjects from Castle’s shaky friendship with Susan Sontag to her analysis of shelter magazines post-9/11. In all her essays, Castle rips through literary and cultural allusions at breakneck speed, citing obscure folk musicians and 18th century cult novelists in the same breath. (If there is such thing as namedropping non-celebrities, Castle is guilty of it.) At its worst, this sort of fevered referencing can be alienating and show-offy, leaving a reader almost panting to keep up. It’s clear from “My Heroin Christmas,” her essay on jazz musician Art Pepper, that Castle is a devoted music fan of eclectic and discerning taste; when she devotes close to a page cataloguing 72 titles from “a small selection of the rest of my CD collection”—“the rest” meaning the non-jazz section—it just seems like bragging. A passage in “Travels with my Mother,” in which she lists her favorite 20th century female artists, is similarly unnecessary. Such inventories make Castle seem overeager to convince readers of her command of the subject matter, and therefore undermine, rather than bolster, her authority.
Castle’s breezy citations sometimes extend to her personal life—often she begins her pieces in medias res, bringing up her family members and past relationships as though she expects the reader to already know them. It’s a device that works in drastically different ways from essay to essay—in the title piece, being thrust into the middle of the affair feels conversational, as if you and Castle have had a long friendship and she is catching you up on recent news; but in “My Heroin Christmas,” characters wander in and out of the essay haphazardly, to befuddling effect. You wish Castle would stop to explain things instead of careening into another anecdote. (To be fair, Castle explains that the structure of “My Heroin Christmas,” is intended to mimic the frenetic, halting rhythms of a bebop song. One might wish she hadn’t succeeded quite so well.)
What rescues Castle’s criticism from obscurity is her willingness to scrutinize her own work. Castle is as critical of herself as anyone else. The overconfidence she exudes in her mad referencing sprees is tempered by scrupulous introspection that finds the chinks in her intellectual chain mail. Her sense of self is a finely calibrated instrument, and she weaves personal anecdotes into her criticism to great effect. In one particularly rich and funny passage in “My Heroin Christmas,” Castle describes absorbing Art Pepper’s memoir:
Reading through Art’s superprurient adventures—and I find them irresistible—your mind starts going to pot and strange new thoughts crowd in Wow! Why not a big tattoo of a squatting lady in high heels? It might look good!… It all starts to seem normal—the strange fandance of chicks and booze and sex and looking for a toilet in which to tie on a tourniquet. When we were first dating, Blakey once got querulous about something, really hostile, and informed me rather menacingly that she was “a red-blooded American male.” Pepper makes you into one, whether you like it or not. It’s like changing all of a sudden into a werewolf.
What avid reader hasn’t become similarly engrossed with a writer? At some point, Castle knows, we have all become werewolves.
Castle’s italicized asides add colloquial touches to her essays—she often uses them instead of dialogue, or to question her own conclusions. These passages function similarly to David Foster Wallace’s footnotes: they’re a way to lay bare the conversation between Castle and her writing, scrawled marginalia made visible. At other times, they act as cartoon thought-bubbles or comic-book panels. When Castle writes “Yippee! Wow! Phew! Dodged a bullet that time!” it isn’t so far off from “Holy Toledo, Batman!” Sometimes these exclamations verge on the wince-worthy. When Castle comments on the guillotining of Louis XV’s mistress—“See yah. Wouldn’t wanna be yah”—it feels stilted and weird, like a middle-school teacher greeting a lunch table full of teenagers with “Wassup, dudes?”
Castle’s writing is at its best in smaller, if no less methodical, exegeses. In “Desperately Seeking Susan,” her tribute to Sontag, Castle’s self-examination and humor converge beautifully, illuminating the author’s ambivalence towards that “bedazzling, now-dead she-eminence.” Castle narrates her fraught friendship with Sontag through a series of vivid scenes—Sontag strutting around Palo Alto while complaining about Joan Baez’s cowardice in Sarajevo, Sontag ignoring Castle at a Soho dinner party, Sontag abandoning Castle after buying her an ice-cream cone. Castle’s Sontag is an imperious, unwittingly callous character (“Dickens or Flaubert or James would have had a field day with her,” Castle wryly comments), but also a stalwart example of “what mental life could be,” an unrelenting, unapologetic example of female intellect. The qualities she admires about Sontag are surely visible in Castle’s own writing; not least, Castle displays a sense of deep engagement with whatever subject she addresses. If it is occasionally exhausting, it is exhausting in the name of painstaking honesty.
At the end of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Castle tries to overcome their rocky relationship to affirm something positive about Sontag:
Yes: Susan Sontag was sibylline and hokey and often a great bore. She was a troubled and brilliant American and never as good a friend as I wanted her to be. But now the lady’s kicked it and I’m trying to keep one of the big lessons in view: judge her by her best work, not her worst.
Let us afford Castle the same courtesy.