August 2012

Cass Daubenspeck

Past Perfect

The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle

It has been a fragmented decade in literature. Harry Potter grew up and became a serious actor baring flesh in the flesh, graphic novels flourished, and women wrote a lot of personal essays about divorce. Terry Castle's essay collection, The Professor, is different.

The first essay of the book "Courage, Mon Amie" begins, as all great stories do, with obsession. Castle is on a mission, chasing her "Forty-Year Craving" for World War I paraphernalia, a fascination that began early in her life, after her parents split up. It was just part of the "odd obsessions for a girl" that "seemed to go along with various other un-girlish things" Castle remembers about herself. As a pre-adolescent, she exalted in Lewis guns and enfilade fire, mortars, wiring parties, trench raids, and "the tricky timing of the creeping barrage." She did live, after all, in rural England, in a bungalow at the foot of Caesar's Camp. Men with stumps for legs sat on the streets near her home. In her grandmother's living room she found her great uncle's bronze memorial medal and became infatuated with its glint and "palpable seriousness." It brought her closer, somehow, to brave men she'd never known. 

Castle makes a profoundly good point that "somebody should write about women obsessed with the First World War" because, well, no one does, and because the soldiers of the war "had a certain mana, it seemed, a native supply of aplomb and insouciance that a courage-hungry woman could draw on." For a moment I was struck with the idea war discloses some shame to be found in girlishness; there is something to be desired of the men who had no fear of death, whose virility was nothing like womanhood; at that time "an archaic and humiliating problem." Castle admits, as she trolls the WWI museums filled with brave men's faces, weapons, and old uniforms, femininity made her feel like "a wretched poltroon."

In "My Heroin Christmas," Castle is crashed out in a guest bedroom at her mother's house over the holidays, eating chocolate cigarettes and mainlining through the albums and biography of ex-junkie jazz legend Art Pepper. She admires both the story that he tells and the frankness with which he tells it, though his prose borders on brazen narcissism ("I would play with myself until I got a hard-on and then gaze into this mirror and say, 'What a gorgeous thing you are!') Castle, unfazed, takes his literary aplomb for advice. "It related to something I've come to believe more and more about both writing and music making," she says, "that in order to succeed at either, you have to stop trying to disguise who you are."

In the essay for which this book may become most popular, Castle outlines her on-again, off-again relationship with Susan Sontag, whom she suggests without hesitation was "mean!" though her pictures immortalized her as "supine, sleek, and smooth." At worst, Castle recounts, their friendship was a whirlwind of awkward moments, whether it was being dismissed at a Soho dinner party while Sontag introduced her to Lou Reed as "an English professor" then cozied down and ignored her, or while offering to buy Castle an ice cream and then mysteriously disappearing out the door to hail a cab. At best, Castle says, their friendship was "like the one between Stalin and Malenkov... Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer."

Perhaps in Sontag memoriam, Castle does her best to suppress disillusionment by supplanting letdown with humorous anecdotes: "Sontag accessorized with a number of exotic, billowy scarves. These she constantly adjusted or flung back imperiously over one shoulder, stopping now and then to puff on a cigarette or expel a series of phlegmy coughs... Somewhat incongruously, she had completed her ensemble with a pair of pristine, startlingly white tennis shoes. These made her feet seem comically huge, like Bugs Bunny's." Castle remembers Sontag as a woman she constantly tried to please but who would not be figured out, an ambiguity that matched her sexuality. "Her usual line was that she didn't believe in 'labels' and that if anything she was bisexual. I struggled to keep a poker face during these rants, but couldn't help thinking that Dante should have devised a whole circle specifically for such malefactors: The Outers of Sontag."

The remaining favorites of the collection are a short essay titled "Travels with Mother" in which Castle steps up to compare herself to her mother -- a feat only a true "big girl" could accomplish with such honesty. The final essay introduces the Titular Professor: a teacher of Castle's, disabled-by-polio-as-a-child, former-folk-musician, friends with icons like Dylan and Baez, but more famous for sexual harassment. The story is absolutely decadent and hilarious, all of it a Freaks and Geeks for Cinemax. Castle starts from the very beginning in this concluding piece, showing herself as a high school student "mother-devoted, abnormally well-read in Dumas novels" in a sad, low income San Diego apartment complex. She was "in all other respects quiet, lumpish and dead." Then, as a freshman in college, she is infatuated with girl-down-the-hall Phoebe, an apprentice-Earth mother goddess who unleashed Castle's sexually starved closeted lesbian by kissing her after an episode of tossing their class copies of Kerygma into the rain. Castle goes on to compete for a graduate school scholarship, encountering a cavalcade of unfortunate events, the most interesting of which is her introduction to Keith, the Dog Food Fellowship interviewer, a Paul Newman-meets-Russell Brand in a far-out-kind-of-way dude, who gets her high and denies her the grant. 

Finally, we see Castle in grad school, where she has deemed it Her Responsibility, as a Professional, to understand The Professor, that sexual deviant. The two of them start flirting, then drinking Scotch out of big paper cups in bed, huffing lungfuls of purple haze from the big blue bong, and drifting into a sloppy slobbery sleep after passionate love making.  

Castle's collection begins at the end and ends at the beginning like a Greek tragedy. The story is a rigmarole identity novel with a lingering Freudian message. Even for English professors, it seems, and perhaps especially for them, it all goes back to the mother in the end: her ancient, tactile, immense talent for showing you who you are. 

The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0061670923
352 pages