‘The Professor’ by Terry Castle

Interesting fact:  when it was first published in hardcover, Terry Castle’s The Professor:  A Sentimental Education was called The Professor and Other Writings (Harper Perennial).

The paperback title alludes obviously to Flaubert’s novel, but it also suggests Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, which Castle mentions, and Lynn Barber’s An Education, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film.  And much like An Education, the title essay of The Professor recounts Castle’s own coming-of-age as she falls for an older woman.

But if all this sounds terribly academic, fear not:  Castle’s essays straddle the genre between academic and personal—which makes sense, since Castle’s academic work (The Apparitional Lesbian, The Literature of Lesbianism) has always been rooted in the personal.

On the personal side, Castle explores her relationships—not only to The Professor, but also her exes, her mother and stepfather, and her stalwart partner, Blakely.  She plumbs these depths with a painful honesty, never pulling her punches when it comes to the uglier aspects of these connections.  In “My Heroin Christmas,” for instance, she examines the damage her sullen and brutal step-brother had on her already-fragile family.

On the academic side, Castle questions and draws connections.  Never content to accept pat explanations or psychologizing, Castle surveys her own obsessions, from home-décor magazines to Art Pepper’s jazz.  Her interest in historical sites of the First World War (“Courage, Mon Amie”) becomes an opportunity to examine the literature of that era.

But in hybridizing the genre, she fuses these traditions together.  Something as seemingly banal as collecting cheesy rubber stamps (“Travels with My Mother”) becomes, to Castle, an exploration of her relationship with her mother, as she investigates the roots of her and her mother’s aesthetic preferences.

What really makes these essays exemplary, however, is Castle’s humor.  She avoids “look at me” outrageousness, but is instead self-effacing and -critical.  So while she can describe her lesbian cousin Bridget and her partner as “a butch version of Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” she turns the focus on herself too, imagining a Belgian museum-keeper saying of her, “How yoo zhay in Inghlissh?  Who arrhh zeeez two fhucking dykes?

When she’s not poking fun of herself, Castle delivers her jokes with fierce trenchancy.  Even her off-handed descriptions carry weight:  her baby dachshund is “as slutty and insouciant as Private Lyndie England”—she of Abu Ghraib infamy.

Castle holds fast to the belief that for writing to succeed “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.”  Thus, when Castle lampoons mid-70s lesbian folk singer Alix Dobkin, she does it with full knowledge that the music indeed, played a critical part in the formation of her own identity.  “Who was I to make fun of Alix Dobkin?” Castle wonders.  “Hadn’t I been right in there with Alix from the start?”

“I pride myself on… being able to put my thought into words,” Castle admits.  “It’s one of the genteel ways I like to stomp on people.”

But despite that admission, Castle is more apt to stomp on herself than others.  Even as she dishes dirt on Susan Sontag in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” she stops to reflect on the actual influence that Sontag had on her life.  “Just about every book, every picture, every object in my living room, for example,” Castle writes, “has been placed there strategically in hope of capturing her attention, of pleasing her mind and heart, of winning her love, esteem, intellectual respect, etc., etc.”  In its way, her relationship with Susan Sontag becomes as much an exploration of desire as “The Professor.”

And it is exactly this kind of sense of intellectual play that allows Castle both to be open-minded but open-hearted.

The Professor
A Sentimental Education
By Terry Castle
Harper Perennial
978-0061670923, Paperback, 340p.