Terry Castle, The Professor

Here’s a passage from Terry Castle’s “The Professor”–what genre  is it? essay? novella? screed?–that displays most of the qualities that made me dislike it so much:

So what to say about the Dear Lady herself, now that more than three decades have elapsed? True: one feels a bit like Sir Walter Scott putting the question so sententiously. One imagines a title: Dumped: Or, ‘Tis Thirty Years Since. Also true: that the matter evokes contradictory feelings in me. Having now described the fiasco with the Professor at length [she’s not kidding–the piece goes on for almost 200 pages], I confess, I feel on the one hand a bit embarrassed by its sheer triteness: my own sitting-duckness, my seducer’s casebook callousness. As I expected, revisiting Ye Olde Journals has indeed been lowering–not least because they tell such a dreary old-hat tale. Who hasn’t clawed at one’s pillow in anguish at a lover’s faithlessness? Had one jumped off a cliff that long-ago winter–Sappho of Lesbos-style–one would simply have ratified it: one’s lack of originality; one’s tedious by-the-bookness.

What don’t I like? First, the Capital Letters. This is a trick Castle uses frequently in this volume when she wants to use terms she knows are trite and so decides to code as ironic: “Core Emotional Truth Time,” Still Too Much Going On,” “Trial of Taste,” “The Worst Song Ever Written,” “Wild and Fun and Oh-So Grown-Up.” It’s self-mockery, sure, but also a parade of intellectual superiority (“don’t worry, I know better than this“). Then the pronoun: why, in such an intimate tale, switch to the pompous “one” when the subject is clearly, as in every essay here, Castle herself? Again, it’s self-mockery, but the sententiousness is not any less because of the off-hand and unjustifiably condescending reference to Scott. (Scott’s version of Dumped would have been far less obsessively whiny and self-absorbed: think how foolish Our Hero Edward Waverley looks as he mopes about after Flora MacIvor!) Then the faux-apologies for the triteness of the tale told–faux, because she takes 200 pages to tell her side of the story, and while the visceral energy of the piece is undeniable, she’s right that it’s not, or is not made into, something extraordinary: there’s no broader implication, no lesson learned (for her or for us), no strong attribution of cause and effect between the miserable affair and her understanding of relationships or her development as a person or an intellectual. “Ye Olde Journals”? OK, we get it: you are keen to distance yourself from the woman you were when you wrote them. There’s no need to be so arch about it. And the Sappho allusion is the pretentious cherry on this dreary sundae of self-pity and vengefulness. Though I’m not nearly as interested in Terry Castle as I would have to be to find these nearly 200 pages truly compelling, I would at least have preferred that she write them with less effortful self-conscious posturing and more sincerity. Perhaps it’s the Victorianist in me confronting the 18th-century satirist in her, but there’s no sense that she got anything intellectually or morally out of either the experience or the narration of it. Fair enough, but then it’s hard to see what we can get out of reading this, except sordid voyeuristic excitement.

I liked the first essay in the collection much better: that’s the one I quoted from before, that includes her thoughts on Vera Brittain. I was mildly to moderately engaged by the other ones, though “Desperately Seeking Susan” also struck me as self-absorbed and unpleasantly voyeuristic–I was left with the feeling that Castle is kind of a difficult person to know, and certainly a dangerous person to cross or disappoint. I really enjoyed parts of “Travels with My Mother,” but in the end I couldn’t forgive Castle her overt condescension–again, being self-conscious about it does not undo it. She’s just so pleased with herself for being able to like Georgia O’Keeffe in spite of herself:

But something odd is happening. The paintings, when I get to them, are not, I notice, as huge and blowsy as I was expecting. Several in fact are quite small. Not Vermeer small, but definitely smallish. And one or two, I have to admit, are pleasing, especially the pre-New Mexico ones from the 1910s and ’20s. Hmmm. Addled connoisseur-brain starts gently powering up again, trying to process the unanticipated subtleties of the situation. Okay, they’re all still flowers, but aren’t some of them at least as good as ones by those American Modernists you like so much? You know: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth? If you didn’t know they were hers, wouldn’t you be impressed? Aren’t you being hard on her–as is your perverted wont–because she’s a woman? I keep looking for more of the expected monstrosities–lewd river basins, vaginal canyons–but have only intermittent success. A few throbbing pink and yellow horrors float in and out of view in the distance, of course, but the worst offenders in the O’Keeffe Anatomical Fixation Department don’t seem to be here…

And she’s so pleasantly surprised to learn that her mother (who does crafts–the horror!) shares her enthusiasm for Agnes Martin, the “anti-O’Keeffe” who serves as her “ultimate Connoisseur’s Good Taste Vaccine”: “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Southwestern Style, I will fear no evil.”

To my surprise … [my mother] is an Agnes Martin aficionada. . . . 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.

The flourishes of knowingness, the display of recondite expertise, the distancing irony, the snide self-mockery supplementing but never supplanting the self-absorption: the impression I get from this volume is that these qualities are not stages in Terry Castle’s life but define her personality. Judging from the effusive blurbage on the book, for people who like this sort of thing, this is really the sort of thing they like, but that turns out not to include me.

1 Comment to Terry Castle, The Professor

  1. May 25, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I read the Sontag piece when it came out and felt guilty afterwards. It was entertaining, sometimes immensely so (the dinner with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, fresh durian fruit for dessert), but ethically suspect.

    How was the Art Pepper piece? Pepper is one of my favorite musicians, which I suspect means I should not read Castle’s memoirish whatever-it-is.

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