If you recall, when Tenured Radical and I broke off yesterday in Part I of our discussion of Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, we were talking about the odd attraction and revulsion that characterizes relationships between academics and public intellectuals. At least, it’s why I’ve always forgiven Gore Vidal for his nasty swipes at the “Assistant Professors” of his imagination, who according to Vidal were always scurrying off to write something narrow and pointless. Vidal never went to college. (The Deuce had a lot to do with that, since he was Philips Exeter Class of 1943.)
So here we are again–gossiping about Susan Sontag! Today, we’re moving along to some of the even knottier issues that The Professor raised in our minds, those of desire, longing, and the price one pays to join the academic club. And as some of you have reported here, sex is one way young scholars can gain admission, or at least imagine that that’s what they’ve done.
I think it’s important that Sontag isn’t a feminist, even though she has always been honored by feminists. In contrast, I’ve begun to develop a relationship with a highly successful feminist writer from the 1970s, and she seems to be very clear why our work is differently important, and she is making a point of being generous about the kind of collaboration that can be possible between two very different kinds of writers. It’s just one example, but it is a strikingly different experience than I have had in the past with “famous” people who rely on me for all kinds of support, but wouldn’t dream of offering to introduce me to an agent. I think the Sontag essay also illustrates two paradoxes that you allude to in your comments, paradoxes that actually structure the whole book. The first is that the cost of being smart and accomplished as Castle is – particularly because she is a woman and of working-class and immigrant origins– is the ever-present fear of humiliation, that humiliation that comes from not belonging. In “Courage Mon Amie,” Castle’s essay about her love affair with World War I, she emphasizes the inescapable humiliation of being female in a world where female heroism is impossible, and particularly impossible for those who suffer from the dread and fear of not belonging. “I was female,” she writes dolefully about her inability to face the post- 9/11 world with stoicism; “and a wretched poltroon.” (21).
The second paradox you raise is that we academics seek out larger than life “female/heroes” like Sontag and The Professor, but inevitably, the heroism of such people is not unconnected to their narcissistic need to humiliate us. The question is, are we drawn to them because somehow we actually know that they will do that thing which we fear the most? In this sense, all the essays strike me as exercises in coming to terms with humiliation and the longing to be part of the most exclusive club. It’s no accident, I think, that Castle’s obsession with Art Pepper, maniac cockmeister and a sublime, brilliant drug-addicted jazz musician covered with tattoos, takes hold at the exact time she is driving around in her persona as a respectable professor with a trunk full of research intended for an article she knows, in her heart, she will never write. Continue reading