Humiliation and Longing: Part II of my discussion with Tenured Radical of Terry Castle's The Professor

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.

Tenured Radical:  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. 

One might argue that visiting the childhood home she fled at eighteen to become a fancy literature professor, bound by rules and conventions, triggers an ongoing fantasy of becoming a brilliant outlaw. If I go back to “The Marie Antoinette Obsession,” I see that not only its structure and style has a jazz sensibility, but it displays a keen awareness that humans have experiences that evade rational scientism. Hence, fantasy and improbable narratives become bridges to the modern, since people do not necessarily understand what they are experiencing at the moment it is happening, even if technically the language exists for it.

I’m taking too long to get back to “The Professor,” I know, but I think this, and the Sontag essay, set us up for that final, blockbuster title essay about what it means – and what it it might cost – to join the “club” we all belong to as professional scholars.  Castle’s living memory of the first approach from Sontag – “when I replay it in my mind, I still get a weird toxic jolt of adolescent joy, like taking a big hit of Krazy Glue vapors out of a paper bag” (93) – is a hint of things to come as she reflects on her calamitous introduction to both lesbianism and the academy, and of the craziness that she will agree to in her affair with The Professor.  It is a craziness that nearly destroys her.  Part of what I admire about the essay is how naked it is about both these things.  She is able to describe the filthiest forms of abuse and, at the same time, make us understand the logic of the affair, the intensity of her desire and why she sought it out something that nearly destroyed her.  In fact, part of how I read the essay was as a lesbian bildungsroman, a heroic journey of suffering that will liberate her to become not just a scholar but an artist.   The Professor is her heroin.  Because of this affair, in which Castle demonstrates no small capacity for offering herself up for abuse, she is transformed from being a desperate, conventional little workaholic drone to being a profoundly imaginative and original scholar.

Historiann:  You raise a number of interesting issues here.  I like your angle that this is a collection of essays about “coming to terms with humiliation and longing,” and that it’s connected to her passing as an elite intellectual when she’s really “just” a working-class girl.  Her writing reminds me of Sarah Silverman’s comedy—there seem to be no limits on what she’s willing to reveal about herself, frequently to the point where the reader is cringing on her behalf because she’s so exposed.  (This apparently guileless exposure is another connection back to the style and substance of the Art Pepper autobiography.) 

What reader doesn’t cringe in “Desperately Seeking Susan” when Laurie Anderson smiles and waves at Castle, who is initially flattered until Anderson makes it clear that she just wants her to pass the wine?  But, of course, there are limits.  “Terry Castle” is a character in these essays, and self-exposure is just part of that character’s realization.  Still, I admire her willingness to make “Terry Castle” look pathetic, or foolish, or desperate.  (I don’t think I could write like that, anyway.)

That’s part of what makes the essay “The Professor” so sad and so wrenching—and, I’m afraid for some of our readers, perhaps—so recognizable.  She embarks on a passionate love affair with a professor in her department who is charming but also deeply manipulative and needy.  At every turn in the relationship Castle describes, as a reader I felt like I was in the audience at a horror movie in which I and the rest of the audience are all screaming, “NO!  Don’t do it!  Don’t look behind that door!!!  Don’t go in the basement alone!!!” 

But of course—she will meet the professor for dinner.  She will embark on the affair.  She will go back to bed with her, after the Professor not only admits but boasts that she’s been sleeping with at least two other young women.  She will fall for the line that the other women don’t really mean anything, that the Professor is going to bed with them to help them in their development, until they’re emotionally stable.  She’ll fall for the line that she (Castle) is special, and the only person who really understands the Professor.

Tenured Radical:  And isn’t this always the logic and erotic appeal of a secret affair?  The notion that everything that is passing between you in this hermetically sealed world that you are lying to all your friends about  is exquisitely authentic and unique? (“Oh, she’s lying to her partner about me, but she would never lie to me.”)

Historiann:  Exactly.  “The Professor” is an excellent portrait of the kind of professor who compulsively sleeps with students.  As you say, professors who sleep with students are characterized by “their narcissistic need to humiliate the rest of us,” as Castle shows, and they do it through through seduction, deceit and manipulation.  The essay also captures the essence of what it’s like to be a smart but naïve kid just starting graduate school, believing passionately that her capacity for hard work will b the key to success.  At least, I identified with her description of herself at that age, trying to navigate the adult world, adult expectations, and an adult sex life for the first time, and being so unprepared to do so.  

Do you really think “Terry Castle” wouldn’t have turned out to be Terry Castle without her having endured this abusive relationship?  Do you really think she wouldn’t have become such a “profoundly imaginative and original scholar,” or is that just what “Terry Castle” tells herself to justify the affair, to redeem it in some fashion, or at least to justify telling us the story?  I don’t think she needed to suffer in order to achieve brilliance.  I think she could have become Terry Castle if “Terry Castle’s” sexual awakening had been a more typical adolescent passion and tristesse (but far less damaging and less humiliating). 

It’s a very human impulse to insist on making meaning out of failure and disappointment, and to construct narratives of lessons learned that culminate eventually in personal or professional triumph.  Often, these stories end up rationalizing or justifying the treachery of the villains, because without their treachery, there’s no triumph for the protagonist.  Without a cannibal-witch, Hansel and Gretel are just two kids who get lost in the woods, right?  This gets back to your comments about our need for “larger than life ‘female/heroes.'”  The Professor’s mendacity and manipulations permit Castle to become the hero of her own story.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the final installment back at Tenured Radical.  And now, because I think it captures the mood here quite nicely, I give you the sounds of humiliation and longing by Art Pepper:

0 thoughts on “Humiliation and Longing: Part II of my discussion with Tenured Radical of Terry Castle's The Professor

  1. [T]he craziness that she will agree to in her affair with The Professor…nearly destroys her.

    I didn’t read it that way at all. My take was that she was totally making fun of her immature early-twenties self for being so dramatic as to have felt like the affair and break-up would “destroy” her. This is based in part on her descriptions of her reactions at the time, and also on the selection of the particular passages–which were hilariously overwrought–from her diary that she excerpted in the memoir.

    Think about her fantasy of smashing the Professor’s guitar. Shit, every twenty-two-year-old thinks they’re not gonna make it when someone breaks up with them.


  2. Thanks, this is great. I’ve enjoyed several of these pieces in the LRB (I remember cringing at that dinner with Anderson and I think Marina Abramovic), and now I have to read the whole book. CPP’s dissent adds even more texture.


  3. Yeah, but not many 22-year olds know for *sure* that they’ll make it in the long run. Castle’s portrait of herself at that age is of a smart but tightly-wound kid trying to prove herself, and knowing that she’s playing a high-stakes game. (She’s not from a wealthy, connected family, so success or failure at grad school has a different meaning for her than for many of her classmates.) I also think it makes a big difference that this is a lesbian relationship–she had a few disastrous other sexual encounters (creepily recounted here in full detail), but this was her first experience with falling in love, however twisted. Straight women having affairs with their male professors have at least a template for their experience. In some ways, perhaps Castle was induced to put up with more abuse because of this being without-a-script, without knowing what she should or would accept.

    But, this is not to say that it’s not a humorous self-portrait. It’s very much a self-portrait with a sense of humor–who among us *doesn’t* simultaneously laugh and cringe when remembering ourselves at 22? (I’m hoping that no one else remembers me at 22, anyway.)


  4. Yeah, allz I’m sayin’ is that “nearly destroys” correctly characterizes her perception at the time, but I don’t think that at the time of writing “The Professor” Castle still thinks it really did “nearly destroy” her. I take her as seeing herself from the distance of middle age as being much more resilient back then than she saw herself as at the time. Like when she couldn’t write her exam, and then she got to take it home, and then she nailed the fucker anyway.


  5. I agree that Castle’s telling on her former self in “The Professor” in exactly the “humiliating and longing” fashion TR describes. (Castle does seem to regard her past self with the same mix of affection/longing and embarrassment/humiliation as she does womyn’s music.)

    But I also think that astonishing crocodile coda is the key to understanding what makes “The Professor” so compelling a piece, and somewhat distinct from the rest of the book (though perhaps closest connected to the Pepper piece). In “The Professor,” for me at least, we hear a really complicated account of what it’s like to meet a predator and to become that predator’s willing prey. It’s not that the relationship could have destroyed Castle, but that it came very close to destroying everything about Castle that Castle (at the time) believed herself to be. And penultimate MLA encounter combined with the crocodile coda reminds us that, as much as Castle may eschew aspects of her past self, she remains just that tiny bit susceptible to the confident predator’s thrall. (I’m reminded here, too, of Castle’s luxurious account of her disastrous encounter with the scholarship adjudicator.)


  6. Brian–welcome, and great points. The “crocodile coda” is the key (if a little heavy-handed.) The willingness of the prey is an important part of the story, as you note. That final encounter at the MLA with The (now wheelchair-bound) Professor was fascinating, wasn’t it? She clearly was still in predator mode, still looking to beat Terry at something (wheelchair basketball, as I recall.)

    I’m sure Castle is correct that she was willing prey–and it’s important to the narrative structure of her story that she’s not “just” a victim of treachery. But this relates to larger questions of women’s agency and how feminism today is unwilling to say “false consciousness” any more. (There’s a parallel issue with agency in the historical profession, I would say.) That is, whatever a woman does is supposed to be “feminist” simply by virtue of a woman having made a decision for herself. So (for example), women a generation younger than me and who are not sex workers go to college parties, dance around stripper poles, and lift up their shirts because a group of men shout “show us your tits!” (My students have told me about parties like this that they have attended.) See, it’s liberation because these women are doing what they want to do! And it’s considered impolite to ask where they got these ideas, and why they’re behaving like sex workers only without getting paid.

    It’s become politically unfashionable to admit that anyone’s a victim, so we all walk around telling ourselves that we chose our victimization so it’s OK.


  7. The “crocodile coda” is the key (if a little heavy-handed.)

    I thought that was the worst part of the whole thing. After fuckjillions of words that were so fucking subtle and witty and just lulled you gently into Castle’s head, the crocodile shit was a fucking bludgeon.

    I have never written a book, but I wonder if this is what happens when you are just too exhausted to finish a book properly, and you kind of phone it in, relying on hackneyed crap. I had this feeling about Joyce Carol Oates’s most recent novel (I forget what the fucking thing was called). It was really good, with lots of surprising and dramatic shit, and then in the final part of the book the two protagonists have HOT SEX! and then realize WE CAN NEVER BE TOGETHER! and GO BACK TO THEIR SEPARATE LIVES! Bleahh.


  8. Yeah, CPP–a friend of mine calls that the “and then the cops came” kind of ending. Oates’s books all kind of fizzle out–she’s better on the dramatic revelations in the middle of the story than the endings of her stories. (It wasn’t that creepy one about the young girl and the old man, was it? I read that over spring break, and if I weren’t running around Paris most of the time I would have been really freaked out.)


  9. Thanks, Historiann, I’m a long-time lurker (previously commenting only under my nom-de-blog StinkyLulu). Glad to bump into this discussion.

    About that crocodile:
    I have to say that I thought it a perfect ending. Not that it was necessarily good, mind you. Rather, I thought its clumsiness encapsulated TC’s dramaqueeniness (not to mention her occasionally curious taste) and it proved an effective device to resolve the Blakey thread and Professor thread simultaneously. It definitely put a button on a lot of things for me. And TC does build subtly to it as a resolution throughout the book, so I’m not sure it’s a hailmary-finale.


  10. Brian–glad you’re enjoying the discussion and the book. I see what you’re saying. I wonder if the point of relationships like that are never really “resolved.” Either the subordinate person must break off all contact with The Professor, or be consumed/destroyed? It may sound overly dramatic to people who (fortunately for them) have never been in such a relationship. But Castle’s Professor held all of the cards over her–personal and professional–or so it seemed. She was in a very vulnerable place, and even as a successful professor herself couldn’t say “no” to that dinner invitation years later at the MLA.


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