Literary critic, Stanford professor, and sexy-brainy scholar Terry Castle will be speaking at City Lights Books on Tuesday, Feb. 9, about The Professor and Other Writings, a series of meditations on topics ranging from Art Pepper to the Polermo catacombs to Susan Sontag. When read together, the essays coalesce into a singular, fearless new memoir.
Castle has produced an incredible body of literary criticism and, in her work, she often explores the complicated relationship between literature and sex. Books like The Apparitional Lesbian and The Literature of Lesbianism examine depictions of love between women in the Western literatary canon. Boss Ladies, Watch Out: Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing investigates female sexuality in works by famous women writers.
But don't let the lit theory put you off. Even those allegedly allergic to theory will enjoy the candid, intelligent essays in Castle's latest work. Her intellectual gifts are obvious -- even her informal pieces have the pleasing effect of making their reader feel smarter -- but Castle remains accessible to a wide audience. In fact, her writing seems targeted at those who exist on the outskirts, or even outside, of the literary cognoscenti. Castle makes no secret of her distaste for the "preening and plumage display" of current day literary criticism, or what she calls "jargon-ridden pseudo-writing," and her informal pepperings of middle- and low-brow references throughout The Professor add to Castle's likableness. None of my college professors would ever (admittedly) discuss the "hotitude" of famous Hollywood stars; neither would they (admittedly) jam out to bass-bomping hip hop on their iPods.
The Professor is marketed as a memoir, but it reads more like a collection of prose pieces, each distinguished by their own specific ideas and themes. Though a touch gossipy, "Desperately Seeking Susan," about Castle's prickly friendship with Susan Sontag, is a delightful read. Near the essay's end, the two women attend a dinner party at Marina Abromovic's apartment also attended by (if this tells you anything) Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and the "freaking-looking" singer from Fischerspooner. The disaster that ensues is a finely-rendered comedy of manners, equal parts hilarious and grim.
Castle's "Que Modo Deum," a collage posted on her blog
Castle touches on the work of jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, whose underrated genius is vaunted by jazz enthusiasts, in "My Heroin Christmas". In "Travels With My Mom", a short travelogue which can be read online, the author's relationship with her mother is illuminated in a series of seemingly innocuous glimpses. The title-essay, "The Professor," which was my favorite, is a searing reflection on sexual discovery, and details the romantic entanglements of Castle's own college days, the most significant one being her relationship with a troubled female professor that arrives full circle, many years later, in a chance meeting that I refuse to spoil for you here.
The essays in this fine collection are personal to their author, but their focus is outwardly directed. They observe and describe, in rich personal detail, other things and other people. They are not a periscope view into Castle's human psyche, lesbian psyche, or any psyche for that matter. Castle is far too tasteful to go there. In The Professor there is no hint of the solipsistic introspection or blubbering confessionalism that has gives bad name to the memoir form. Castle is generous with personal anecdotes, opinions, and history, but her subjective experiences are used to shed light on ideas that remain, while important to the author, wholly independent of any one person's life. I enjoyed this collection immensely.
Tue/9, 7:30pm, free
City Lights Book Store
261 Columbus Ave. (at Broadway)
The Professor and Other Writings
By Terry Castle
352 pages. HarperCollins.