Magnificent Obsessions

Terry Castle's memoir blends critical intelligence and awkward recollections. Scott McLemee reads it in earnest.

March 2, 2011

“As a rule, I dislike modern memoirs,” says Ernest, a suitably named character in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue "The Critic as Artist." Memoirs “are generally written by people who have entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering; which, however, is, no doubt, the true explanation for their popularity, as the English public always feels perfectly at ease when a mediocrity is talking to it.”

His friend Gilbert is more forgiving, or at least more easily amused. “I must confess that I like all memoirs,” he says. “I like them for their form, just as much as for their matter. In literature mere egotism is delightful…. When [people] talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely.”

All things considered, it seems that Ernest has the better part of this exchange. After 120 years, egotism has become industrialized. Even a gentleman of leisure like Gilbert could never keep up with all of the memoirs being churned out. The effort would defeat his good humor, and perhaps his sanity.

But Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, published by Harper Collins, is one of the few works in the genre that Ernest might finish without succumbing to fatal ennui. Castle is a professor of the humanities at Stanford University and author of The Apparitional Lesbian (Columbia University Press, 1993), among other works. The Professor is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in the category of criticism. (The winners will be announced next week following a vote by the organization’s board of directors, of which I'm a member.)

That it is being considered as book of criticism, rather than as memoir, seems the luck of the draw. Some of the essays in it were originally published in the guise of book reviews, but they always jump the rails of literary journalism and go off on their own course -- assessing not just the text but its place in the constellation of her own interests and personal history, which are (respectively) various and knotty. Her prose is, by turns, introspective and satirical; her self-portrait is not always that flattering. As Wilde also wrote, "The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” I'm not entirely sure to which genre The Professor belongs, but it is one I expect to reread from time to time.

One of her themes here -- clearly defined in the opening and closing essays, and a thread running through the rest -- is the power of intellectual and erotic fascination. Either may turn obsessive. And what's more, they can fuse, sometimes in ways that become messy.

Not that the book is a work of Academic Gothic. Much of it is very funny, and Castle writes sentences it is tempting to read aloud. Her point is that obsession, whether cerebral or romantic, is likely to make you ridiculous to yourself and others, rather than dangerous. Writers and artists have always celebrated the intensity of passion, even when seeming to deplore it. Instead, Castle's essays address something else: the embarrassment that comes from seeing how one's ardor may look from a distance.

The first essay, "Courage, Mon Amie," recounts the author's consuming interest in World War I. It began when she learned, at the age of 6, that her grand-uncle, a rifleman in the British army, had been killed during the final German retreat of 1918. This flowered into what she calls “a forty year Craving for More” – an inexhaustible fascination with minutiae that is “acquisitive, pedantic, and obscurely guilt inducing.” In her twenties, she read the classic authors of the Great War, but it remained only one of her preoccupations, along with opera, the Titanic, and “trashy lesbian novels.” Her interest was still in check: “The world had not yet retracted to a gray, dugout-sized, lobe-gripping monomania.”

Monomania about a huge subject is not exactly impoverishing. One person’s morbid fascination is another’s scholarship. Along with chronicling her ever-expanding and ever-deepening obsession (the visits to battlefields and museums, the amateur expertise regarding Lewis guns and trench warfare), Castle makes astute points about the writing that came out of the war. But anyone who has ever developed an overwhelming, unnervingly intense interest in some topic that nobody else seems to find interesting will respond to the essay's acknowledgment of how bewildering a passionate interest can become.

“I guess an obsession is defined, crudely enough, by the fact that one doesn’t understand it," she writes. "Even as it besets, its determinants remain opaque. (The word ‘obsession,’ interestingly enough, is originally a military term: in Latin it signified a siege action, the tactical forerunner of trench warfare.) The obsessions of others embarrass and repel because they seem to dehumanize, to make the obsessed one robotic and alien and unavailable. It’s like watching an autistic child humming or scratching or banging on a plate for hours on end.”

"The Professor," the very long essay closing the book, concerns another sort of preoccupation: romantic passion. The title does not refer to the author, as you might expect, but rather to the woman with whom Castle she had her first requited love affair as a graduate student in the 1970s. It did not end happily. (Love, as the poet said, is a dog from hell.) The woman in question is now deceased. Castle only ever identifies her as "the Professor."

This is less a matter of preserving her privacy (someone with Google and a little diligence could probably figure out who she was, though I haven’t tried) than of suggesting how she loomed as an almost mythological figure in the author's emotional life for decades afterward. Perhaps 20 years older than Castle, she was a respected scholar in her field. That was part of the allure. She was deeply closeted, but also reckless -- and manipulative in ways that Castle, not long out of adolescence, could not then imagine, let alone understand. At least that is the picture that emerges. The memoir is clearly the product of long brooding. But revenge, while an obvious motive, is not its only agenda. (Nor is the essay very prurient, just to get that out of the way.)

Rather, it is a sustained and fairly merciless effort to confront the memories -- which can be deeply embarrassing in middle age -- of what one was like in those early years of adulthood. Castle quotes from her journals at the time, and recalls the tone of her initial flirtation with the Professor: "I was more confident than usual in part because the focus [of the conversation] was on 'scholarship' -- however dubious or half cocked. I could show off what I knew -- twaddle on and play the familiar role of World's Most Intriguing Student." The connection between them grew that much more intense when they began having sex (endorphins are a bonding agent) but it also manifested an affinity between the buried, unfinished, somewhat crazy sides of each other's personalities.

As if all of this were not mortifying enough to confront, Castle also evokes the lost world of mid- and late 1970s "alternative" culture, both the more or less universal aspects (rap sessions, casting I Ching hexagrams, stuff about cosmic energies) and the elements particular to the lesbian community (including Castle's life-transforming encounter with an album called Lavender Jane Loves Women, which she says belonged to the "warmed-over folkie" subgenre of "American lady singer with acoustic guitar and fake Scottish accent croons archaic-sounding pseudoballads"). In Terry Castle's hands, the autobiographical essay becomes both a kind of cultural history and a challenge to the reader: Here are my obsessions and the things I would forget if I could. Do you dare to confront your own?


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