I first became aware of the writing of Terry Castle, an English professor at Stanford University, around 1993. I was working on my PhD in English, and had been told to read a recent scholarly collection called Questions of Evidence, based on a series of special issues of the journal Critical Inquiry. Castle had an essay in the anthology called "Contagious Folly: An Adventure and Its Skeptics", about a case of folie à deux from 1911. The book also includes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's now-notorious "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl", a title often cited by sceptics of literary criticism as it was practised then (and often still is) as evidence of a kind of generalised folie à l'académie.
In fact, Sedgwick's mixture of the scholarly and salacious was deliberately provocative, and one of the hallmarks of 1990s queer theory: we had a running joke in those days that, to get a conference paper accepted, all you had to do was give it a theoretical title and then add "and fisting" - as in "Henry James, the Epistemology of the Spectral Body and Fisting". It's a joke I'm sure Terry Castle, no stranger to queer theory or to mixing the classical with the vulgar, would have found amusing. Even then, during the heyday of academic "theory", her prose stood out for its lucidity and wit. She soon began writing for the London Review of Books, and has remained one of a handful of public intellectuals able to write elegantly and entertainingly without sacrificing originality, or precision.
In an interview discussing her new book, The Professor and Other Writings, Castle has admitted to feeling increasingly estranged from the sort of jargon-ridden pseudo-writing that for the past ten or 15 years has been emanating from so many college English departments. Much of what passes for advanced literary scholarship these days is dreadful twaddle - incoherent, emotionally empty, deeply illiterate. A lot of ideological posturing goes along with it. I'd gotten sick of it - all the PC preening and plumage display - and wanted to write more frankly and personally, and if I could with a certain lyricism and emotional force.
The Professor is the result, a series of Castle's essays for the London Review of Books, along with some new writing, including the title essay. It is indeed frank, an engaging mix of memoir and meditation, a mordantly unapologetic apolo-gia pro vita sua. In fact, "Contagious Folly", the
title of that first essay of Castle's I read, could serve equally well for this volume: a recurring theme is the blurring boundary between love and the folie à deux, and Castle is always willing to laugh at her own folly. The essays all use personal incident - humiliation, more often than not - as the point of departure for explorations of a series of recurring preoccupations, including culture and celebrity, mothers and daughters, sexuality and identity, heroism and hero-worship, and the delights of art, whether painting, music or literature.
The volume includes her controversial "Desperately Seeking Susan", the bitchy, hilarious essay for the LRB about her "on-again, off-again semi-friendship" with Susan Sontag, which she wrote only a few months after Sontag's death. Many readers saw it as a spiteful, petty betrayal of a great woman; for others, it was a satirical masterclass in the art of cutting self-important people down to size. The essay may not be nice, but Castle cheerfully cops to being mean, seeing her talent with words as "one of the genteel ways I like to stomp on people: a kind of evil hobby, the downside of taking an interest".
Her riotous portrait of Sontag, long scarves flowing, demonstrating how to evade sniper fire in Sarajevo by dodging and weaving in and out of shopfronts on "Palo Alto's twee, boutique-crammed main drag", is merciless - as is her memorable description of Sontag as a "great comic character" whom Dickens or Thackeray would have adored: "[T]he carefully cultivated moral seriousness - strenuousness might be
a better word - coexisted with a fantastical, Mrs Jellyby-like absurdity." She also satirises her own impulse to stomp, however, admitting that she wanted the Great Woman to realise "she's not the only damned person who writes" and then ridiculing herself as a "Lilliputian on the rampage".
Nor is stomping Castle's only hobby, though she is awfully good at it. Other essays are more celebratory, and nearly all involve obsessions of one kind or another: "My Heroin Christmas" uses her admiration for Straight Life, the autobiography of the jazz saxophonist and heroin addict Art Pepper, as an opportunity to riff on the subject of emotional daring and candour; "Courage, Mon Amie" uses her obsession with the First World War to reflect on the differing opportunities for male and female heroism.
In the end, heroism is less a theme of the collection than mock-heroism, a motif that becomes clearest in the title essay, an account of her obsessive and self-destructive affair as a postgraduate student at the University of Minnesota with a manipulative older woman, the eponymous "Professor". For Castle, it was a formative experience, a toxic relationship that she says she nearly didn't survive, but that ultimately toughened her up. Reflecting on how it shaped her, she remarks: "I was fat; I was mean; but I was alive."
Having unwittingly enrolled in "Savage Irony 101", she achieved "a certain Voltairean gaiety", realising that "to see the world mock-heroically was necessarily to engage in a sort of preliminary self-burlesque. You couldn't take yourself that seriously."
Much of the fun of the book comes from her witty turn of phrase and her knack for mixing the learned with the vernacular, the intellectual with the informal. Describing her regressive neediness during the relationship with the Professor, which made her like "an overgrown erotic baby", she concludes: "It was as if I suffered from some sort of existential colic." And she is scathing about the doctrinaire radical lesbianism of the early 1970s; one woman who ran a magazine called Your Mama Wears Army Boots was "a bizarre mishmash of matriarchal fantasy and Pol Pot"; another had adopted a non-patriarchal name, which Castle claims, deadpan, was "PokeyDonnerparty". She is consistently impious, as when she describes her miniature dachshund as being "as slutty and insouciant as Private Lynndie England. All she needs is a dangling cigarette and a tiny pair of four-legged camouflage pants."
That uncensored quality, Castle's willingness to let rip, is what gives this collection the "emotional force" that she sought. Ultimately, she found salvation from unhappiness in books, and her insights into the value of literature are priceless. Her beloved 18th-century satirists (Voltaire, Swift, Pope) taught her to aspire to their "rococo lightness and drollery", and to recognise that nothing was sacred: "we were all rolling around in the muck". At the same time, however, "a deep moral seriousness [was] humming around at the core". The same thing could be said of this book: it is at once droll and deeply serious, a refuge from much of the folly that surrounds us, a reflection on the myriad ways in which, even when we are suffering, art can offer reservoirs of joy. l
The Professor and Other Writings
Tuskar Rock, 340pp, £20
Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia