Back Talk: Terry Castle

Back Talk: Terry Castle

A conversation with the author of The Professor about her affair with an older woman and the journals of Susan Sontag.


Terry Castle is the Walter A. Haas professor in the humanities at Stanford University as well as the author of seven books of criticism and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books. Her latest book, The Professor (Harper; $25.99), is a collection of six previously published autobiographical essays and one new novella-length piece, "The Professor," the story of Castle’s graduate affair with an older female professor. –Christine Smallwood 

Why did you feel moved to write about the professor now, after so many years?

That is a very difficult question, and perhaps my therapist could answer better than I can. I think because it was a story that I had long felt I needed to tell for my own emotional purposes, but it took me a long time to get over some residual blocks and fears, a sense that I wasn’t ready to write about it. I really do think that age brings with it blessings as well as curses, and that one of the blessings is you suddenly feel able to be more direct about your own life–or at least I’ve found that to be true. I definitely had inhibitions about it, because I felt myself in that period to have been such an idiot, and it took a while to realize I could describe my own idiocy and it might be interesting to people.

I’m glad you used the word "idiocy." In your writing, you frequently cast yourself as a hapless protagonist, a bumbler, someone on a journey of discovery or education. Is that a conscious decision, to write about yourself so critically?

My friends say I am much harder on myself than other people. It seems to be a feature of my psyche. I’ve come to value a kind of unpretentiousness, and I take real enjoyment but also intellectual purchase from the idea of self-burlesque, or taking a mock-heroic attitude toward myself. I’ve got opinions and I love to spread them, obviously, but I also feel that’s all they are: opinions. I don’t know for sure about many of these things, and so it’s in some ways a conscious casting off of a sort of authority or pedantry or certainty. As one ages, a lot of the most painful things one remembers about the past, all you can do is laugh about them–they’re so absurd and ridiculous. Things get funnier in retrospect, and I entertain myself with my own younger self.

This collection includes your famous piece on your friendship with Susan Sontag. Did you read Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, which was published last year?

I was absorbed by it, just mesmerized. There’s one moment when she’s moved to Paris and she’s involved with this woman named Harriet, and she speaks freely about their sexual relationship. From my own partial or invested standpoint, I and all of my friends, who, since the 1970s, have speculated about Sontag’s sexuality and whether or not she was "a lesbian," felt vindicated there. She has a brief period when, in the journals–and there are just a few entries from this period, when she was in San Francisco, when she’s in her 20s, I think–she’s going to gay bars and she’s reading Nightwood and she’s doing all the cliché lesbian things. I remember reading it and I was thinking, I was right, I was right!

In The Professor, you quote from your own journals, and write about how excruciating it is to face them. I wonder if you ever feel squeamish about reading other people’s journals.

No, never, I don’t think I ever feel that way about people’s journals and letters. I’m too much of–I don’t want to say a gossip freak, but I love literary gossip, whatever the delivery device. I love it. I grew up in a family in which saying anything was so taboo that I’m enormously interested in how people figure out how to speak for themselves, articulate aspects of themselves and, you know, develop a kind of self-knowledge through writing. I’m just fascinated by the process. And I’m always in principle more interested in openness and explicitness than I am in being, I don’t know, kind of prim about it, or, Oh, privacy is the greatest invention of civilization. I don’t have that kind of paranoia or that disinclination. It’s interesting. We are interested in people’s personalities, especially when it’s a person as startling and magnificent as Sontag was.

You’ve been making art for more than thirty years now, and you made the collage that’s on the cover of The Professor.

I did. Something I’ve always felt about doing anything art-related– whether it’s using actual physical materials or now digital thingamajigs, like Photoshop–I’ve always felt that the activity and my enjoyment of it comes from the opposite lobe of my brain than the writing does. It’s almost like I can feel that part of my cranium getting an enjoyable workout that has nothing to do with writing, which has for so long been fraught for me with mad perfectionism and self-doubt and anxiety. I’ve started spending a lot more time on art than I used to, and this does worry me a little. I’m not reading as much as I used to because I’ve gotten so caught up in the visual side of things.

Why does that worry you?

Because I have an image of myself as being an omnivorous reader, and I was at one point! This happens to a lot to people, by the way. Reading habits are changing quite dramatically away from books toward digital content, whether it’s verbal or visual or whatever. The old-fashioned book has lost a lot of its aura.

Do you notice that in your students?

Yes I do, very much. Most of them now–the undergraduates in particular, although this is also true of graduate students–they’re children of a digital world. And the immersive reading I did when I was a child, very few of them seem to have had that early totalizing experience of the book. And I think that some of the decline in certain skills, writing skills in particular, is linked to this. Because I think that part of what makes you a good writer takes place before you’re ten years old, when you’re reading increasingly sophisticated sentences and paragraphs while your brain is in a labile state in which you’re taking everything in at a very deep level.

Do you use an electronic reader?

I don’t, but Blakey, my partner, does, and she loves it. I’m a late bloomer, that’s why "The Professor" is only coming out now, when I’m 56. I was sort of emotionally retarded before–now I’m slightly better. These new inventions–the iPod, the iPhone, the Kindle– there’s an inevitability about them. You know they are not going away, that they are going to change everything. I wait until Blakey has crossed the frontier before I timidly follow, so I’m sure that if we talk three years from now I’ll be, I don’t know, taking little pills that have books in them or whatever the latest thing is. I’ll probably have a little web portal that’s been attached to my temples.

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