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!