Terry Castle’s The Professor
July 20, 2010
Comrade PhysioProf is not much of a book reviewer, but I recently read a memoir that is totally fucking hilarious. It is called The Professor, and it is by Terry Castle, who is a professor of English (I think) at Stanford University. The basic gist of the memoir is that it is the story of her sexual and romantic coming of age as a college student and grad student in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Now this is a fucking excellent book. It is filled to the fucking brim with some seriously obscure cultural, historical, and literary references. 90% of all that shit went WHOOSH right the fuck over my head. Luckily for you, my colleagues Tenured Radical and Historiann have a good handle on that stuff, and you can read their reviews here and here.
I am gonna focus on the following two aspects of the memoir: (1) Castle is fucking hilarious (I will excerpt some of my favorite passages); (2) she really captures extremely effectively the grotesque and embarrassing sexual and romantic naivete of the undergrad/grad student.
Just a few pages in, I knew I was gonna enjoy this:
But was that the good news or the bad news? Or was it just what it was? Did the concepts of good and bad even apply? Here indeed was a mystery worth plumbing: I was fat; I was mean; but I was alive.
While in college, Castle was still trying to figure out the nature of her sexuality, and experimented with both lesbian and heterosexual relationships. Here is her description of the first time she fucked a boy:
[I lost my virginity] to a nerdy youth in my poetry class who still lived at home with his parents and while hardly seven feet tall–more like five-eight–had a ten-inch-long penis. I was too ill-informed at the time to know there was anything out of the ordinary about this astonishing pink saber, or the explosive clumsiness with which its inexperienced owner wielded it. (A similar cluelessness would beset me again, may years later, when friends tried to teach me to play bridge. Through some freak of cosmic probability–similar no doubt to the one said to have produced the Big Bang–I drew all thirteen clubs on my first hand.)
Now that’s a serious three-way metaphor. I’m no expert, but I think that means Castle is a very good writer.
Another hilarious vignette involves her interview for a graduate fellowship that occurred at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Her interviewer–whom she met at the airport to have their interview–was a weird hippy type dude. Here is her description of the interview–taken verbatim from a letter she wrote to someone else about the interview–which essentially consisted of the dude getting her baked on hash, taking her to dinner in the “fancy” airport restaurant, and then trying to get her to come back to his hotel room:
The incident [i.e., the hash-smoking interlude] in no way represented part of an intellectual seduction or Mephistophelian maneuver–it came at a time when we were just two people relating in a certain way to each other, unofficially and completely privately. I explained all of this to you, and reiterated my absolute confidence in [K.]. I noted…that I felt he had accommodated his interviewing techniques very effectively (and professionally) to my own personality and needs at the time.
AHAHAHAHAHAHAH! I love how “smoked me up with hash and flattered me with intense attention” becomes “accommodated his interviewing techniques very effectively (and professionally) to my own personality and needs at the time”. If that ain’t fucking college, I don’t know what is.
One of the other aspects of the memoir that was very interesting was her description of some of the different sorts of lesbian communities or ways of being lesbian that she explored while in graduate school. One of these was a weekly support group at the Lesbian Resource Center:
At the last meeting I remember attending, the frizzy-haired woman who “facilitated” the weekly session had us do a Fruit Ritual. The latter began alarmingly enough: she gave us each an orange out of a big brown shopping bag and told us to spend ten minutes getting to “know” our orange as fully as possible without peeling or consuming it. Look at it, sniff it, tough it, roll it around in your hand!–she exhorted. Feel its skin! Touch its navel! Make sweet sweet love to your fruit! Thankfully, one wasn’t required to put said orange up to one’s ear to hear if it was saying anything. Mine was no doubt screaming with rage–in a tiny yet shrill citrus-voice–if only at being forced to take part in such a farcical ordeal.
I could hear the fucking orange screaming with rage! lolz
The “Professor” of the title was a huge-ass faculty member in Castle’s graduate program, a quasi-closeted lesbian, and, as one finds out, apparently a mean nasty fucker, at least concerning how she treated Castle.
Castle developed a crush on the Professor at a dinner party they both attended, and describes this intense crush very powerfully:
Yet over the succeeding days, and despite the violent onrush of ecstacy I felt whenever I let myself think about her, it was not clear to me what–if anything–could now transpire between the Professor and myself. The thing was frankly so unprecedented: she was a distinguished professor at the University, for God’s sake. Affable she might be, but how could we even really be friends? She was far too exalted. One pondered the emotional signage: Don’t Even Think of Parking Here!
That emotional signage bit is lolzworthy. Anyway, the Professor took advantage of Castle’s emotional and sexual availability and initiated an intense relationship with her. And things didn’t go very well, and the Professor got bored with Castle’s neediness pretty quickly, and discarded her. The descriptions of the breakup drama and Castle’s reactions are very interesting, and anyone who remembers their early twenties dating travails can indentify.
The last part of the book is a rumination on how this romantic/sexual liaison influenced both the development of her personality and her scholarly perspective. The latter I found very interesting: as scientists, we pretend that our personal lives do not influence our scientific tastes and perspectives, while Castle sees it as a truism that her escapades with the Professor would influence her scholarly pursuits.
For example, in relation to trying to make herself feel better after the break-up:
Above all, reading the classic works of satire, lampoon, and burlesque was a tonic.
* * *
The way of the world demanded laughter as well as tears. One had to stoop to conquer. And in its highest form, I surmised, such rococo lightness and drollery could in fact be a pathway into something more profound. In the loveliest, most philosophical examples of eighteenth-century wit–Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Watteau’s paintings, Samuel Johnson’s burnished utterances, Mozart’s operas, and indeed, at century’s end, six modest and miraculous novels by Jane Austen–one felt it: a deep moral seriousness humming away at the core, along with the steady flow of beauty, intelligence, and delight.
The very end of the book has an interesting, although if it were a novel, sort of totally predictable, twist. But I won’t give it away. My final thought is that Castle seems to be a serious fucking expert at turning lemons into lemonade, and her sense of humor is fantastic.