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.

12 Responses to “Terry Castle’s The Professor

  1. Historiann Says:

    I also thought this book was pretty hilarious–you’ll see some of the excerpts that I found particularly funny. I’m glad you brought up that weirdo interview with the hash pipe guy–I saw that very much as an artifact of the 1970s (just as much as the feminist bookstore as lesbian hang-out/pickup scene), but as you suggest, it’s also illustrative of some of the connections that Castle makes throughout the book between love, sex, humiliation, and her intellectual work/life. This isn’t something that’s entirely embraced by humanities scholars, BTW–it’s only recently (past 15-20 years or so) that some historians have come to terms with how autobiography might shape or inflect our research and scholarly preoccupations.

    I wonder if this book is connected to Castle’s engagement with the blogosphere, where many people, and perhaps especially academics, mix the personal and the professional regularly whether they’re truly pseudonymous (like you, Notorious Ph.D., or Squadratomagico, for example), anonymous, or not. Anyway, it seemed like a bloggy voice rather than an essayist’s voice, and that might make possible the book’s intriguing combination of self-exposure/humiliation, sexual awakenings, and Castle’s life as an intellectual.

    What’s interesting is that I don’t think that any of we three reviewers this week–you, me, or Tenured Radical–would write a book like this. Castle’s self-exposure is very clearly NOT a part of our blog personae. (At least, the character you play here and as a commentor on other blogs seems carefully constructed to reveal very little about you, and I’m much more explicit about the things I won’t confess or write about on my blog. I wonder if that’s in part what we find so funny and transgressive about Castle?

  2. This is a fucking awesome book review. I will now go read the other reviews and most likely the book.

  3. […] season!  Part I is over at Tenured Radical today–go read and join the discussions over there and at CPP’s blog, and I’ll host part II at el Rancho Historiann tomorrow.  We hope you have […]

  4. Februa Says:

    This sounds like a great read – thanks for the review

  5. Roxie Says:

    @Historiann: ComradePhysioProf is a character and not a real person? I’m shocked, shocked!

    Just so all of this talk of personae doesn’t confuse anyone, I want you all to know that I am really, truly a dead dog. I am not a person who had a tragic love affair in her 20s that shaped her personal and professional destinies. Nope, not no way, no how!

    Pretty good book review for a scientist, CPP. Y’all make me want to read the book, which I would do, if I were a living person and not a dead dog.

  6. […] did a book review? […]

  7. Historiann Says:

    Roxie, you definitely need to put this on your reading list for Heaven, now that you have all the time in the world!

  8. Roxie Says:

    Yes Historiann. I have planned to read it. It is not readily available in Heaven but I will get it. It sounds exciting !

  9. I have nothing intelligent to add. This is a fucking awesome review and you should write more in this vein! More people should write reviews like this.

  10. […] between myself and Historiann here, here, and here — with a special contribution from Comrade PhysioProf, this series of essays on culture and contemporary intellectual life kept me captivated throughout. […]

  11. […] to our partner in crime Comrade Physioprof, who delivers a review of the book that is focused on the humor of “The Professor and Other Writings.” This entry was posted in GayGayGay, Terry […]

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