She’ll Always Be A Player On The Ballfield Of My Heart: Tenured Radical And Historiann Wrap Up Their Conversation About The Professor

July 22, 2010, 4:04 pm

This is the Part III, and the conclusion, of a discussion between Tenured Radical and Historiann of Terry Castle’s “The Professor and Other Writings” (HarperCollins, 2010 — if you are new to the party, you may wish to begin with Part I.) Yesterday, at Historiann, we discussed the themes of desire and longing that suffuse Castle’s narrative about her emergence as an intellectual who has to cross class lines to chart her own path to become an adult, a feminist, a lesbian, an artist, and a deeply original and critical thinker.

Today’s post consists of a single exchange in which we historicize the role of suffering in this story. We end with the question of whether, in a day and age in which sexual relations between students and teachers are widely perceived as harmful (and often proscribed by universities), whether the suffering of graduate students has been ameliorated, or it has just shifted to other realms of power, as graduate students continue to struggle to get into the “club.”

Tenured Radical: I want to come back to the question of whether brilliance and suffering go together, which is a critical theme of the Art Pepper essay that we both loved. The way Terry Castle tells the story of her affair with the Professor, as you suggested yesterday Historiann, is a dramatic tour de force. But another way of summing up what we discussed, and what compels me, is the portrait of a young person who was so tightly wound and suffused with class anxiety, but also had access to depths of courage that are quite rare. What I wonder is, had she continued down the road she was on, might she have had a nervous breakdown anyway? On a certain level it was a mercy that it was a broken heart, rather than the anxious scholarly habits of her youth, that drove Castle into therapy and a lifetime of self-reflection. We are talking about someone who read all the books for a course before the semester began; and memorized, word for word, the essay she would write for a proctored exam. Something had to give — or, arguably, maybe nothing would have given, and she would have ended up being a frightened, uptight, conventional little plodder instead of the fabulous Terry Castle.

But to shift gears slightly, I would like to expand the context for The Professor’s predatory eroticism for our readers, and Castle’s vulnerability to it. One of the things I love about this difficult essay is that Castle evokes the excitement and the contradictions of a 1970s lesbian feminist world. Lots of different things were going on sexually then (a former Zenith professor alludes in her memoir to what I have been told were rampant faculty affairs with undergraduates) and everyone queer was half in and half out of the closet. This is why Castle begins with a reflection on Alix Dobkin’s music, which was coy and coded but to young lesbians seemed to really be about sex. It is also why, even though Castle frames the whole genre of “wimmin’s music” as deeply dorky by today’s standards (musical, feminist or lesbian), she bridles when her partner, Blakey (who came out a decade later), joins her in mocking it. Not so veiled references to masturbation in the lyrics, paeans to gym teachers, using the word “lesbian” over and over in a song — it was a big deal back then. Someone who came out in the age of ACT-UP and Babeland might find that impossible to understand or misperceive the music as only dorky. One of the moments when I howled with laughter was when Castle did a textual analysis of Dobkin’s “The Woman In Your Life,” ending it with the command: “Ladies, start your labia!” (159)

But of course Dobkin, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson and that crowd were the soft side of semi-closeted lesbian life which, as Castle pointed out, offered little introduction to a pre-feminist, pre-Stonewall psychopath like The Professor. The coyness and messages to an “in crowd” in these songs also offered little in the way of a road map to becoming an actual lesbian: i.e., to having actual sex with actual women. Castle also emphasizes that much of what was more broadly available about lesbianism (outside of incredibly dense Marxist tracts) was still about women coming to a pathological, lonely and disgraced end (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Killing of Sister George.) Part of what I identify with most strongly in this essay is how difficult it was to actually have sex, and the things one might overlook to get sex — as Castle did when she pursued an affair with The Professor despite the metaphorical road signs that said: “No!” This essay evokes painful memories of the fumbling, the oblique approaches, the meetings accidentally on purpose, and the sitting for hours smoking weed, trying to decide whether she had meant to bump my foot or was she just reaching for the cigarettes and oh $hit I blew it again. And frankly, although feminism provided a hot atmosphere for sex, the endless conversation about whether all wimmin ought to be lesbians on principle got in the way of figuring out who really wanted to and who didn’t.

Because of this, I think Castle makes a great move when she raises the question of who was responsible for what in an affair that would now fit squarely in the category of sexual harassment. Now a middle-aged professor herself with a younger and clearly very self-sufficient lover, Castle wants to better understand her own agency in this affair, “just what it was about her that drew me to her: what peculiar pathos she evinced, and why I was so vulnerable to it.” (201)

As you note, Historiann, The Professor is an excellent portrait “of the kind of professor that compulsively sleeps with students.” It’s also an excellent portrait of an academic atmosphere where women were provisional members of the club, something that had all sorts of deforming consequences. Including myself in this generation of aspiring female intellectuals, I would say that lots of us in the 1970s had our first big love affair with a woman who was, for whatever reason, unavailable, and who appeared to be holding the door open to a life that still admitted a precious few women. What Castle evokes so movingly in this essay is that she was willing to trade so much to be loved and admired. Although she was too naive to see that the affair she wanted was really a “horror movie” (that was a great comparison you made), the affair also freed her to be someone The Professor never could be: a lesbian intellectual.

What follows, I think, is that to become a succe
ssful professor is to necessarily become an object of desire. It is a burden and a great responsibility. The evening Castle and The Professor meet, this insecure, lonely graduate student experiences for the first time what it might mean to be an object of desire herself. “[The] Professor’s eyes lit up with pleasure,” Castle writes; “she kept a light sardonic gaze trained on me for most of the evening.” (236) Castle is first welcomed as a guest into the beautiful, cultured world that can be hers as an academic when she sees The Professor’s home. That moment really got me, because Castle is being introduced to the life she wants and will have, but she’s really going to pay to get it.

I suppose I would link this theme in the essay to a bigger theme in the blogosphere that you and I have commented on: graduate students continue to pay heavily to get into the club, not necessarily with sex (although some do), but emotionally and financially. What is kind of tawdry about the world we live in today, one that is so deeply censorious in theory about sexual harassment (and not always in practice) is that graduate students are tested in such unromantic ways. They rarely have to reach deep inside to dredge out what remains of their self-esteem after a high-drama failed love affair. Instead, the academic marketplace and the profession beckons them, uses them, kicks them out with as little explanation as The Professor deigned to give her conquests (“there were so many excellent candidates — it was really a matter of field“), or reduces them to unheroic proletarianized labor.

The Professor suing one of her former student-lovers for a sum of money she could have perfectly well afforded to give her strikes me as a parallel to contingent faculty paying back graduate school debt on meagre adjunct salaries.

Historiann: Good point. (And of all The Professor’s cruelties, that one really frosted the cookie for me. Unbelievable! It makes one wonder about the depths of humiliation and fear of intimacy that must have been at the root of The Professor’s compulsive seductions and manipulations.)

However, individual professors are personally responsible for seducing students. They may be complicit in a broken system, but professors are not personally responsible for the current state of the academic job market their students will face. Where I see the parallel here is in the willingness of the students to be seduced and taken advantage of. This goes back to what you called “the logic and erotic appeal of a secret affair,” and the denial you note. It’s not just that “she wouldn’t lie to me,” but also when faced either with a sex life that’s an exploitative cliche or a life as a permatemp, it’s a consoling belief in the face of the facts that “it won’t happen to me. I’ll be the exception. I will be loved/employed someday.” This kind of denial may be necessary not just in some romantic entanglements, but also in the minds of people who want to pursue an academic career. We’re all Clarissa, friends.

This returns us to a theme we discussed earlier–the working-class girl who makes it to Stanford. “The Professor” is fascinating because it makes her survival of her disastrous first Big Love appear to be a bigger triumph than her academic career. (Maybe that’s the way it feels to her, and to many of us who made it to employment and tenure.) I still maintain–Pollyanna that I am!–that cruelty, abuse and exploitation aren’t necessary either in romance or in our work lives. I really don’t think it makes us better people or better at our jobs. But, as Samuel Richardson showed us centuries ago in Castle’s second-favorite book of all time, it sure makes for a hell of a story.

Tenured Radical: It sure does. Historiann, I just want to leave our readers with a YouTube video that contains a live recording of Meg Christian singing “Ode To A Gym Teacher” in 1974 at the Full Moon Coffee House in San Francisco (a more recent, live recording of Christian that can’t be embedded can be seen here.) But in a way this one is better, because it was put together by a fan who used a pastiche of “wimmin’s music” souvenirs from the 1970s for the visual portion, something which Terry Castle the Visual Artist will appreciate, I think.

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