A Correspondence with Terry Castle

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Books
img_terrycastleThe celebrated literary critic on her controversial essay on Jane Austen, writing autobiographically, and remaining the perpetual misfit.

Terry Castle was once described by Susan Sontag as “the most expressive, most enlightening literary critic at large today.” She can also be described as a prolific critic. As the author of seven books of criticism, she writes on a range of topics including 18th century gothic and WWI literature. Her most significant contribution is perhaps The Literature of Lesbianism, a thick and comprehensive anthology of depictions of erotic desire between women in literature, as diverse as renaissance poetry and Hemingway.

Castle, a Professor of English at Stanford University, has also become increasingly recognised as an essayist and memoirist. She published The Professor in 2010, a sharp and self-deprecating collection of personal essays, one of which focuses on her tumultuous on-and-off friendship with Sontag. She has also started to experiment with new media, with her art blog and website.

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EMMA ADAMS: You’re speaking on Jane Austen at the forthcoming New Zealand Festival Writers Week. Your essay on Austen and her sister Cassandra in 1995 caused quite a reaction. It seems that the veneration for Austen as a spinster, and representing some purity of the past, has continued to be entrenched through films and media since your article was published. Why do you think that interpretation of Jane Austen’s life and works has a tendency towards this narrowness?

TERRY CASTLE: Why some Austen fans continue to freak out when anyone dares suggest that the novelist might have had some sort of psychosexual life—a certain erotic knowingness if not the actual experience—remains a bit of a mystery to me. Some of her more rabid devotees indeed seem to be in love with the idea of her as a sexually naïve old maid. Granted, they may be right in a technical sense; that her novels were the result of a life-long personal sublimation—some deep, embalming, conscious or unconscious ‘opting-out’ from the stark and fairly degrading 19th century sexual marketplace into which most women of the day—of all classes—were conscripted. But then again, there may be more to it.

I guess what makes the discussion of Austen’s sexuality so inflaming for conservative readers (women especially) is that the novels’ euphoric courtship plots reawaken so potently the lost feelings of adolescence—of a phase of life in which being female meant, for many of us, subsisting in a largely oblivious, explicitly pre-sexual ‘nice-girl’ state of being. Yes, the heroine is on the verge of some erotic coming-of-age in Austen’s novels, but is not yet so far along as to have experienced any of the inevitable pangs and disillusionments, great or small, of an adult erotic life. We watch her zoom up to the moment before the sexual initiation—and an exquisite and highly arousing moment it usually is—but never beyond. [At] the end of an Austen novel, the heroine often appears to have squared the circle, desire-wise. It’s a paradox through and through: she’s snared a man, and with him, a certain presumably sexualised identity and future. But at the same time she remains, for a nano-second that actually never ends, somehow ‘innocent’: unpenetrated, free, and more or less opaque in a libidinal sense.

What Austen activates in ardent fans then would be something like a kind of ‘Upwardly-Mobile-Hetero-Girl-Love-Fantasy’. I’d describe it as a vision of living life as a ‘woman’ (i.e., in a female body) without suffering the abuses and humiliations visited on real-world women, alas, even today, in what is a still-violent, deeply misogynistic global order. My female students—the ones who claim to be besotted by Austen and her books—tell me that even now, in 2014, they read her and watch the movies not for the social comedy or the brilliant style or the moral themes, but for the ‘love stories’. Getting to kiss the hero. Or not.

Such readerly euphoria can maybe seem regressive or childish but probably has everything to do, I’m thinking, with the so-called ‘post-feminist’ world we are all now said to inhabit. In some saddening, hugely entropic sense, feminism appears to be ‘gone’ or ‘over’ for these young women—or else never really existed for them. If they think about feminism at all, it’s merely as a sentimental vestige some long-ago-concluded sociopolitical readjustment carried out by no doubt distinguished but nameless female worthies.

[So] bizarre though it sounds, I think reading Austen’s fiction acts for them as a displaced surrogate for a feminist point of view—a more wholesome way of rebelling and resisting than bulimia or cutting yourself with a razor blade. A novel such as Emma or Pride and Prejudice represents an imaginary realm in which, however inchoately or metaphorically, female rage and desire—ongoing longings for power, physical safety, intellectual and moral authority, social acceptance, emotional freedom and fulfillment—can all be dramatized at once. My students don’t ‘get’ feminism, but they sure do ‘get’ Jane Austen.  She’s like swallowing a happy pill for them. The spectacular pop-culture fetishisation of Austen’s fiction in print and on film in recent decades may reflect what feminism itself has become in the early 21st century—a sort of amnesiac, occluded, teacup-filled, muslin-skirted version of itself.

The curiously sexless-seeming love-relationships in Austen’s novels, one would speculate in turn, exert their appeal because they intimate an idealised human scene so radically (and refreshingly) unlike our own: one in which young women do not face a daily barrage of demeaning or obscene images of themselves or feel obliged to put up with the appalling carnal vulgarity of contemporary culture—the grotesque tedium of human sexual activity as it is caricatured in advertising, the mass entertainment industry, and now on the internet. Austen’s characters know nothing of date rape, unwanted pregnancies, hip-hop bitches, or ‘reality’ shows about brainless self-obsessed housewives.  Her fiction could almost be said to work as a sort of crypto-ideology. She articulates fantasies about being beloved, attractive yet undefiled, emphatically abuse-resistant, and adored by a gentle, generous, and charming man. Sexuality hasn’t started for Austen’s heroines. And it never really does.

Even as the heroine seeks (and finds) an apparently non-sadistic man with whom to fall in love, she is also able—by virtue of  the novelist’s freeze-frame, ineluctably happy endings—to remain sexually untouched and unruffled. Fixed or fixated on an erotic threshold, if you like. Granted, Austen’s endings are wishful and comic—and of course have always delighted for precisely that reason—but I think they also speak in more or less uncanny ways to the sexual anxieties and buried hopes of young women readers.  However, lacking in overt transformative power, the novels can be experienced as a deep female protest against erotic degradation, intellectual dismissal, and economic disenfranchisement.

EA: In terms of your own criticism on Austen, what areas are you most interested in exploring?

TC: I wrote the London Review of Books piece, as you note, in 1995 (almost twenty years ago!) and while I continue to teach Austen’s novels, I don’t find myself particularly compelled to write much about her now, except in an informal way. I have too many other obsessions to live through before I do! That said, I do keep tabs, if unsystematically, on new biographies and Austen scholarship. She continues to inspire marvelously intelligent commentary. (Quite apart from the never-ending stream of films and spin-offs!)

One of the most elegant new critical books I’ve encountered recently is Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity—a very original and well-researched, sometimes mind-blowing study of the numerous real-world people who stand ‘behind’ individual Austen characters. Barchas is stunning, for example, on Northanger Abbey, one of Austen’s more elusive fictions.

EA: The concept of your work The Literature of Lesbianism is an anthology of the theme of lesbianism in literature. How did you separate it from other critical anthologies that have considered this theme more in terms of any conceivable implications on the sexuality of an author?

TC: In deciding whom and what to feature in the anthology, I specifically did not wish to include only those writers whom I felt I could declare certifiably “lesbian”—whatever that might mean. The category itself is a huge muzzy semantic problem and besides, I knew I wanted to include lots of male authors. Beginning with various Renaissance writers from Ariosto and Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Marvell and so on, male authors in fact predominate in the first half of the (roughly 1300-page) collection.

In turn, far from wishing to speculate about anybody’s sexual orientation, I mainly hoped to demonstrate how the concept or ‘idea’ of female same-sex love became ‘thinkable’ in modern Western culture. How people got their heads around it. The gender-and-orientation-neutral approach allowed for a fairly capacious intellectual and historical sweep and vantage-point. I didn’t want to segregate ‘lesbian writing’ or somehow insulate it from the broader field of literature. After all, to put it not entirely facetiously, some of the great ‘lesbian’ writers of all time—Balzac, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Henry James, Zola, Proust, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence—are men! At least men in the conventional sense. In particular, I wanted to overturn the idea that male writers have inevitably viewed lesbianism satirically—i.e., homophobically—while female writers were inclined to endorse it or be sympathetic. Not true! Works of imaginative literature, not to mention people, are far more complicated than such crude binaries would suggest. But the big point of it all, in the end, was to convey just how visible—as a literary theme— ‘Sapphic’ love has always been in Western culture and literature. Female same-sex desire is hardly the taboo or forbidden topic we sometimes assume it to be, but has been a central preoccupation for many of our most interesting writers, male and female, over the past five or six centuries. It’s been a huge theme in pornographic art and literature, for example, since at least the later 1500s.

EA: You’ve been described in The New York Post as “one of the funniest contemporary American essayists.” How do you find the experience of writing for wider consumption compared to your more academic writing?

TC: Really? The New York Post? Well, to anyone who knows my work the answer will hardly be a surprise: the experience has been one of huge relief. Contemporary academic prose—especially as reflected in the jargon-ridden lucubrations of so-called contemporary literary and cultural ‘theorists’—has definitely become a bête noir for me.  It’s my very own pumped up, super-saturated pet peeve. I’ve become fairly boring about it, in fact. The cartoon version of my plaint: that at some point over the past few decades, yammer yammer, far too many (often very smart) teachers and professors in the humanities stopped writing for a literate and intelligent general audience. That audience of readers has now all but disappeared—at least in the U.S. The default academic style is now a sort of pseudo-sociological bilge, all hideously thickened with a lot of authorial preening and indigestible ‘ideological critique.’ Self-importance and pretentiousness—even gaping historical illiteracy—seem to have become sought-after qualities. It disturbs me that art criticism and art scholarship (of which I read a fair amount these days) have apparently gone whole hog in the same direction. The next time I hear the art-world buzz-words ‘curating’ or ‘curatorial’ or ‘relational aesthetics’, someone talking about his or her ‘oppositional visual practice’, I think I shall begin screaming.

EA: In Rah, Rah, Cheers Queers, published in The London Review of Books, you credit your musings on marriage to a “perverse tendency to stand sadly apart from sociability and look rejected.” Does this tendency influence your personal essays, such as those found in The Professor, some of which are deeply intimate?

TC: Hmmm. Like many things I write, the sentence you quote—from an essay I published last summer about same-sex marriage, and my own initially ambivalent feelings about being officially ‘married’ to a woman in 2008—was a truth perhaps imperfectly concealed inside a joke. I think most people who read and write for a living are, or consider themselves, deep-dyed misfits of one kind or another. Loneliness—like alcoholism or poor hygiene or a permanently fat bottom—is something of an occupational hazard. And if you are gay or lesbian, the ‘outsider’ effect can be amplified. I think I began writing some of my more personal pieces—the essays collected in The Professor, for example—in an effort to alleviate intermittent yet painful residual feelings of existential isolation. Is there anyone like me out there? No? Boo-hoo! Cue: heebie-jeebies. Seriously, one of the emotionally difficult things for me about marriage has been learning how to absorb and integrate quite odd and unfamiliar feelings of sheer happiness.

EA: Is your background in 18th century satire an influence in this? In terms of not only your wit, but the desire for some degree of alienation?

TC: A satiric or mock-heroic tendency—some droll yet fundamental dissatisfaction with the world—is no doubt (ahem) there in my work. When I was an unhappy student in my twenties—boy, this sounds geeky—Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen (and a bit later their modern avatars—Henry James, Woolf, Joyce, Kingsley Amis, Brigid Brophy, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin) became culture-heroes for me: they offered true mental solace. The often hilarious bloody-mindedness you find in Swift’s satires, for example—or the skewering ribaldry and wit, say, in Woolf’s or Larkin’s letters—were no doubt palliative. Funny books and sardonic humor have probably helped salve various wounds left over from a shy and difficult coming of age.

EA: Do you have any projects that you are working on or planning for the future?

TC: Yes, I hope to do a smidgen more work before stroking out.  I’m currently working on a critical edition of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, and revising a set of academic essays I presented at Oxford a couple of years ago on British modernism and the 18th century.  Fascinating to me, but fairly pointy-headed enterprises, in other words.  If I’m lucky I’ll get to write more reviews and quasi-autobiographical ‘think’ pieces.  The long-ish essay is my ideal form.  New topics are always popping into my head.  I’d like to write something about social class, for example, plus more about the visual arts. A couple of recent essays have been on photography and so-called ‘outsider art.’

Likewise, having become over the past twenty-odd years a fairly obsessed (if disorganised) collector—of vintage postcards, anonymous photos, illustrated books of the 1920s and 1930s, tintypes, WWI cap badges, old puppets and dolls, police mugshots, homemade signs, zines, Wagnerian kitsch, rubber stamps, Sarah Bernhardt memorabilia, old movie bills, cigarette cards, unusual egg cups, obsolete industrial hardware, Staffordshire transferware, broken concertinas, owl figurines—it would be nice to explore in essay or book the no doubt demonic sources of this sociopathic acquisitiveness.  I’ll also continue, I hope, to work on my own art (collage mainly) and my two image-centric blogs, Fevered Brain Productions and A Postcard Almanac.

High Tea with Terry Castle’ is on Monday, March 10 at the Museum Art Hotel as part of the New Zealand Festival Writers Week. She also joins Alison Bechdel and Harry Ricketts for other Writers Week discussions.