Writing, I'm convinced, is often nothing but revenge — a way of twirling one's mustache, donning buckler and sword and feathery hat, shaking one's gauntleted fist at the gods.I thought I could use some laughter in dark times; Geoff Dyer's recommendations of funny books came just when needed. He reminded me that I've been meaning to read Eve Babitz, but of all the books he listed, the library had only Terry Castle.
I got off to a rocky start with The Professor and Other Writings. This collection of essays opens with a piece on World War I, which I found neither funny nor particularly interesting, so I was a little wary of what I'd gotten myself into.
While I wouldn't call these essays funny exactly (certainly not in an uproariously side-splitting way), Castle certainly knows how to tell a story.
There's a piece on Susan Sontag, about whom I know shamefully little, and pieces about Agnes Martin and Art Pepper, about whom I'd known nothing at all (and now want to know more).
I realize there may be a few lost souls who've never heard of him. Forget the overrated (and vapid-looking) Chet Baker. Art Pepper (1925-1982) was an authentic American genius. One of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time, Charlie Parker included. A deliriously handsome lover boy in the glory days of his youth. A lifelong dope addict of truly Satanic fuck-it-all grandeur. A natural writer of brazen, comic, commanding virtuosity. A proud long-term denizen of the California prison system. And now, no doubt, a tranquil if desiccated corpse.In "Home Alone," Castle shares her "shelter mag obsession" and highlights how the industry was traumatized by 9/11, when the idea of "home" was attacked and our sense of "sanctuary" threatened. She later turns a bit morbid considering the furnishings of death and evokes the avian-flu epidemic of 1918-19, noting that bird-to-human influenza viruses were much in the news at the time of writing in 2006. It was somewhat eerie to be reading this against the backdrop of quarantine. In 2020, with virus on all the airwaves, home is our only safespace — it is our office and our entertainment and it circumscribes our whole life. Remind me to check out a home decor magazine next time I pass the newsstand.
Ostensibly the star of the show, is "The Professor," about Castle's relationship with a teacher when she was in grad school. Perhaps because this essay is the longest and most personal, my feelings toward it are ambivalent. It's got some great lines: "Cathy and Heathcliff were like old acquaintances — my weird second cousins or something." But it is also self-indulgent — Castle's old journals are a springboard to the 70s, an emotionally juvenile time. The drama of the affair feels out of proportion, despite the morally questionable behaviour (a student-teacher relationship of this sort today might be judged much more harshly).
Castle's lesbianism is a constant presence, and if not central, then certainly significant to some stories. It made me wonder to what extent is my sexuality present in my writing, even when not the subject of it. Castle's references throughout to therapy also has me reconsidering whether I should give psychotherapy another try. (Why should I? What is it that fascinates me? Why do I feel I'm not good at it? Why do some people get so much from it, and why can't I be one of them?)
All in all, this is the kind of book I'd prefer to have in print, to pick up and browse at my leisure. A bookful of Castle is a lot of Castle. Were this not a library book with a due date, I'd've approached it differently. I'd rather take an essay at a time now and then.
Sometimes in raucous old bebop recordings from the late forties — the grotty straight-ahead bootleg ones with murky nightclub sound, people talking and glasses clinking in the background — the music doesn't end properly, with the usual reprise and nail-it-down final chord. It just breaks off abruptly in the middle of a solo or chorus as if someone had knocked over the mike. You're left with the sense of a close-packed human chaos, now terminated. Art Pepper is a kind of mannequin or decoy, I guess, the sort of mummified icon that even a person as terrified by mortality and other people as I am can latch onto and worship. It's true: I love his deftness and valor and craziness, and the exorbitant beauty of his playing. I love the quick, creamy sound he gets out of his alto. I love his shame-free storytelling. I love his handsome young male face.