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Derrida and Yummyburgers

When academics get personal.

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Collage by Terry Castle/Courtesy of Harper Collins  

Terry Castle is the Walter A. Haas professor in the humanities at Stanford University—or, as she puts it, “The Spoiled Avocado Professor of English at Silicon Valley University.” She is, by most measures, the very picture of academic authority: author of seven books, editor of an influential anthology (The Literature of Lesbianism), and one of the world’s reigning experts on the eighteenth-century novel. In her eighth book, The Professor, however, Castle wanders very far from the imperial safety of traditional academic authority. “Having labored in the dusty groves of academe for over twenty years,” she writes in an author’s note, “I felt—as a new millennium unfolded—a desire to write more directly and personally than had previously been the case.” Her book collects seven disparate essays, with subjects ranging from jazz saxophonist Art Pepper (“a lifelong dope addict of truly Satanic fuck-it-all grandeur”) to Castle’s semi-friendship with Susan Sontag (“the bedazzling, now-dead she-eminence”). Read back to back, the essays cohere into a kind of ragtag autobiography. Along the way, things do, indeed, get direct and personal. Direct, for instance, about Castle’s relationship with her sociopathic stepbrother: “I hated the fucking punk—frankly wished him gone from the earth.” Personal, in particular, about her sexual history, which she gives us more or less in full: from losing her virginity in college to being seduced by a sadomasochistic professor in grad school to finding happiness with a younger colleague in middle age.

Elif Batuman, who, curiously, also teaches literature at Stanford, has a little less life to catalogue than Castle—she’s 32 to Castle’s 56—but she writes about the daily realities of academic entanglement with a similarly addictive mix of humor, confession, and intellectual energy. Her new book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, chronicles her experiences as “a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman” on the worldwide academic circuit. She’s obsessed, above all, with the strange angles at which classic literature intersects with the world. She witnesses backstage sniping at an international Isaac Babel conference (“Is it true that you despise me?,” one of Babel’s daughters keeps asking one of the scholars), attends a Tolstoy conference at the Tolstoy estate (horses copulate outside the window while she’s giving her paper), and studies Uzbek literature with crazy teachers in Uzbekistan (one teacher tells her that the Uzbek author Qahhor “wrote in the style of Chekhov, but at a one-thousand-times higher level”).

Castle’s The Professor and Batuman’s The Possessed are both examples of what you might call the personal-academic essay—a hybrid that cross-breeds two oft-critiqued genres: memoir (engaging but shallow) and literary criticism (deep but dull). These troublesome genres, it turns out, make an excellent pair. A good personal-academic essay blends the best qualities of each tradition: the charm, humor, digressions, and confessions of personal writing with the intelligence, curiosity, and analytical boldness of lit crit. Batuman and Castle both get the ratios pretty much exactly right.

Part of the pleasure of these books is seeing a figure of genteel cultural authority—the literary scholar—comically reduced. Castle, in particular, is vulnerable and neurotic. She blows writing deadlines and suffers from “astronomical credit card debt.” She describes herself as “moody and mean-spirited”; “pale, criminal, a bit bloated”; a “japing, nay-saying, emotionally stunted creature”; and a “bullet-ridden blob.” She has a panic attack in a rental car and explosive diarrhea in the sea off Sicily. (“I am breaking every law of God and Man,” she thinks.) She decides, after a waiter calls her “sir,” that she is destined to “suffer the lonely death of the sexual pervert.” (In a recent interview with The Nation, Castle described her persona in these essays as “self-burlesque … a conscious casting off of a sort of authority or pedantry or certainty.”)

Both Batuman and Castle come across as supremely lovable dorks. As a grad student, Castle used to write some final papers during the first week of class, then brag about it to her classmates. (She seems less proud of this today.) Batuman once brought her bathroom scale to the library to weigh Tolstoy’s Collected Works, ten volumes at a time. (It weighs, apparently, as much as a newborn beluga whale.) Even their faults are lovably dorky. Both writers occasionally cross into TMI territory—an occupational hazard of the personal essayist—and Batuman leans a bit heavily on her suspiciously specific and thematically relevant dreams. Castle sometimes unleashes mighty floods of name-dropping and is addicted, like a teenager’s “hip” mom, to painfully outdated slang: “See yah. Wouldn’t wanna be yah.” “Marcus Aurelius wuz da Man.” “Barf City.” “Yummyburgers!”

The exciting thing about the personal-academic essay is its range: It wants to include everything—high theory and pop culture, analysis and confession, arguments and jokes. Batuman invokes Derrida as an authority in one breath and gently mocks him the next. (“Planet Derrida—that land where all seemingly secondary phenomena are actually primary, and anything you can think of doing is an act of violence, practically by virtue of your having thought about it using some words that were also known to Aristotle.”) Castle, in her notorious portrait of Susan Sontag (first published, as were most of her book’s essays, in the London Review of Books), both pays tribute to and mocks her former friend. Sontag was, of course, one of the most self-serious intellectuals in history, and Castle shows, hilariously, the comic excesses involved in maintaining that persona. Her essay includes a classic scene in which Sontag is suddenly moved to reenact, on an otherwise peaceful afternoon walk down the main shopping corridor of Palo Alto, the dangers she faced in Sarajevo:

“Then she stopped abruptly and asked, grim-faced, if I’d ever had to evade sniper fire. I said, no, unfortunately not. Lickety-split she was off, dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur, all the way down the street to Restoration Hardware and the Baskin-Robbins store. Five or six perplexed Palo Altans stopped to watch as she bobbed zanily in and out, ducking her head, pointing at imaginary gunmen on rooftops and gesticulating wildly at me to follow. No one, clearly, knew who she was, though several of them looked as if they thought they should know who she was.”

Some have criticized this portrait as cruel, but I think Castle did Sontag a favor. These absurd, trivial incidents that Sontag would never have written about herself—the life behind the authority—actually make me like her slightly better.

The Professor and Other Writings
By Terry Castle.
HarperCollins. $25.99.

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $15.


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