If you’d had the chance, how much would you have done to make Susan Sontag your pal?
When she called, would you have canceled all your appointments for the day–including, if you were a teacher, your classes, leaving your students high and dry? Would you have driven 40 miles at the drop of a hat to cart her to a breakfast that you’d be paying for? Would you have redecorated your apartment so as to display her books prominently, along with an array of avant-gard art and photography volumes that you hoped would appeal to her tastes? Would you have spent hours listening to her bellyache about how no one appreciated her first unreadable novel. “The Volcano Lover,” or her second unreadable novel, “In America”?
If you were Terry Castle, you would. An English professor at Stanford and lesbian-literature expert, Castle confesses in an article, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” for the London Review of Books that the recently deceased Sontag was such an idol of hers that she willingly became Sontag’s unpaid gopher, chauffeur, tab-picker-upper, and all-around doormat whenever the intellectual superstar showed up in the San Francisco Bay area.
Here’s what Castle’s life was like catering to the whims of the Great Diva of the Life of the Mind:
“Whenever she came to San Francisco, usually once or twice a year, I instantly became her female aide-de-camp: a one-woman posse, ready to drop anything at a phone call (including the classes I was supposed to be teaching at Stanford) and drive her around to various Tower record stores and dim sum restaurants. Most important, I became adept at clucking sympathetically at her constant kvetching: about the stupidity and philistinism of whatever local sap was paying for her lecture trip, how no one had yet appreciated the true worth of her novel The Volcano Lover, how you couldn’t find a decent dry cleaner in downtown San Francisco etc, etc.”
It all started, Castle says, “one grey magical morning at Stanford in 1996, when after several hours of slogging away on student papers, I opened a strange manila envelope that had come for me, with a New York return address. The contents ‘ a brief fan letter about a piece I’d written on Charlotte Bront’ and a flamboyantly inscribed paperback copy of her play, Alice in Bed (‘from Susan’) ‘ made me dizzy with ecstasy. Having idolised Sontag literally for decades ‘ I’d first read ‘Notes on Camp’ as an exceedingly arch nine-year-old ‘ I felt as if Pallas Athene herself had suddenly materialised and offered me a cup of ambrosia. (O great Susan! Most august Goddess of Female Intellect!) I zoomed around, showing the note to various pals. To this day, when I replay it in my mind, I still get a weird toxic jolt of adolescent joy ‘ like taking a big hit of Crazy Glue vapours out of a paper bag….
“Sontag, it turned out, was coming to Stanford for a writer-in-residence stint that spring and the first morning after her arrival abruptly summoned me to take her out to breakfast. The alacrity with which I drove the forty miles down from San Francisco ‘ trying not to get flustered but panting a bit at the wheel nonetheless ‘ set the pattern of our days. We made the first of several madcap car trips around Palo Alto and the Stanford foothills. While I drove, often somewhat erratically, she would alternate between loud complaints ‘ about her faculty club accommodation, the bad food at the Humanities Center, the ‘dreariness’ of my Stanford colleagues (‘Terry, don’t you loathe academics as much as I do? How can you abide it?’) ‘ and her Considered Views on Everything (‘Yes, Terry, I do know all the lesser-known Handel operas. I told Andrew Porter he was right ‘ they are the greatest of musical masterpieces’). I was rapt, like a hysterical spinster on her first visit to Bayreuth.”
Sontag eventually dropped Castle for committing some minor gaffe, but not before Castle had completely refurbished her San Francisco apartment a la Sontag just in case the famous writer should drop by. As it happened, Sontag never did–but Castle hasn’t changed the decor:
“There are her books of course: the vintage paperbacks of Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Under the Sign of Saturn, the quite-wonderful-despite-what-everybody-says The Volcano Lover. There’s Aids and Its Metaphors, On Photography, Where the Stress Falls. The now valedictory Regarding the Pain of Others. And then there are some of my own productions, to remind her, passive-aggressively, I guess, that she’s not the only damned person who writes. (Caveat lector: Lilliputian on the rampage!) But then there’s heaps of other stuff sitting around, I’m embarrassed to say, the sole purpose of which is ‘ was ‘ to impress her. A pile of ‘tasteful’ art books: Popova, The History of Japanese Photography, Cy Twombly, Nadar, Bronzino, Hannah Hoch, Jeff Wall, Piranesi, Sol LeWitt and Jasper Johns, the big Bellocq volume (with her introduction). My 1930s picture of Lucienne Boyer. My Valentine Hugo photo of Breton and Aragon. The crammed CD cabinet ‘ with the six different versions of Pell’as. (Will I really listen to any of them all the way through again before I die?) My little 19th-century optical toy from Paris: you crank a tiny lever and see a clown head, painted on glass, change expressions as if by magic.”
Memo to Stanford parents: Your sky-high tuition money goes to pay the salaries of no-show profs who cancel their classes so they can carry on like teen-age girls who’ve just sighted Ashton Kutcher at the mall.