Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dyke Crush

I'm in love with a lesbian. This has happened before. (You know who you are.) Give me a woman with just the right smoky laugh, a dry wit and a dirty mouth, and I am generally as smitten as a Catholic school girl riding backwarmer on her first Harley. I know it's not all that common among gay men of my generation, but I have always loved dykes. And I've always loved butches, so long as they were female, specially. My grandma had a neighbor lady wore dungarees with the cuffs rolled and a man's cotton dress shirt with the sleeves cut out. I'd watch her when she worked in her vegetable garden. I liked the way she smoked: the cigarette between her lips until it was just a hot little butt that she'd take out and study between her finger and thumb before she'd draw one last hit and flick it up onto the road. I admired that quiet economy of motion. I liked the single-mindedness in everything she did, and the absence of waste. I liked that she could carry on a conversation without taking that cigarette out, and kill potato-bugs at the same time. Something told me we should be friends, and eventually, we were.

In high school, my two best girlfriends were both baby dykes. One was tough as the ratty old docksiders she wore without socks every day, summer and winter. She was something of a lipstick lezzie and wouldn't come to school when the power went off at home 'cause she couldn't use her hot-comb. That said, she cursed like a truck driver, lived on speed and Pepsi, and cut a wide swath through the local virgins. Crazy as Hell, but beautiful, that girl. Smart too. And funny? Never laughed so hard again in my life. She was so busy pretending to be tough in those days, I think she couldn't help but be later, when she needed to be. I was perfectly right in thinking she could survive The Flood. She has now, more than once. My other favorite was my first real intellectual, a great mountain of a girl in big laced boots, men's corduroys and buttoned up button-downs. She came to a kind of snowy peak at the top, where an unwashed bowl-cut framed a face and a mind of surprising delicacy. An odd, wall-eyed creature, a head or more taller than me, walking and talking together we must have looked like an anomaly in deep time; the mastodon and the vole. She was my first real loner, and a bit of a challenge, but behind thick glasses and that awkward reserve, I sensed there was someone extraordinary, and I was right. She had about the sharpest mind I've ever encountered. Every thought was a slow grind, but inexorable, and worth the wait.

Since then, there have always been dykes in my life. Women generally, as many or more than otherwise, but lesbians specially. I've never really questioned the affinity. Others have, other gay men specifically, though that was a long time ago and in a more gendered community and less enlightened time.

Looking back, it is amazing now to think how infrequently gay men and women mixed, back in the day. Even then I found the whole business ridiculous. I could however appreciate how any real distinction between gay and straight men was pretty negligible for a lot of gay women back then. Sexism, when I was coming up, while less obvious in the gay community than the straight, was still widespread and gynophobia accepted as a gay cultural norm. The atmosphere in most gay places was distinctly unfriendly to women, at least to any woman not prepared to enthuse about dick, and the bars, even the rare supposedly "mixed" ones, seemed to all be all about dick. Dick, dick, dick, dick, dick. (Thanks to poppers, the joints even smelled like an old jockstrap.) Even when one did find dykes out in a gay club, nobody seemed happy to see them. Seems obvious to me at least that while the boys had bigger mustaches, the dykes had had that whole drag down first, and I suspect they found the boys' efforts at being "hard" slightly risible. No one likes to have their new look challenged as tired. The only thing the new clones seemed to have in common with their nelly ancestors was a general disdain of the women. Still "no females allowed" in the all new He-Man Woman Haters' Clubhouse. Girls, you know, just spoil everything. (The women all just seemed pissed that they couldn't afford a place of their own.) Most social interactions that weren't yet specifically political were still willfully segregated by sex. The bars certainly were. In lesser cities where there weren't many options, this proved to be hilarious: the girls all to one side and the boys on the other, like a junior high dance. Sometimes it felt a little like rival gangs keeping a fragile truce. The gay disdain of lesbians struck me, even then, as being specially ironic, to say the least, considering how much the boys owed Feminists and the Women's Movement for our own Liberation, but then I was also shocked, at about the same time, when I discovered that there could even be such things as NRA dykes, Republican fags, and racist queers. (I think much of the old misogyny got knocked out of the boys when queer women saved our lives without being asked. Hope so, anyway.)

Coming from a straight little place, full of straight little people, I found the wider gay world still shockingly small minded. I'd expected... more, at least from my own. (Who would have guessed that grown men could still think girls had cooties?) My first gay mother was a woman, remember, and there were so few of us, in a small town like that, that when we found one another, boys and girls, we just naturally tended to hang together. Who else? When I finally had the chance to move in more exclusively male circles, I found it terribly exciting at first, but soon enough realized that I was no more comfortable in those dark, sticky, faux locker-rooms than I had ever been in the real ones.

When I met a few authentic old queens, still bullying the "trade" in dim old bars like The Jockey Club in Pittsburgh, PA, I was very much relieved to find that gay men needn't now all be glowering machos, silently tippin' long-necks and grunting. Sadly though, these antiques in angora were, if anything, even less inclined to appreciate any female not named Bette. The queens were more fun, and funnier, but just as primitive about the girls.

I've also met the unfunny, earnest dyke of queer mythology, by the way. The second of my two high school buddies, after years studying wymin's theology and the like, and finally finding herself a girlfriend with chin-whiskers, actually became something like, and dropped me. Understandable, in a way, I suppose. Her lesbianism, despite being rather obvious to everyone but her for years, was arrived at by means of ratiocination and thoughtful research as much as in answer to her nature. She had always about her an atmosphere of careful assessment, and like many of the real intellectuals I have encountered since, even her affection was less impulsive than a deliberate commitment, in principle. Love, for some people, seems just to be the right thing to do. When we parted ways, I was never made to feel I'd somehow disappointed her or done something wrong. Regrettably, I'd just somehow become irrelevant, if not an actual impediment, to her happiness thereafter. Sad for me, sad for her, but there we logically were. Hope that all worked out the way she wanted for her. (I suppose I'll never know. She doesn't seem to be on facebook.) Since then, I've met, if that's even the right word for the encounters I have in mind, some terrifyingly serious sisters, too. I still find myself attracted to the occasional laughless, intellectual dyke, to that kind of tweedy, theoretical lesbian. The rare times I've had the chance to actually interact with one, I've always been careful to respect their reservations about people with penises. They have their reasons. Far be it from me to oppress strangers. Obviously though, I'm more often drawn to dykes with a bit more blue than starch.

In contemporary lesbian literature, there seem to have been fewer real, solid dykes than one might have liked, though there've always been a few. (My definition of solidity, in the contemporary lesbian, being a capacity to discuss her sexuality and female anatomy in general honestly, and interestingly, without resort to either clinical abstraction or squeamish floral similes, and for whom the word "fucking" -- good ol' Saxon word like "cunt," -- is not considered either titillatingly transgressive or antifeminist.) I'll always love the literary dyke-mamas of my youth: Kate Millet, Lorde, Karla Jay, Lillian Faderman, Bishop. Solid. (Of the more Classic generation, I still owe a fierce loyalty to Willa and Sarah Orne Jewett, and those other more necessarily discreet maids. In the in-between, I can think only of Highsmith. Turns out, the woman was even creppier than her novels, but I still love her.) My last major literary dyke crush was Helen Humphries. Still not over that girl.

But now that I've met Terry Castle, in her new book The Professor and Other Writings, as I said right at the start, I'm in love all over again.

Professor Castle is the kind of feminist scholar with whom I haven't had much truck since I stopped trying to keep up with the girlfriend who read Mary Daly. The list of Castle's previous publications includes at least a few of the kind of titles I once toted dutifully in my knapsack when my friend and I went for long, late-night walks and she taught me how to think aloud. I don't imagine that Castle's earlier books, with titles like The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, and The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny were written with me as the reader she had in mind. That's okay with me, if it's okay with her. (Don't want to piss her off.) But in this new book of personal essays, I've found perhaps the most congenial spirit, and the most welcome familiarity of voice, I've read in a lesbian writer, or writer with or without modifier, in years. Terry Castle is my kinda woman. I wanna be her faggot.

To begin with, she's solid. Witness this, on O'Keeffe, from her essay, "Travels with My Mom":

"... she is supposed to have celebrated – fairly unabashedly – something called ‘female sexuality’. Who can contemplate those swelling pink and purple flowers – or the roseate canyon-wombs opening up within them – without thinking of the plush, ding-donging joys of female genitalia? Georgia, by god, must have had orgasms to spare."

Now I have a only a quite limited experience of such "plush, ding-donging joys," but lord knows, I've looked into O'Keeffe's canyon a few too many times myself, and I've read far too much poetry in celebration of the female principle that might best be summarized by that deliciously spoofy phrase. I bless the womyn for it. I'll never read Adrienne Rich again without hearing Castle ringing somewhere in my head.

It is that kind of rough wit that really makes me go all swoony over a gal, that and real smarts. Castle -- or rather, Terry, 'cause that's what I call her now I'm her faggot -- is a full-on intellectual, with an obvious command of literary language and cultural history, of the kind at which I can only marvel. Had I first met her in her more studious books, academically robed, as it were, I should have been too intimidated to even be introduced, let alone offer my devotion, though perhaps, even then, that dead sexy, smoky laugh might have made me brave. (She must be both great fun and scary as Hell in a classroom. Can't imagine sitting anywhere but giggling in the back row. I'd love to hear her lecture though. I've always liked tops at the lectern. Bottoms always seem so needy when they have a larger audience.)

Like the best essayists, she's wonderfully unpredictable: taking off after such weird enthusiasms as WWI cemeteries in "Courage, Mon Amie," or shelter-porn -- wonderful phrase -- as in Elle Decor -- in "Home Alone," and the great, straight, junky, jazz musician/hipster Art Pepper, and his unbelievably filthy memoir that she reads with such barking delight in "My Heroin Christmas." (She digs on his butch. I get that.) Even in a book of occasional prose, this could seem random, rather than charmingly eccentric, but the author has produced a book, not just loose a folio of reprinted pieces. This is not journalism. Each of these essays is in fact nakedly personal, but made of more than autobiography. Castle is a daughter of Montaigne, so the object is not simple self-promotion or caricature, or comedy, but an exercise in sensibility, and hers is a charmingly mordant voice. She is a serious comic stylist. She doesn't just write comedy, though she can, as here, in a little run, from "Home Alone," about the "established interiors trope" in shelter-mags, of introducing the latest trends as "not your mother's (whatever.)"

“'Not Your Mother’s Tableware' is a typical heading—meant presumably to assure you that if you acquire the featured cutlery you will also, metaphorically speaking, be giving your mom the finger. (Other online items that are not your mother’s: wallpaper, mobile homes, Chinette, faucet sponges, slow cookers, backyard orchards, and Tupperware parties. Beyond the realm of interior decoration—it’s nice to learn—you can also avoid your mother’s menopause, divorce, Internet, hysterectomy, book club, Mormon music, hula dance, antibacterial soap, deviled eggs, and national security."

That's funny, and funnier in the context of her complex relationship with her own mother, to which she returns often in the book, but that is by no means all she can and does do, even in that essay.

Then there's this, from "Desperately Seeking Susan," a largely admiring, and very personal, and very funny assessment of the late Susan Sontag. (I'm tempted to quote at length here, -- as this essay is easily the best description I've read to date of the woman -- but instead I'll offer just this one perfectly pitched line to stand for the whole):

"The carefully cultivated moral seriousness -- strenuousness might be a better word -- coexisted with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby - like absurdity."

And there she is before us, Susan Sontag, Dowager Empress of the unfunny earnest dykes.

It might have been that Castle herself came close to being just such a one. She has all the intellectual qualifications, as I said before. It isn't obvious in the quote I pulled, but the essayist's admiration of Sontag is genuine, and her assessment considered. So it is not a want of seriousness, or even reverence, that prevents Terry Castle becoming yet another stone literary butch. For all I know that was just what she was when she was writing to a less popular tune. Perhaps all she lacks to be just such a one every time out is the inclination. Put it another way, to paraphrase The Wizard, she's got one thing they haven't got: a nerve.

There is a mistake made all too often by really superior minds when addressing themselves to inferior experience -- and let's face it, most of life is not so transcendental for any but I suppose the oldest souls -- a mistake, at least for the common reader for whom and to whom I can presume to speak, that undoes any real satisfaction, even intellectual, in reading someone like Susan Sontag when she would try to let all that glorious hair of hers down; she all but invariably mistakes communicating the idea, however brilliantly, for describing an experience. Nothing, not admiration, affection, outrage, not a book, not a trip, not a death, even the anticipation of her own, no piece of art, is ever unabstracted. Every telling instance, every example, from the most harrowing event to the happiest accident, or worse, every observation of the commonplace, is offered only postmortem, after thorough vivisection, and however careful the reconstruction, however flawless the presentation, there is always the smell of recent refrigeration. However noble or humane or eager for affection the impulse that instigates this kind of writing, and thinking, the results are at best a lifeless beauty, a barren gesture at expression, the abstraction of feeling.

There's a species of egotism, a refinement of the more usual bombast of say, politics, that is only possible in the real, if inferior artist, and most common in modern critics of serious reputation. It is there in the evident satisfaction taken in the rightness of every proof and the refusal of mess, romance, humor, happenstance, embarrassment, genuine spontaneity, emotion. (There is a reason modernist abstraction is so often praised for it's "experimental" intention.) There is a posture -- what after all am I trying to describe just here if not an insistent, rigid dignity --that once assumed can not be relaxed. In such sad cases, while almost any obscenity may be deemed interesting, any inconsistency telling, and any vulgarity indulged as amusing, the capacity to indulge in obscenity, to exhibit imperfection, to be vulgar, is made unthinkable. Amazingly enough, the one subject sooner or later invariably addressed, if not attempted, by just such proudly unfunny imaginations is humor. (See Sontag's "On Camp.") Everybody's a comedian. But to actually be funny, one has to admit the possibility of being found funny. It is not enough to study funny. It is not enough even to be seen to laugh at one's self. One must invite the laughter of other people. There's an inherent pusillanimity in the unfunny, a failure of nerve, in their incapacity not to get the joke, but to tell it on themselves that bespeaks a fundamental dishonesty, and a smallness of spirit.

Now, Terry Castle, (remember her?) is one solid dyke. In her essays, there is no failure of nerve. She's neither a clown nor a comedian. She won't abandon either sense or seriousness just to get a laugh, but she invites her readers to laugh at everything she finds funny and nothing seems to amuse her more than the fundamental ridiculousness of love, and her own disconcerting humanity in the face of it. It is the title essay in her new book, "The Professor," by far the longest and best thing in the book, that convinces me that she is the real deal and worthy of worship. I've read more than my share of coming out narratives, by men and women, old and new, and hers is perhaps the funniest and the most achingly honest I've ever read. It isn't just the familiarity of the protagonist's comical precocity and inexperience and the completely believable and complex portrait of the unworthy object of first love, it is rather the profound good humor with which she relates this oldest of old stories that makes me want to take her out and get her drunk and hear the whole thing again.

It is in her own "brusque, unselfconscious, even flagrant rejection of femininity," -- a quality she recognized as uniting her punk idol Patti Smith and her older and otherwise utterly unlike lover, the Professor, in an unexpected continuity of timeless style, and into which Terry has herself most happily relaxed -- that the writer has reclaimed something of that admirable, ineffable fuck-it I've always found so irresistible in my favorite dykes. It is this defiance of that supposedly gendered, mystically matriarchal, indiscriminate and undiscriminating womanishness that makes the forgiveness she offers not only her old lover, but her younger self, both admirable and palatable to a gay male reader like myself who has always thought the wholesale adoption by an earlier generation of lesbians of such watery spiritual slop the greatest disservice ever done to the real dignity my dear dykes. (Just as the worst turn gay men ever took, in my opinion, was the collective decision made some time after the coming of The Plague that we would hereafter strive to all becomes better patriots than our grandpas, better husbands than our fathers and better mothers than our own. If for quite awhile there it seemed like the women had gone to pray in a cave, we all looked to be pricing houses near "good elementary schools." Such passivity is unbecoming in a radically non-normative people.) This is a woman, finally, who didn't need to tell this story. Terry Castle, while admitting hilariously that she's been no better than her sisters when it comes to community trends, bad hair choices and all the rest, has settled into herself, as a person and a writer, and embraced her contradictions, found her own voice. Nobody has, or possibly could have told this tale better. The girl can blow, baby. She makes a joyous noise. The echos of days and dykes gone by no longer jar the ear, but delight because she can bounce them off the kind of solid prose missing from most romantic memoirs, queer or straight, and do it with a big, brash, happy sound. The woman knows who she is, as a writer and a person of some substance, or comes as near to knowing as any of us ever do, and that makes for instance the aching vulnerability of the girl she describes herself as having been funny rather than laughable, sad rather than tragic. This is a coming to maturity, this little book, for a still pretty new literature. (I know, I know, we've been around forever, but you know I mean just ours, the one we've made since coming out.) It's not the happy endings, or the first review in the New York Times Book Review, or the coming of "queer theory" that makes our arrival in literature real, it's writing so good, so genuinely fresh and funny and confident anyone can, and everyone should, read it. It's Ed White turning tricks in perfect American English. It's David Sedaris learning French for his boyfriend.

It's Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings.

I tell you, honestly, I'm her bitch, if she'll have me.

(Again, I get the whole Art Pepper thing. I so do.)

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