It’s disconcerting how much I identify with a teenage Terry Castle, as represented in her memoir, The Professor:
In high school I had been almost freakishly solitary and skittish, with no idea how to comport myself in ordinary-teenager fashion…. Bizarre as it sounds, by the time I left for college I had never once called anyone on the telephone or invited a classmate over after school. Nor had I myself been so called or invited…. On the contrary: I’d been reclusive, a regular Secret-Garden-Frances-Hodgson-Burnett-Girl-Hysteric-in-Training. At seventeen, I remained passionately (if uneasily) mother devoted; frighteningly watchful, in school and out; abnormally well read in Dumas novels, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, H.P. Lovecraft, and the lives of the poets…. I began devouring certain louche modern authors in secret: Gide, Wilde, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, even Yukio Mishima, then at the height of his celebrity in the West. Sexual deviance, or at least what I conceived it to be, began to exert a certain unhallowed, even gothic allure—a glamorous, decayed, half-Satanic romance…. Not least among the attractions that such literary homosexuality proffered: some drastic psychic deliverance from familial dreariness and the general SoCal strip-mall stupor…. As for “homosexual practices”—and I confess I wasn’t exactly sure, mechanically speaking, what they were—they sounded sterile and demonic but also madly titillating…. Anything could happen, it seemed, in the fascinating world of sexual inverts. Lesbianism didn’t figure much, if at all, in these early reveries: one of the oddest parts of the fantasy, I guess, was that I was male, dandified, and in some sort of filial relationship to various 1890s Decadents. I knew more about green carnations, the Brompton Oratory, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and the curious charms of Italian gondoliers than I did about Willa Cather or Gertrude Stein—not to mention Garbo or Stanwyck or Dusty Springfield.
I was already feeling nostalgic about high school from earlier this afternoon, when something one of my high-school friends posted on Facebook reminded me of those lonely quiet days of negotiating friendship for the very first time, bumbling step-by-step out of the world of Musketeers into the bright cloudless San Diego shopping-mall sunlight, learning for the first time at the age of 16 or 17 how to socialize. At the very same time as I was learning how to socialize, I was learning how to study sexuality—putting off the terrifying process of having to confront myself and who I was and what I wanted by discoveries no less thrilling and rewarding. I can remember where I was, how I felt, when I read “Reading Gaol” and the Calamus poems and Howl. I remember lugging around school volumes of Krafft-Ebing and Kinsey borrowed from the UCSD library, because I thought it made me cool. I remember sitting up in a dark bedroom at 3 am on a hot summer night in the dead-quiet suburbs, talking to my high-school friend on AIM while we simultaneously watched Shortbus together. I remember being trapped by the walls, by the air, by the cars we all were stuck in all the time when we drove down Interstate 15 into or out of the city. I remember reading Viola in Twelfth Night for one English class. Teaching Whitman and Ginsberg in another. Adapting and staging and deliberately cross-casting The Importance of Being Earnest in another.
Like Symonds, like Terry Castle, like me, so many of us believe in another world, a place where glamor and panache and camp and beauty take the place of gender conformity and Hollister clothing and pink stucco houses. So many of us read our Plato, read our Wilde, lived our pretentious little teenage lives in a performative effort to clap! clap if we believed in fairies! So many of us grew up and didn’t quite ever find that the real world lived up to the hazy, lilac-scented Arcadian visions of the earliest chapters of Brideshead Revisited and The Picture of Dorian Gray. (As a teenager, I was never quite able to read all the way to the ends of those books, and watch the paradise slip away into madness.) But I’d like to think we all cultivate our own gardens, all find our paradises within, happier far. I’d like to think that Symonds’ creation of a homosexual culture and his affair with his gondolier at long-last helped to put some of his demons to rest; I’d like to think that Castle’s wonderfully dry self-deprecating humor bespeaks contentment with the material niceties of her life as a successful academic, far from the barren stucco San Diegan wilderness (mentally, if not physically. But I swear, Palo Alto’s nicer than University City anytime). And I dream that someday someone will pay me to introduce the homoerotic literary tradition to the young people who desperately need a little camp and glamor in their lives. But the thing is, even if plans B through Z fail and no one ever does, I’ll still be the 14-year-old kid who strutted over the hills of a southern-California suburb one September in floral-patterned knee-breeches, black lace-up boots, a frilly shirt and doublet and a broad-brimmed hat with an enormous purple peacock feather pinned to the brim. “Notes on Camp“? Baby, who needs ’em? I’ve got the text memorized!
I’ll end this reverie on the perfect note that Madonna’s “Vogue” serendipitously came up on shuffle.