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BRINGING 'GHOSTLY' LESBIANS INTO CLEARER VIEW
STANFORD - The major book on ghosts that Stanford English Professor Terry Castle began writing six years ago has been transformed into a work on lesbians and modern culture.
But Castle did not completely "give up the ghost."
In her just-published book, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press), Castle finds the image of the ghost a useful metaphor for analyzing the place of lesbians in society.
"When it comes to lesbians, many people have trouble seeing what is in front of them," Castle writes.
A ghost "suggests something absent, immaterial, not very palpable," she said. "Yet if one thinks of a ghost as something that keeps appearing, keeps exerting an influence, something that has the power to haunt us, that seems to me to be the position that the lesbian has occupied in Anglo-European society since the Renaissance."
Lesbians - artists, writers, musicians - have been "central in the creation of the modern cultural condition," Castle said. "Much of what we take to be modernity has its source not only in homosexuality in general but particularly in female homosexuality."
In recent years, Castle said, scholars have written books focusing on the creative role of the male homosexual tradition. Her work, part of that larger project, she said, "is to bring lesbians into view as centrally important in Western society despite their seeming invisibility."
If a single theme has shaped her book, Castle writes, "it is that there are always 'more' lesbians to be found in the world than one expects, that lesbians are indeed 'everywhere' and always have been."
The view that lesbianism is "uncommon, eccentric, unusual, completely marginal, is an attitude that is reinforced by cultural mythologies," Castle said. "Yet I think as any lesbian grows up, she begins to discover more and more kindred spirits."
Castle cited recent biographies that have spotlighted homosexual manifestations in the lives of such diverse women as Eleanor Roosevelt; writers Elizabeth Bishop, Willa Cather, Daphne DuMaurier, Katherine Mansfield, Mary Renault, Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Yourcenar; actresses Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Eva Le Gallienne; and artists Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka.
"We can see there was a lesbian dimension to these women's careers, their personalities, even if they did not identify themselves as such," Castle said.
Lesbianism, she said, "has been very much a part of female experience, particularly in the case of women who have accomplished things in the realm of culture."
"It's obviously a delicate issue to try to label someone's sexuality," Castle said, "yet it is important to remind people, or let them know, that female homosexuality is a very common phenomenon." In her book, she said, "I used the term lesbian for women such as Garbo and Cather, because it felt to me the most emotionally accurate thing to do."
Lesbianism did not just emerge in the 20th century, Castle said. Many scholars have argued that although it was common for women in the 19th century, for example, to have impassioned friendships with other women, "there was no physicality to those relationships, no erotic content in the way we would now understand," Castle said.
She finds that "a somewhat patronizing and condescending view of the past. There's always the suggestion that we're very sophisticated about these things and that women in earlier centuries were completely naive and innocent."
One of Castle's chapters deals with Anne Lister (1791-1840), the author of voluminous diaries recently unearthed in an obscure Yorkshire archive. Writing in code, Lister describes her passionate physical relationships with women.
These diaries, which a few historians have dismissed as a hoax, suggest that "we have only begun to uncover the remarkable, lyrical history of the love of woman for woman," Castle said.
In her book, Castle mixes personal essays, literary criticism and reflections on the history of lesbianism.
A memoir of her girlhood, "First Ed," was the enabling essay that let Castle begin work on The Apparitional Lesbian. She had been doing research for her "big book," which was to be about the waning of belief in apparitions in the West after the Enlightenment. But she could not seem to get launched on the writing, and one day she found herself at her computer writing "First Ed." In it she recalls the dawning of her recognition of her own lesbianism as she encounters the mysterious woman "Ed" at the San Diego YWCA swimming pool.
"It's as though I had to reconnect my intellectual life with an older part of my imagination," she said.
Writing autobiographical essays, she said, enabled her to escape from "what I've increasingly come to feel to be the straitjacket of the academic style - the conventional rhetoric, conventional format. I feel strongly that, because of the emphasis on specialization in the past few decades, many academic writers, especially in the humanities, have lost the ability or the desire to communicate with a larger audience."
In another personal essay, "In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender," Castle writes about her "diva worship" of the German mezzo soprano.
Since much of her book deals with "the homophobia that has been exhibited over the past 200 years toward same-sex relationships," Castle said, she wanted to conclude on an affirming and celebratory note. Her essay on Fassbaender "records an idiosyncratic, but perhaps exemplary admiration of one woman for another."
Castle hopes to do a longer piece of personal writing, but her next project, she said, is likely to be an anthology of lesbian-themed writing from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. The volume will include works by lesbian and non-lesbian writers, women and men.
The anthology, Castle said, "is intended to illustrate the significance of the theme of love between women in Anglo-European writing since 1600. I would start there since I feel it is with translations of Ovid and Sappho in the Renaissance that lesbianism re-enters the Western literary tradition as a central theme."
In The Apparitional Lesbian, Castle said, one of her goals was to "move across constituencies of readers." The book, she said, is not written just for lesbian readers, or just for straight readers, or just for academics.
"I hope it will appeal in different ways to different readers," she said, "and will allow a dialogue on the subject to start taking place. I've never felt like a separatist of any kind, intellectually, although I've always found a certain difficulty, until recently, in bringing together my personal life and my intellectual life in any obvious way."
In the same way that she is trying to bring together different parts of her life, Castle said, "I hope the book might reach separate constituencies and start communication."
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