The Apparitional Lesbian

Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture
Columbia University Press, 1993
Order from the publisher, Columbia University Press, or go to Terry Castle’s Page on Amazon.com.

(Reviewers’ comments)

A “landmark study” –Amazon.com

“She has raised a sunken region to the surface, reading with exceptional acuity, remembering what it was that made the reading *tell,* responding to discrepancies and thinking hard about what such responses mean; thereby she has restored to consciousness–to comprehension and coherence– a not inconsiderable peninsula of human geography. What enthralls me is Terry Castle’s promptness to risk her own neck in an enterprise where she was evidently capable—so acute are her interpretive skills, so sequacious her scholarly forays—of proceeding by discursive justice alone; the consequence of such chivalry is so much more humane and convincing, and often so much funnier, than what the toils of mere argument could vouchsafe, that gratitude is my first and most appropriate reaction. Then comes enlightenment, from the eminent dignity (and difference!) of lesbian desire to the indentures of *diva-dienst*: demystification here has made its monument!”—Richard Howard

A “wonderful book.. …. Castle confides in us that before she started this book she had grandiose plans to write her ‘big book’ on ‘the waning of belief in apparitions in Western culture after the Enlightenment…, an “apparitional” history of modern consciousness.’ That book apparently was never written (or perhaps it evolved into her more recent book The Female Thermometer), but in The Apparitional Lesbian Castle has indeed produced a ‘big book.’ It is among the best scholarly writing (lesbian or otherwise) I have ever read, and I will certainly find a way to share it with my students and my friends.” —Linda Lopez McAlister, Signs

“The field of lesbian critical theory and lesbian criticism has grown in recent years so that there is a substantial body of fine work, but the best books remain to be written–books that will complicate, theorize, and explore salient issues, and also bring new texts and contexts to bear on the topic. Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian will play a crucial role.” –Marjorie Garber, Harvard University

“Ms. Castle covers new ground by challenging Michel Foucault, Lillian Faderman and other social constructionists who have insisted (on the ground that lesbianism is a 20th-century construction) that there were no lesbians before 1900, and she ridicules scholars who portray romantic relationships between women before this century as asexual. To support her position, she examines the fascinating diaries of Anne Lister, an early 19th-century Englishwoman, who was quite explicit about her feelings — and acts — with women. …. [Castle's] work is always engaging—readable and …consistently fascinating.”-–Karla Jay, New York Times

“[Castle’s] thesis is that lesbians have been ‘ghosted”–made into apparitions, visible but not quite present–throughout history, and she finds numerous examples of homosexual women being described as ’spectral’ or, like The Well of Loneliness’s Stephen Gordon, as ‘earthbound spirits.’ Castle’s ‘ghosting’ looks suspiciously like a fancier wording for the well-explored phenomenon of ‘lesbian invisibility,’ but the author (who’s openly gay) infuses new life into the concept by underlining various characters’ feistiness and ‘gaiety’ rather than their victimization. [....] Castle’s forte–the use of examples from her own life–underlines her points and makes her concluding chapter, ‘In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender (A Musical Emanation),’ her best, as she deftly mixes autobiographical revelation and literary theory while analyzing female fans of operatic divas, in a kind of lesbian equivalent of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat. [...] Castle’s blend of solid research and clear, accessible prose may win her an enthusiastic readership. –Kirkus Reviews

“Castle’s acute observational powers present an insightful overview of early 20th-century lesbian fiction, and her incisive historical perspective presents a fascinating study of the haunted presence of the lesbian throughout Western literary history in general. Informative and thought-provoking, her book is highly recommended for academic libraries and larger collections with interested lay readers.” –Library Journal

“The adoption of the personal voice that breaks through scholarly discourse–a project once common among lesbian feminists but abandoned more and more as the rolling charge of essentialism gathers academic ivy–is certainly polemical in relation to poststructuralist lesbian theory. Castle’s starting point of discovery, the memory of her first crush on a butch woman in a public dressing room, abandons the faux-personal psychoanalytic rhetoric for the good old personal appropriation of the category of experience. Perhaps it is Castle’s late bloom that brings a refreshing simplicity to her argument–she is bold where others cover their critical backsides or uncover them, as Sedgwick would do. And here we have arrived at the crux of Castle’s intended polemic: an attack in simple, empirical language on the icons of contemporary lesbian and gay theory: “I fly in the face . . . of Michel Foucault” slaps Castle, for asserting that the term lesbian is an invention of male sexologists. Who dares to take on Foucault? Certainly not the numerous graduate students who have later worked out, in some detail, the exact historical tracing of those sexologists’ projects and their Foucault-laden, footnoted reading of them.

“Castle gets even feistier and moves onto more dangerous turf in the subsection entitled ‘She [the lesbian] is not a gay man.’  She dares to challenge the way the ‘lesbian is lumped in . . . with her male homosexual counterpart’–particularly in the production of AIDS discourse, where she disappears. Not worried about that fragile alliance between gay men and lesbians, Castle puts in print what has long been whispered in some lesbian critical parlors, but would be abhorrent to the new queers or ‘dykes,’ who work totally within that critical community. Her polemic burning bright, she charges that the concomitant rise of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick further repressed lesbian visibility in Sedgwick’s works on gay men (certainly never the epistemology of the lesbian closet) and in founding the universalizing discourse of queer (13). Teresa de Lauretis tried to raise a similar point about the lesbian reception of Sedgwick’s work in her talk on ‘Film and the Visible,’ which incurred a heated exchange between her and Jeff Nunakawa in the discussion following.   And several critics, including myself, would agree that queer is a universalizing discourse, which, as I have written elsewhere, raises an umbrella term without the hard rain of coalition building.

”For her finale, Castle flares the red cape before the ‘bull’ dyke, or drops the white glove (a practice more suitable at Stanford, I would hazard) to challenge the critic who, of late, seems to represent all lesbian discourse: Judith Butler. Accepting the fact that she is ‘flagrantly out of step with current thinking’ (13), Castle nevertheless disputes Butler’s semiotic claim with the statement: ‘I don’t find it “always finally unclear what is meant by invoking the lesbian-signifier’” (14). Then, in the face of a complex poststructuralist unraveling of the lesbian’s masquerade, Castle has the nerve to cite the Webster’s Dictionary definition of lesbian as a woman ‘characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex’ (15), only to conclude ‘I still maintain, if in ordinary speech I say, “I am a lesbian,” the meaning is instantly (even dangerously) clear . . .’ (15) and quotes Wittgenstein to prove it.

“As a critic who has read much of the field, I can safely say that outside of a few articles in what I would deem ‘zines, I have never read such a freewheeling deconstruction of the queer canon, written in such vernacular language. One might forgive her polemic on the grounds of late-blooming innocence, but Castle frequently reminds the reader that she knows what she is doing. If, perhaps, her colleagues in the field of eighteenth-century literature are uncomfortable with her coming out, the orthodox lesbian and gay writers may be furious with where she goes from there. To return to my opening caution, I would be willing to contend that Castle’s book actually calls out the various communities of critics to show their gang colors. I think this is useful in illustrating how quickly so-called subversive studies emulate the institutions they would dismantle. Castle’s polemic against the disappearance of lesbian within AIDS discourse, within the rise of queer, and within post-Foucauldian, Butlerian deconstructions of it illustrates how quickly and with what critical force the so-called subversive field of lesbian and gay criticism has become orthodox and canonized. These formulations, which she attacks, have all achieved a dominant status in the field within the short period of a decade, or even less. That Castle seems daring in her divergence from them testifies to the authority they have managed to claim. I find her simple, testy position illuminating in revealing the status of the debates and the critical investment inherent in certain claims. Castle’s direct, simple attack renders moot all of their claims to truth.

“Beyond the polemic of her introduction, Castle collects an exciting and challenging array of her articles. She may be new to lesbian work, but her reputation for fine historical, literary scholarship is already in place. While she exhibits, in lesbian form, elegant, literary readings of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Anne Lister, and Janet Flanner, I find her tour de force in the final chapter on the mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender. Here, Castle performs a witty example of lesbian spectatorship. She appropriates the masquerading gay male persona of the opera queen to a lesbian duet between listener and opera diva. As in her other chapters, Castle displays a broad and thorough acquaintance with literary and historical texts surrounding the cultural artifact. She culls passages from literary works by Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather on the opera, along with diary entries by Queen Victoria upon hearing and seeing the Italian soprano Giulia Grisi. She moves convincingly from homoerotic attachments to those more specifically lesbian, as in George Sand’s fan following of Maria Maliban or Anne Lister’s actual affair with Catalani. She ‘brings out’ the woman composer Ethel Smyth’s affairette with Marie Geistinger; alluringly reveals Olive Fremstad in her Amazonian costume; and tantalizingly reconstructs Lena Geyer’s (the Wagnerian diva) seduction of her all-too-willing fan at a late-night, postopera supper of ‘eggballs and a Himmeltorte’ (217).

“This impressive historical research accelerates through lesbian lieb/lieder duets that finally burst forth in Castle’s witty aria of her ‘fall’ for Fassbaender. In a witty da capo caper, Fassbaender is then established as a ‘butch’ mezzo, a move that resonates with Castle’s originary crush on the ‘butch Ed’ that opens the book. Fassbaender is ‘not content to lurk in the background, murmuring little bits of advice to the soprano. On the contrary, there is a boldness and edge, almost a “butchness” to her singing. . .’ (225). Here is a triumph of tone in Castle that writes out the camp style of lesbian subcultural fandom. She has abandoned her no-nonsense plain English for a style marked more as subcultural. She is aware of this strategy and cautions:

In relating the history of my own infatuation I have adopted, I find, a somewhat facetious tone, mainly in hopes of avoiding that “purple” quality which so often creeps into the literature of sapphic diva-worship. . . . And yet such defensiveness is perhaps misplaced. . . . [T]here is nothing in the end to fear, and much–oh, so very much–to love. (237-38)

“Castle completes the book, then, completely out of the closet in her personal admissions, in her new scholarly bent, and finally, even in her style of writing.

“Different communities may have the most pleasurable encounter with the book by reading it in different fashions. For those inured to ‘out’ authors and lesbian criticism, reading the last chapter first might be the best inroad. For those new to lesbian issues, the introduction may, polemically, lay out the terms of debate within the community. Those who like a good fight may linger on the early pages. Certainly, readers most interested in area studies will go to the chapters on Lister, Warner, and Marie Antoinette. The book does not require a sequential reading, and testing various entry points might prove to be the most fruitful method. I look forward to Castle’s next book in the field–particularly if it proceeds from her Fassbaenderian bent” –Sue-Ellen Case, American Quarterly.