Due to the recent release of her book The Professor, Stanford English professor Terry Castle has been making the promotional rounds. Of particular interest to media outlets is her gossipy post-mortem on Susan Sontag, which features a dinner party I attended.
She is a good writer, and the title of the piece, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” vaguely alludes to her skewed psychology, but the article has always pissed me off. It reminds me of Mel Torme’s nasty evisceration of Judy Garland, published after her death. Castle’s giant insecurities colored her perception of everyone at the room. Feeling left out, she took her revenge in the form of a hatchet job, drawing cartoonish and insulting portraits of everyone there. Like Lou Reed, who was “silent and surly” and doesn’t speak to Her. The guy is nearly deaf. He looks pissed because he can’t participate. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The dinner party followed a screening at Japan Society of the Oshima film Death by Hanging in a series Sontag had curated. Casey and I were unexpectedly (like Castle) invited to join a group for dinner at Marina Abramovic’s home. Suddenly, we were smashed in a cab with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. Lou sat in the front, Laurie with us in the back. I was speechless. For how many hours had I played Big Science and her other albums? Suddenly that VOICE was coming out of her while we discussed a 1960s Japanese art house film about capital punishment. Was this my life? That instantly recognizable cadence, the considered words. I was in awe. Meanwhile, Lou Reed was in the front seat. It was classic New York. You show up and suddenly you are in the intimate presence of people you have long admired. At dinner, Lou sat next to Casey and they spent most of the evening discussing tour buses and other music business, as Fischerspooner was about to embark on their first tour.
Terry didn’t like this. She didn’t like Casey, either, reserving her most withering descriptions for him. But honestly, she doesn’t seem to like men. Casey is described as “freakish-looking.” Bleached blond hair and fashionable clothes? Freakish to a frump who barely leaves Stanford. Take a walk down Haight Street, eyeball the faces covered in rusting safety pins, the skull-to-sole tattoos. And of his “girlish squeals” – I expect more from an intellectual old dyke than third-rate gay stereotyping. Why not just call him a pansy or a faggot? She may analyze literary satire, but her own style is at the level of a bad sitcom aimed at a lowbrow audience. Artists, to her, are all crazy, self-absorbed kooks. Abramovic, along with Casey and Klaus Biesenbach, are all turned into caricatures “The curator guy was GERMAN! He wore BLACK! The singer was GAY and somewhat EFFEMINATE!” Really, Terry? How many cats do you have? How comfortable are your shoes?
I, and not Terry Castle, was the lowest person on the totem pole that night. The youngest, the least accomplished, the most likely to be ignored. Seated between her and Sontag (who barely turned my way, but I did not take it personally), I did my best to make conversation, and discovered that a close friend had been a graduate student of hers. I was doing my best to broker some kind of opening to talk about anything, but I wasn’t famous enough for her. Nor could I get her closer to Susan. Instead, I became a “bruiser with a goatee – roadie or boyfriend it wasn’t clear” which is most offensive in that I would never wear a goatee, less so that she obviously glazed over staring at Susan while I talked. But seriously, a bruiser? Is a tall man with a beard so scary?
It isn’t clear what she imagined the party should have been. Perhaps a receiving line in which Susan personally introduced Castle to everyone there and made detailed mention of her work, prompting a long-lasting relationship with each famous person she admired. It was early 2003 and George W. was beating the tom-tom feverishly about Iraq. I remember Laurie Anderson being deeply upset about this and there was some discussion about organizing an artistic event or concert to protest the inevitable war. Laurie, Lou and Fischerspooner would perform, perhaps Susan would speak. Castle was too busy waving her place card at Laurie to remember this, and had nothing to contribute. I was smoking at the time and my excursions to the window prompted Susan and Laurie to reminisce about their old tobacco addictions. One of them confessed she used to wake up from sleeping just to satisfy the craving and then fall back to sleep. Susan was preparing to go to Colombia, “If its Tuesday, it must be Bogota!”
These are the details I remember from the chair next to Castle. As to the giant stink fruit, it prompted not just squeals but other visceral reactions of disgust when sliced open. In my own bid to impress Sontag and the others, I ate two helpings of the thing. Regrettably, I released clouds of odor that smelled of it for days. It was a magical night. It was, as Susan described, “a real New York evening” – an impromptu gathering of artistic and intelligent people: musicians, artists, curators, writers, thinkers, performers. We gossiped, we shared stories, we floated ideas. Sometimes those connections linger – nothing came of that particular anti-war protest idea – and sometimes they disappear into the ether. Nothing short of being feted as the guest of honor in from California would have satisfied Ms. Castle, it seems.
Klaus Biesenbach was friends with Susan and had introduced her to Casey. Eventually, she wrote the lyrics for the Fischerspooner song “We Need A War” (perhaps something did come of all that protest talk) from their album Odyssey. Casey and I hung out with Susan one other time, also at the cinema. One of Susan’s legendary traits was her voracious appetite for culture. She raced from concert to screening to play to lecture. Casey and I met her at Film Forum during the Fassbinder festival to see Veronika Voss. We sat third row center, her favorite spot, took in the movie and spoke briefly about it as we walked outside. Almost without warning, when she was finished, Susan said farewell and then turned and walked off decisively into the snowy night, trailed by her flowing scarves. Impossibly glamorous and cool at seventy.
So what if she was haughty? Maybe she was too hung up on being a novelist, unsatisfied with being one of the best essayists of the 20th century. She may have been the ultimate one-upper. Who cares? Ultimately, we are all just people. Riddled with insecurities, health issues, business problems, personal obsessions, frailties, character defects. Just remember, the warning is true: be careful about meeting your idols, because no one can ever live up to your God-like expectations. Susan Sontag, even in decline, was fiercely alive, hungry for life and culture. I feel honored to have glimpsed her up close.