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Ghosting the Lesbian Past

Monday, July 11, 2022 - 08:11

There's a phenomenon where the majority of books you read keep citing a specific earlier work, and you build it up in your mind to being something larger and more significant than it turns out to be. Of course, academic citations aren't necessarily a mark of significance; sometimes they're an acknowledgment of origins, of idea-lineages, of honoring those who first mapped out the territory. But it can still, sometimes, feel like a let-down when you finally get around to reading some highly-cited work and it doesn't live up to the image you've created in your head.

The core essence of Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian is the idea that lesbian invisibility in popular culture is neither a reflection of the absense of lesbians nor an accidental coincidence, but rather is a systematic (if uncoordinated) process of framing lesbianism and lesbian characters as unreal, illusory, or not of this world.

While I follow the general argument presented here, I do have one bone to pick with what I feel is an unexamined bias. Castle's work started off as a study of ghost stories in post-Enlightenment literature. As she started seeing more and more lesbian characters and themes in those stories, she developed the idea of the "apparitional lesbian" -- the lesbian who moves through popular culture only as a ghostly motif. But this seems to be a "hammer problem" as in, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail." If your focal field of study is ghost literature, and you keep seeing lesbians in that literature, does that mean that all lesbians in literature are ghostly? Or does it mean that you'd find lesbian characters and themes in other types of literature as well, if that were your field of study? And if you're looking for "ghostly lesbians" to explore a theory, how hard are you working to view those characters through a ghost-lens?

So, as I read this book, I kept asking myself, "Is this a genuine universal cultural theme, or is it an artifact of one academic's preoccupations?" I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of others who have read the book.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3

Chapter 1 - A Polemical Introduction: or, the Ghost of Greta Garbo

As an iconic example of the phenomenon Castle is studying, she contemplates the Greta Garbo film Queen Christina, and how Hollywood took a notoriously lesbian figure from history, portrayed her using a lesbian actress, and turned the story into a heterosexual love story. Lesbianism becomes an illusory “ghost” in cultural performances, even when the “fact “of lesbianism is undeniable. The lesbian is made difficult to see – absent even when central –a figure that’s easy to refuse to recognize in the moment, and easy to deny after the fact, as in all the obituaries of Garbo that avoided mentioning her love for women at all. The lesbian in popular culture is always somewhere else – never here and now, never central and familiar (in contrast to the figure of the male homosexual). It is this effect that Castle tackles and unmasks.

The book emerged out of Castle’s previous interest in the place of ghosts in post-Enlightenment culture, combined with a realization that lesbianism had been the “ghost” in her own work. The “disappearing” of lesbians reflects the threat that the idea of lesbianism is seen to pose to patriarchal society. This takes the form of denying or simply remaining silent with respect to lesbian aspects of historic figures (often in the name of protecting their reputations), silencing, censoring, or dismissing lesbian themed works, or simply ignoring the existence of lesbians - as happened in many legal systems – not because that existence was unimportant but because it was too dangerous to be given existence by recognition.

Castle reviews examples of lesbian literary figures framed as ghostly and supernatural evil. If ghostly, the lesbian can then be exorcised and disappeared from the “reality” of the literary work entirely. Real life lesbians similarly “ghost” themselves, disappearing into isolation and secrecy, or into marriages of convenience.

Castle lays out the outline of the book’s contents: two autobiographical essays about her own “emergence”, three historical and biographical, and three literary criticism. The organization is chronological in terms of writing, but this reflects the development of her thinking, from recognition to theorizing to exploration. The remainder of the introduction lays out who “the lesbian” at the center of her focus is not and is.

  1. She is not a recent invention – pushing back at Foucault and the sexologists, who argue for the recency of lesbianism and its isolation from history.
  2. She is not asexual – pushing back against the view not only that all love between women reflected a Victorian platonic friendship model, but also against the idea that Victorian romantic friends had no erotic desires. The belief in women’s inherent non-eroticism is what prompted some to allege that Anne Lister’s diary must have been a hoax (when first published in the 1980s) because it flew in the face of the comfortable myth of the asexual lesbian. In this, Castle scrutinizes the idea that lesbian relations are simply part of a continuum of female homosocial bonding, arguing for a clear distinction recognizing an embodied eroticism as definitional. [As usual, I push back on any framing that denies the possible existence of the “asexual lesbian” as a real and valid category.]
  3. The lesbian is not a gay man. Castle points out that in treating male and female homosexuality as a unified concept, the lesbian experience is “ghosted” under the more iconic figure of the gay man. Similarly, the shift to the umbrella term “queer” can silently make specifically lesbian experiences invisible. (Note: along with other marginalized queer identities.) As example, she notes how one of the prominent (in the 1980s) proponents of queer theory in academia focuses almost exclusively on male experiences even when presenting her work as general.
  4. She is not a nonsense. Here, Castle grapples with the tendency of deconstructionists to challenge the meaningfulness of concepts like “lesbians” in ways that erase the concept entirely on the basis that it cannot be clearly defined.

Castle attempts to define “the lesbian” in terms of presence, but the result is inherently a jumble of the particular, a listing of prominent cultural figures (mostly of the 20th century).