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When You're a Ghost-Buster, Everything Looks Like a Ghost

Thursday, August 4, 2022 - 07:00

We come to an end of Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian. There's a steadily shrinking list of early "foundational" works that I have yet to cover in the Project. The remaining ones tend to be dense and theory-focused, like several works of Judith Butler on gender theory. (Older works on gender theory can be particularly tricky, given how rapidly the field morphs.) But for now, I'll be moving on to cover some of the articles in the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. I haven't decided whether to stretch that out to run into September (given that I'll be traveling the first week or so of that month) or whether I'll push to complete it in a single month and maybe take some time off during my vacation.

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Full citation: 

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

Chapter 9 – In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender (A Musical Emanation)

As a final summing up for this book, when people reference The Apparitional Lesbian as a key work of theory, I would suggest that they’re speaking primarily of the chapter/essay of that name rather than the collection as a whole. The collection was published in 1993—I can’t find any clear indication whether the titular essay was originally written and published independently at an earlier date. This is still fairly early in the flourishing of lesbian historical studies, so both its status as a foundational work and the types of existing scholarship it had to draw on can be understood in that context.

I have to say that, at a position in the development of the field that offers a much wider scope of study, I am less convinced of the universality of Castle’s theory about the “ghosting” of lesbian content in literature and popular culture. That is, I think that some of her conclusions are right on, especially the degree to which the hidden and filtered nature of lesbian representation helped it to escape scrutiny and be more available to a wider range of consumers. But the supposed connection to a motif of dead, ghostly, and “ghosted” lesbian-like figures in literature seems to me to be, in part, the phenomenon of “if the tool you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail”.

Castle notes that she came to this essay after planning and working on a major study of ghosts in post-Enlightenment Western culture. Having been steeped in ghost lore, it is little wonder that the examples of lesbian-like characters in literature that she was most familiar co-occurred with ghostly phenomena. That is, she was working with the subset of ghost stories that happened to have lesbian subtexts, rather than working with the set of stories with lesbian subtexts and being in a position to conclude that ghosts were a prevalent theme. So, to the extent that the “apparitional lesbian” is concluded to be the prevalent mode of lesbian representation, I find the argument unconvincing--and the contradictory evidence far more accessible these days. But that's not to say that I reject the "apparitional" motif entirely.

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote: “When people wrote or left evidence of their lives prior to the development of modern categories and vocabulary around lesbian identity, the work of trying to connect those lives with concepts of identity is necessarily difficult. That difficulty may include deliberate obfuscation, either by the subjects themselves or by those writing about them, but it may also simply involve a lack of clear and explicit language. When we move into the 20th century, then silence or obliqueness around the topic of sexuality can be presumed to be more deliberate. Can that whole scope of time be gathered into a single phenomenon of the "ghosting" of lesbian identity? In some ways, yes; in others, no.”

One can trace certain themes in the treatment of lesbian(like) identity across time, even if it's questionable to conclude that they are the dominant mode. The displacement of f/f eroticism onto the Other, either culturally or in time and space, is something that Judith P. Hallett discusses in “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature” and that several authors discuss in connection with early modern allegations that f/f sex is either a "new phenomenon imported from abroad" or "a thing not seen since ancient times", as well as the regular connection of f/f sex with racialized populations, especially in Egypt or Turkey. Similarly the displacement of lesbian possibilities into an imagined alternate reality, such as the pastorale fantasies of neo-platonist poets such as Katherine Phillips, or the unfulfilled longings of 19th century romantic friends for a life together, can be viewed as another flavor of Castle's "ghosting". There are other parallel themes that similarly reflect the failure of most historic societies to include f/f eroticism within the accepted public modes of life.

But it seems to me that in bringing these motifs together and claiming an overall unity under the "ghosting" umbrella is a work of artistic creation, rather than scholarly analysis. It is a perfectly valid way for one person to make a collective sense out of the disparity of historic experience around female homoeroticism, but it's not the only way, nor is this quest for a collective thematic unity in lesbian history an obligatory goal. It's possible for the vague amorphous mass of experiences, identities, and interpretations that we treat under the heading of "lesbian history" to not have a single, overall unifying thematic structure. One of the concepts that keeps coming back to me as I work on the Project is the "cluster model" of conceptual category. That is a category defined by relationship to a set of focal concepts that have strong overlap to the point where you can say "this is an identifiable phenomenon" but where no set of definitions or conditions can mathematically define all memebers of the category and exclude all non-members. This is an approach I'd like to explore further in some future essay -- the idea that there are multiple focal identities/experiences/images across history that contribute to the modern concept of lesbian identity. They overlap in various ways, but cannot easily be treated as a single, clearly definable category. (And perhaps should not be so treated.)

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For this chapter I will mostly skim for aspects of Castle’s theoretical structure rather than the topical content.

This chapter concerns German opera singer Bridget Fassbender. Castle discusses the context of opera that has given women in the 19th and 20th centuries license to openly admire other women. [Note: although Castle focuses exclusively on opera singers, the same observations can be made about actresses, see for example the female fans of Charlotte Cushman.]

The discussion offers a survey of examples of this f/f diva worship across the 19th and 20th centuries. After this general exploration, Castle tackles the subject of female diva worship from within her own admiration for Fassbaender.

In the end, this chapter is simply a celebration of the topic rather than creating an underlying theoretical argument. From this position at the end of the collection, it demonstrates that the collection overall is not so much an integrated work of theory, but simply an expression of the range of Castle’s writing.

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