Books: The Metropolitan Critic — An Absolute Lady |
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An Absolute Lady

Kate Millett’s clamorous bestsellerdom in the United States has been running roughly parallel with Germaine Greer’s similar success on this side of the pond. The time has now come for their books to change places. One has no certainty how The Female Eunuch will go over there, but it would be within the bounds of credibility to suggest that it will go like a bomb. Sexual Politics should make the crossing OK, too: you couldn’t say that its advent was exactly unheralded.

Women’s Lib is one of those lonely little unsung struggles that refuse to be ignored, mainly because their key slogans are shouted at you from fleets of loud-speaker cars and beamed through your bedroom window from forty-foot neon signs rigged to the sides of dirigibles. At this rate the secret will soon be out. The veriest dullard must shortly realize that capitalism’s celebrated capacity for repressing change through toleration has in this case sprung a leak. The demands of the marching ladies are both sensible and negotiable, and are seen to be so by all except the doddering fanatics of stasis. There is no reason why the movement should not push its way through to full equality of rights and the provision of those practical aids required for an equality of mobility and job-opportunity.

It can be argued that the only thing which could stop this would be for the movement to take seriously the rhetorical component in the works of its leading intellectuals and try for a drastic rearrangement in the power-structure, a fundamental rejigging (presumably attainable through brain surgery) of what is conceived to be male psychology, and the instigation by fair means or foul of what is naïvely looked forward to as a fruitful jettisoning of evolved institutions. The polemical force of the Women’s Lib intellectuals is partly derived from the cultivation of myths. The fact that what they are recommending is in large part desirable doesn’t make these myths any less mythical.

Kate Millett’s myths are of a different type from those of Dr. Greer, who was guilty of some confusion but largely eschewed bad intellectual practice. She was dangerous, but in the right way: her revolutionary stance was really a call for reform. The danger in Kate Millett’s book is of a deeper and darker kind: revolution is fundamental to it, reformism having apparently run its course. Sexual Politics is a book of some power, but it is very tendentious; its arguments are boldly put and pushed through tenaciously to the end, but they are not sound; and although it advocates a change of consciousness, it is not conscious of its own hectoring, cantankerous and frequently plain boring characteristics. The crunching academic sarcasm tends to get you down.

In Dr. Greer’s book men stood a chance of recognizing themselves. In Kate Millett’s book they appear to be present only as a compound of Mighty Mouse, Caligula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. John Stuart Mill and Engels come out of it all right, but the rest are just heavies. For Miss Millett, any male goodwill could now only be a cover-up, and the plausible smoothies could only be planning further humiliations designed to reduce all ladies to helpless, violated acquiescence. Our urge for dominance, it appears, is never more reprehensible than when masquerading as ordinary decency. We are patriarchs from the Id on up.

Apart from a catastrophic excursion into historical analysis (wherein it is established that Nazi Germany was the logical expression of Western sexual mores) Miss Millett draws her examples of the repressive male consciousness mainly from contemporary literature and especially from Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, D. H. Lawrence and Jean Genet. Her criticisms of all four are very keen and it is hard to see much wrong with them as far as they go. (As far as they really go, that is: they are made to go about a light-year farther than they ought.) She establishes that Lawrence was a male chauvinist in disguise, reducing women to a stereotype under the pretence of exploring their sexuality. She establishes Miller and Mailer as male chauvinists without the disguise, both hell-bent on using women as ash-trays, urinals, punching bags and stuffed sacks for bayonet practice: she is grateful to both for so copiously spilling the beans. Finally she sees the role of the passive queer in Genet as the essential statement of men’s real attitude to women — the gloves are off, mon vieux, and the spurs are on.

All this adds up to quite a line of argument, and to obviate the possibility of our mistaking its force she goes right through it twice. Mailer has already replied on his own behalf and on behalf of all others present in the line-up: his reply took up almost an entire issue of Harper’s, and as is customary with him it is a remarkable performance, although only fleetingly sane. But Mailer has succeeded in damaging her argument only in the detail. Its main drift stays recognizably true, even in the significance attached to Genet, which is a shattering analysis so long as it remains attached. What’s wrong is the unquestioned, thumping assumption about the whole argument’s applicability, leading to wool-pulling on the grand scale.

To begin with, she is assuming that because men wrote these books and some men read them, that most men are like that, totally and always. Apart from such an approach to literature being critically ruinous, it isn’t even socially exploratory. And supposing that it were socially exploratory (i.e., supposing that a yodelling obsessive like Miller really did crystallize our hidden attitudes) it still isn’t psychologically valuable or even interesting. Men’s minds, like women’s, are not monoliths: they may be full of secret drives without those drives being the key to us. Mentally we are not a monologue, we are a drama, and to suggest that we replace this supposed monologue with a better one is merely to transpose a tyrannous imputation from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Miss Millett’s approach is really the etiolated, post-Marxist notion of System switched from the economic to the sexual sphere. Just as the earlier notion of System held that there could be no liberty at all until there was liberty everywhere (logically entailing that liberty cannot now be even conceived of, let alone extended), so the Sexual Politics notion of System holds that all men must necessarily continue to be repressive so long as they harbour drives towards dominance — which logically entails that nothing they can do, or have ever done, which is kind, generous and liberal, can have any meaning in the real world. Miss Millett wants to trade in one male robot for another, and in wanting to do that she wants to take away the possibility of our mastering ourselves — an aim which, if attained, would effectively demolish any tangible meaning in the idea of self-mastery for women.

(Listener, 1971)


To say, as I forgot to say, that Kate Millett’s book was Germaine Greer’s without the charm would have at least isolated the difference, if not identified it. The simple truth — simple with complex implications — was that Greer wrote better. But when we say someone writes well we are really saying that their writing carries a bonus of meaning, usually generated by a capacity to observe the world as it is. When Greer was funny, she was at her most perceptive, constructive and true. Millen was never any funnier than a meeting of Presbyterian elders. She meant no more than what she said, alas.