Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Germaine Greer: Getting Married Later |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Germaine Greer : Getting Married Later

Germaine Greer’s first and very considerable book The Female Eunuch drops into the intelligentsia’s radar accompanied by scores of off-putting decoy noise-sources: a panicky response is virtually guaranteed. Granada Publishing (the command group for MacGibbon and Kee) have done an impressive job with the highbrow press, and weeks before publication date Dr. Greer was already well known.

If this makes it seem that the reviewer is too concerned with media reactions and media values, let it be made clear that there is little chance of any other kind of reactions and values operating in the present instance. Germaine Greer is a storm of images; has already been promoted variously as Germaine de Staël, Fleur Fenton Cowles, Rosa Luxemburg and Beatrice Lillie; and at the time of writing needs only a few more weeks’ exposure in order to reoccupy the corporeally vacant outlines of Lou Andreas-Salomé, George Sand, Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe and Marjorie Jackson (the Lithgow Flash). Media-hype is never sadder than when something decent is at the centre of the fuss. These forebodings might be wrong, and there could just be a slim chance that The Female Eunuch will be appreciated on its merits. But I wouldn’t count on it.

The book’s merits are of a high order. It possesses a fine, continuous flow of angry power which both engenders and does much to govern the speed-wobble of its logical progression; it sets out an adventurous analysis of social detail which does much to offset the triteness of its theoretical assumptions; and all in all it survives its flaws of style, falsities of assessment and excesses of sentimentality to present an argument of terrific polemical force. “Now as before, women must refuse to be meek and guileful, for truth cannot be served by dissimulation. Women who fancy that they manipulate the world by pussy power and gentle cajolery are fools. It is time for the demolition to begin.” It’s a revolutionary position from first to last, and a lot of people, many of them ladies, are going to be interested in taking the sting out of it, principally by institutionalizing the authoress. A six-foot knock-out freak don with three degrees and half a dozen languages who can sing, dance, act, write and turn men to stone with an epigram—what a target for the full media treatment!

Meanwhile the book’s content demands summary and analysis, neither of which is easy to give. The Female Eunuch begins with a lushly overwritten dedication to various female companions in the struggle and ends with twenty pages of dauntingly erudite notes. In between are four main sections of argument and one minor section: “Body,” “Soul,” “Love,” “Hate” and (the minor one) “Revolution,” which last I found to be mainly rhetoric. Of the main sections, the first one, “Body,” is the most ill-considered, so it’s rather a pity that it sets the terms of the book as well as the tone. She argues very well in the “Soul” section that the supposedly ineluctable differences of emotional and intellectual make-up between the sexes are imposed by stereotype and are consequently alterable, if not eliminable and indeed reversible. There was not the slightest need to peg this argument back to the “Body” section and there pronounce that the differences of physical shape between men and women are likewise metaphysically determined. It makes for a poor start and surely a false one. The anthropological, ethnological, biological and chromosomal evidence adduced is scarcely convincing, and the notes given for this section are relatively thin—relative, that is, to the mass of reading which has been drawn upon to substantiate the arguments of the subsequent sections. The import of this opening section really amounts to the notion that women and men are more similar than they are different, which is unarguable, like its converse: like its converse it is merely a chosen emphasis, providing a preliminary to argument. It is one thing to say that “the ‘normal’ sex roles that we learn to play from our infancy are no more natural than the antics of a transvestite,” since that deals with the psychology of the business. It is another thing to say that in order “to approximate those shapes and attitudes which are considered normal and desirable, both sexes deform themselves, justifying the process by referring to the primary, genetic difference between the sexes.” (Shapes? The whole shape? Everybody? All the time?) And it is a hell of a thing to say both those things in two succeeding sentences.

“But of 48 chromosomes only one is different: on this difference we base a complete separation of male and female, pretending as it were that all 48 are different.” Only if we are clowns. What we actually do is something far more insidious: realizing that differences based on physique are not seriously worth considering, we keep everything on a mental plane, and attribute to women intellectual virtues we do not possess, in order to palm off a mass of responsibilities we don’t propose to handle. The same trick works in reverse: women flatter men in much the same way. The result, until recently, has been a workable (I don’t say just) division of labour. A good deal of the woman’s share (I don’t say a fair share) of the labour centres on the fact that she has the babies—which is where the physical difference really does come in, or did. After Miss Greer has cleaned up the question of subsidiary physical differences (it appears that women wouldn’t have so much subcutaneous fat if they didn’t leave so much skin exposed on things like, for example, legs) and gets on to the social forms and structures which are governed by this one remaining, glaring physical difference, the book picks up. Because she instantly realizes that if women are to be free, the reproduction of the race is the rap they have to beat.

All the ensuing major sections of The Female Eunuch really amount to a brilliant attack on marriage and the psychological preparation for it, and on the nuclear family which is the result of it. This attack traces all the correct connections, from Barbara Cartland’s powdered cleavage to the aspirin industry that thrives on frustration, from the doomed cosmetic ritual to the furtive adultery, and from the mother who sacrifices everything to the son who is grateful for nothing. The case has seldom been so well argued. One misses the wit that Dr. Greer wields in conversation, but the headlong rush of mordant disenchantment is all there. The book would be worth the price merely to read her anatomizing of the advice columns in the women’s magazines—an effort comparable in approach (and, one hopes, in effect) to Gabriella Parca’s masterly Le Italiane si confessano.

Passages of sympathetic fury like this constitute the book’s solid worth: there are enough of them to establish Dr. Greer as an individual voice in popular social debate for some time to come. But suppose we take her condemnation of the received relationship between the sexes for granted—what alternatives does she offer? On this point, the book runs into trouble.

On a practical level—the level of likelihoods, of what might conceivably be brought about—Dr. Greer recommends little that you will not find equally well put (and put equally passionately) in the prefaces to Man and Superman and Getting Married. If the ideas of female freedom, liberation from the “feminine” stereotype and the economic key to sexual equality strike the new semi-intelligentsia as revolutionary, it will only be because of the thoroughness with which touch has been lost with the old radical tradition. Here as elsewhere in the wide spectrum of the currently fashionable revolutionary spirit, it’s the theoretical atavism of the practical recommendations which strikes the concerned reader as extraordinary. One gets the sense, after a while, that living philosophical insights curve away from history to re-enter it later on as psychodrama, posturings and myth. Perhaps Pareto’s diagrams on this subject were correct after all, and something like this has to happen before ideas take the form of action: but it is very eerie to be an onlooker. When Dr. Greer conjures up a loose-knit, “organic” family, with several footloose fathers for the organic kids, and sets the imagined scene in Italy, we smile for two reasons. Not just because of the ill-judged setting (the courtyard would be stiff with the khaki Alfas of the carabinieri di pronto intervento before you could get the toys unpacked), but because the idea itself has already been and gone—the grass grew over it long ago in some abandoned Owenite phalanx, the kids grew up, moved out and went square.

But just because ideas like this have been and gone, it doesn’t mean that the wished-for condition couldn’t come again, and this time to stay. The question is: for how many? So far, only for a few. And for how long? Up to now, usually not long. The problem of substituting individual initiative for received social forms can be solved, but only at the cost of an extraordinary application of energy, and usually only in conditions of privilege.

The coming generations are obviously going to get many of the privileges that the old socialists fought for, prepared the ground for, but saw distorted, half-realized and even abandoned. This is one of the reasons why the old radical hands are intolerant of the new bloods: the new bloods lack the intellectual preparation, the realization of continuous difficulty. The main message of the preface to Getting Married was that no matter how much she needed to be free, a woman needed to marry in order to protect herself socio-economically. Shaw had no illusions about what most marriages were. But equally he had no illusions about the currently feasible alternatives. The main message of The Female Eunuch is that the nuclear family is a menace, that the feminine role is a poisonous sham and that the farce ought to be wound up. If this position now looks tenable, it’s not because Dr. Greer has a capacity for analysis superior to Shaw’s, but because the socio-economics of the matter have changed. The opportunities for making a claim to individuality have vastly increased. But one can recognize this fact without being seduced by it—without forgetting that the benefits of living a liberated life are probably not to be measured on the scale of happiness. To do Dr. Greer credit in this regard, it is not an easier life she is asking for, but a more difficult, more honourable one.

She does not gloss over the fact that the alternatives will take a lot of guts. In my view, though, she seriously overrates the reserves of creative initiative that people have to draw upon. There is a sound assessment of their personal likelihoods behind the instinct of most people to settle for a quiet, unadventurous life. It’s unusual for even highly gifted people to be original, to express a “unique” self, in more than just a few areas. Dr. Greer argues that the female state of mind is enforced by the stereotype. She doesn’t consider that the stereotype might have grown out of the state of mind—doesn’t consider, that is, that the state of mind might be logically prior, historically evolved out of a steadily reinforced realization that most women, like most men, are not heroic.

Like most of the recent revolutionary ideologists, Dr. Greer glibly assumes that it is desirable for everybody to be not only fully aware of their condition, but fully politicized. This is to overrate the amount of originality a civilization can sustain, while simultaneously underrating the mass of people in it, whose ordinary affairs should rightly be regarded as consumingly complex and self-justifying, rather than as a poor substitute for the life of adventure which the genuine originals supposedly enjoy. Dr. Greer brilliantly uncovers the hoaxes governing ordinary feminine subservience, but always with the air that the millennium will arrive once these poor dumb ladies realize they are being conned. What just might happen, though, if the polemic message of her book gets through to a wide range of women, is something better: a further measure of equality. Getting a square shake is not as exciting to look at as blazing your way to immortality, but it counts.

The Female Eunuch states the case for altering all the conditions that leave women less free than men. In doing this, it creates several kinds of confusion about the amount and nature of the freedom conceivably available to either. But perhaps the case needs to be wrongly stated in order to take effect, to convince the next lot of guileless women seemingly predestined for a life of frustration and cheap dreams that there’s no need to go through with it—you can just walk away from it, and hang loose. Getting married later, rather than sooner, would be a good start.

(The Observer, 1970)

Postscript (i)

Considering the provocation, which included the unsettling spectacle of a contemporary becoming world famous overnight, this piece could have been worse. I still think it encapsulates the only possible balanced view both of what Germaine Greer was pronouncing to be necessary and of what she could reasonably hope to play a part in bringing about—two things that needed to be seen in strict relationship to each other. The reference to the Italian feminist Gabriella Parca was no mere window-dressing: in Italy, women’s rights were a serious and sometimes deadly matter to those wives who could not hope to divorce even the most violent husbands. I would still write the last sentence the same way but nowadays would be careful to add that nature doesn’t agree, and that feminism’s reluctance to admit its absolute dependence on advanced technology was, and remains, its single greatest weakness. There is no natural order worth going back to. A just society is well worth working for, but any suggestion that it won’t be a version of the modern industrial society we already have can only be moonshine.

(The Metropolitan Critic, 1994)

Postscript (ii)

In June 1946, the distinguished Argentinian woman of letters Victoria Ocampo visited the Nuremberg tribunal and took meticulous notes of what she saw in the auditorium. What she didn’t see was any women. The absence of women among the accused Nazi hierarchs, she concluded, was all the more reason why there should have been some among the judges. It is a measure of the symbolic status deservedly attained by Germaine Greer that you can’t read such a pregnant statement without thinking of her. Outside Latin America, few among even the most literate people have heard of Victoria Ocampo. In the whole world, few among even the least literate have not heard of Germaine Greer. At this distance it is hard to imagine what she must have been like before she was famous. I was there before it happened, and can only say that it was no surprise when it did. Her powers of expression were always bound to require the biggest stage on offer. In full flight of conversation she commanded a spontaneity of outrageous image that left any listening male writer ready to give up his pen—the Freudian implications are fully appropriate—so it was a foregone conclusion that if she ever wrote the same way she spoke she would stun the world. That was the key to her: her fearless, vaulting fluency was the embodiment of the energetic originality that she generously believed was ready to break out in all women, if only they could storm the walls society had put up to keep it in. Other women’s liberationists merely had views, which they expressed more or less well. Germaine Greer expressed a capacity for life. As a consequence, time spent on analysing her equally startling capacity to contradict herself was time wasted. Another false trail was to look for the source of her inspiration in the rock culture of the 1960s. It might seem fustian to say so now, but the truth about the rock culture was that it was male chauvinist to the core: if anything, she reacted against it, a Janis Joplin without the heroin habit and with every talent except for being a victim.

Australia’s very own Queen Christina had precursors among males who despised bourgeois conformity from the haughty viewpoint of the aristocratic aesthete. There was a whole tradition of them: men like de Tocqueville and Ortega were merely the most illustrious. But the man who counted was Byron, with whom she had a love affair that defied death. When you consider the position, ambition and achievement of gifted women in the Romantic era, you are getting close. The emergent Germaine Greer was neither of her time nor ahead of it: she was a hundred and fifty years too late. She was, and is, a Romantic visionary whose dream of universal female liberation can never come true, because the dream of universal male liberation can never come true either. For most people, conformity is a blessing, conferred by a society which has been centuries in the making, and to which the alternative is a slaughterhouse. Most people are not artists, and to imagine that they might be is the only consistent failure of her remarkable imagination.

(Reliable Essays, 2001)