Liberating Germaine Greer

By Decter, Midge | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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Liberating Germaine Greer

Decter, Midge, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

I never met Germaine Greer, but I did see her once in live performance--and a most diverting performance it was. The year, as I remember it, was 1970. Norman Mailer had recently published a very long article on the then newly declared women s revolution and had succeeded, as was his wont, in scandalizing both the revolutionaries and their conservative ill-wishers. Some enterprising showman (showlady, actually) arranged for Mailer to defend himself in public debate with three women: the literary critic Diana Trilling, who rear a formal and somewhat inconclusive paper on Mailer's vision of the thing between men and women; Jill Johnston, a lesbian activist and columnist for the Village Voice, who failed rather embarrassingly in her attempt to shock the audience; and last, and mainly, Germaine Greer.

Miss Greer had recently become famous as the author of a highly celebrated liberationist tract called The Female Eunuch, whose declared purpose was to open women's eyes to how much men actually hated them and how successfully men had conspired to teach them to hate themselves. What was notable about her book--amid all the frenzied declarations and totally off-the-wall analyses of women's lot that constituted the first wave of liberationist literature--was that it was highly literate, which no doubt contributed to the fact that it had become an overnight "classic."

Miss Greer, who was (and judging from the photo. graph on the jacket of her new book, still is) a very beautiful woman, was the last of the lady panelists to speak. As she rose from her chair to walk to the lectern, those of us in the audience who were seated a some distance from the stage could see for the first time that she had, for reasons that would soon become apparent, gotten herself up for the occasion in a long and slinky black gown, while flung across her shoulder and dragged behind her on the floor wa s a long fur boa. She then proceeded to read a highfalutin little statement about art, the gravamen of which was that we should again seek for the glory days of the Gothic cathedrals, whose greatest works had been built by a community of anonymous artisans. The reason I remember what she said after 10 these nearly thirty years is that in my surprise (which soon gave way to something else) I wrote down a mean-spirited little summary of it: "Germaine Greer says that if she can't be a great writer, let all great works of literature be anonymous."

The "something else" my surprise gave way to was great amusement. For what Miss Greer was really up to on that occasion, what her dress, demeanor, and manner of speaking were clearly intended for, was not a discussion of the condition of women but, quite simply, the seduction of Norman Mailer.

In those days Norman Mailer was a friend, and I had by then with the same kind of amusement watched a fair number of women go after him in pretty much the same way. Something about him clearly invited female provocation, and, allowing, of course, for differences of personal style, usually just about as naked as this.

Now, whether Germaine Greer actually succeeded with Mailer I don't know, but I suspect not--at least not that evening. But as for me, I was left on that occasion with a very important reminder: to wit, when you read feminist literature, always look for some barely hidden giveaway.

As with its author, so with The Female Eunuch itself, which I set about reading the next day. One of Germaine Greer's declaratory purposes may have been to make women understand how much men really hate them, but the putative hatred of men for women can be as nothing compared with the sheer, relentless hatred of women expressed in and by that book. (Children were perhaps the only thing more hateful than women.) What I call the giveaway is perhaps best summed up in this passage:

   The ignorance and isolation of most women mean that they are incapable of
   making conversation: most of their communication with their spouses is a
   continuation of the power struggle. 

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