Cultural Cohesion, p.45Clive James
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
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
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
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
THE METROPOLITAN CRITIC
Edmund Wilson writes in the 1957 chapter of Upstate:
Looking out from my window on the third floor, I saw the change made here by autumn in the landscape and the atmosphere: they become distinctly more serious, Nature begins to warn us, reassuming her august authority; the luxury of summer is being withdrawn.
In context, this passage carries many times the weight of any ordinary nature-notes: the book is already half over, a splitting head of steam has been built up and the reader is by now in no doubt that the luxury of summer is being withdrawn from the writer himself, from the historical district in which he writes, from all the artists he has ever personally known and from the America which he has for so long chronicled and which he is now ceasing even to distrust—Upstate shivers with the portent of an advancing ice-cap. Wilson’s monumental curiosity and zest of mind have not grown less, but by now they are like Montaigne’s, exiled within their own country and awaiting, without real hope, a better age which will know how to value them. Self-confidence remains, but confidence in one’s function ebbs; one’s books do not seem to have been much use; the public weal has proved itself an illusion and private life is running out of time. “C’est icy un livre de bonne foy, lecteur,” wrote Montaigne, dampening the reader’s ardour.
Il t’advertit dez l’entree, que ie ne m’y suis proposé aulcune fin, que domestique et privee: ie n’y ay eu nulle consideration de ton service, ny de ma gloire; mes forces ne sont pas capables d’un tel dessein.
Just so long as we understand each other.
Wilson’s tone is similarly self-sufficient. “The knowledge that death is not so far away,” he writes in 1963,
that my mind and emotions and vitality will soon disappear like a puff of smoke, has the effect of making earthly affairs seem unimportant and human beings more and more ignoble. It is harder to take human life seriously, including one’s own efforts and achievements and passions.
That was the year in which he was writing The Cold War and the Income Tax—a profound growl of dissatisfaction about owing the United States government a swathe of back taxes which it would only have wasted on building and dropping bombs if he had handed it over. Dealings with the revenue men were prolonged and wearying, making a general disappointment with life understandable. In 1966 things were going better, but his view of existence didn’t much lighten. To go with his Kennedy Freedom Medal he was given a $1,000 award by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a $5,000 National Book Award, but he found himself feeling let down rather than puffed up. “They make me feel that I am now perhaps finished, stamped with some sort of approval and filed away. . . .” He is hard on himself, and no softer on humanity as a whole. “Reading the newspapers, and even the world’s literature, I find that I more and more feel a boredom with and even scorn for the human race.” In such ways his darkening mood is overtly stated, but what gives it power—and makes Upstate such an elegiac and at times unmanning book—is the way in which the selectivity of his impressions presents picture after picture of decay, confusion and loss. Talcottville, N.Y., is presented as a last vestige of the old, hopeful America, and Wilson—not hiding or even sheltering, just waiting—takes up residence there each summer to find that the new and vengeful America has always moved a bit closer. Not that it matters much any more.
By the end of the book we’re a long way from the mood in which Wilson first evoked Talcottville, in his “The Old Stone House” essay of 1933, later collected in The American Earthquake. In the first place, that essay recalled the hopes of the New Englanders who had grown sick of narrowness and were all for pushing on into the realm of unlimited opportunity:
I can feel the relief myself of coming away from Boston to these first uplands of the Adirondacks, where discarding the New England religion but still speaking the language of New England, the settlers found limitless space. They were a part of the new America, now forever for a century on the move.
The thrill of the great American experiment is still there in the writing, and even though this old essay was just as disenchanted as the new book is, the disenchantment worked in reverse: Talcottville was the opposite of a refuge, representing a past that needed to be escaped from, not returned to.
Thirty years or so later, in Upstate, he is cricking his neck to get back to it, but it is too late. Material progress has already made its giant strides. Juvenile delinquents and uproarious bikers maraud and destroy. The John Birch Society slaps up flagrant stickers. Treasured windows on which poet friends have inscribed verses with a diamond pen are shattered in his absence. The Sunday New York Times is too heavy for him to carry. There is a spider in the bathtub of a motel. An old acquaintance, Albert Grubel, keeps him abreast of the ever-escalating car-crash statistics. His daughter Helena grows up and starts having car-crashes of her own. In 1963 he finds out that he has for all this time been living virtually on top of a SAC air base, and is therefore slap in the middle of a prime target area. By the end of the book there is a distinct possibility that a four-lane highway will be constructed a few inches from his front door.
The detail is piled on relentlessly, and if there were nothing else working against it, then Upstate would be a dark book indeed. But several things stop it being disabling. First, there are revelations of the Wilsonian character, as when he faces the bikers and asks them why they can’t ride on the highway instead of around his house, or when he argues about iambic pentameters with Nabokov (who insists that Lear’s “Never, never, never, never never” is iambic), or when he tells Mike Nichols that Thurber is not alone in lacking self
Second, there is evidence of the Wilsonian curiosity, as when he deepens his knowledge of the county’s history, or when he becomes interested in the founding and the subsequent fate of the old Oneida community. Wilson can’t stop learning things, and it’s worth remembering at this point that the curious information which crops up in the book is only the topmost molecule of the outermost tip of the iceberg. In the period covered by Upstate (1950–1970), Wilson was producing exhaustively prepared books like The Shock of Recognition and Patriotic Gore, breaking into new cultures with books like The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, Apologies to the Iroquois and O Canada, turning out important investigatory pamphlets like The Cold War and the Income Tax and The Fruits of the MLA (a crucially important attack on boondoggling academicism which has yet to be published in Britain) and editing A Prelude and the second and third in his series of literary chronicles, The Shores of Light and The Bit Between My Teeth—the first, Classics and Commercials, having appeared in 1950.
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