Idea provocateur

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 30 January 2019

At 80, Germaine Greer continues to throw back societal born prejudices at you. During her visit to a literature festival, the academician and feminist discussed her book The Female Eunuch and rape cases

Germaine Greer, professor of English literature, can teach you how to shut up your naysayers. Not just with her choicest (or sometimes coarsest) 

English vocabulary, but also with an inelegant shrug of shoulders. 

Writer and journalist, Bee Rowlatt, who interviewed Greer at a session titled ‘Beyond the Female Eunuch’, during the recently concluded Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, said in her introduction — “Greer has been called ‘tornado of ideas of provocation’ for many years than many of us are alive. She is brilliant. She is described as Germaine ‘Bloody’ Greer. Is she even human, we are about to find out?” To all this, and especially for the epithet, ‘bloody’, Greer shrugged her shoulders, pulled a face and nodded while mouthing, “This is true”. 

When it was her turn to speak, the Australian born feminist, activist and author, made a remark on the shape of the mic, resulting in a ripple of laughter amongst the audience. She then went on to speak about her book, The Female Eunuch, her thoughts on rape and #MeToo.

Greer’s first work, The Female Eunuch (published in 1970) is still lauded and loathed in equal measure. She said, “That book was necessary of our time. I wonder why is it still in print?  Why people still want to read it? That wasn’t the idea.”

The story of The Female Eunuch began with Sunny Mehta, who is now the chief of Random House. Greer and he had studied at Cambridge University. One day, he asked Greer to lunch with him at a Chinese restaurant, where Mehta asked her, ‘What do you think I should publish?’ He was working as a young director at Paladin, which was an imprint of Granada. “As we discussed ideas, Sunny remarked, ‘What do you think of the fact that it is 50th anniversary of women getting the right to vote?’ I gnashed my teeth and remarked, ‘ The British gave women the right to vote when it was already a busted flush. It was a product of disgraceful bargain between British feminists and the war efforts and underlined the fact that women would not campaign against war effort, but they would support the war which shouldn’t have happened. Australia gave women the right to vote in 1903,” I responded angrily. “To which Sunny said, ‘That’s the book I want’,” she added.

Greer admits being sceptical and wondered if she could write a book like this. “I went home and I wrote enormous chapters. I send it to Sunny, who is good at not reading books that he knows are not going to sell. I eventually realised that women have very little time. They are generally doing three jobs at once and the only time they have anything to read is in the loo. So, the book is divided into ‘loo-length’ chapters,” she added, eliciting some more laughter from the audience. 

The title was derived from Eldrige Cleaver’s collection of socially critical essays. “Cleaver’s collection is called So Long Ice, in which there is an allegory of Black Eunuchs. In that, he explained that the image of a Black man is the result of a mental castration, of seeing his women dominated by White men, by White society, White phallus. He is already marginalised in his own culture and he becomes dangerous, becomes reactionary. In the eyes of rich people, he becomes a rapist. That’s how Cleaver ended up in jail writing, So Long Ice. I was thinking about this idea of spiritual castration and women born with energy, born with creativity and with a voice. The girl child can cry as loud as a boy child, but then suddenly how does she fall silent? When you do this, in my opinion, it can have an implication which is profoundly dangerous. You cannot render half of the population incapable of independent thought or action. So how do you drive her voice back into her throat?” she says. 

In the book, Greer has made a few statements, like ‘Women have very little idea of how much men hate them’. Rowlatt referred to this and said, ‘Even today on Twitter, some readers have observed that you definitely challenge women’s responses to violence.’ Greer then explained what she meant by that statement, “The statement that women have very little idea of how much men hate them... is not saying that all men hate all women all the time. It means, ‘You don’t know when you are in danger from the man you are with. We want Mr Right, but instead we are terribly attracted to Mr Wrong. If this were not the case, 50 Shades of Grey wouldn’t have been a best-seller.” 

Rowlatt also referred to another of Greer’s significant work, Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet. It is an assessment of poets and writers in 17th and 18th century England and has resulted in the “re-balancing of the literary canon by including the works of the female poets”.  Greer agreed and said, “Yes, it is arguable that I have done that. We hunted the poets down, from the most obscure places. There weren’t many manuscripts to begin with, but we managed.”

With this, she also commented on how women found it difficult to get their work published and what came after it. “The first thing that happens to a woman who publishes, becomes public. That makes her a cheap prostitute, because her private thoughts are being displayed to a promiscuous audience. It also means that every book seller would sell his woman writer on the grounds of her sex. They were all young, they were all beautiful, according to people who merchandised them. And, so what was being sold was the woman herself rather than her work. The work hardly ever warranted serious attention, it was only saleable, if it was commercial. When we look at aristocratic poetry, for example, the reputation of being commercial would destroy women, so they dissociated themselves from their work. For them, their dignity was essential. But they couldn’t do that because they were chained to their publishers. All that mattered to me was that these women’s voices need to be heard. I didn’t care if the writing wasn’t up to mark, or if there were mistakes, or if it was a woman pouring out her anguish. This is our history,” Greer emphasised. 

Recently, Greer got a lot of flak, for referring to #MeToo movement as ‘whining’. When the issue was raked up at the festival, Greer said, “As a matter of fact, I have not used the term ‘whining’. This stems from a peculiar conversation I had with someone at the Australian High Commission, who didn’t tell me that he was journalist. I have never said ‘whining’, but I have other reservations about #MeToo. I figure if you are in a situation, where a man makes a pass at you and you reject him, but he goes ahead and masturbates before you. Later, he becomes nervous that you might talk to the press. So his lawyers come in and you sign a no-disclosure agreement for which you are paid a six or seven figure sum. Once you spend the money, you think you can go in and tell your story to the press. I am against this. This is the real problem with #MeToo in America, I am not sure what it’s like in India and how it plays out. But in USA, such civil suits won’t go far in the court, it will fail on the role of consent.” 

On being prodded about her stance on the issue and also on rape, the octogenarian replied, “In India, what actually happened to Nirbhaya is remembered every day. People here do not give themselves a moment of peace. What happened was not just a rape case. The rape was the least thing about it, the brutality of the way she was killed is more important. It’s not a rape case, it was a murder case. A rape is a question of non-consensual sex. It doesn’t have to draw blood. It can be done by the man whom you love most in the world. That’s probably worse for you when he is the one who doesn’t care whether you want him, or whether you are enjoying what he is doing. A rape happens in every street in every country of the world. It’s an aspect of degradation of our sexual relationship and our failure to respect each other. Penis is not my enemy, in fact it’s the only part of a man that I want to do it. If the penis, was the only thing a man had, I would have never been afraid of him. But I am afraid of his thumb, which can pull my eye out, I am more afraid of his elbow, his cruel tongue that says things that stay in my head and of the degradation that I feel. That’s really my argument of sex — about sexualising crimes of violence.”

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