Funny, unkind, provocative: please don’t make me have an opinion on Germaine Greer

Why are we so unable to deal with female intellectuals as complicated humans? 

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What happens to Mozart’s sister?” This is the question with which Germaine Greer opened her speech to the Town Hall debate in New York in 1971. It haunts her, she tells the audience, because “I do not know the answer and I must find the answer.”

Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was a prodigy, just like her younger brother Wolfgang; the two played together around Europe during their childhood. But the concerts stopped when she reached her teens, while his continued. She married a man chosen for her by their domineering father, and nothing remains of the musical work her brother praised in his letters.

Nannerl Mozart haunted Greer, just as Shakespeare’s imaginary sister Judith haunted Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. (“Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them.”) When was the first point in history that a woman was allowed to be a genius? What do we tolerate in talented men that we would condemn in equally talented women?

Greer is just about to turn 80, and has celebrated by publishing an almost subliminal book called On Rape (88 tiny pages, £12.99 RRP). She is also the subject of a new biography by fellow Australian Elizabeth Kleinhenz. She did not co-operate: as she told a documentary team: “I fucking hate biography. If you want to know about Dickens, read his fucking books.”

This alignment of the planets has brought renewed interest in Greer, although in truth it’s never gone away. Two generations of feminists are working in her shadow. She’s first-name famous, up there with “Caitlin” (Moran) and pretty much no one else.

I find it easy to believe that in 1971, she would have obsessed over Nannerl Mozart’s fate. Greer was facing Norman Mailer, who had recently written a 50-page article for Harper’s called “The Prisoner of Sex”. It was about himself. At the time, the thought that any woman would have been granted endless pages in a glossy magazine to air their personal psychological issues (and that it would be regarded as literature if they did) was absurd.

This summer I watched a re-enactment of the Town Hall debate by the Wooster Group, over from New York. The hour-long theatre performance mixed clips from a documentary, Town Bloody Hall, with actors mouthing along to the participants’ real words. It helped me to understand Greer’s appeal: when she got up to speak that night, she threw a fur stole carelessly over her shoulder and embarked on a savage interrogation of the “masculine artist”, while one glowered at her from mere yards away.

When Mailer was rude to her, she simply smouldered back at him. When the literary critic Diana Trilling tried to query her interpretation of Freud in The Female Eunuch, Greer did not rise to the bait. Then she coolly told Trilling: “One of the characteristics of oppressed peoples is that they always fight among themselves.”

Another characteristic of oppressed peoples might be that each generation forgets the atmosphere in which their forebears were fighting. Watching Greer in that debate, she seems perfectly adapted to her conditions; her kittenishness and bookishness act like a tiger’s stripes or an anteater’s snout. But that world has gone – thank God – and without the immersion of something like Town Bloody Hall or the Wooster Group’s performance, it’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like to operate within it. A tiger doesn’t look majestic in a zoo, next to a few fronds of green and an artificial hillock. It looks… silly.

Really, I resent having to have an opinion on Greer at all, because there is no right opinion. A couple of months ago, I interviewed YouTube’s favourite psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, for GQ magazine. (Regular readers will remember I was quite rude about him in my column here, which I don’t think he remembered. His loss, obviously.) He has fans – I know this, because many of them have emailed me, and the first line of the email has been “as a fan of Jordan Peterson”. Very few of them agree with every single one of his many, unpredictable viewpoints. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Overall, his fans are pro-him.

We don’t talk about Germaine Greer that way, even though her scholarship is easily the equal of Peterson’s, and her prose style is streets better. Read Greer on 17th-century poetry, and it’s like encountering a completely different person from the caricature built out of her most intemperate utterances. She is cool, witty, sharp. But where Peterson has excusable quirks, she has disqualifying stains on her character.

That makes it impossible to write “as a fan of Germaine Greer”. She has said too many wild, unkind and simply incorrect things for that to be a comfortable position. There’s a line in On Rape that suggests she knows, and enjoys, her ability to provoke. “We will have to reduce penalties for rape,” she writes, after suggesting that the burden of proof should also be lowered. “The mere suggestion will cause an outcry, which is one good reason for making it.”

It isn’t, though, whatever the right tries to tell you. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. Some ideas are ridiculed not because of an establishment conspiracy, but simply because they are bad. The answer to low conviction rates for sexual offences involves better funding for specialist units, better training for police officers and better sex education. Not creating a separate legal category where men are simultaneously branded rapists and told that it isn’t such a bad thing to be. 

But still. That doesn't mean her opinions on 17th century poetry aren't any good. So that’s what a new Town Hall debate should answer. Why are we so unable to deal with female intellectuals as complicated humans? Never mind Nannerl. What happens to Jordan Peterson’s sister? 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state