Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Germaine Greer: A Political Portrait

Over the years there has been a shift in the politics of the famous Australian feminist Germaine Greer. Early on she was every inch a liberal individualist; later, though, her politics became more mixed, even including some traces of conservatism.

One example of this change is in her attitude to the family. In her influential book The Female Eunuch, published in 1971, Greer argued for a type of family arrangement which would still allow her to have complete individual autonomy.

Her idea was that children should grow up on communal farms, which the parents would visit when "circumstances permitted." Some parents might even "live there for quite long periods, as long as we wanted to." For Greer, it wasn't even necessary that her child should "know that I was his womb-mother."

In later years Greer changed her attitude. For instance, in 1991 she wrote that "Most societies have arranged matters so that a family surrounds and protects mother and child," and complained of "our families having withered away" with relationships becoming "less durable every year."

There is an obvious shift here from a radical individualism, based around complete individual autonomy, to a more conservative recognition that the social framework, the "fabric of society", is important for the well-being of the individual.

Greer's views on sex also underwent a dramatic conversion. Early on, Greer took an "anything goes" attitude to sex, even declaring at one stage that group sex was "the highest ritual expression of our faith."

Her promiscuity, though, seems to have soured her attitude to sex, because she eventually turned to the opposite extreme of denouncing sex altogether. For instance, she claimed that sexual love was "riddled with hostility and insecurity," and that she was beginning to think that "sex was really disgusting and that we shouldn't have anything to do with it".

Neither of these opposing attitudes to sex is very helpful, and Greer has done little to explain the transformation in her outlook. Perhaps this is because of her stated belief that "human beings have an inalienable right to re-invent themselves". Greer believes, in other words, in the liberal idea that individuals are blank slates who can endlessly form and re-form themselves in whatever direction they choose.

In reality, though, we cannot simply invent who we are, since what we become is influenced by our own inborn nature, by necessary social roles, by the larger consequences of our actions and so on. For instance, Greer's early desire to be a kind of absentee mother was never going to work, because the bond between mother and child is, by nature, too strong to be kept casual and anonymous, and because, as Greer later admitted, it is better for mother and child to be supported within a stable social framework.

For all this, conservatives are likely to find Greer an interesting variety of liberal, with her outpourings being an unpredictable mixture of gloom and grumpiness, personal invective, wayward liberalism and, struggling through it all, fragments of conservatism.

(First published in University Review 1998)

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