Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Review: Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

This book was published in 1970 when Germaine Greer was thirty or thirty one. I don’t think I read it at the time, though I was reading some of the other work she discusses, and I decided to read it now partly because at the age of seventy seven she is someone who quite a lot of young women hate and want to No Platform.

The book starts a bit uncertainly as Greer tries to behave like a proper scientist, adducing and evaluating evidence. Some of this discussion seems a bit quaint because science has moved on – for example, DNA testing did not exist in 1970. But it also feels quaint when it engages the literature which the Discovery of Sex in the 1960s spawned, a literature in which it is very easy to get lost as it searches, sometimes blindly, for the location of the female orgasm. Then the book moves into sections where I felt that the text was probably being eked out with material from Greer’s Cambridge doctoral researches. Finally, Greer finds her own voice in the last hundred pages and lets rip.

A few things struck me. This is a book about relations between men and women. Lesbians get a few mentions and gay men barely any (and the ones I noticed were not sympathetic mentions). It’s not Greer’s scene and she isn’t really very interested. You could say that the whole book is about Greer’s own dilemmas. She is a heterosexual woman who wants to relate to men (and probably in the plural rather than the singular) but where the ways available for doing so are profoundly unattractive, unlike individual men. She is beautiful, clever, loud and likes relationships and sex  - none of which taken singly may sound particularly off-putting but which offered as a package seem to have nowhere to go. Beautiful on its own allows you to be some man’s trophy. Clever on its own allows you to be a blue stocking but after the experience of Cambridge, No thank you. Loud is more difficult thanks to polite society and likewise liking sex, which doesn’t seem to go with being someone’s wife and having children. In the last hundred pages, Greer decides that marriage is the main enemy and comprehensively trashes it. On all fronts, she does not want to be a eunuch and, to a greater or lesser extent, that is the deal she feels she is being offered.

I did look for signs of the thinking which has recently made her the focus of so much anger and it was there in the odd cutting remark. In 1968 – 70 I was a graduate student in London and hung out with second wave feminists who gravitated into things like the London Women’s Liberation Workshops They appear at page 349:

When these worthy ladies appeared at the Miss World Contest with their banners saying “We are not sexual objects” (a proposition that no one seemed inclined to deny) they were horrified to find that girls from the Warwick University movement were chanting and dancing around the police…

The parenthesis did make me smile, for a moment, but immediately it's obvious that it manages to be both a masculine unchivalrous remark and an unsisterly aside, the offence compounded by the acid contrast of “worthy ladies” and “girls”. But behind the cutting remark there is a perfectly coherent and worthy intellectual position: Greer is quite clear that for her feminism is not an Anti-Sex League and that sexual desire when not corrupted by patriarchy and capitalist advertising is indeed prompted and sustained by individuals in all their individuality and not by persons as objects – something she acknowledges in a very nice, single sentence about a truck driver and his wife (page 162). So you might say she lands herself in hot water unnecessarily, carried away by irritation and frustration. But if we made that a No Platform offence, we would not need platforms.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Review: Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

This is a lovely book written by a thirty year old woman who has returned to her native Orkney to recover having after writing off the best part of ten years in London – most of the time spent in becoming an alcoholic and staying that way. The book has a natural honesty, though I would avoid phrases like “searingly honest” since that conventional trope tends to make the honesty a smaller thing than it is.

A large part of the book’s interest lies in the way Amy Liptrot uses her habitat in Orkney – the sea, the rocks, the birds, the wind – as a thing to think with about her predicament. Occasionally, she seems to be trying too hard at the metaphor or at creating what I suppose T S Eliot might have called the “Objective Correlative” of her feelings. But most of the time it does not feel forced and most of the time it is disciplined – the book does not wander off at tangents but sticks to the twin themes of alcoholism and the exploration and inventorying of the natural world to which she has removed herself.

This discipline also helps the book to come across as an act of reparation. She is repairing herself in writing it, making good wasted time by doing something with her life, and also making some kind of gift to other people including those she has alienated along the alcoholic way. That surely is one reason way the reader ends up wanting to wish her well.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Review: Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think

In 1958, aged ten, my father took me on a day trip from Folkestone to Boulogne aboard the Royal Daffodil, one of the ancient ferries which British Railways used for the Channel crossings. You didn’t need a proper passport – a disposable day passport was available cheaply and easily. I found a terrific toy car – a Citroën DS – in a Boulogne shop and on the way back through British Customs kept my hand clamped over it in my raincoat pocket in the belief that it might be an illegal import. It probably was.

Now as someone whose way out of England is still through the Channel crossings, I read the News a bit anxiously as the border between England and France gets harder each day, wondering who will close it first. It was the English who inevitably opted out of Schengen – the word “British” is inaccurate in these matters – but I believe it will be the French who, one way or another, will shut the border completely. They would, wouldn’t they?

There will be lots of people buying Hazareesingh’s book. We would all like to know how the French think because we know that they do think and that this is one of the reasons why they are so difficult to live with unlike the English who don’t think, just get on with life as we have always lived it and intend to continue. We don’t, for example, have to worry about heads of our Ruritanian state – we have them already neatly lined up, hair parted, for the next one hundred years – and increasingly we don’t have to worry about elections: we presently have a government which simply installed itself, promptly telling Parliament that it is now a consultative body like the old Russian Duma.

Hazareesingh’s quite long book is very readable and often amusing. It has two weaknesses. It’s panorama of French thought is quite often not much more than a series of thumbnails. It reminded me in this of Bernard Wasserstein’s On The Eve which I reviewed here a while back. Thumbnails are all right if you are looking for a background briefing but I don’t belong to the class of people who need background briefings on how to deal with the French. The second weakness is its Oxford Common Room geniality. The author has been holed up in Balliol since 1990 and that does not bode well for anyone. At worst, he lets the French off scot-free which may be one reason they have awarded his book one of their big prizes, always a relief to have a foreigner who doesn't trash us.

Hazareesingh’s approach is broadly narrative chronological and it is perhaps this approach which allows the author to avoid anything which you might think of as a confrontation or contestation except in chapter 10 which is more decisive in this respect. What I would like to have seen is more use of the possibilities inherent in the contrast of history and structure – thank you, Lévi-Strauss and Sartre – trying to tease out how the structural awfulness of France today is the product of a history, including an intellectual history. How come the French end up with the paralysed figure of Hollande, who you could see as a sort of tribute act to Brezhnev? How come they end up with so little liberty, so little equality, so little fraternity? Why is it a police state? ( The author never mentions the CRS). Why do the French hate each other so much? Why are they always attracted to authoritarian solutions, left or right? How do they put up with having their lives micromanaged by the state, things closed when you want them open or not allowed to sell what you want, so that the only way to get a plastic bottle of Evian in Paris is to buy it from an illegal street trader? 

Why is the history so grubby and still unacknowledged as such – something on which Hazareesingh might have said more than he does. There is a marked contrast with Germany here. Fanon – a fine thinker and writer - gets in, but that’s about it. Why do they still go around denouncing each other? What is this childish rentreé into the trade union strike season all about? Why have they been  so incredibly conservative about everything down to smoking themselves to death, not learning English, being the slowest to adopt modern communications technology and media, thinking it part of les droits du chien to shit everywhere, and so on and so forth? And one which surely ought to have interested the author more, Why do so few – even none – of their universities figure in World Rankings?

I have a suggestion. The author is incredibly well-read to the point where his book sometimes reads like short book reviews strung together. He should take a deep breath, put all that aside, sit down and write an essay setting out just what he thinks about France. He could title it How I think about the French, even write it in French and put it out, a hundred pages long, no more, through a Parisian publisher. He's done the spade-work already.