By Shalini Umachandran
November 26, 2011
It's never been easy to get Germaine Greer. Just when you think you agree with one of her ideas, she'll make a statement that goes entirely against it. And it was no different at the Hay Festival in Kerala, where hers was easily the most awaited session of the three-day literature and cultural event at the Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram.
The legendary feminist arrived on day one, gave two interviews, lost her patience with a third ill-prepared journalist, bought a book on birds as she spotted a kingfisher from her hotel window and wanted to know more about it, and stalked off to go sightseeing. The rest of the journalists were left waiting for Greer for the next two days, hanging around her at after-parties, hoping to slip a question or two past her formidable guard.
Greer returned on the last day to deliver her lecture on 'Shakespeare's Lovers', whose subject was the boys who frolicked and muddled their way through the plays, winning women's hearts. Her feisty lecture, peppered with references to Shah Rukh Khan, Kali and Krishna, left the audience wondering how they'd missed all the free love and fornicating that she said the Bard's plays contained.
"People say Shakespeare's was not a happy marriage because of the many unhappy marriages and all the cheating in his plays,” said the 72-year-old Australian writer and critic. "I say we have very few books about happy marriages. If there was a book like that I suspect it would not be a good one. It takes crisis to give a dramatic form and value to loyalty and fidelity. "
"If you look at pictures of Krishna, he's always shown as beautiful, slender, lots of jewellery, soft curls, holding a flute, almost feminine in his beauty. When I first got a picture of him, I thought he was a nautch girl. Of course, now I know better, " she said to laughter. "He's always surrounded by gopis, and when you think about it, gopis, groupies, there's not much difference between the two. Even Shakespeare describes the freshness of youth who have barely grown beards. It makes you wonder: what is it about young boys that make women swoon? Like Justin Bieber, who women have been in love with since he was 13. "
Raising questions without necessarily providing the answers and being deliberately contentious is a Greer characteristic. She herself wrote of her first and most famous book, The Female Eunuch: "This book represents only another contribution to a continuing dialogue between the wondering woman and the world. No questions have been answered but perhaps some have been asked in a more proper way than heretofore. If it is not ridiculed or reviled, it will have failed of its intention. “Greer, who lives in the UK, describes herself as "an old-fashioned Marxist". She's made shocking people her life's purpose ever since The Female Eunuch - which advocated the idea that equality with men is not enough since there are unalterable biological differences between men and women, to which social conditioning adds psychological differences - was published in 1970.
Her arguments and postulates - whether on feminism, Islam or Shah Rukh Khan - are deliberately controversial, border on rants, and can be quite farfetched, but there's no denying she's a compelling and persuasive performer. As academic and critic Peter Conrad wrote of her in the early 2000s, "The world would be a poorer, more piously timid place without her. "
Greer, who grew up in Melbourne and studied in Sydney and Cambridge, has been coming to India since the 1970s because she wanted to see for herself "a country that had goddesses as well as gods". Despite her many references to India to get the audience grinning or gasping, in a short interview she granted later, Greer said she wasn't really familiar with Shah Rukh Khan though she did drop his name earlier that afternoon.
"I generally watch Bollywood films on flights and I see them from halfway so I don't know the names or actors. But I am amazed at what an incredible cinematic actor Shah Rukh Khan is. He has completely different body language for both parts in Om Shanti Om - I saw half of it. He didn't have to be as good. It's a movie; bad acting is par for the course. “Sometimes, the airline is showing a Satyajit Ray film and it messes her head up for weeks. "But I don't watch movies because I'm sick of jump-cutting and cost cutting and short montages and CGI and gore, blood, skeletons... and 3D, I haven't even gone there. Why would I want to watch a movie pretending I'm in it?"
Greer thinks it's time people went back to really old films made by the likes of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein so that people see film as an art medium. "I have a friend, an artist called Tacita Dean who's working to make people realise the difference between analogue film and digital. She's got an exhibition on at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, so she's a very big deal. But when I first became interested in her work she wasn't a big deal at all - which just goes to show how clever I am, " and she spreads her hands in a half complacent, half-comical flourish.
At her talk at the Hay Festival, she had the audience buzzing with her closing line: "I am struggling to understand a world in which the only anti-capitalist organisation is Islam.” She later explained that her theory was based on the fact that Sharia law forbids charging interest on money lent. "That means you cannot have what we are now struggling with, which is the collapse of the banking system through excessive leverage, because of ridiculously high yield on short-term stocks, because of futures trading. I'm not entirely sure how Islamic law works but if there is an existing system that is opposite to capitalism, it would be that. Modern-day Western banking was largely developed by Jews in the Middle Ages because Christians couldn't charge interest either. But the Islamic system is probably now as corrupt as any other system so we shouldn't get too excited about it. "
And when you bring up freedom for women under Sharia law, she's quite honest about the fact that she doesn't have the answers. "You have to ask women who take the veil. There are English women converting to Islam. It's interesting that they say they feel free behind the veil because they are not being looked at, “she said. "Nowadays in England, little girls can't grow up to be women because they can't put on enough flesh to become a woman. They're terrified because they must have no body and a huge pair of breasts. If that commoditisation of women revolts you, you might think the strict rigour of Islam has to be better. It allows women some dignity providing they keep their modesty. You know, women are modest and diffident by nature unless societal pressures force them to be otherwise. "
In the last few years, Greer seems to have shifted from commenting on feminism in the real world to its manifestations in the arts. Her latest book, Shakespeare's Wife, is about Anne Hathaway and she writes regular columns on art. "It's weird, I've been writing for The Guardian and they wanted me to write about art. They've got a whole lot of other people writing about feminism, none of whom I think are any good, but I can't do anything about it. "
She may sound dismissive of later feminist writers, who were most likely nourished on her books, but she is perfectly aware of what her own books can and cannot achieve. "Books don't change things. The Female Eunuch is the best book I've written but it's not a good book. It's the women who read it and made sense of it who changed things, “she said, when asked whether she ever imagined that her book, published more than 40 years ago, would still be relevant today. "You know, you can't write The Female Eunuch over and over again. I did write another book, The Whole Woman (1999), which is from an older woman's perspective. I just don't feel like doing that job again. It's somebody else's turn now. "
Germaine Greer (born 29 January 1939) is an Australian writer, academic, journalist and scholar of early modern English literature, widely regarded as one of the most significant feminist voices of the later 20th century.. Greer's ideas have created controversy ever since her bookThe Female Eunuch became an international best-seller in 1970, turning her into a household name and bringing her both adulation and opposition. She is also the author of many other books including, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (1984); The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause (1991), Shakespeare's Wife (2007) and "The Whole Woman" (1999). She is Professor Emerita of English Literature and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick. -- From Wikipedia
Photo: Germaine Greer
Source: The Times of India, Crest, New Delhi