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Essay Madwomans Occasional Underclothes Writings

October 11, 1987
Notes of a Nag and a Roisterer

Essays and Occasional Writings.
By Germaine Greer.

ermaine Greer has never truly been a writer. Her spirit has illuminated her written word as if the very act of expressing herself were but a brief, rushed gathering-up of her living. She is, perhaps, one of the marvelous letter writers of an age that no longer trifles with them much. Her essays, columns and books - transcripts as they are of a heroic heart and intellect - seem to have been dashed off in the fire and dispatched to her many sisters. Feminism as a literary family.

To come unawares upon ''The Madwoman's Underclothes,'' a collection of her essays from 1968 to 1985, is to intrude unexpectedly into another's family reunion. All those private jokes, shared memories, intimate confidences, demands and contradictions: a noisy, emotional, overbearing, lusty family, loving and cursing across the dinner table. Incomprehensible, or simply an embarrassment, to those who are not of it and hungering for its warmth. It is not, after all, the madwoman's collection of hats that is at stake here but her underclothes. (''In Australia,'' Ms. Greer has said elsewhere, ''if you leave your room in a terrible mess, your mother says: 'Look at this room . . . it's like a madwoman's underclothes.' '' The journey of woman's life defies order and good taste - if she is lucky.) It is not possible, in short, to read these essays dispassionately, to approach this as a book per se. Here are our history, our gladdened days, our shame and disappointments. Germaine Greer is nearing 50 now. She lives in a farmhouse in the English countryside: rain boots by the back door, everything wind-weathered and drizzle-gray. Her public and youthful randiness settled into big-heartedness, perhaps.

This collection - arbitrary, quixotic, untidy -starts when Germaine Greer was a lecturer in English at Warwick University, a dull and worthy town, a good third choice for the best undergraduates. She was Australian - a synonym then in middle-class, prim-lipped parlors for being brash, vulgar, easy. Being an outsider gave her freedom, however. She wrote, largely unpaid, for Oz (as in Ozzie, Aussie, Australian), an underground paper in England that was then being prosecuted under the obscenity laws and became a famous counterculture rallying point.

In 1970 came ''The Female Eunuch'' - denouncing the image of woman unable to love, only to bargain, worship or be worshipped, an object, a sexual marionette. It was a clarion call and was followed by the debates in New York's Town Hall with Norman Mailer -much of the tension of which, we see now in wiser days, hinged on her sexuality. It mattered that she was so desirable, he so used to desiring.

There were many such battles over the years, most of which are chronicled here: about abortion, rape, pornography, seduction as ''a four-letter word.'' She wrote for The Sunday Times of London at its most trendy, before Rupert Murdoch. There was, most of the time, a sexual roistering to her writing. But also, appropos of abortion: ''The compelled mother loves her child as the caged bird sings. The song does not justify the cage nor the love the enforcement.''

Her strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures are all here; they are the human stumblings of feminism itself, wanting it all while wanting none of it. There was the lure of becoming a celebrity, a television personality, a pop expert and thereby colluding with the censors about The Acceptable. The Sunday Times, in the end, started to spike her riskier, more controversial columns. She was a nag when she was meant to amuse. She still is. Fortunately. It is hard to quote much of her early writing here: her usual expletives could hardly be Acceptable. It is the language not of the family breakfast table but of the women's baths. In truth, much of her early writing is also irritating. How innocent it seems now, gamboling over naked bodies and others' beds. How irrelevant after AIDS, how childish after Chernobyl.

UNLIKE most collections of journalism, it is the later writing that is the finer. Here is what she did not grow into: a whiner or wimp, embittered, tired, smug or even very rational (a point with which she might disagree). She, as others, in the end turned to embrace the wider world. Vietnam, briefly, but later Brazil, Ethiopia (drawn by disgust at ''the media binge on pictures of the dead and dying'').

It will be said, of course, that she is politically naive. (''The Cubans are involved after all in a much bigger adventure than sex, speed and smack could possibly supply. Their morale is towering.'') But at heart, she is on the side of neither regimes nor ideology but of individuals. The best essay of all describes, in the long introduction, her time in a poor village in the south of Italy: Mariuzz', her 8-year-old ''escort''; Rosetta, the young unmarried woman waiting for marriage; the Mafiosi bombing the fish. Not a word of invective and each word convincing.

''The Madwoman's Underclothes,'' like the feminist movement, is nevertheless about being white, middle-class and well-educated. The empathy with those who are poor, black, brown, in terror or dying is, in the end, that of a traveler from another, bountiful land. We cannot help it. It is the condition of privilege. At least, let it be said that Ms. Greer is not afraid to look, to care. Poverty, hunger, oppression, despair: here is Death's dominion. And to attack Germaine Greer would be to betray one's own to the enemy.

Linda Blandford, who writes a weekly column from the United States for The Guardian of London, is the author of ''LSO: Scenes From Orchestra Life.''

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