- The Boy by Germaine Greer
Thames and Hudson, 256 pp, £29.95, October 2003, ISBN 0 500 23809 X
The problem with being a dedicated social trouble-maker who has not self-destructed is that, as the decades roll by, the society you wish to irritate gets used to you and even begins to regard you with a certain affection. Eventually, you become a beloved puppy that is always forgiven for soiling the carpet. No matter what taboos you kick out at, people just smile and shake their head. Germaine Greer has become a licensed controversialist, which is a pity because we ought to have someone in our ageing generation who still has the capacity to really piss people off. But look, here we are in the grip of the most virulent antipathy to the notion of any kind of sexual exchange between generations, and there’s Greer, at the end of the television documentary made to coincide with this book, on a double bed, a fully-dressed sturdy matron hunched over the perfect naked body of a reclining 16-year-old male model, blowing playfully at the rose petals that barely cover his genitals while he tries to retrieve the petals and keep his bits concealed.
‘They’re all disappearing to Earls Court down there,’ she says, pecking tenderly at his neck and cheeks.
‘So’s your hand,’ he mutters.
Germaine giggles prettily. ‘No, no, I never touched him,’ she mugs for the camera.
And does national television grind to a halt at the sight of a senior citizen exploiting a bought young body? Are the South Bank Show phone lines clogged with complaints at the voyeuristic, objectifying camera lingering hungrily over a groin which, we must assume, has a mind attached to it? Do hundreds of enraged women – I mean, mothers – march against the sixtysomething wrinkly paying to play with the body of an adolescent for her and our entertainment? None of that. Just chuckles and winks at naughty but cuddlesome Greer, described affectionately in the Independent review of the programme as ‘an Anglo-Australian project which has cost the taxpayer nothing’. But what if it had been – oh, I don’t know . . . Robert Hughes, or Rolf Harris – sitting on a bed, looming over a naked 16-year-old girl, blowing the petals away from her mons veneris? Greer’s argument that modern society has forbidden women the pleasure of boys’ bodies is almost wrecked by the amused, liberal response she receives.
She gets away with it partly because there is a double standard about women and boys as opposed to men and girls, but also because she is Germaine Greer and we are too used to her saying and doing outrageous things to mind what she does. The Female Eunuch called excitingly to our generation of women, but then we got something to do with Italian studs and doughnuts, and later squatting in fields to bleed in moon-minded groups, and then, as if we hadn’t planned for it all along, growing old disgracefully. We are inured to the mixture of cleverness and silliness. So she can use art history to argue that the present panic about paedophilia conceals a puritanical crusade to suppress our sexual, desiring responses to the young as effectively as anything the 19th century managed. She can advance women’s right to reclaim the visual pleasure to be had in the beautiful bodies of boys, and on the TV programme ratchet this up beyond just the visual by asserting: ‘Any woman of taste would have a boy for a lover rather than a man. He’s easier to manage and his sperm flows like tap water.’ She can tell those of us who read and learned from The Female Eunuch that we’ve done quite well in outing women’s appetite for sexual stimulus by drooling and screaming over male strippers, but that ‘healthy appetite should now be refined by taste. If we but lift our eyes to the beautiful images of young men that stand all about us, there is a world of complex and civilised pleasure to be had.’ And her audience simply smiles, shrugs and passes on by. So long as she is saying it about boys it causes no excitement.
This must be quite aggravating, and you can sense her trying to find the form of words that will elicit a properly outraged reaction. It arrives after discussing not art, but the literature of boys loved and loving – Colette’s Chéri, Flaubert’s Memoirs of a Madman, Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser, Kundera’s Ignorance – when she concludes that boys are being deprived of their sexual rights to have older women lovers, and then:
All over the world boys are seducing their betters, but campaigners against 21st-century sex tourism see the traffic as one-way. Their activities are inspired by horror and compassion for children who are forced by economic necessity to have sex that they are not ready for with older people they could not possibly desire. (This assumption itself should cast some doubt on the campaigners’ own motives.) When she was studying the ‘bad’ sexualised mother, the great Melanie Klein asked herself in a note: ‘Who is seducing whom?’
Would it be impossibly puritanical to point out that child prostitution might be qualitatively different from the painful but civilised love of pubescent boys for older women? And in what sense are the ‘betters’ that the boys seduce better rather than merely older? And are these ‘betters’ or elders therefore victims (yet more victims in the world, God help us) on whose behalf there ought to be a concerted social campaign to protect them from the predatory lads they have to get on a plane to be predated by? Is the plan that older women looking, touching, paying for their pretty youths should receive a government health warning that their wily boy-toys might take advantage of them? And does the same apply to older men and girls, or older men and boys, or older women and girls? Sometimes Greer’s admirable intellect is subsumed by the need to make a noise in the world. Which is a pity, because she is addressing a real issue here about our inability to be honest with ourselves; a sorry failure to understand the difference between protecting our own socially constructed sensibilities, and protecting children from harm. Chris Morris is the only other person to take this on so directly in his acidulous TV satire on the sentimentality and nonsense-logic surrounding the subject of paedophilia. Not being a national treasure (yet), and not taking refuge in cuteness and art history, he was excoriated. But either way, Greer’s or Morris’s, no one immersed in the hysteria listens to any form of discussion until, mysteriously, it becomes possible for people to hear.
In the meantime, the good news is that Greer’s theorising permits the production of a very handsome book full of beautifully reproduced paintings and sculptures from galleries around the world. There’s something for everyone: even if the bodies don’t turn you on, the pictures are sure to please. She’s right, there is no shortage of naked boys’ bodies in the history of art. They are ten-a-penny (if you don’t take into account the pricelessness of most of the pictures) from antiquity on. As she discusses in the accompanying essay, they change their shape and meaning over time, moving from butch Apollos to boyish Eroses, toddler Cupids and the infant amorini; to limp, feminised saints, eyes rolling in orgasmic martyrdom; to quite gender-unspecific, airily abstract images of Love and Innocence; to the 19th century, when the boys more or less disappear and are replaced by naked women; and finally to a contemporary photograph by a woman of a young man lopped off at the knees and chest, essentially a penis she has known and loved.
The boy, Greer declares, not with startling originality, is the epitome of evanescent beauty: moving, charming, heart-rending. The period between his being a child and becoming a man is a brief, graceful hiatus before the flesh turns coarse and heads towards corruption, reminding us all of what really is what. But, in fact, the pictures in The Boy suggest that far from being brief, it’s rather a long period, ranging from eight-year old Alessandro Farnese (‘sticky-out ears, a mouth that is set but tremulous’) painted by Girolamo Bedoli in 1555, to a 1968 photograph of the 24-year old Jim Morrison (‘Bands like The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Tyrannosaurus Rex were all masters of male display, and in every case the result was not manly but boyish. As trousers were tight and chests were bared, hair could be released in a flowing cloud, eyes darkened and lips reddened, because maleness was beyond doubt.’) It’s not at all clear if the fleeting ‘moment’ of the beautiful boy is pre or post-pubertal; is it a soon-to-be-lost physical naivety, his very lack of sexual definition, that is so desirable, or the rampaging sexuality of the testosteronic young male at the peak of manhood, which makes women weak at the knees? What is evanescent in the first is quite different from what is evanescent in the second. Do we desire to possess a moment of innocence, or to be possessed by a singularly focused sexual energy? In any case, while Jim Morrison might have had a boyish quality for older women (though, older woman that I am now, looking back, I doubt it), he had a distinctly mannish and dangerous quality for the much younger girls who screamed at his performances. As Greer herself recalls: ‘I was once on stage with The Doors and saw James Morrison [sic] turn upstage to stimulate himself before turning to show the outline of his engorged member to his shrieking audience.’ The argument wobbles between one desire and the other: an eroticised yearning after passing innocence, or the driven excitement of the rampantly sexual. But let’s say we might want to ogle both at different times, because, to be a mite cynical, the broadest age range does allow for a satisfactorily large selection of illustrations.
Greer tries to rationalise the variety of her painted boys by locating the wildly veering nature of boyhood in ‘Dionysos’s combination of effeminate languor and implacable violence’. She offers the Sadean woman a lad who, in spite of his prodigious ‘recovery rate’ and sperm flow (they may not be so good at conversation, she says on the TV programme, but who needs conversation? Well, I do, for one; can I be alone?), is essentially desirable for his passivity: ‘Boyhood is the blessed time when he still remembers how to give and take pleasure without troubling himself about power.’ Blessed, for their lovers. ‘The boy, being debarred from phallic power, is endowed simply with a responsive penis rather than a dominating phallus and can be sexualised with impunity.’ On the other hand, there’s a peculiarly romanticised notion of the other side of boys; the aspect that licenses the implacable violence. It’s not really clear to me what it is about this phase of boyhood that makes them so desirable to older women, but each to her own, I suppose. Boys in any period are expected to drink, riot and preen. Indeed, even nature expects wildness in boys, more of whom are born but more of whom die through recklessness than girls, so that by adulthood the genders are more or less equal. It turns out that racist louts on the football terraces and boy gangs killing each other and terrorising neighbourhoods are just doing what they are supposed to do. It is part of an ancient need for Dionysian exuberance and ritual, shared, no doubt, by the teenage professional footballers whose recreational activities include ‘roasting’, or gang-banging, the idiotic girls (not women, I think) who go to hotel rooms with them. Still, apparently it’s the boys who suffer most: ‘Boys will still be annihilated because civilisation has little use for them. The corporate world requires one-dimensional men not polymorphous boys. Brian Jones, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Marc Bolan, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain are our new immortals. Like Apollo and Dionysos they can never outgrow their dazzling boyhood.’ Which is a shame, because some of them might have turned into interesting men whom a more demanding kind of woman might have wanted to sleep with.
As Greer follows her boys – the fully-muscled, adult Belvedere Apollo, Caravaggio’s come-hither kids of his Bacchus and Love Triumphant, copies of Michelangelo’s tiny tot Cupid with his mother Venus, photos of the beautiful but doomed James Dean and Kurt Cobain – she rejects the usual assumption that many depictions of nude boys from the Greeks onward are homoerotic. Boys, she says, were the only bodies available to artists who wanted to work from life. Women were shown wearing clothes while boys were presented naked precisely because it was women who were the erotic objects requiring concealment of their inflaming bodies. It’s a bit of an argument, but the Greeks weren’t shy of admiring their beautiful boys, soul and body, and it doesn’t seem likely that Michelangelo and Caravaggio painted their young male models without clothes purely for the splendid opportunity they afforded to study the human form, or in order to give older women something nice to look at. In fact, the only serious female collector of boy images she can come up with is the mysterious Queen Christina of Sweden, who, sadly, Greer tells us, was libertine only in her head, being ‘barred by her poor health from fleshly delights’. Even Catherine the Great’s immense art collection doesn’t count, because ‘most of it was bought in bulk by agents who had no opportunity to determine her preference.’
The fact is that the idea of toy-boys is hardly something Germaine Greer needs to encourage. It’s practically de rigueur for anyone over thirty, as far as I can make out. And very sensible, too, because if, like me, you’ve always had a penchant for older men, and boys leave you cold (as a teenager I was diagnosed as having, not a father, but a grandfather complex) there comes a time when the search for the older man becomes quite dysfunctional because he has long since been buried. Necrophilia – now there’s a cause Greer might take up that could really offend her public.