8. Book reviews:
G. Greer: The Boy & J. Davies: The Boy -
Nothing but the boy
By Cameron Woodhead
October 25, 2003
THE BOYBy Germaine GreerThames & Hudson, $90
THE BOYBy Julian DaviesText Publishing, $24.95
Controversy is Germaine Greer's echo. Whatever she says, a cackle of dissension follows. Although Greer's is one of the most supple, passionate and original intellects of our age, it is also an incorrigibly narcissistic one.
Her new, lavishly illustrated art book about the erotics of boyhood flaunts all the qualities of its author's flawed brilliance and is sure to provoke more than its fair share of debate.
Part of the purpose of her book, Greer tells us, is to "advance women's reclamation of their capacity for, and right to, visual pleasure".
The public recognition and legitimation of female sexual desire in the 20th century should now be refined, she thinks, by the recognition and legitimation of women's right to appreciate male
beauty in art.
Unfortunately for men, Greer's vision of male beauty is transient and fleeting. It is typified by the boy "old enough to be capable of a sexual response, but not yet old enough to shave".
"This window of opportunity is not only narrow," she writes, "it is mostly illegal."
But to regard the boy as an object of erotic celebration, as Greer points out, was not always seen as child pornography. The nude boy as the subject of figurative painting and sculpture has a long and illustrious history, and Greer presents it alongside a range of literary analogues with remarkable erudition and enthusiasm.
Greer refutes the notion that the boys depicted in ancient Greek and Roman art (or indeed during the classical resurgence that occurred in the early modern period) were largely the yproduct of a pederastic culture. Rather, she suggests, they were indicative of "universal joy
and pride in their visibility", a tendency that continues to this day.
However, the history of art does seem to be skewed by recent developments, and the author's contention that the male nude was only eclipsed by the female nude as the icon of ideal beauty as recently as the 19th century is incontrovertible. From the kouroi of Ancient Greece to Michelangelo's David, boys, in all their ambiguity and evanescent charm, are ubiquitous.
One of the interesting aspects of Greer's argument is the overt link she makes between the disappearance of the male nude in the visual arts and the opening of public galleries to the female gaze. Both occurred during the 19th century and Greer musters a formidable amount of
evidence to demonstrate the gradual de-eroticisation of the male form during this period.
Where the boy was presented as effeminate or sexually polymorphous, denunciations came thick and fast. Greer's description of the fall from grace of the Belvedere Apollo among art critics during the 19th and early 20th centuries is a particularly instructive example of patriarchal anxiety
Even worse, if the art depicted the boy as a passive object of aggressive female desire - a frequent motif in classical mythology - it was reviled. When Edward
Burne-Jones exhibited Phyllis and
Demophoon in 1870, the boy's undersized genitals and unmanly flight from the embrace of his
imperious-looking lover provoked the curator's ire. It was removed.
Contrast this with Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (or contemporaneous art involving similar tales of active female sexuality) and you get some idea of the cultural shift. Although Venus is clearly a bit of a cradle-snatcher -
"The tender spring upon thy tempting lip/
Shows thee unripe; yet mayst thou well be tasted"
- she pursues her reluctant boy vigorously until he relents. Shakespeare's poem was a bestseller, printed in at least 11 editions before 1620.
In Greer's view, the attempt over several centuries to purge boyhood of sexuality and inure us to its wiles is a patriarchal effort "to avoid the phase of troubling misrule and extravagance out of
which Apollonian brilliance may be said to rise".
Our contemporary delusion that childhood is a time of innocence is likewise a regrettable vestige of 19th-century paternalism made still more obnoxious by the current panic surrounding pedophilia.
Greer believes that vulnerability to pedophilic assault peaks between 10 and 12 and that "tinkering with what can be legally consented to at age 16, say, can have nothing to do with child protection". Instead, she implies that what is at issue is "the father's fears that his sons will replace him or have already replaced him as the focus of female attention" - the same fear, she suggests, that drives older men to send boys to war.
As for where the boy stands in the perennial battle between men and women, Greer argues that gender studies have by and large concentrated on adulthood. Boyhood is either ignored or elided into some version of the man. "Biological maleness," she writes, "only takes to itself phallic
activity and mastery when it assumes patriarchal power. The boy, being debarred from patriarchal power, is endowed simply with a responsive penis rather than a dominating
Greer posits the boy as the forgotten middle term in the gender debate. She contemplates the man as an incomplete boy rather than the other way round. "The boy Eros," runs her triumphant final sentence, "would bring the sexes to a reconciliation, if only we would let him."
If Greer's passion for boys did not throw her into such obviously irrational ecstasies as these, her book would be more academically watertight and her arguments less prone to attack - but it wouldn't, I suspect, be quite the same tour de force that it is.
The Boy is both an insightful survey of male beauty through the ages and a powerful and radical polemic that challenges the hypocrisy of contemporary culture on the subject. It is occasionally undermined by erroneous statements (some artists clearly did have access to female models before the 19th century, for example) and self-indulgent whimsy that you will find - depending on whether you love or hate the author - either endearingly idiosyncratic or utterly outrageous.
Whatever you think of its thesis, this is an extremely intelligent, unconventional and thought-provoking book that also contains a trove of ravishing art.
If they hadn't been published at exactly the same time, Greer's book might well have served as an aesthetic manifesto for Julian Davies's novel of the same name. Set in New York in 1956, it involves an erotic attachment formed between
Zimzam, a 16-year-old street boy, and Marian,
a celebrated jazz singer in her mid-30s.
Marian is an orphan, brought up in Canberra by her formidable Aunt Flavia, who constantly inveighed against men. Headstrong Marian did not listen, of course - as a famous entertainer she was courted by thousands and frequently mulls over her one long-term relationship, a disastrous and abusive one as it happens, with a mad clown called Andre.
Zimzam is also an orphan. His entire family perished in a fire and he fled from his pedophile uncle to wander the streets.
When the two lost souls meet by chance, the boy flirts shyly with the older woman. Before they know where they are, Zimzam is staying in Marian's ritzy hotel, living the high life, and it is not long before his insouciance and lack of guile lead to an encounter in the bath. And so on.
The contrast between Zimzam and the men in the novel - who are all represented as wanting to possess Marian - could not be starker. The ageing owner of the hotel is repulsively emblematic - when she spurns his advances, he invites both her and the boy up to his penthouse and presents
Marian with a wooden dildo. Zimzam, on the other hand, does not seem to want anything from her, is always content in the moment.
Their erotic sanctuary was never going to last, though, and it doesn't. Zimzam turns out to have a hidden agenda and the denouement of their short, blissful reverie is brutal and shocking.
Davies writes in finely sculpted sentences and the two central characters are wonderfully observed. The liaison he describes occurs with the kind of natural inevitability that makes you ponder why it is that, as Greer notes, we live in a world that more than ever stigmatises intimacy between individuals of disparate ages.
In different ways, both of these books pay tribute to the short-lived appeal and special ulnerability of the boy. They also demonstrate that to contemplate the allure of boys is a fraught experience - a fact that seems a constant throughout the ages, from the cautionary tale of Narcissus to the pathos of von Aschenbach perving on Tadzio in Thomas Mann's Death in
Greer is right when she says that the incomparable beauty of the boy is made more vivid to the viewer by the certain knowledge that it will fade. "Only in art," she writes, "can (it) be preserved
against the ravages of time."