CUT OUT THE NONSENSE
By Hillary Miller
On April 30, 1971, a public debate on Women’s Liberation was held in New York City’s Town Hall. It was not an even match. On one side was Norman Mailer, who had just published The Prisoner of Sex; on the other, four leading feminists: NOW president Jacqueline Ceballos; Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch; Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston; and literary critic Diana Trilling. In 1979, footage of the debate was released under the title Town Bloody Hall. This brilliant and sadly neglected documentary by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus is freely available on YouTube and is embedded below. It shows Mailer at his most combative, struggling in vain to maintain his composure as the women mount a relentless offensive that includes incisive social commentary, sharp-edged wit, and a lesbian cuddle puddle. The following piece reflects on this occasion.
It was the season of large and little deaths
for ten thousand seedlings of the psyche.
Near the end of the Year of the Polymorphous Perverse.
In a Maine ménage, which must have excited
some remarkable curiosity from the exterior
but was close to reasonable within.
GG: So, we begin at the beginning, with the sex of cells.
NM: Like blinded Samson, or Oedipus reduced, the pride of man could bow in gratitude before this restorative crust thrown by the lady Greer.
GG: So what is the beef?
NM: Just a week before he left for the summer in Maine he had actually found himself saying one night on a television program (in reply to a question from Orson Welles) that women should be kept in cages.
GG: Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don’t know how to handle men and increase my market value so that the rewards due to the feminine will accrue to me. Then again, maybe I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of the Powder Room.
NM: Eight bright and razor-edged remarks leaped to his tongue at the thought of what he could say about the ladies of the Liberation, and yet the tired literary gentleman in himself curbed the studhorse of this quick impulse.
GG: What hooey!
NM: He did not know why a lack of such literary niceties as fair quotation and measured attack should bother him more in women.
GG: She is a female faggot. Like the male faggots she lives her life in a pet about guest lists and sauce béarnaise, except when she is exercising by divine maternal right the same process that destroyed her lusts and desires upon the lusts and desires of her children.
NM: So, when he came back from Maine it was with, yes, the gloomy and growing sense that he would have to write about women, about their liberation and the drear pits in the road of that liberation.
GG: The housewife who must wait for the success of world revolution for her liberty might be excused for losing hope.
NM: Fame was the inability to get boozed anonymously in a strange bar, which meant it was the inability to nurse an obsessive melancholy through a night of revelations.
GG: The chief bogy of those who fear freedom is insecurity, and so Love ends with an animadversion on the illusoriness of Security, the ruling deity of the welfare state, never more insubstantial than it is in the age of total warfare, global pollution and population explosion.
NM: So he could not know whether he would have found it endurable to be born a woman or if it would have driven him out onto the drear avenues of the insane.
GG: The Ultra-feminine must refuse any longer to countenance the self-deception of the Omnipotent Administrator, not so much by assailing him as by freeing herself from the desire to fulfill his expectations.
NM: Still he had not answered the question with which he began. Who finally would do the dishes?
GG: History was not ours to make but ours to serve.
NM: The question had been answered. He could love a woman and she might even sprain her back before a hundred sinks of dishes in a month, but he would not be happy to help her if his work should suffer, no, not unless her work was as valuable as his own.
GG: We have nothing to be thankful for and nobody to thank, for the most significant change is that wrought in ourselves by ourselves.
NM: Yes, he could be a housewife for six weeks, even for six years if it came to it, even work without help if it came to it, but he did not question what he would have to give up forever.
“When was everyone going to cut out the nonsense
and get to work, do their own real work?”
Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night
“The writer of this plea must be convinced
that she wants something else.”
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
(Germaine’s suitcase is next to her. She builds a makeshift altar.)
Mr. Mailer, I admit I need your help.
I’ve always remembered the harem joke we shared after you ordered blintzes at that pedestrian cafe on the West Side, where the waitresses puzzled over your fluffing of your feathers and puffing of your awful chest. You were braying, and I admonished you with ample prevarication: we both knew you were unfolding a plot and forgave mutual clumsiness. You were missing Sunday dinner at your mother Fanny’s, you explained. You smirked on the word “mother,” and against my greater will I softened at the idea of Mr. Mailer having, yes, a mother, and a Sunday dinner, because if those exist, then one must ask: what else?
You roasted me then for what you dubbed my harem theory; “it is not theory, it is history, Mr. Mailer,” and so you thought it proof I bent history at my will. As if you were still at the podium inspecting your Dixie cups, you invited me to revive and institute a harem culture, perhaps out on the moors, you said, oblivious to whom and where I was from, to my own awaiting Fanny. What else, indeed. (She lights a Camel Filter.)
Look, I’ve joined this horrible spectacle on the pretense that I could possibly wrench some measure of pleasure out of it. But the pleasure principle is lost on them. (Frustrated.) Over those very same blintzes, you complimented my book dedications, and that was your ego talking, cutting me down to size by leaving the argument aside and complimenting instead the peripheral, the personal, even. It never crossed my mind at the time that you simply had not read the book, and you hadn’t, had you? You merely noticed my dedications—who would she thank, if not a wife?—and that was all you could muster.
Well, as I mingled with the twittering wannabes and has-beens populating the fascist prison of Celebrity Big Brother Season 3, I was thinking of those dedications: “Lillian, always involved, sometimes bitchy, abundant, eloquent, beautiful, Caroline, who has done great things with gentleness and humility . . .” I still want to be those things and initially did not see a contradiction in my choice to join this . . . cast. But I never wanted to be cast, being cast is the epitome of powerlessness and perhaps the most abject form of categorization Western society has devised, the final, absolute, and irreversible end to ritual shared by humans ready to forsake identity for generosity.
Page 18, The Armies of the Night, you gave away the whole farm: “Mailer hated to put in time with losers.” You’d spent too many years as a reputed loser. You couldn’t consort with them any more and for you the feminists were looking more and more like losers. Historical losers, you couldn’t be sure, but biological losers, without question. Evolutionary losers. Societal losers! Even in hell, in the hell of your fevers, these women, no matter how I described them, no matter the dedications of the animadversions, no matter the beauty therein conferred, just might be losers, losers who wasted your good hours of writing at dawn.
Except for me. And that’s why you still haven’t recovered.
Norman Mailer’s Ghost
Contemporary Germaine Greer
Jill Johnston’s Trickster Ego
Public School Principal (Queens)
GERMAINE GREER'S MONOLOGUE 2005: GERMAINE CALLS UPON NORMAN MAILER'S GHOST TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO LEAVE CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER
A SCENE FRAGMENT USING TEXT EXCLUSIVELY FROM GREER'S THE FEMALE EUNUCH AND MAILER'S THE PRISONER OF SEX
TENTATIVE CHARACTER AND CAST LIST
FOR THE UNWRITTEN PLAY