Books: Courage to go with the flow of a novel kind: The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer Doubleday, pounds 16.99, 352pp

Melissa Benn finds that the eternal feminist has cut loose from despair and set sail for Utopia

The Whole Woman is not officially published until Monday, but large parts of the nation are already suffering from Germaine Greer overload. The decision by her publishers to tease out publication, offering selected extracts and a sole interview to one newspaper, set the broadsheet pack onto red alert two weeks before release of the book. Few could wait and see what she had written; the commentary inevitably became ad feminam. Pages were devoted to her cleverness and contradictions, and her (ir)relevance to everything from British feminism to the kitchen sink.

Now along comes the book, the whole book and nothing but the book. Is anybody still interested? They should be: Greer makes an excitable, exaggerated case that reverses, rather than revises, some comfortable modern assumptions about women. She has repeatedly said she was forced out of a polemicist's retirement to take up the fight for liberation-based feminism against the new equal-rights consensus.

Interestingly, the target of her most ferocious attack - the "new feminism" - makes little appearance in her text. There is the odd, outrageous sideswipe at a "politics that celebrates the right (ie duty) to be pretty in an array of floaty dresses and little suits put together for starvation wages by adolescent girls in Asian sweat shops". But no opponent is given a name or book credit: a strategy of condemnation through obliteration that packs a surprisingly mean punch.

The Whole Woman is essentially a return to the style and substance of The Female Eunuch, 28 years ago. It has the same dense but readable format, its chapters organised around meaty subjects with titillating short headlines (sex, breasts, testosterone). And, despite a wealth of contemporary material and a feel for the zeitgeist, Greer is still arguing, as that famous sentence from The Female Eunuch declared: "Women have very little idea of how much men hate them."

The Whole Woman breaks with the sophisticated consensus that women have made significant progress in any area: work, self-image, health, relations with men, motherhood or politics. Where some of us see change and hope, Greer sees only commercially sponsored sadism. Modern woman's preoccupation with beauty and femininity is, to her, not a sign of "having it all" but just another ugly, expensive twist in the decades-long struggle of capitalism to persuade women that their bodies are distasteful and need taming. Women are not making it in the public world of work and politics. Far from it, they are struggling to ape men and denying their true selves in the process (she is scathing on Blair's Babes).

Motherhood, Greer argues, is hard labour that is effectively ignored by society. She has no time for the new fatherhood either, marshalling her evidence to show how many men are still fleeing their emotional and financial responsibilities. Even an apparently benign development such as screening programmes for cervical cancer is just a new patriarchal invasion of wombs in search of a disease. And the disease is womanhood. (Greer loves to end her chapterlets with such bitingly short sentences.)

Greer has constructed a strip cartoon that pits the forces of brute masculinity against the cowed but perfumed figure of the modern woman. Should we read her as deeply pessimistic or profoundly political? Both, I would argue. She remains one of the few public feminists to show any true grasp of globalisation, international capitalism and the parasitical relationship between first-world women's material comforts and third-world womens' exploitation.

In a funny way, she does not go far enough. In a revised 1992 foreword to The Female Eunuch, Greer admitted, in a rare moment of self-criticism, that the book "does not deal with poor women". Yet poor women make not much more of an appearance here.

Greer's true obsession is with the politics of the body rather than the body politic. She is lyrical and expansive on the meaning of the womb and the colour and taste of menstrual blood, but clipped and cursory on wages and work and the new revolution in information technology. Like the good socialist that she is, she knows how important the economy is - but the details bore her.

Her real power depends on a submerged but starkly emotional vision of human relations, a bleak image of a permanent non-meeting between the sexes and the generations. "Love of the father, love of the partner, love of the child, all remain for the vast majority of women unrequited." I think we should take this largely as a statement about Greer herself. Certainly, it shows little awareness of the nuances of real life, both personal and political. There are thousands of relationships where love and hate are more finely balanced than she would allow and where there is constant negotiation over the question of "work". Many women feel greatly loved by the father, the husband, by sons and daughters.

But the significance of Greer's absolute pessimism is that it finally frees her to a kind of utopianism. She has gone beyond hopelessness into some mad reckless territory where anything is possible. Hence her quarrel with the wishful thinking of younger women.

It's as if Greer wags her finger at us all, speaking the words from Dante's Inferno, "in the middle of the journey of our life I came by myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost". There are tragedies and rejections ahead for us all, which will show us there is no straight way. One of the best chapters is on the comforts and logic of sorrow. "Sadness is the matrix from which wit and irony spring... which is why consumer society cannot tolerate it." Nor, it has to be said, can modern feminism.

So Germaine leaves us with everything and nothing to lose. She batters us over the head with her much-favoured distinction between liberation and equality. For her, liberation is the pleasure principle made ideology; equality is a kind of mealy-mouthed conformism. Greer wants the former, but it doesn't offer much to women in professions or supermarkets.

Liberation to do what? Go to work smelling like a real woman? A life gloriously alone? A life on benefits? One of her few, welcome suggestions is that society recognises that motherhood is a real job and pay for it accordingly.

What will most women get from this book? It is, I suspect, what we get from Greer herself, a chance to throw off the fear that comes from trying too hard. From The Female Eunuch, Greer has been saying the same thing: be yourself, take the flak, speak your mind, change your mind. It is an injunction she has followed herself, in her mouthy, maddening career as public personality.

Few older women are taken seriously in public culture. Few are taken much notice of at all. Despite, or perhaps because of the inner bleakness, Greer is. She is an example of what the theologian Paul Tillich has called the "courage to be". In that sense, all those quick to comment before they had read this book were grasping something after all. Greer's written words may be less important now than her symbolism, and publication a distraction from the whole woman we see so often before us.

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