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Memoir of a Transsexual
Jan Morris’s Conundrum
We are all different; none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.
Who is this majestic author, I thought as I read Heaven’s Command, an exhilarating portrait of Victorian imperial vignettes. I admit to being surprised — delighted really — to find it was a woman, Jan Morris. Such zest, such resplendence on the Victorian age of empire. I haven’t read a work like that written by a woman before. Frankly, that sort of thing just seems to be more interesting to men. Authors of history books tend to be men as do history academics. I wrote my compliments to Morris without knowing she was a transsexual.1 As I knew Morris had excellent taste in history and could write, I picked up her memoir, Conundrum, about her experience as a transsexual. Written in 1973, it precedes by a few decades the current transmania.
Already at “three or perhaps four years old” young James Morris felt like he had been born into the wrong body. This sensation later expressed itself in submissive homosexuality at a boy’s boarding school and in the army, and reached its apogee as James cleaved off his manhood in Casablanca to become Jan.
Morris is a very British character. Gallivanting about the world as a reporter / writer / adventurer, the guff of British empire. A queer rosy-cheeked silver-tongued Brit out of Thackeray or Dickens. In a line that cracked me up and almost felled me from my bike listening, Morris places herself firmly in this tradition:
But the whole of English upper-class life, as I was later to discover more explicitly, was shot through with bisexual instinct… The great cavalry regiments of the old Army were no exceptions, and on the whole they preferred their young officers fresh and good looking.
The British place for the eccentric is generally under-appreciated, probably related to being the birthplace of individualism itself. Here is Morris, touchingly, on ‘that Oxford thing’:
were it not for the flexibility and self-amusement I absorbed from the Oxford culture—which is to say, the culture of traditional England—I think I would long ago have ended in that last haven of anomaly, the madhouse. For near the heart of the Oxford ethos lies the grand and comforting truth that there is no norm. We are all different; none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.
Rather than a scion of the grim Protestant vein of Britishness, Morris emerges like a sprite out of a Welsh bog. Her world is an explicitly fantastical one of magic, witches and endless possibility lurking in the shadows. She’s a pagan in a Christian world.
To Morris there is something Platonic about gender. The universal masculine and feminine express themselves in the physical realm — in biology (sex), in language, elsewhere.
As C. S. Lewis once wrote, gender is not a mere imaginative extension of sex. 'Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings.
Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless.'
In this telling there is an objective state of womanhood. The universal masculine spirit manifests in, for example, the schmeckle. This mystical conception of gender splits the soul from the body, so that in the case of the transsexual those two do not match.
If Morris is pagan, her garb is very Christian:
I began to dream of ways in which I might throw off the hide of my body and reveal myself pristine within—for ever emancipated into the state of simplicity. I prayed for it every evening. A moment of silence followed each day the words of the Grace—'The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore.' Into that hiatus, while my betters I suppose were asking for forgiveness or enlightenment, I inserted silently every night, year after year throughout my boyhood, an appeal less graceful but no less heartfelt: 'And please God let me be a girl. Amen.'
This last prayer is familiar. It is the mirror image of the prayer required of Jewish men every morning:
Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman
And Deuteronomy 22:5 says:
A woman must not wear men's clothing, nor a man wear women's clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
What if these prayers and prohibitions — strange to modern ears — are relics of an ancient struggle to stamp out the Morrises of the pagan past? This is the world Christianity (almost?) vanquished, and may well continue today outside our purview:
The Sarombavy of Madagascar, for example, altogether forgot their original sex, and regarded themselves as entirely female. The 'soft-men' of the Chukchee Eskimo were ordered into their assumed sex by the elders at childhood, married husbands, and lived as women for the rest of their lives. We hear of Andean sorcerers obliged by tribal custom to change their sexual roles, of Mohave Indian boys publicly initiated into girlhood, of young Tahitians encouraged in infancy to think of themselves as members of the opposite sex.
This is the world of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, a pre-Christian world that squelches underfoot, resisting two millennia of Christian strangulation. It is a world that a Catholic like Ross Douthat might exorcise up close, in the dark and the deep beneath his floor boards in The Deep Places. It’s a world that the mystic rabbis seemed to have defeated long ago, that comes alive in demonic ways in the folktales of Isaac Bashevis Singer. These may well be the creatures Judaism guarded against and Christianity eschewed. They belong to the witch fields of Africa or eunuchs of Arabia just as surely as castration belongs to the world of cannibals and human sacrifice. Current Western transfever seems to be dominated by the rationalist mother-knows-best Anglos of the the Guardian newspaper who growl pronouns at you, not the mystic clan Morris represents (more on the Guardian later).
There is, after all, an ethereal fluidity in Genesis itself. Before there was Judaism, woman is made from man. Everything points to a time before, or another thing, outside the strictures of Judeo-Christianity. But these sombre prohibitions of the Old Testament are less apparent to Morris than the overt feminisation of Christianity:
The noblest aspects of the liturgy aspired to what I conceived as the female principle. Our very vestments seemed intended to deny our manhood, and the most beautiful of all the characters of the Christian story, I thought, far more perfect and mysterious than Christ himself, was the Virgin Mary, whose presence drifted so strangely and elegantly through the Gospels, an enigma herself.
This may just be a projection of Morris’s ‘inner femaleness’, but it’s interesting to ponder seriously. It’s consistent with the Christian domestication of man of the last millennium.
Morris brings both a journalist’s as well as an outsider’s perspective to the two genders. As a man he felt disjointed, as a woman happy but incomplete. She misses the comradery of men in the army — the jokes and barbs they traded in his company as a man (even if he hung on the fringes of that company) that were withheld as a woman. Morris’s womanhood is submissive, passive, nurturing. Manhood is action-oriented, thrusting. Morris observes about his new state as a her:
I was even more emotional now. I cried very easily, and was ludicrously susceptible to sadness or flattery. Finding myself less interested in great affairs . . . I acquired a new concern for small ones. My scale of vision seemed to contract, and I looked less for the grand sweep than the telling detail.
Men treated me more and more as a junior… and so, addressed every day of my life as an inferior, involuntarily, month by month I accepted the condition. I discovered that even now men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative and certainly less self-centred than they are themselves: so I generally obliged them.
I understand that women readers at the time of publication in 1973 objected to these characterisations of womanhood, and no doubt readers today might doubly so. Feminists understandably scorn this kind of reportage from the land of womanhood. It’s very hard to parse what changes overcome Morris as a function of chemicals or social expectations vs her own projections and expectations of womanhood.
These changes are fun to compare against the descriptions one reads (e.g. here) of women ‘becoming men’ (taking testosterone): a new drive to action, higher sex drive, luridly eyeing women on the street, improved regulation of emotions, and increased clarity of mind. This may all be as simple as described, a hormonal orientation we can affect with drugs. But here too one is always suspicious about how much is a manifestation of that woman’s expectations of what manhood is meant to be.
We can’t help but like Morris throughout. There’s a vitality to her language, a wit, an honesty that’s difficult to look away from. She confesses some hard truths: the forever incompleteness of her womanhood; the final misery of most who tread her path; the madness that seems to accompany her kind wherever she goes.
She’s self-aware: no, she isn’t just a homosexual or a transvestite (Morris describes autogynephilia):
Could it not be, they sometimes asked, that I was merely a transvestite, a person who gained a sexual pleasure from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, and would not a little harmless indulgence in that practice satisfy my, er, somewhat indeterminate compulsions? Alternatively, was I sure that I was not just a suppressed homosexual, like so many others?
Moreover, she considers the lives of gay men sterile and empty in their childless Never Never Lands (Morris managed four kids as a dad. She writes they were all supportive of the transition. Somehow, the marriage also survived, albeit in a sexless and different form):
Believer as I could only be in omni-sexuality, in the right and ability of humans of every kind to love one another carnally and spiritually, I always respected the emotions of homosexuals: but the truth and pathos of their condition seemed to me exemplified by their childlessness. Years ago I lived briefly in the same house as a devoted homosexual couple, one an eminent pianist, the other a businessman. Their life together was civilized without being in the least chi-chi. Their flat was full of handsome things, their conversation was kind and clever, and when the one was playing I would see the other listening with an expression of truest pride, pleasure and affection. So, real was their bond that when the pianist died the businessman killed himself—and they left behind them, apart from the musician's records, only a void. A marriage as loyal as marriage could be had ended sterile and uncreative: and if the two of them had lived into old age their lives, I fear, would have proved progressively more sterile still, the emptiness creeping in, the fullness retreating.
Despite her frankness, there is something of the unreliable narrator about her. There is always the spectre of mental illness. In an earlier quote, she guessed she might have ended up in a mad house if not for English culture. At times she is suicidal (before the procedure). Quotes like this make us suspicious:
I had loved animals all my life, but I felt closer to them now, and sometimes I even found myself talking to the garden flowers, wishing them a Happy Easter, or thanking them for the fine show they made. ('Was the whole process', asked one of my publisher's readers, commenting upon this passage in a first draft of this book, 'affecting her mind a little?'—but no, I had been talking to my typewriter for years, not always in such grateful terms.)
This is a happy portrait of people in a similar position post-op at the clinic:
Mutilated and crippled as we were, stumbling down the corridors trailing our bandages and clutching our nightclothes, we radiated happiness. Our faces might be tight with pain, or grotesque with splodged make-up, but they were shining too with hope. To you we might have seemed like freaks or mad people, and for many of us no doubt that moment of release would prove illusory, and we would find ourselves trapped in new perplexities no less baffling, and haunted by no less agonizing doubts.
In Morris’s view, most on her path met grizzly ends:
For every trans-sexual who grasps that prize, Identity, ten, perhaps a hundred discover it to be only a mirage in the end, so that their latter quandary is hardly less terrible than their first.
For Morris there is in the end a transcendence of gender. Morris is no longer a man, not quite a woman. Perhaps she inhabits something in between, or a third thing, which in her telling is a mystical, fabled creature:
Yet I know it to be partly illusion, and sometimes if I stand back and look at myself dispassionately… if I consider my story in detachment I sometimes seem, even to myself, a figure of fable or allegory.
But if my sense of isolation has gone, my sense of difference remains, and this is inevitable. However skillful Dr. B however solicitous the Department of Health and Social Security, I can never be as other people. My past is with me, and there is more to come. For to my journey there was always that trace of mysticism, madness if you will, and the unity I sought, I know now, was more than a unity of sex and gender… 'a higher ideal, that there is neither man nor woman'… What if I remain an equivocal figure? I think of the man who touched doors in Kanpur, armoured in his strangeness; I think of the herons I used to catch poaching on the river at Trefan, so solitary, so angular, so self-sufficient; I remember the Kenya warthogs, 'beautiful to each other'; and looking at my continuing loves, amazed still at the universal sensuality of life, I reach the conclusion that there is nobody in the world I would rather be than me.
One suspects that a large part of modern derangements is the determined assault on the equivocation Morris settles for. When being trans isn’t enough, when to asymptote towards manhood or womanhood isn’t enough, and instead to insist there is no difference at all between transience and the genders.
I want to leave you with Morris's description of his (then) time working at the Guardian. It’s funny and reveals much about him, the Guardian and the various Anglo zeitgeists that persist to this day. Morris finds this very different brand of Anglo progressivism repulsive. He may have been a different kind of man, more feminine, but he couldn’t stand these people and at heart was a true Victorian.
I was least comfortable with the Guardian. This surprises people. If there was one organ in the land which seemed to enshrine the principles generally considered feminine, it was that prodigy of liberalism: pacific, humanist, compassionate, with a motherly eye on underdogs everywhere and a housewifely down-to-earth good sense about everyday affairs… Yet I was never at ease with it. There was, I thought, something pallid or drab about its corporate image, something which made me feel exhibitionist and escapist, romantically gallivanting around the world while better men than I were slaving over progressive editorials at home.
I have a disconcerting feeling now that I disliked it because it was like working for a woman rather than a man. I resented the paper's stance of suffering superiority, like a martyred mother of ungrateful children, and did not like being tarred with its earnest; consumer association, playgroup brush… I squirmed habitually in railway trains, on meeting lifelong and devoted readers of 'our paper,' to discover just who my audience was. 'Anybody from the Guardian is a friend of ours,' fulsome American voices used to greet me on the doorsteps of academic houses, and the very phrase I came to know as the promise of a ghastly evening. The elements I craved were fire, salt, laughter: the Guardian's specialities were fairness, modesty and rational assessment. I liked a touch of swank: the Guardian shied from it like a horse from a phantom. I was all muddle, conceit and panache, the Guardian all unselfish logic and restraint. I leaned towards the mystic, the Guardian had its roots in northern non-conformism, not a faith that appealed to me.
The Guardian man who daunted me most was the paper's immensely knowledgeable and universally respected correspondent in Paris. Though I never heard evil spoken of him by a living soul, still we were antipathetic from the start. 'How marvellous it must be,' I once remarked to him by way of small talk, apropos of his great height, 'to be able to command every room you enter!' 'I do not want,' he replied in his most reproving liberal style, 'to command anything at all'—an unfortunate response, though he could not know it, to one whose ideals of manhood had been moulded by military patterns, and who liked a man to be in charge of things.
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I’m not exactly sure what the latest most polite nomenclature is — presumably transgender? — but a transsexual is what she called herself in her memoir. I’m going to use pronouns however seems best, apologies in advance if it’s a muddle. Morris used “she” at the time of writing her memoir.