No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, September 22, 2006

#83: Conundrum -- Jan Morris

Jan Morris was born James Morris: Conundrum is the autobiographical account -- first published in 1974, and reprinted with new introductions that reflect the changing times in 1986 and 1997 -- of that transition. From the very first sentence the author's viewpoint is clear: "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl."

I've admired Jan Morris's travel writing for years, but this is a more intimate journey (though never crude and seldom explicit). It deals in the higher forms of love (though the lower forms are present too: as James, the author fathered several children). Morris writes of the 'fierce calculating love' that, even unrequited, binds things to the lover:

"Whole cities are mine, because I have loved them so. So are various pictures scattered through the art galleries of the world. If you love something hotly enough, consciously, with care, it becomes yours by symbiosis, irrevocably. I love Wales like this, I love Admiral Lord Fisher (d. 1920), and the greatest pleasure I get from my Abyssinian cat Menelik is the feeling that I have, by the very magnetism of my affection, summoned him from some wild place ..."

Morris makes interesting points about the differences between the sexes, though there's a certain arrogance to them simply because this woman is born not made. Speaking of the peak of physical fitness (climbing Everest in 1953) and admiration of one's own body and strength as a 'machine of quality', Morris notes: "Women, I think, never have quite this feeling about their bodies, and I shall never have it again." I suspect that female athletes do have similar feelings about their bodies: perhaps Morris lost it from being well past peak by the time he became she.

"Women are more self-contained than men, and at heart less gregarious." Or maybe it's just a reaction, conscious or not, to Morris's ambiguity. Or maybe it's the older generation.

Morris is more interesting when less general: on the subject of penis envy:
"It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive and stimulating. My body then was made to push and initiate, it is made now to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences." (p. 143)

And there's a poignant passage towards the end of the book, where Morris admits that 'the androgynous condition was a positive asset in reportage, [but] disqualified me for fiction', going on to say that she's now capable of more liberated self-expression, because of feeling less isolated from the human race. It's easier to imagine how others feel, and easier to know her own feelings.

Divorced from Elizabeth (who was James' wife), the two remain close, a meeting of minds that transcends sex. "One recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency and sexual incongruity." Indeed, Morris is of the opinion that transsexuality isn't primarily about sex: she wonders, in the final chapter, whether 'by denying physical sex a supreme importance in my life ... I am ahead of my time.' Indeed, as noted above re the higher forms of love, it's travel that engages Morris most intensely: she writes of "the most truly libidinous of a lifetime's various indulgences -- the lust of Venice."

Overall, this is a fascinating account of a transition that most of us will never make -- and one that, I think, reflects a world that's already gone, already lost.
"Sometimes the arena of my ambivalence was uncomfortably small. At the Travellers' Club, for example, I was obviously known as a man of sorts -- women were only allowed on the premises at all during a few hours of the day ... but I had another club, only a few hundred yards away, where I was known only as a woman, and often I went directly from one to the other, imperceptibly changing roles on the way -- 'Cheerio, sir,' the porter would say at one club, and 'Hullo, madam' the porter would greet me at the other." (p.114)

A difficult transition, made gracefully and elegantly: that's Conundrum encapsulated.

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