Jan Morris

Conundrum

“I think of it not just as a sexual enigma, but as a quest for unity.”

Twenty years ago I chanced upon a short history of Venice1 and in the pre-pages there was a note that the writer known as James Morris was now writing as Jan Morris (October 2, 1926 – November 20, 2020). I’ll never forget the feelings of curiosity and care I felt when reading that. Who is this remarkable Jan Morris?

I believe the trans-sexual urge, at least as I have experienced it, to be far more than a social compulsion, but biological, imaginative and essentially spiritual too.

Just as Maya Angelou’s final memoir answered the oft-asked question “How did you come to be Maya Angelou?” Jan Morris’ Conundrum generously answers “Who was/is James/Jan Morris?”

Jan Morris is a British writer, historian of place, an accoladed journalist and author of one of the first memoirs on being transgendered.

I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.2

I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano… The four stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalactites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head… What triggered so bizarre a thought I have a long forgotten but the conviction was unfaltering from the start. On the face of things it was pure nonsense. I seemed to most people a straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly… weaned at an early age on Huck Finn…By every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was named James Humphry Morris, male child.

Morris’ memories of an often solitary childhood remind me of George Orwell‘s confession that he had a ‘lonely child habit of writing.” With solitude comes a need to contextualize the space: “I felt a yearning for I knew not what, as if there were a piece missing from my pattern” writes Morris as she describes herself as feeling “like a Turner” internally.

To wipe that Turner-like haze and “unify” her inner scene and soul was the backing to Morris’ fabricated life.

I equate it with the idea of soul, or self, and I think of it not just as a sexual enigma, but as a quest for unity. For me every aspect of my life is relevant to that quest – not only the sexual impulses, but all the sights, sounds and smells of memory, the influences of buildings, landscapes, comradeships the power of love and sorrow.

[…]

To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, it is the spring in one’s step or an exchange of glances, it is more truly life and love than any combination of genitals, ovaries and hormones. It is the essentialness of oneself.

Simone Weil noted that humans have little but an unmistakable ability to say ‘I’. Jan Morris’ ‘I’ was incomplete. And what to do with that? It is no wonder the word ‘gender’ falls short.3

""Undefinable Gender" by Katy Davis, featured in Jan Morris' "Conundrum" in the Examined Life Library.
“Undefinable Gender” by Katy Davis, part of the Museum of Transology display at the Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums. The display “challenges the idea that gender is fixed, binary and biologically determined.” Learn more. © Fashion Space Gallery.

As young Morris grew, she found a welcoming place in Oxford, claiming to have wedged her way into a civilization where no one was wrong, just different. Finding space for herself (outwardly Morris continued as a male until she turned 45) and forming her notions of self against the prevailing bellum society was difficult. But being outwardly male also afforded her opportunity, she was the journalist who reported Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summitting Everest.

What Morris was really afforded as a man, however, (at least legally in Britain) was marriage.

I was immensely proud of my marriage. However tangled my inner life, however hateful the mask I wore, if all my ambitions failed and my pen deserted me, still I knew that I had achieved this triumph; a trust that was absolute, and a companionship so endlessly delightful that to this day I would eagerly take that bus to Hampstead each morning, if Elizabeth still worked for Max up there, and I could get a No. 13 back to Aldwych.

"Undefinable Gender" by Katy Davis, featured in Jan Morris' "Conundrum" in the Examined Life Library.
“Testosterone” by Katy Davis, part of the Museum of Transology display representing “the largest collection representing trans people in the UK – if not the world.” Learn more. © Fashion Space Gallery.

German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm argued we will never understand what it is to be like another person, only through “mutual alive relatedness’ can we hope to understand one another. “What is it like to be….” is the root of empathy.

There used in those days to be a blind beggar woman generally on the steps of the Accademia bridge, on the gallery side. She sat on the ground with her back to the bridge parapet, her knees hunched up beneath their serge skirts, holding out her hand for charity. I looked forward to seeing this lady whenever I returned to Venice, and generally gave her something as I passed towards San Marco, but once I went further and slipping her the usual few lire, I squeezed her hand as well. A miracle then happened. She squeezed mine in return, and in the pressure of her old fingers I knew for certain that she understood me in her blindness, and was responding woman to woman.

Venice photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joseph Brodsky's "Watermark" in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Morris remained outwardly male for decades and when she finally considered gender reassignment surgery she spoke of it being a “unifying” thing.

All I wanted was liberation, or reconciliation – to live as myself, to clothe myself in a more proper body, and to achieve Identity at last. I would not hurry. First I would discover if it were feasible. Slowly, carefully, with infinite precaution against betrayal, I became the chemical experiences by which I would lose many of my male characteristics, and acquire some of the female; then, if all went well, several years later I would take the last step, and have the change completed by surgery.

What does she mean by “infinite caution against betrayal”? Betrayal from whom? Her friends, society, by medicine or by her own body? The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was once asked if he was angry that he was born with such poor eyesight and he said no.

But like his interviewer, I couldn’t help but wonder (and I pale at the thought that this will be interpreted as me suggesting it should be the case) if Morris felt her body had betrayed her in its extreme mind/body divide.

She does not appear to: “To myself I had been woman all along,” she writes “And I was not going to change the truth of me, only discard the falsity.”

Morris published Conundrum in 1974, a year after her gender-reassignment surgery – and society, Jan included – has of course changed since. However, many truths have not changed and will not ever change.

It is not a sexual mode or preference. It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction, and no true trans-sexual has ever been disabused of it.

Pair Conundrum with other tales of being and becoming that spread mutual alive relatedness into your mind and spirit: Oliver Sack’s compassionate unearthing of personhood in those affected by several brain injuries; James Baldwin’s anthem for the black men in America and Walt Whitman’s ”Song of Myself” – a melodious poem of oneness between body and spirit.