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Conundrum: Pioneering Trans Writer Jan Morris on Gender, Identity, Belonging, and the Integration of Body and Spirit

“There is no norm. We are all different; none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.”

Conundrum: Pioneering Trans Writer Jan Morris on Gender, Identity, Belonging, and the Integration of Body and Spirit

“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf observed in her astute reflection on gender. “The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” she wrote more than half a century before modern psychologists came to see that psychological androgyny is essential for creativity. And yet while the mind might thrive on such fluidity, our bodies — bodies that encode so much of our psychological and emotional reality — are born into a biological binary. So what happens to the person ripped asunder by a psyche and a body cast in different genders?

That’s what the celebrated Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris (b. October 2, 1926), a pioneer who helped make a home for the T of LGBT in the popular imagination, explores in Conundrum (public library) — her stunning 1974 memoir of transitioning from James Morris, an accomplished solider in the British military during WWII and a daredevil reporter, to the Jan she knew she was since childhood.

Jan Morris (Photograph: Jim Richardson / National Geographic)
Jan Morris (Photograph: Jim Richardson / National Geographic)

Writing a decade after the start of her medical transition, Morris begins at the beginning, mapping her interior landscape with the same sublimely lyrical prose familiar from her writings about the external world. Reflecting on her childhood as the youngest of three brothers in a family soon rendered fatherless, she writes:

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.

I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalagmites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head. My mother was probably playing Sibelius, for she was enjoying a Finnish period then, and Sibelius from underneath a piano can be a very noisy composer; but I always liked it down there, sometimes drawing pictures on the piles of music stacked around me, or clutching my unfortunate cat for company.

What triggered so bizarre a thought I have 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 very straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age on Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, say grace, think well of myself, and wash my hands before tea. I was always sure of an audience. My security was absolute. Looking back at my infancy, as one might look back through a windswept avenue of trees, I see there only a cheerful glimpse of sunshine… More to my point, by every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was James Humphry Morris, male child.

This self-discovery of yet-to-be-named Jan under the pouring piano was monumental, but its tumult was silent — a sacred silence that lasted for decades. Morris writes:

I cherished it as a secret, shared for twenty years with not a single soul. At first I did not regard it as an especially significant secret. I was as vague as the next child about the meaning of sex, and I assumed it to be simply another aspect of differentness. For different in some way I recognized myself to be. Nobody ever urged me to be like other children: conformity was not a quality coveted in our home. We sprang, we all knew, from a line of odd forebears and unusual unions, Welsh, Norman, Quaker, and I never supposed myself to be much like anyone else.

Art from Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender modern fable of gender identity and acceptance

James was already a solitary and self-conscious child, but this unspoken secret imbued the aloneness with a special loneliness, a bone-deep nonbelonging to the rest of humanity. Young Morris “wandered lonely as a cloud over the hills” and, like Oliver Sacks, who used the telescope as a tool for connection amid loneliness, peered through a telescope into the seething cauldron of life unfolding all around — ordinary life of unexceptional normalcy, to which everyone else seemed to naturally belong. Morris writes:

The people I could see from my hilltop, farming their farms, tending their shops, flirting their way through seaside holidays, inhabited a different world from mine. They were all together, I was all alone. They were members, I was a stranger. They talked to each other in words they all understood about matters that interested them all. I spoke a tongue that was only mine, and thought things that would bore them. Sometimes they asked if they might look through my telescope, and this gave me great pleasure. The instrument played an important part in my fancies and conjectures, perhaps because it seemed to give me a private insight into distant worlds.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers the very same year that Morris was finalizing this book (“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”), Morris adds:

Wherever I looked I could see some aspect of myself — an unhealthy delusion, I have since discovered, for it later made me feel that no country or city was worth visiting unless I either owned a house there, or wrote a book about it. Like all Napoleonic fantasies, it was a lonely sensation too. If it all belonged to me, then I belonged to no particular part of it.


My emotions, though, were far less distinct or definable. My conviction of mistaken sex was still no more than a blur, tucked away at the back of my mind, but if I was not unhappy, I was habitually puzzled. Even then that silent fresh childhood above the sea seemed to me strangely incomplete. I felt a yearning for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse. Everything seemed more determinate for those people down the hill.

This perpetual puzzlement would never quite leave Morris and would come to be the defining dilemma of her life.

From James to Jan
From James to Jan

I’ve always wondered whether the timing of Morris’s memoir was fortuitous happenstance or a deliberate decision aligned with the groundswell of cultural change at that moment: In 1974, the year the book was published, the mental health bible known as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was revised to finally cease classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder — the beginning of a tidal wave in both psychology and popular culture, sweeping in an increasingly nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and gender identity. It is from the precipice of this tectonic shift that Morris writes:

Nobody really knows why some children, boys and girls, discover in themselves the inexpungeable belief that, despite all the physical evidence, they are really of the opposite sex. It happens at a very early age. Often there are signs of it when the child is still a baby, and it is generally profoundly ingrained, as it was with me, by the fourth or fifth year. Some theorists suppose the child to be born with it: perhaps there are undiscovered constitutional or genetic factors, or perhaps, as American scientists have lately suggested, the fetus has been affected by misdirected hormones during pregnancy. Many more believe it to be solely the result of early environment: too close an identification with one or the other parent, a dominant mother or father, an infancy too effeminate or too tomboyish. Others again think the cause to be partly constitutional, partly environmental — nobody is born entirely male or entirely female, and some children may be more susceptible than others to what the psychologists call the “imprint” of circumstance.

She points out the vital difference between the transgender experience and homosexuality or transvestism — while homosexuality means falling in love with and experiencing sexual desire for people of the same sex, and transvestism is predicated on the enjoyment of dressing like the opposite sex, neither entails a desire to actually change one’s sex. Transsexualism, on the other hand, is not about sex. What is at stake, Morris argues, is something larger, deeper, and more elemental — something of which the sexual body is an indelible part but only one part. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rilke’s immortal words about the body and the soul, she writes:

Transsexualism … 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 transsexual has ever been disabused of it… 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 of sorrow, the satisfactions of the senses as of the body. In my mind it is a subject far wider than sex: I recognize no pruriency to it, and I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit.

As Morris grew older, this irreconcilable spiritual tension became unbearable and she came to feel that her life was bedeviled by perfidy, her true female identity masked by a false and ill-fitting male exterior. In a beautiful testament to the life-changing, life-saving power of an accepting environment, she recounts an existential turning point:

Oxford made me… It remains for me … an image of what I admire most in the world: a presence so old and true that it absorbs time and change like light into a prism, only enriching itself by the process, and finding nothing alien except intolerance.

Of course when I speak of Oxford, I do not mean simply the city, or the university, or even the atmosphere of the place, but a whole manner of thought, an outlook, almost a civilization. I came to it an anomaly, a contradiction in myself, and 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.

Art from Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender modern fable of gender identity and acceptance

But quite apart from its profound empathic rewards, Morris’s story radiates enormous insight into some of the most universal and most central questions of the human experience, above all that of self-creation — whether and to what degree we get to shape our own personhood and identity. More than four decades ago, Morris reflects on one elemental aspect of this question — the shifting fault lines of sex and gender:

I wonder if, by denying physical sex a supreme importance in my life (for such of course must be one moral of my epic) I am ahead of my time. I notice that a change of sex surprises and excites the middle-aged far more than the young, and I wonder if this means that sex is past its heyday. It has long lost the sanctity it commanded in our grandmothers’ day. Degraded by publicity, made casual by tolerance, defused by post-Freudian psychiatry, made unnecessary by artificial insemination, it is already becoming a matter not of the spirit but of the mechanism.

Peering into a future that is now a prominently present present, she adds:

Sexual intercourse will always remain a pleasure, of course, but I suspect it will become a pleasure entirely functional, like eating or drinking; and I am not the first to discover that one recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency, and sexual incongruity.

Gender is a different matter. I foresee the day when scientists can evolve a reproductive system of choice, so that parents or more likely Governments can decree the sex of anyone, or organize the sexual balance of society. It will be harder to systematize gender. It is a more nebulous entity, however you conceive it. It lives in cavities. It cannot be computerized or tabulated. It transcends the body as it defies the test tube, yet the consciousness of it can be so powerful that it can drive someone like me relentlessly and unerringly through every stage of life.

We are all, of course, products of our place and time in many ways — a fact imbued with inescapable wistfulness whenever we consider the contrast between the finitude of our allotted lifespans and the infinite possibility of the future. It is with this wistfulness that Morris wonders nearly half a century before Transparent and today’s heartening groundswell of growing acceptance of trans people and compassion for their singular plight:

Would my conflict have been so bitter if I had been born now, when the gender line is so much less rigid? If society had allowed me to live in the gender I preferred, would I have bothered to change sex? Is mine only a transient phenomenon, between the dogmatism of the last century, when men were men and women were ladies, and the eclecticism of the next, when citizens will be free to live in the gender role they prefer? … I hope so. For every transsexual 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.

She returns to the crux of the quest — her own quest as a trans woman at last living out her true selfhood, and the general human quest to inhabit our most authentic identity:

I believe the transsexual urge, at least as I have experienced it, to be far more than a social compulsion, but biological, imaginative, and essentially spiritual, too. On a physical plane I have myself achieved, as far as is humanly possible, the identity I craved. Distilled from those sacramental fancies of my childhood has come the conviction that the nearest humanity approaches to perfection is in the persons of good women—and especially perhaps in the persons of kind, intelligent, and healthy women of a certain age, no longer shackled by the mechanisms of sex but creative still in other kinds, aware still in their love and sensuality, graceful in experience, past ambition but never beyond aspiration. In all countries, among all races, on the whole these are the people I most admire: and it is into their ranks, I flatter myself, if only in the rear file, if only on the flank, that I have now admitted myself.

In a closing passage evocative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — a staple in Morris’s childhood home — she adds:

But if my sense of isolation has gone, my sense of difference remains, and this is inevitable… 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, and reached towards the further vision… So I do not mind my continuing ambiguity. I have lived the life of man, I live now the life of woman, and one day perhaps I shall transcend both — if not in person, then perhaps in art, if not here, then somewhere else. There is no norm, no criterion, and perhaps no explanation.

In the introduction to the 2001 edition, Morris sums up the rewards of that ambiguity beautifully:

I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or of social convention. I thought it was a matter of the spirit, a kind of divine allegory, and that explanations of it were not very important anyway. What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.

Conundrum remains an exquisite read — a rare gift of empathic insight into an experience which most of us will never have but which is strewn with elements of the struggle for belonging, acceptance, and authenticity that most of us face daily in one form or another.

Complement it with spoken-word poet Lee Mokobe on what it’s like to be transgender, Hannah Arendt on the power and privilege of outsiderdom, and the wonderful Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress — one of the loveliest LGBT children’s books.


Why Do We Love? An Animated Inquiry Into Romance by Philosopher Skye Cleary

“Love is a passion to be chosen and mastered, not sacrificed to.”

Why Do We Love? An Animated Inquiry Into Romance by Philosopher Skye Cleary

“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” philosopher Erich Fromm asserted in his 1956 masterwork on the art of loving and what is keeping us from mastering it. The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn went as far as admonishing that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” “The many vexations and perturbations that torture the soul of the passionate lover,” cautioned a 17th-century treatise on lovesickness, “bring about greater harms to men than all the other affections of the mind.” Keats, once afflicted by love, was ready to die for it.

But if the mystery of love is so impenetrable and the gauntlet through it so rife with peril, how is it that we saunter into it so blindly and so clumsily yet so irrepressibly full of hope? Why, if the risks are so great and the rewards so uncertain, do we love at all?

That’s what philosopher Skye Cleary, author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (public library), explores in this wonderful animated inquiry into how thinkers as wide-ranging as the Buddha, Plato, Bertrand Russell, and Simone de Beauvoir shaped the modern ideal of romantic love, how its fundamental flaws render us exasperated by falling perpetually short of that ideal, and what we might be able to do about revising this model.

This lovely animation comes from Avi Ofer — the talent behind Neil Gaiman’s philosophical dream, Jane Goodall’s life-story, and the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh.

Cleary writes in the introduction to her book:

Expectations about romantic loving are grand, but there seems to be an issue with the way we understand it because reality often falls short of the ideal. Romantic loving suggests images of perfect happiness, harmony, understanding, and intimacy that make the lovers feel as if they are made for each other. The ideal is alluring but flawed, because romantic loving often involves conflicts and disappointments.

But although the tension between frustration and satisfaction vitalizes romance, too much can vitiate it. Cleary argues that existential philosophies — that is, philosophies concerned with discerning the meaning of life but investigating it through the act of living rather than through abstract and detached contemplation — offer a useful critical lens on the lacuna between the ideals of romantic love and the disappointments of having to compromise ourselves in order to attain those ideals in reality. She writes:

Existential philosophies reveal to us the notion that once lovers free themselves from preconceived ideals about how romantic lovers ought to behave, and free themselves from being slaves to their passions, they will be free to create relationships that complement and enhance their personal, authentic endeavors. Love is a passion to be chosen and mastered, not sacrificed to. One argument is that although romantic lovers lose certain freedoms, the love they acquire compensates. However, I argue that one of the key contributions of the existential approach to romantic loving is its criticism of such an assumption. After all, it is by no means given that the benefits of romantic love necessarily outweigh the costs.


Existential philosophers acknowledge that we are born into webs of relationships, and they explore how relations with others infuse our world with meaning and modify our possibilities. Existential thinking brings to light complexities, knowledge, and expressions of romantic loving because it provides a language to understand and reflect on our being in the world and being with others, and it expands our knowledge about possibilities and dynamics of relationships.

In the remainder of Existentialism and Romantic Love, Cleary goes on to explore how existential philosophy illuminates love through the ideas of five particularly influential philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Complement it with contemporary philosopher Alain de Badiou on how we fall and stay in love, Iris Murdoch on how love gives meaning to human existence, and Mary Oliver on how differences bring couples closer together.


Schopenhauer on What Makes a Genius and the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight… so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world.”

Schopenhauer on What Makes a Genius and the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius. More than a century earlier, Thoreau made a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

But perhaps the most useful and timelessly insightful take on the perennial puzzlement over the difference between talent and genius came the year after Thoreau’s birth from the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) in his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library).

Schopenhauer’s central premise is that talent achieves what others cannot achieve, whereas genius achieves what others cannot imagine. This vision of a different order, he argues, is what sets geniuses apart from mere mortals, and it arises from a superior capacity for contemplation that leads the genius to transcend the smallness of the ego and enter the infinite world of ideas. He writes:

Only through [such] pure contemplation … can Ideas be comprehended; and the nature of genius consists in pre-eminent capacity for such contemplation. Now, as this requires that a man* should entirely forget himself and the relations in which he stands, genius is simply the completest objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the mind, as opposed to the subjective, which is directed to one’s own self — in other words, to the will. Thus genius is the faculty of continuing in the state of pure perception, of losing oneself in perception, and of enlisting in this service the knowledge which originally existed only for the service of the will; that is to say, genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world; and this not merely at moments, but for a sufficient length of time, and with sufficient consciousness, to enable one to reproduce by deliberate art what has thus been apprehended.

But although a superior capacity to imagine is a centerpiece of genius, Schopenhauer cautions against mistaking the imagination for the entirety of genius:

Imagination has rightly been recognized as an essential element of genius; it has sometimes even been regarded as identical with it; but this is a mistake. As the objects of genius are the eternal Ideas, the permanent, essential forms of the world and all its phenomena, and as the knowledge of the Idea is necessarily knowledge through perception, is not abstract, the knowledge of the genius would be limited to the Ideas of the objects actually present to his person, and dependent upon the chain of circumstances that brought these objects to him, if his imagination did not extend his horizon far beyond the limits of his actual personal existence, and thus enable him to construct the whole out of the little that comes into his own actual apperception, and so to let almost all possible scenes of life pass before him in his own consciousness… The imagination then extends the intellectual horizon of the man of genius beyond the objects which actually present themselves to him, both as regards quality and quantity. Therefore extraordinary strength of imagination accompanies, and is indeed a necessary condition of genius. But the converse does not hold, for strength of imagination does not indicate genius; on the contrary, men who have no touch of genius may have much imagination.

But the curse of the extraordinary, Schopenhauer suggests, is a certain loneliness with which the person of genius walks through life, always slightly apart from the ordinary world in being slightly above it:

The common mortal, that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day, is, as we have said, not capable, at least not continuously so, of observation that in every sense is wholly disinterested, as sensuous contemplation, strictly so called, is. He can turn his attention to things only so far as they have some relation to his will, however indirect it may be… The man of genius, on the other hand, whose excessive power of knowledge frees it at times from the service of will, dwells on the consideration of life itself, strives to comprehend the Idea of each thing, not its relations to other things; and in doing this he often forgets to consider his own path in life, and therefore for the most part pursues it awkwardly enough. While to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp to lighten his path, to the man of genius it is the sun which reveals the world… The man in whom genius lives and works is easily distinguished by his glance, which is both keen and steady, and bears the stamp of perception, of contemplation.

In the second volume of his treatise, Schopenhauer revisits the subject of talent versus genius through the lens of time — talent, he argues, speaks brilliantly to the moment and is of the moment, while genius speaks of the eternal and to eternity. He writes:

Mere men of talent always come at the right time; for, as they are roused by the spirit of their age and are called into being by its needs, they are only just capable of satisfying them. They therefore go hand in hand with the advancing culture of their contemporaries, or with the gradual advancement of a special science; for this they reap reward and approbation. But to the next generation their works are no longer enjoyable; they must be replaced by others; and these do not fail to appear.

The genius, on the other hand, lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign. Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front (just as the emperor, giving himself up to death, flings his spear among the enemy), on which time has first to overtake them… Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other people’s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.

The World as Will and Representation — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books and the source of Schopenhauer’s abiding insight into the power of music — is an indispensable read in its totality. Complement it with Schopenhauer on the intellectual rewards of boredom, then revisit William James on the habit of mind that sets geniuses apart and mathematician Mark Kac on the two types of geniuses.

* See Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant commentary on the gendered language of yore


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