Friday, August 05, 2011

'Conundrum' Jan Morris

It seems to me that what has happened to me and what I have tried to describe in this book is one of the most fascinating experiences that ever befell a human being.

What does it feel like for a man to be a man, for a woman to be a woman? Is it possible for a man, never ceasing to be a man and therefore to gain the necessary perspective, to objectively experience, and then to articulate, what it feels like to inhabit a male body? And likewise for woman? These are some of the questions Jan Morris's courageous memoire of her sex change attempts to cast light on.

The facts are well known, how James Morris, man, journalist, historian, adventurer and travel writer became Jan Morris, grandmother, dame, traveller, novelist and woman. Morris gives here a very personal account of her life. Her memoire is searching, candid, and of course, as one would expect from a writer of Morris's stature and accomplishment, beautifully written. She gives an intimate account of the relationship between gender, sexuality and the self, an account which does more to illuminate the enigma of trans-sexuality than a whole bibliography of psychological text books and case studies. It's a tale told from the inside, and thus doubly valuable, both as a record of the personal and of the universal.

At the same time this inner perspective reveals a few ideological blindnesses about our dear Jan. First, is the entrapment in Western modes of sexuality in which male and female are clearly differentiated. Eastern genders are much less clearly defined. Asian men display more qualities associated in the West with femininity: grace, forgiveness, delicacy, softness; while Asian women frequently display qualities designated in the West as masculine: strength, dogmaticism, insensitivity, ambition. The most important deity of Asia is the trans-sexual Guan Yin, who appears in male and female guises. Perhaps Morris was as much a victim of her milieu as a product of it.

Secondly, it has to be said that Morris has been a life long member of the Establishment. Educated at Oxford and Lancing, with an early career in the 9th Lancers, then a job with The Times during the long decline of Empire, her journey from male to female has therefore been eased by the tolerance towards eccentricity, the politeness of members of the Establishment towards one of their own. I couldn't help feeling, as Morris describes how 'a man from the Ministry' drove all the way to her dacha in Wales to give her her new social security card, that, had Morris been born into a lower social class and been living in a semi-detached in Nottingham, the powers who rule our lives would not have been quite so sycophantically helpful. Indeed, tales of official and legal obstruction for those seeking to change their sex are still the norm. In this sense, Conundrum cannot be regarded as typical of the transsexual experience.

Thirdly, and this is my main objection to an otherwise fascinating and moving book, is Morris's attitude to homosexuality. Morris writes of a childfree homosexual couple she once knew:

They left behind them... 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.

Here we have two myths with which heterosexual people love to bolster their gender hegemony: the sickly kind of sentimentality 'liberal' people display towards homosexuals (the truth and pathos of their condition), and 'breeder fascism'.

Breeder fascism, as Chavenet defined it, is the attitude that those who do not have children are somehow incomplete, lacking (childless), diminished, sterile, uncreative, and by virtue of having no offspring, lead empty, unfulfilled lives, unable to experience the loftier human virtues of selfless love, responsibility, blood loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty and devotion, which can only be the exclusive prerogative of those who reproduce. Breeder fascism is the attitude that having children is a uniquely special achievement which lifts parents onto a higher level of human development. To encounter this attitude in otherwise quite sane, normal, educated, enlightened people is always something of a shock. To encounter it here in a tale of a trans-sexual is something of a grotesque.

Having offspring is not a special achievement; it is mere biology. Every known life form in the universe does it, even the lowliest micro-structure does it. It is not unique or special, it is ubiquitous, commonplace, mundane, uninteresting even; and claiming that it gives exclusive access to a higher level of human development is just offensive nonsense. Worse, given the way the planet is currently groaning under an unsustainable burden of a human population fast approaching 7 billion, it is also a sign of gross selfishness, incontinence and irresponsibility.

Raising children, however, so that they become tolerant, well-adjusted members of a global community is another matter. That is special, and, given the large number of people who fail so spectacularly at it, must be uncommonly difficult. However, this is not the exclusive prerogative of breeders, but can be attempted by anyone of any gender or sexual persuasion who has access to an adoption agency and a large enough income.

To claim that having children is the only way to protect one from the void, as Jan Morris does here, is the key sign of breeder fascism. (Shakespeare says the same thing in the early, most tedious, sonnets of his cycle.) The fact is, every human being faces the void. The generations of men are like leaves, the blind poet said, and having offspring is only a postponement of the void, a postponement which in the face of that void, is infinitely insignificant.


Tuirgin said...

"What," it will be Questiond, "When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?"

"O, no, no. I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty."

—Wm. Blake, from "A Vision of The Last Judgment"

I have, as my boss likes to say, a shoe-full of children. Three of them are my own flesh and blood. Two are step-children. I love my family. Experiencing the birth of three of my children was an emotionally overwhelming experience. Yes, it's perfectly common, biologically speaking, but the generation of life is, metaphysically speaking, perfectly astonishing.

I think it is important to add, though, that I find the experience of birth quite humbling. I'm proud of my kids not because they are my achievement, but because something so miraculous could come from something so common as myself. It is humbling for the intense and unrelenting duty and responsibility of raising up kids to be become creative and responsible adults. And I'm not exactly kid-friendly. I don't think kids singing off-key is cute. They frequently annoy me. They're loud and constantly moving. They're needy and uncontrollable, which isn't the same as being poorly behaved or unmanageable. Being a parent is incredibly challenging, and all parents fail. The best parents must fail either with less frequency, or maybe just less spectacularly. Parenting is arduous and frequently humiliating. That love is returned despite our brokenness is something of a miracle in itself. Parenting is humbling. In the language of the Greek theologians, parenting, undertaken seriously, is an act of kenosis, of self-emptying. There is joy, but it is not in any way self-congratulatory.

You write that, "Breeder the attitude that those who do not have children are somehow incomplete, lacking (childless), diminished, sterile, uncreative..." This attitude turns child-bearing and rearing into an inherently self-serving act. It makes children into an object of ego satisfaction. It turns distinctly other persons into petty personal accomplishments, which is entirely dissonant with the claims of "selfless love, responsibility, blood loyalty, self-sacrifice," etc. The worst of this claim, perhaps, is that these are somehow the "prerogative of those who reproduce." All people, of whatever circumstance in life, are capable of selflessness and loyalty. Parents are forced into facing the difficult decisions of self vs. other daily, but that doesn't privilege them. It merely forces the issue, where an unattached adult can more readily create a comfortable womb around himself in which to hide from the world. Despite my children, I am challenged with this urge every day. Not having children, I can see myself easily becoming a self-absorbed schmuck to a far worse degree than is now the case, but it doesn't stand to reason that everyone who is childless will become as self-absorbed as me.

There is a healthy perspective towards child-bearing and rearing. I believe it is one rooted in humility and the pursuit of a life in relationship with others. It is anything but exclusive and selfish, and it has no bearing on those who do not have or raise children.

Ruth Yeomans said...

I was so happy to find this article. I just re-read Conundrum, which was important to me in the 70's as a positive influence on my own path. I was horrified this time by her attitude toward homosexuals--especially in the paragraph you quoted and her glorification of breeders. I did a google search for "Jan Morris homosexuality" to find out if others found her attitude on this topic as disgusting and ignorant as I do. Thank you.

Ruth Yeomans