Venice to Your Friend


Ippolito Caffi, Venice, 1842

From Afar:

Earlier in her career, she’d sublimated the sexual impulse into a more ecumenical lust for the world and everything in it. As far as Morris was concerned, life itself was an act of intercourse, a pleasurable exploit that brought connection and unity. Indeed, she says she took “a kindred sensual satisfaction from buildings, landscapes, pictures, wines, and certain sorts of confectionery.” The connection wasn’t just intellectual, or even emotional, but “actually sexual, purer but no less exciting than the sexuality of the body.” The style that resulted from this relationship was accordingly vivid, orgasmic, dopamine-drenched.

If transition surgery didn’t upend this style, it did tweak it. “The emphasis changed in my writing,” she wrote, “from places to people. The specious topographical essay which had been my forte, and my income, became less easy for me to write, and I found myself concentrating more on individuals and situations.” It’s not that Morris didn’t write books about place anymore; titles like SydneyManhattan ’45, and The Matter of Wales were still to come. But her repertoire gained a new personal intimacy. Now she covered topics as varied as migraines, hitchhiking, and Abyssinian cats. Her gusto for the world remained, but it was deepened with a certain Jan-ness: an acute and charming sense of just who this narrator was, anyway.

Venice played an important role in Morris’s transition. The city “was always feminine to me,” Morris writes in Conundrum, “and I saw her perhaps as a kind of ossification of the female principle—a stone equivalent, in her grace, serenity, and sparkle, of all that I would like to be.”

One of the book’s more moving moments takes place at the Accademia bridge, along the Grand Canal, when Morris is still living as James. Passing by one day, Morris puts some money in the hands of an old blind woman who sits there. Instead of continuing on, however, as she usually does, Morris squeezes the woman’s hand. “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 and Morris and Me”, Harrison Hill, Afar


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