When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning he was a gigantic insect; when Professor Donald N. McCloskey woke up one morning he was a gigantic woman. It is a matter of opinion as to which metamorphosis was the more bizarre or surreal.

Of course, Professor McCloskey’s metamorphosis took rather longer than Mr. Samsa’s, and was much more expensive. In fact, he had been a cross-dresser for many years when he had what he calls his epiphany, a quasi-supernatural message (from where, from whom?) telling him to drop mere pretence and actually be a woman, anatomy and all. It was his hope and ambition that henceforth all his acquaintances would be able to say to him, “Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’”

In the old days, people had religious conversions; nowadays, they have sex changes. Crossing[1] is a memoir of the emergence of the imago Deirdre from the chrysalis Donald, who was well into his fifties at the time and a professor of economic history at the University of Iowa in the bargain. A major academic press has seen fit to publish this memoir, no doubt a sign of the ubiquity in academia of gender studies. My copy appears to be of the second printing: so philanthropy and 5 percent have now become political correctness and 5 percent, at least in the publishing world. On the cover is a photograph of Deirdre leaning backwards in a chair and roaring with laughter, her hands crossed on her chest. But her laughter is to mirth what the preaching of Jim Bakker is to religious experience: evidently some people are as incapable of distinguishing real from ersatz emotion as others are of distinguishing red from green. It is, indeed, the characteristic blindness of our age.

Professor McCloskey writes in the third person, referring to Donald as he and to Deirdre as she. His/her current thoughts about the past are italicized in bold: they are brief interjections. This gives to the writing a kind of false naïveté, but also suggests— despite protestations of integration, wholeness, and happiness—a persistent double, or even triple, consciousness. It also has the effect of distancing Professor McCloskey from the moral significance of and responsibility for his/her own acts. But no one could accuse the professor of hiding his/her meaning, for on the whole he/she writes clearly and directly.

The book is full of banal, greeting-card emotional gush. Perhaps this was inevitable, given the professor’s fashionable opinion that all emotion should be publicly expressed and none hidden. This primitive attitude leads to a world in which exhibitionism masquerades as candor, and in which hugging is the highest manifestation of virtue. But a world without closets is a world without values, and a world without values is a world without meaning.

Confessional exhibitionists like Professor McCloskey demand or extort their readers’ sympathies rather than evoke or arouse them. They imply that anyone who is unsympathetic to their unusual or disagreeable proclivities is a monster of bigotry; and just as there is a certain type of rich person who demonstrates how discriminating he is by approving of nothing he is offered for sale, so there is a certain type of intellectual who demonstrates how virtuous (that is to say, tolerant) he is by disapproving of no conduct, no matter how bizarre or deviant, that comes to his notice. Professor McCloskey knows well how to manipulate this liberal-progressive mentality, and terrorize it into acquiescence, suggesting several times that those who do not sympathize with him spend their free moments searching out the differently-libidoed on the streets to assault and murder them. The choice is stark: either unconditional approval of transsexualism or the Ku Klux Klan.

As it happens, Professor McCloskey’s view of femininity is definitely at the Kinder, Küche, Kirche end of the spectrum, and if anything could ever make me join hands with Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, et al., it is his detailed description of the womanly—or is it girlish?—joys of applying mascara and other items of makeup. Men, in Professor McCloskey’s view, are competitive, whereas women are cooperative; men are analytic and fact-bound, whereas women are imaginative and emotional; men are cold and calculating while women are warm and giving. In short, men are ice-people while women are sun-people. The phrase at the head of the acknowledgments conveys the general flavor: “That womanly solidarity and grace.” Ipecacuanha itself is less nauseating.

Professor McCloskey’s raging egomania (another cultural trait of our age) is nowhere more evident than in his treatment, both literal and literary, of his wife and two children. He had been married, happily by all accounts, for over thirty years when he decided to become a woman; at any rate, there is nothing to suggest that his wife, who had borne him two children, had been anything other than loyal, faithful, and devoted.

This, however, appears to have imparted no sense of obligation to Professor McCloskey. His wife, who had hitherto accepted his cross-dressing with unease, was completely unable to accept his proposed transformation into a woman. And this inability is the subject of Professor McCloskey’s petulant rage. Why could she not accept it? The answer, of course, was that she was a crossphobic bigot (disapproval of anything these days is transformed semantically into a quasi-medical condition, a phobia, that implies there is something wrong with the disapprover rather than with the disapproved). His children were no better able than she to accept the new situation: they too are condemned by their father for their lack of understanding.

In Professor McCloskey’s world, understanding is a strictly one-way street; it is due to him, in infinite quantities, but he owes it to no one else, least of all to the woman to whom he was married for thirty years and who had never been other than good to him. There is no evidence in this book of a single moment’s serious or genuine attempt at understanding his wife’s distress. It surely takes very little sympathetic imagination to understand what effect his decision must have had upon his wife: how it robbed her of her happy past, as the cruel malady of Alzheimer’s disease is apt to do, leaving only bitterness, confusion, and misery behind. It never occurred to Professor McCloskey that what he wanted for himself was as a feather in the moral balance of how he ought to behave, that he owed it to his wife and children not to proceed with the change, and that this duty outweighed all other considerations so overwhelmingly that only a monster of self-importance could have thought otherwise. He writes warmly only of those who accepted his decision without demur, for example the rector of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, where he had been offered a visiting professorship in his incarnation as Donald, and who, on being informed that Donald was now Deirdre, was so liberal-minded that he could not even understand why he should have been told of the change. What wonderful openmindedness, what supreme compassion—without personal cost, of course, unlike that demanded of his wife.

Professor McCloskey explains that his wife did not truly love him and probably had never done so, otherwise she would have accepted the change. She should have loved him for himself. This fatuous assertion is a corollary of the philosophy of the “real me,” a belief in the Platonic essence of personal identity (always a benign essence, of course) which is completely unaffected by the actual sublunary conduct of the person in question. This philosophy, which is shallow, evil, and stupid in equal measure, is an intellectual figleaf to conceal the most uncompromising whimsicality and lack of restraint. I am reminded of a prisoner recently who felt very sorry for himself. He had doused his former girlfriend in gasoline and threatened to set her alight: a threat which she chose to take seriously because his previous marriage had ended when he threw battery acid over his former wife. Poor man! Why couldn’t these women understand that, as he put it to me, “I don’t do them things, doctor, that’s just not me.” Why, in short, couldn’t they love him for himself and disregard the epiphenomenal gasoline and battery acid? Professor McCloskey, like the prisoner, must find their obtuseness very puzzling.

Not that real-meism is a new philosophy or an innovation of Professor McCloskey. In Christopher and His Kind, Christopher Isherwood’s 1976 memoir in which he, like Professor McCloskey, refers to himself in the third person, we learn that Isherwood fell under the influence of the anthropologist John Layard, who himself was a disciple of the psychologist Homer Lane. It was at the end of the 1920s, and according to the two gurus, “There is only one sin: disobedience to the inner law of our own nature.” Or, as Polonius put it, “To thine own self be true and it must follow as the night the day,” etc. Shakespeare, however, was capable of irony, which Lane, Layard, and McCloskey are not.

Throughout Crossing, we feel the baleful influence of John Stuart Mill’s famous dictum that the sole end for which mankind is warranted, either individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number, is self-protection, and that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community is to prevent harm to others. Outrage to the opinions of others —even of a faithful wife of thirty years—is not to count as one of these harms. Ergo what Professor McCloskey did was all right: for in his world, which is that of fathomless shallows, there is no sphere between the illegal and the morally permissible.

Everything Professor McCloskey says of his sex change could have been said had he been a necrophiliac instead of a transsexual. He could have accused his wife of necrophobia had she objected to the establishment in the family basement of a morgue-cum-bedroom. And is not necrophilia, almost by definition, a victimless crime? The outrage to the feelings of the relatives of the deceased is not to count: indeed, the problem, if there is one, is their lack of tolerance and understanding. And if a necrophiliac professor of romance languages, let us say, should decide to cash in on the present vogue for confessional exhibitionism (there have always been necrophiliacs, after all, and isn’t it time we all grew up and acknowledged it?), I sincerely hope that the University of Chicago Press would not be so deeply prejudiced, so necrophobic in short, as to refuse publication.

Although Professor McCloskey is not an ironist, this is not to say that his book is completely without irony. At one point, he remarks that he cannot see why people should have been startled at the removal of his penis: it was not as if a functioning leg had been surgically removed, after all. But as it happens, there has recently been a controversy in Britain about a surgeon in Scotland who amputated a perfectly healthy leg from two people who claimed that they felt the limb to be so extraneous that its presence was ruining their lives. One of them, it was later revealed, ran a website for people who found amputees sexually alluring: there being no appetite so perverse that it does not grow with the feeding. And, of course, the surgeon soon received other requests from around the world, one from an American woman who felt that she would be happier without both of the legs with which a negligent and careless Nature had so mistakenly endowed her, and had bought a wheelchair to practice for her forthcoming happily legless condition. Does not St. Matthew enjoin us to pluck out the eye that offends us, it being better to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into hell with two? And what could be more hellish, in our modern world of ever-expanding human rights, than to have one’s desires permanently frustrated?


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  1. Crossing, by Deirdre N. McCloskey; University of Chicago Press, 288 pages, $25. Go back to the text.