Tiresias, and Other Adventures in Genderland

ConundrumThe insight of Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek myth, comes not only from his blindness but also from having been transformed into a woman for seven years. He’d looked at life from both sides and could better understand man’s (and woman’s) dilemma. Tiresias illustrates a fascination that we’ve had ever since we started thinking about gender, identity, and the separate roles that society (or nature) has carved out for men and women. Haven’t we all wondered about the insights we’d have if we traveled in another’s shoes, not to mention their skirt or pants?

But we’re conflicted. We may like to read fantasy and fiction about characters journeying from one gender to another, but the realities of transition are complicated and troubling to many, both those who actually make the trip and thosewho merely observe. Genderland may be forbidden and dangerous territory, but there is also a lot of love and beauty there.

In this seminar we will explore what various writers, artists, and composers think about when they think about gender. How does identity become more complicated when gender changes? What does it mean to be living in the wrong body? What’s fixed and what’s fixable?

“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.”

– Virginia Woolf, Orlando


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David Schmitt is male, an architect, and a tutor. His identity changes from day to day, person to person, event to event. As do all of our identities. In many ways he’s tried all his life to determine just who he is and how he fits in. He therefore finds the issues of gender identity discussed in this seminar to be profoundly intriguing. He’s led Great Books discussions for over two decades.

Books and Films
Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

HE: Understanding Masculine Psychology and SHE: Understanding Feminine Psychology, both by Robert A. Johnson
(Harper Perennial, 1989)
ISBN-13: 978-0-060-96396-5 and 978-0-060-96397-2

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
(Mariner Books, 1973)
ISBN-13: 978-0-156-70160-0

Conundrum, by Jan Morris
(NYRB Classics, 2006)
ISBN-13: 978-1-590-17189-9

The Rose of Versailles (access details will be posted shortly)

Southern Comfort, directed by Kate Davis (2001/2003)
Available free for streaming on YouTube or as a DVD on and

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Toronto Pursuits 2016