Book Reviews

An Offering of Payasam

What a marvelous happenstance that the last three years of the second millennium should witness the publication of a trilogy that spans in a unique fashion the gamut of humankind's mythic experience! Starting in 1998 with The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (Columbia University Press) which sought to show how common patterns recurring in differing cultural traditions constitute a web of shared meaning, Professor Doniger went on the next year in Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (University of Chicago Press) to analyze myths of sexual doubles to reveal how myth-making can be used as a means to overcome barriers of gender and culture. In the earlier book she shows how myths bridge the religious and the political, the personal and the universal, leaping 'from myth to myth as if they were stepping stones over the gulf that seems to separate cultures', and how, from the same text, different political meanings can be drawn depending upon the historical context.

Now, in The Bedtrick, her topic is - lying about sex - and about telling the difference, examining the patterns mankind has created to deal with sexual fantasies. The bedtricks are brought about through magic, legal/social sanction, family resemblance, straightforward cuckolding and occur despite familiarity or lack of it. The paradox, of course, is that successful bedtricks are failures - otherwise there would be no story to discuss! The other major paradox is, as Levi Strauss pointed out, that every myth struggles to resolve an insoluble paradox by turning it into a story that expresses the contradiction in terms of two opposed but equally true human truths. The tension between these paradigms is what creates the suspense gripping us till the end. Doniger describes the bedtrick as a retroactive or retrospective rape. Your body says yes, and then, later, your mind says no. She sweeps into her ambit not just Indo-European mythology, but Arabic, Inuit, Japanese, Chinese, African, South American, Polynesian, Indonesian and Native American tales as well, spicing this rich fare further with opera, Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, medieval romances, even Abraham Lincoln's unknown poem on a bedtrick of 1829 and, most unexpectedly, Hollywood (the B movies that are the reductio ad absurdum of many myths (for) B movies employ the technique of bricolage which lies at the heart of myths.). What fascinates her, particularly, is the Mobius strip nature of the bedtrick, where themes keep unraveling and doubling back on themselves, or interlock on semblances like a Venn diagram (an open-ended core of themes enriched by others appearing with these in the set).

Doniger begins with a myth about Shiva (my type of guy) that has been with her since her first book [1] on this god: how he commits adultery with his own wife, Parvati. This strikes a keynote regarding bedtricks (consummated or otherwise) that are approached in ten ways: philosophy, psychology, zoology, feminism, theology (intriguingly sub-titled, when God has lipstick on His collar), law, sociology, theatre, sexual rhetoric, and structuralism. The value of her work lies in her ability to combine disciplines that usually do not converge, let alone communicate with one another. Beginning by retelling a myth or story from Indian mythology, she complements it with variants from the Hebrew Bible, medieval romances and Casanova, English drama, opera, contemporary literature, theatre, and cinema, even Abraham Lincoln's unknown poem on an actual bedtrick of 1829! All through this welter of material two major trends prevail: Freudian interpretation and a pronounced feminist awareness.

By this method new insights are found, for instance, into what might have gone on within Jacob, Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament story by studying Shakespeare's Bertram and Helena (All's Well That Ends Well), the Bette Davis films on good and evil twins (1940's and 60's) and Angela Carter's stories (1981, 1991). She finds remarkable similarities between Hindu and Hebrew traditions of levirate (Ruth and Tamar as parallels to niyoga practiced by Vyasa with Amba-Ambalika) with the fascinating difference that Hindu women and Jewish men are the victims of the bedtrick, wherein gender trumps culture. She comes up with startling revelations like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bath-Sheba the four female ancestors of Solomon in Talmud tradition sharing the common trait of being bedtricksters. One of the core myths dealt with is that of Cupid and Psyche, whence the Beauty and the Beast, the Frog Prince and the Loathly Lady tales, their cultural variants, with the matching themes of day--night (Jean Cocteau's Beast tells Beauty in the film, My night is your day and the Indian Ila is male by day and woman at night with Manu), dark-fair, beautiful-ugly. Doniger makes a brilliant connection with the film Ladyhawke in which the lady is a hawk by day and the knight a wolf at night, able to almost touch only at twilight and dawn for a split second. She shows how Zeus as the swan with Leda is like Indra as the horse with Vapushtama, paralleling Surya as the horse with Samjna as mare and Loki as mare with Odin's stallion Sleipnir. Again, as Indra becomes the wife of Vrishanashva, so Loki turns Thor into a double of goddess Freiyia. Doniger finds in Urvashi the original for Odette the swan maiden of Swan Lake, with gender reversed in Lohengrin and Elsa, paralleled in Ganga - another river maiden--who leaves Shantanu with their son Devavrata as Urvashi leaves Pururavas with Ayu. Many of these myths hold misogyny and feminism, truth and falsehood, asceticism and eroticism in tension together.

Doniger offers a double syllogism in the mythology of the bedtrick which provides new insight in the Kunti-Surya-Karna myth: My mother is not my mother (the Freudian Family Romance) that both thrills Karna with his real mother's royalty and saddens him because she abandoned him. My lover is not my lover--he loves Draupadi and she scorns him for his supposed low birth. Therefore, I am not who I am - he discovers is of higher birth than he appears to be. But, simultaneously, he no longer knows who he is because all along he has been looking into a false mirror. Here Doniger brings in the concept of the Lacan-glass as the medium through which the bedtricksters see their world it's all done with mirrors. Her discussions would benefit from the reinterpretations by Shivaji Sawant and Pratibha Ray.[2] Doniger argues that in the bedtrick the failure to distinguish sexual differences leads to problems in distinguishing race, nationality and class as well, sex being the secret of a person's self: How could you know? and How could you not know? and finally, How did you not know who you are? It also sets up tension between political power and knowledge-power (the trickster's weapon), kin and non-kin, native and foreign. The viewpoints of the differing narrators express the characters differently and provide varied insights about them besides showing which aspect of one partner in the bedtrick is recognized in this most revealing of human interactions, for there is veritas in coitu. Hence sexual deception fractures one's own sense of identity and that is why such loaded words as betrayal, unfaithful are applied to it. That is also why divinities masquerade as humans to experience it, incarnation being the supreme masquerade. Sexual fantasy, she argues from mythology and following Foucault, is not a lie but revelatory. The tales seem to show that it is mostly men that cannot tell women apart in the dark (in the dark all cats are gray), while women insist that men are different in the dark. The bedtrick raises serious issues regarding interrelationships among sex and love, mind and body, identity and recognition, sameness and difference, illusion and reality, providing a singular insight into how these operate in different cultures and individuals. Several myths, for instance, appear to have been invented to absolve Sita, Helen, Ruth, Esther of sexual misconduct. But the bedtrick is not just mythical. Doniger analyses in detail the Martin Guerre incident to examine how it operates in real life. She could with advantage study the famous Bhawal Sannyasi case [3] that is its Indian counterpart.

Despite the coruscating brilliance of the vast ambit of her discussions and the racy style, since Doniger takes Indian mythology as her springboard one wishes that she had considered some myths that are germane to her thesis. Her omission of the Vishnu-Shankachuda/Jalandhara-Vrinda/Tulsi myth from Splitting the difference (noted in my review of that book in these columns) has been compensated here where it is discussed in depth in terms of a bedtrick. She has amplified the Surya-Samjna topic of the earlier book with further valuable insights. But in investigating the mystery of how a dead man can beget a child she misses out the tale of Bhadra and Vyushitashva related by Kunti to Pandu. Doniger refers to Amba but does not consider the myth of her rebirth as Shikhandin who is passed off as male and married to a princess. Because of this Shikhandin undergoes the first sex-change operation recorded in myth while the surgeon Sthulakarna simultaneously changes into a female. While citing the Ahalya-Indra myth, Doniger misses out its counterpart, the Ruchi-Galava tale in which Ruchi's plan of cuckolding her husband with Indra is foiled by Galava's bedtrick. Parikshit infatuation with the mundaka (frog) princess Sushobhana, a femme fatale whose bedtrick leads not only to the destruction of her lovers but almost of her own race is another Indian myth of relevance. In Bengali, Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar's Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma's Tales) provides the exact parallel of the lover-in-animal-skin myth that Doniger discusses. In the story 'Buddhu-Bhutum', Owl and Monkey sons of a discarded queen win princesses after much travail. At night they doff their animal skins to appear as resplendent princes. The wives burn the skins so that even at daytime they have human husbands [4]. The Simhasana Dvatrimishika [5] has a similar tale about a demi-god in a donkey's skin. A Midsummer Night's Dream gives the exact opposite of the lover being human by day and animal at night. The destruction of the animal skin, Doniger argues, stands for the loss of the animal trickster s true self and his getting caught in the masquerade, becoming the mask forever. Doniger's stories of women who turn into serpents that kill their men on the marital couch have many parallels in Thakurmar Jhuli and the Katha Sarit Sagara [6]. The world of Hindi films - the most prolific producer of cinema in the world - offers rich material of similar nature. And why does Doniger ignore La Belle Dame Sans Merci who tricks her lovers into a deathly swoon, Circe who transforms lovers into beasts, Lamia who deceives men about her serpent self, and Geraldine who disrobes to reveal to Christabel - a sight to dream of, not to tell, that made Shelley swoon? The omission of Othello from her discussion of jealousy transcending biology whereas culture constrains is surprising.

One realizes after going through this remarkable trilogy (which has already expanded into a quartet with the forthcoming Rings) that it is Indo-European mythology most of all that humanized its pantheon so utterly that it had no hesitation in foisting bedtricks even on its supreme deities, be it Zeus or Shiva, Shiva or Vishnu, Hera or Parvati. Why this does not occur in Semitic (other than Hebrew) and Egyptian myth is a question well worth investigating.

Truly, we find here a unique anthology of bedtricks (double-back, double-cross and double-bind too), boiled down from Doniger's initial collection to 250, which she describes as her offering of thickened milk-rice (payasam) that one experiences as a gourmand's delight. After gorging oneself on such an incredibly varied and rich spread one can only lean back satiated with the surfeit of it. No other scholar of mythology - not even Heinrich Zimmer or Joseph Campbell - displays Doniger's intriguing and fascinating mastery of the multiple worlds of public performance and myth. With all the scholarship at her command, one fondly hopes that she will balance the Freudian obsession with sexual permutations by the Jungian insights that enrich the feminine aspect so much more as shown, for instance, in M. Esther Harding's Women's Mysteries and The Ways of All Women (both London, Rider, 1971).

[1] Siva the Erotic Ascetic, OUP, 1981
[2] Sawant: Mrityunjanya--the Death Conqueror (translated by P.Lal & N.Nopany, Calcutta, Writers Workshop); Ray: Yajnaseni--the story of Draupadi (translated by Pradip Bhattacharya), Calcutta, Rupa & Co.
[3] Privy Council Appeal No. 17 of 1945, Srimati Bibhabati Devi v. Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy.
[4] Pradip Bhattacharya: The Monkey Prince, New Delhi, Adarsh Chitra Katha.
[5] A.N.D.Haksar: Thirty-two Tales of the Throne of Vikramaditya, New Delhi, Penguin Books India.
[6] Translated by V.Balasubhramanyam, Calcutta, M.P.Birla Foundation, Classics of the East Series.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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