Book Reviews

And the Way Up is the Way Down ...

This book, with an unusually long title, rounds off the investigation that Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at Chicago, launched in 1998 with The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (Columbia University Press). The study sought to show how a web of shared meaning is woven by common patterns recurring in differing cultural traditions, leaping 'from myth to myth as if they were stepping stones over the gulf that seems to separate cultures', bridging the religious and the political, the personal and the universal; and how, from the same text, different political meanings can be drawn depending upon the historical context. The next year, in Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (University of Chicago Press), she analyzed myths of sexual doubles to reveal how myth-making can become a means of breaking barriers of gender and culture. The millennial year saw publication of The Bedtrick (University of Chicago Press) examining the patterns civilization has created to lie about sexual relationships. Doniger's great contribution to comparative mythology studies has been the elaboration of the Mobius strip nature of the bedtrick, where themes keep unraveling and doubling back on themselves, or interlock on semblances like a Venn diagram whose intersecting rings have no central ring. To depict its pan-cultural spread, she surveyed not only Indo-European mythology, but Arabic, Inuit, Japanese, Chinese, African, South American, Polynesian, Indonesian and Native American tales, medieval romances, opera, Shakespearean and Jacobean drama as well'and even an unknown poem by Lincoln.

Finally, after a gap of four years, comes the last book in the quartet, completing her epic investigation into cross-cultural sameness centering around confusion of identity in erotic situations. Such incidents are like fireworks setting off sparks that touch remembering and forgetting, unplanned self-reference and self-imitation. Doniger's focus in the series is more the woman than the man. The title has an explanatory sub-title, Myths of Self-imitation. Appropriately, the jacket is a striking still from the film Shall We Dance with Ginger Rogers flanked by actresses wearing masks in her likeliness.

Doniger does not spare herself. The rear flap carries an ethereal photo of her in 1959' perhaps yet another instance of the mask the author wore to discover her own self. In the book she analyses myths about people having to wear masks to discover who they really are, for the mask ends up revealing the true self. Unlike the earlier books that dealt with fragmented and false identities, with differences of gender and of sex, here she deals with multiple identities and love, restricting herself to the Indo-European myths' from the Mahabharata to the New York Times' including the make-believe world of Hindi films and English movies.

Doniger is fascinated by the entire gamut of popular films, seeing them as 'thereductio ad absurdum of many myths (for) B movies employ the technique of bricolage which lies at the heart of myths.' What are termed 'mythemes' in myths become clich's in B films' the same themes remade under new names. In her discourse she touches upon, implicitly, both post-modernism's focus on persons re-inventing themselves and post-colonialism's concern with the construction of national identities.

We rarely realize that myth is itself a self-imitation: in form and in content it is repeating what is already known. Indeed, its very appeal lies in the audience's excitement of discovering the familiar' as if for the first time' behind a new tale. This process of recycling inherited mythic themes is called bricolage' the making of new things out of broken shards of the old, each culture choosing the bits and pieces it wishes to retain. Even as far back as the Mahabharata'the oldest epic'we find four versions mentioned, each narrated for a different type of audience by one of Vyasa's four disciples. Today only two of these exist: Vaishampayana's and Jamini's (the latter for only the Ashvamedha Parva).

Vaishampayana's extant version itself speaks of three different beginnings! Doniger points out that Freud's theory of repetition compulsion'our tendency to repeat significant events in dreams and stories to deal with them psychologically 'lies at the heart of myth-making. That is why Mircea Eliade called it 'the eternal return'. Doniger makes an inspired link between this and a masquerade: both present the known as the unknown or vice versa.

The study investigates several themes: the mythology of self-impersonation; mistaking one's wife for one's wife (Udayana, Figaro); the double amnesia of Siegfried and Brunnhilde; the comedy of resurrection and remarriage (Sita, Shakespeare, movies); the tragedy of amnesia and remarriage (Random Harvestetc.); reincarnation (Yoga Vashishtha Ramayana, Madhumati, Karz); myth of face-lifts (Hollywood and Bollywood); mind-lifts (films); race and gender (women-as-women, women-as-men: Rosalind, Chudala of Yoga Vashishtha).

Doniger traces self-imitation to the clich' 'Nature imitates art', as in the Werther effect she sees exemplified in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havanaand Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. A famous instance she does not mention is the uproar that followed the 'death' of Sherlock Holmes. The film True Lies is a fine take-off on the theme of life-imitates-art-which-imitates-life. The play-within-the-play is, of course, all about this and has been re-used in recent films like Shadow of the Vampire in which a real vampire is hired to play the lead role, or the earlier Miracle on 34th Street where Santa Claus pretends to be an actor hired to play the part. Doniger questions if we are conscious when we engage in self-parody, her point being that often we carelessly cross the boundary between the unaware self-indulgence of our mannerisms and the deliberate attempt to present in public the expected image of ourselves. Analysing Harsha's plays Ratnavali and Priyadarshika, and the operas Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro and Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, Doniger shows how they use the technique of triplication and the confusion it leads to about who is in control. For, even the active masqueraders are, at times, found unknowingly impersonating themselves. The theme of one self-imitating spouse consciously or unconsciously remarrying or re-beding the other is seen in the medieval Tristan and Isolde, repeated in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Martha Grimes'The Five Bells and Bladebone and the film Out Cold. As an instance of how life imitates art, Doniger cites Milton Berle marrying Joyce Matthews, divorcing her and remarrying her later because she reminded him of his first wife, i.e. herself! Surely, the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor story replicates this, though she does not mention it. In the story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde there is a combination of both themes to create a theme of amnesiac self-imitation, when they suffer from double amnesia. We have a husband pretending to be an other' pretending to be him' to trick his wife in bed and, at the same time, forgetting her. The brilliance of Doniger's insight lies in linking this up to Swinburne's 'An Interlude':

'I remember, forget, and remember
What Love saw done and done'
And the best and the worst of this is
That neither is most to blame,
If you have forgotten my kisses
And I have forgotten your name.'

What Doniger says of Brunnhilde's empowerment'for, in betrayal knowledge is torment while ignorance is power'applies equally to Ahalya in the Ramayana. One is surprised that she overlooks this. In the Uttarakanda version, it is from Ahalya's ignorance of Indra's disguise that she draws her power to assert her innocence which leads to her husband specifying an end to the curse. In the Adikanda account, she is innately the powerful kanya, choosing to respond to Indra's plea for sexual pleasure impelled by her curiosity and unflinchingly accepting the sentence passed by Gautama. Awarded winning author Pratibha Ray's latest novel, Mahamoha, is a fascinating exploration of the movement in Ahalya's psyche from transgression to transcendence.

Doniger turns to Shakespeare's Romances to concentrate on Cymbeline, which includes every type of sexual masquerade, making it a cross between All's Well That Ends Well, Othello and A Winter's Tale and proceeds to delve into the world of Hollywood films with their variations on the same themes of resurrection and remarriage with false accusations of adultery and ultimate reunion of the couple. She links this to Freud's epigrammatic statement, 'The finding of an object is in fact the refinding of it', adding an extremely perceptive comment, 'Just as the same stories are told over and over, so in real life the same plots are repeated compulsively, as people marry the same partners over and over.' What one has to watch out for is: if on the surface the person is identical with what he/she was before, inside the person must be different. On the other hand, to remain the same person, one must be different in appearance in time.

The most fascinating exploration is the stories of rebirth from the Yogavashishtha(Jivata, the two Lilas) and the Kalika Purana (Chandrashekhara and Taravati). In each new birth we continue to pretend to be who we are, repeating the desires of our past lives. The theme was taken up in the films The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and Chances Are' both of which add the complication of incest' and in the Hindi films Madhumati and Karz. 'Hollywood develops a strand', Doniger writes, 'that is then woven back, like an imported ribbon, into the constantly re-twisted Bollywood braid. After the first twist, it's self-imitation all the way down.' Such serious treatment of mainstream Hindi films is possibly unique in Western scholarship.

The most complicated myth in the entire repertory Doniger analyses is that of Chudala-as-Kumbha-as-Madanika in the Yogavashishtha Ramayana. These are the alter egos Chudala adopts for enjoying her husband's company as a male friend by day and as a lover and wife by night by getting him to remarry her. Her real self, therefore, is Kumbha-as-Madanika, combining Animus and Anima to reintegrate herself and, ultimately, let go of her double. A similar tale Doniger could have investigated is that of Sudyumna-as-Ila getting children from Budha. The difference from the Chudala story is that Ila has no memory of her male persona and vice versa. Among men, a woman masquerades as the man's image of woman, pandering to his Anima and being inauthentic to herself. By assuming male disguise, women discover a part of themselves that they were unaware of and thereby release their full potential. Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind is a far more powerful personality than Rosalind-as-Rosalind, able to tell Orlando what she never could as a woman and seducing him in her male persona. Virginia Woolf's Orlando is the obverse of this. While discussing the life of Chevalier d'Eon who, born female, was raised as a boy and never knew what it was to be a girl, Doniger misses the parallel story of Shikhandin in the Mahabharata which provides a complicated reversal: Amba (female) is reborn as Shikhandi (female) who is reared as male but is found out on the wedding night and acquires male sex but succeeds in Amba's objective of slaying Bhishma only because he recognizes Shikhandi as female.

Finally, we comprehend that through all the disguises (of face-lift, mind-lift and reincarnation) it is love that endures, even when memory and appearance are destroyed. This matches the psychological insight that the self is constructed through the reflection seen in those we love and who love us. We move from one self to another, feeling vulnerable without a mask that we use to attract the person who, paradoxically, will love us as we are without our mask. This, Doniger says, is the double bind.

On the other hand, the myths of resurrection, remarriage and reincarnation'as also the face-lift films inspired by Dorian Gray'depict the impossibility of changing and the inevitability of self-imitation. Yet, the paradox is that, 'only by trying in vain to change into someone else can we become who we are.' Fatalism, therefore, ties into these myths as seen in Oedipus' futile attempts to escape from the prophesied event. Who but Doniger would have the inspired insight of linking this up with Alice's desperate attempts to find a way out of the Looking-glass House, only to land up every time at the same door, or with the Arabic tale Somerset Maugham uses in Sheppey and John O'Hara inAppointment in Samarra? In a brilliant phrase she renames the concept, 'the Appointment in Samsara' which stresses 'the centripetal force of the circular drive toward self-impersonation', reiterating the myth of Sisyphus, reinventing the wheel that symbolises samsara. The modern frenzy of rebirth therapy, plastic surgery, self-help programs to change your face, your body, your life, are all rowing desperately hard against the strong undercurrent of the past pulling us back: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past' (Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, yet another brilliant linking up by Doniger).

As I wrote this, I was reminded powerfully of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets,

'And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time',

which shows how unerringly Doniger taps into the mythic subconscious. A few pages later she uses precisely the same quotation while summing up what she calls 'loopholes'possible alternative meanings of the stories of our lives as exemplified, for instance, in her favorite story of the Rabbi from Cracow who vainly seeks abroad a treasure that lies waiting for him at home. Our subconscious awareness of our submerged identities has to be brought to our consciousness by someone else. James Hilton's Random Harvest is another variant of this. Both are summed up in Eliot's quotation. Yet, the river we step into is never the same: we may not change, but we do learn even while meeting apparently the same self again and again 'like the filling in a mille-feuille or a seven-layer cake.' Thus, Madhumati-as-Madhavi-as-Madhumati can exact revenge for her death that she could not as Madhumati. Here Lacan's finding is crucial: after such a transformative experience we cannot return exactly to what we were. As in a Mobius strip, we return to the same line on a point further on. Moreover, when we wear a mask the expectation is not to become the mask but to be transformed through the masquerade. Doniger traces this to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethicswhere one trying to live ethically imitates an ethical person, wearing his mask, trusting he will turn into a virtuous person. The film, The Mask, like Stevenson's Hyde, shows the danger that I may no longer know who I am when I look at my reflection. Ironically, the mask proves to be more powerful than the face. As Oscar Wilde put it, 'The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.' Postmodernism stresses precisely this: that the copy is in a way more real than the original, that the surface is more profound than the depth. It harks back to Henry James' impoverished aristocrats sitting for an artist who, finding that they are not convincing, hires a bourgeois woman who plays aristocrats to the hilt while he uses the aristocrats to paint servants. Similarly, Rudolf Rassendyl, the copy, is a better king than the prisoner of Zenda, the real king.

The mask, however, is not just one since we have multiple selves within us, vide Proust's In a Budding Grove. Many films have depicted these multiple selves and both Shakespeare's Rosalind 'of many parts' and Virginia Woolf's Orlando speak of this. Hiding the truth in plain sight' as in Poe's The Purloined Letter' is yet another loophole to reveal or conceal the truth. The disguises the Pandavas adopt hide the truth in plain sight, revealing what their real selves are. Arsenic and Old Lace used this device brilliantly with the police refusing to believe that there are bodies in the cellar despite being repeatedly informed of it.

Doniger draws these multifarious strips together in concluding that the rings of our lives intersect with other lives, then break away to intersect in other stories where we play no role and posits that 'in a life there is no one central self.' Always there is a self beyond the one we experience at one time, as there is always a life behind and after the present life. The selves are nested like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes, but each layer, each mask, each self is real. The apt comparison is with an onion made up of whatever is peeled off, with no centre. The very idea of a central self is, thus, deconstructed, the ultimate mask being the body itself. In a Mobius strip tease, Duhshasana can never get to the naked Draupadi; unlimited layers cover her. As in Zeno's paradox Achilles can never catch the tortoise. The final question none of us ever articulates, but is always there, 'Who is this I who will die?' And that leads to what Doniger calls, 'the infinite regress of self-discovery.'

Such a complex subject; but how lightly she wears her scholarship! The language is free of jargon, the style racy. What a richly satisfying, stimulating read! What next, Wendy?


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

Top | Book Reviews

Views: 3572      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.