Book Reviews

The Ring of Truth

- Myths of Sex and Jewelry

Wendy Doniger: The Ring of Truth—Myths of Sex and Jewelry, Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, pp. 395, 2017, Rs. 899.

“Though sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,
a ring is almost never just a ring.”


Doniger's great contribution to comparative mythology studies has been the elaboration of the Mobius strip nature of myth, where themes keep unravelling and doubling back on themselves, or interlock on semblances like a Venn diagram whose intersecting rings have no central ring. In The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (1998) she set forth the proposition, continued the investigation with Splitting the Difference (1999) to reveal how myth-making can be used to overcome barriers of gender and culture. In The Bedtrick (2000) she examined the patterns we have created to deal with sexual fantasies. The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-imitation (2005) dealt with multiple identities and love in Indo-European myths.

When we think of the ring, four names immediately spring to mind: Kalidasa, Wagner, Browning and Tolkien. Rings are embedded in Doniger’s psyche beginning with the gimmel ring her father gave her mother inscribed, “REF to SHU”. Baffling! It referred to her favourite volume of the eleventh edition of the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica a signal edition which my grandfather also had. Then there is Doniger’s own wedding ring which she retained even after divorce. No wonder she returns to explore its symbolism at length a decade after completing her mythic quartet with The Woman who pretended to be Herself (2006). Her new book explores a symbol she had touched upon in The Bedtrick. Tolkien’s psyche-corrupting ring does not feature in the line-up while the rings of Kalidasa and Wagner receive detailed treatment.

In ten chapters Doniger brings to light different functions rings perform in myth, literature and, her particular speciality, cinema. To her, “rings are signifiers, semiotic objects.” She traces rings through time functioning as recognition clues. There are marriage (and adultery) rings, rings fished from the sea (Shakespeare), Rama’s ring, Shakuntala’s ring, rings of forgetfulness in medieval romances, the Siegfried Saga, clever wives who trick alienated husbands into getting them pregnant, the vexed issue of the rape of the clever wife (one of whom almost rapes her husband). After this the concept of the ring is enlarged to cover jewellery (the circular hollow variety) beginning with Marie Antoinette’s notorious necklace. The ninth chapter ventures into jewellery in English literature and the last investigates if diamonds are, indeed, a woman’s best friend. She shows how marriage, jewellery and faking both “are joined at the hip,” sprinkling the entire investigation with personal anecdotes that lend an engrossing intimate touch to the writing and with puns that enliven the reading. What she leaves out is rings that are just magical (e.g. Aladdin’s) or have secret recesses to hide passwords, microfilms or poison (as with Catherine de Medici).

Rings are a critical proof of identity, functioning often like today’s credit cards. Romans used it as a sign of love, using iron rings for betrothal. By the 13th century the Church was using the ring as a token of marriage. The Hebrew Bible has the ring as a person’s legal surrogate: “The signet ring is an extension of the hand, with its handwriting and, later, fingerprints.” Regarded as an extension of the heart, it is worn on the fourth finger supposedly linked to the heart by the vein of love as far back as the fifth century CE.

Diderot’s ring of truth, in his novel The Indiscreet Jewels, understands vagina monologues, keeping tally “of visitors and their orgasms,” but is silent regarding the woman’s feelings. Doniger seeks to give voice to this. She selects two contrasting types of rings: those which secure marriage before consummation (the Doris Day scenario) versus the indiscriminate pursuit of jewellery through coition (the Marilyn Monroe gold-digger paradigm). The slut assumption underlies both, i.e. jewellery must have been obtained through sex. In one case it validates the wife’s chastity, in the other the courtesan’s conquests. The problem occurs when a clever wife enters the courtesan’s arena to get a ring from her alienated husband to prove her chastity: “Jewellery and beauty play a game of doubles.” Men give beautiful women jewellery. Women crave jewellery to enhance their beauty so that men give them more, especially a wedding ring, “which magically transforms the Marilyn Monroe type into the Doris Day type.”

One of the recurring motifs is the recovery of a ring thrown into the water that often turns up inside a fish, as with Solomon’s and Shakuntala’s rings, which both loose thoughtlessly. Both need the ring to prove their identities. Solomon working as a cook in the kitchen of a king’s daughter after a demon has tricked him and changed his appearance resembles Nala tricked by a snake into losing his identity and cooking in Damayanti’s kitchen. At times it is a child who takes the place of the ring swallowed by the fish. It is not only Pradyumna who is found inside a fish as Doniger writes, but also Matsyagandha and her twin brother. Such tales incorporate the motif of a husband or wife disguised in animal skin. We find this in the tale of “Buddhu-Bhutum,” the Owl Prince and the Monkey Prince, found in Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s marvellous collection of Bengali grandmother’s tales, “Thakurmar Jhuli”.

Another motif is what Freud called the Family Romance where a mother abandons her child fearing scandal. The child is reared elsewhere but returns to claim his right. Doniger cites Oedipus as the prime example, but there is an example in Indian myth too. Mandodari, finding herself pregnant in Ravana’s absence after drinking the blood of sages he had stored, abandons her daughter in water. The child, Sita, is reared by Janaka and returns to cause the destruction of Lanka. In Jain, Egyptian and Jewish stories the ring serves to reveal incest involving siblings and parents. In Kalidasa’s Shakuntala story and its Buddhist variant (in the Katthaharijataka) the ring ensures that the king supports his son whom he has refused to acknowledge earlier. Doniger points out that Kalidasa combines three types of rings: the ring of identity taken from the Jatakas; the ring lost and found in a fish; and the ring that restores memory. This technique Doniger calls “bricolage”, whereby the myth-maker takes a piece of one story to add to another. To the ring Kalidasa adds a magical bracelet—another circular piece of jewellery—on Bharata’s arm. He turns the Mahabharata story of power and inheritance into one about desire and memory. The fish symbolises the recovery and persistence of memory. It does not blink and is deep under water. In children we and our memories survive. But very often the rings found in fish “are fishy excuses” that express repression and ambivalence, letting the man fulfil his secret polygamous desires.

In medieval romances (Yvain, Tristan, Arthur, Ogier) the ring has a triple function of identity, memory and invisibility. It can hide you from everyone. If lost, not only do others not recognise you, but you yourself do not either—a fascinating twist to the tale! A flower garland sometimes replaces the ring of forgetfulness. Doniger should have linked Keats’ re-imagining in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” here. Shakespeare uses rings in plots about allegations of adultery.

The multiple functions played by the ring in the myths of Siegfried and of Wieland the smith are analysed at length. The naked sword in the bed between man and woman symbolises the impasse created by the man’s rejection of his wife and the desire for a son. Doniger overlooks the different meaning this has in Indian mythology where it is the “asipatra” vow the king observes during a horse-sacrifice. This enforced celibacy gets over only after the queen’s simulated intercourse with the throttled horse. The sexual symbolism is clear. Wagner rearranged elements from Indian and Norse cosmology, the myth of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie and added the conclusion of having her riding back through the fire to Siegfried. Thus he created a new myth, re-arranging “to re-invent a wheel of cosmic death and transfiguration.” Drawing upon the destructive power of the ring of Polycrates of Samos and Shakuntala’s wedding ring of love, Wagner showed that power and love are at odds with each other. This usually involves loss of memory and identity, providing the man with a convenient excuse for having deceived the woman. To Doniger, the ring acts like the hormone Oxytocin. When she asserts that a virgin having a baby was achieved only in Christian mythology she forgets the many kanyas of Indian myth who precede this by far: Madhavi, Satyavati, Kunti and Draupadi, each retaining virginity despite having sons.

One of the most fascinating chapters explores how clever wives use rings and children to win back their husbands who refuse to impregnate them. This is Stith Thompson’s folk theme “AT 891D”: the rejected wife as lover, exemplified in the Kathasaritsagara tale of Muladeva which passes into the Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and the Old Testament tale of Tamar tricking her father-in-law Judah to beget a child. Lot’s daughters get their father drunk to beget children by him. The Merchant of Venice has the same cross-dressing and play with rings. Variants include the plays of Menander and Terence whose plots reverse the clever wife tales and in which the ring identifies the abandoned child as well as its father. In a unique Arabian Nights tale, the abandoned Budur tracks down and stages a homosexual rape of her husband Qamar-al-Zaman with rings playing a key role. Surprisingly, Doniger, the Hollywood aficionado, does not refer to Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge in this context. In a marvellous sentence Doniger provides a vignette of what happens: “This high-wire act, the self flying through the masquerade to catch the out-stretched hands of some other self, must be performed without any net but the narrative chain-mail made up of rings. And that chain-mail is what preserves these illogical stories.”

The historical scandal of Marie Antoinette’s necklace is drawn out at tedious length without dovetailing into the theme of the ring as it identifies no one. In the last chapter Doniger tries to remedy this by arguing that it is about the mis-recognition of the queen. She describes it very evocatively as “a moment (that) came out of myth…and went back into it.” She finds parallels in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s and Mozart’s operas The Barber of Seville in which the necklace is not significant. As she draws extensively upon Alexandre Dumas, it is puzzling why the earlier incident of Queen Anne’s necklace is not covered, since here it was proof of her chastity (typically, although she was adulterous).

In modern times Doniger discusses the slut assumption in literature (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Maupassant, Henry James, Maugham), i.e. a woman sporting costly jewellery has got it by immorality. She spices up her survey with revealing quotes from Mae West and Elizabeth Taylor confirming this. Movies are also analysed (Random Harvest, Vertigo, Gaslight, Gigi, The Earrings of Madame de…) to show how reality and fantasy merge, with the clever lady using it to convince both husband and lover that she is faithful to him alone and that passing off real jewellery in public as fake to put off theft is not a new gimmick clever women use.

The tenth chapter is about how De Beers launched a campaign to sell diamond rings commemorating divorce and apology (to head-off divorce). They even tried the gimmick of “Management Rings” for macho men, which did not catch on because of its innate femininity. The power of the ring lies not only in its emotional symbolism but also in its market value, particularly in case of a broken engagement or a divorce. The Anglican marriage ceremony’s “With all my worldly good I thee endow” used the ring as the symbol of the husband’s property that the wife was to preserve. The opposite is the legend of the diabolical diamond started by the Church. The Puritans in England tried to abolish wedding rings but people wanted them. The British Parliament even had legislation defending a woman’s right to throw the engagement ring into the river instead of returning it to her fiancé! 21st century women have broken free of the De Beers mythology by either selling diamond rings, buying their own (Doniger mentions Miss Universe Sushmita Sen sporting a 22-carat solitaire and challenging a man to match it or the size of her heart), buying other jewellery, going in for costume jewellery, or just not bothering about jewellery. Doniger laments a new trend in the USA of fathers giving daughters silver purity rings for abstinence (as in the Cinderella story). The girls simply take it off when they do not wish to abstain, and then put it back on, “losing it” temporarily as men do in myths. “Sex, if not love, will always find a way—out of…even the promise embodied in a ring.”

One of the themes that binds these stories together is the eternal triangle of jewellery, sex and money. They may be called love stories, but actually they are about “luxury” i.e. lust and opulence. A man broadcasts his command over wealth and sex by having a woman wear jewellery, while women “use jewellery to negotiate between the carat of sexual bargaining power and the stick of financial dependency.” The movie Sex and the City shows that nothing has changed except into something rich and strange. As Doniger writes so perceptively, “Myths endure precisely because people keep changing them into something that serves their present needs.”

If recognition through a ring is a genus, recognising the spouse through it is a species. Since the number of basic plots usable is limited, it enables the audience to experience delightful anticipation, knowing that it is watching something predictable. That is the secret of the success of movies ringing changes on the same series of plots. Willing suspension of disbelief is integral to it, as in the case of the Pandavas not being recognised despite their flimsy disguises in the kingdom of Virata. The myth-maker is like a rag-and-bones man making new stories out of scraps of old tales like a bricolage, what in Bengal is called a “kantha”, a patchwork quilt. Each culture chooses from among these scraps, of which the ring story has proved to be more popular. Story tellers and audiences collude in preserving myths. “It is the repetition that produces the immortality,” tales keep on returning, like rings thrown into the waters.

But why do myths work? Doniger proposes that they persist because they work at a very deep level, repairing the immoral universe, mitigating uneven relations between rich, lusty men and poor, weak women. Thus, they provide hope that the world can become more moral, meeting our personal emotional needs despite being irrationally romantic. An engrossing read indeed. But why such an inappropriate cover showing a woman holding a fruit when the book is not about woman as Eve? There is a Ravi Varma painting of Dushyant giving Shakuntala the ring that could have been used, as also a modern one showing the ring inside the fish flanked by the two.

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

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.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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