The One We’d Like to Meet

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India by Wendy Doniger
    Chicago, 376 pp, £43.95, June 1999, ISBN 0 226 15640 0
  • The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth by Wendy Doniger
    Columbia, 212 pp, £11.50, October 1999, ISBN 0 231 11171 1

Do real queens or goddesses get raped? Can beauty become vile? Such problems are raised by Helen of Troy, wife of King Menelaus, and by Sita, wife of Rama. Their stories (in multiple versions) are entertainingly retold and analysed by Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religions and of South-East Asian languages and civilisations. As Doniger – who can read Sanskrit and Hindi as well as Greek, Latin and modern languages – tells us, in the earliest versions of these stories (the Iliad and the Ramayana), both women are carried off by a rival to the husband king; both are ravished (or commit adultery). The kingly husband then fights his rival to retrieve his wife, in order to punish the abductor and his now guilty (or at least suspect) spouse. But the story of the stories of Helen and Sita does not end there.

As Doniger points out, ‘subsequent retellings in both traditions sidestepped the question of the defilement of the returned queen by maintaining that the real queen had never been carried off at all: an identical double had been abducted, while the real queen remained safely in hiding.’ Hints of the story of the phantom Helen are given in Aeschylus and Herodotus, and it is told explicitly in Plato’s account of Stesichorus’ recantation. Stesichorus was forced to repent his unjust description of Helen: she never went to Troy, he claims, it was her phantom that was fought over. Paris was a simpleton, beguiled by a counterfeit. Helen simply was not there. The alibi saves Helen’s purity, her matronly Greek respectability, and sustains the relation between the truly beautiful and the truly good.

In Christian theology, bifurcation takes place – unusually – in a male field: God becomes ‘bad’ or lacking and splits into the Father and the Son. And in Gnostic mythology, when Christ becomes too strongly associated with the Bad God (the Demiurge, the brute and blackguard who created a world now considered vile), we find new splittings-off in heroic Promethean Satan and in the new Adam. The phenomenon of ‘splitting’ unfailingly preserves whatever is most highly valued. Yet, as Doniger shows in her stories of Helen and Sita, splitting does not really solve the difficulty. If we separate the ‘bad’ and the ‘false’ Helen from the ‘true’ or ‘good’ or ‘real’ Helen, then the ‘real’ Helen herself becomes a problem and even a bore. The phantom becomes the interesting and beguiling woman, the star we’d all like to meet.

The version of Sita’s story in the Ramayana had changed by the 15th century. Rama knows Ravana will try to rape Sita, and advises her to put a shadow double outside the house, while she herself, the pure Sita, lives in the fire, invisible. The shadow double falls – or is victimised – and, sullied and impure, is cast into the fire. But here again the shadow Sita becomes the interesting ‘character’ and texts begin to direct the emotional interest towards this symbol of sacrifice. Even Rama, apparently forgetting that she is not the ‘real’ Sita, begins to grieve for her. The phantasm becomes the fallen, passionate, suffering heroine. At first glance it seem that appearances will be saved by projecting guilt and anxiety onto a new shadow substitute – the phantom or eidolon – but the splitting creates a new dynamic, which leaves behind officially enshrined and protected values. Helen is synonymous with the phantasmic, with the phantasmic nature of desire itself, and with multiplicity – this is amply illustrated in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. The Helen that Faustus sees must be, as she has always been, a shade or phantasm, a projection of (his) desire.

Doniger carries on her inquiry into ‘splitting’ by looking at other, more modern cases of the phenomenon, especially those attached to the female. She discusses the book and movie The Three Faces of Eve (both 1957), as well as the peculiar aftermath of the film: the original patient, Chris Sizemore, wrote books about what happened to her and about her new personalities, and planned to make a film about them, but was stopped by Twentieth-Century Fox, which claimed that it owned the rights to her life-story, including the 32 years after the making of The Three Faces, which was based on a book written by her doctor. Does this mean – it’s not a question Doniger pursues – that our ‘identities’ are really split not psychologically but socially or commercially? Will all our ‘personalities’ be considered a product ‘sold’ to commercial interests, to the banks and insurance companies, the makers of mittens and muffins who efficiently track us? We might find that we are assumed to have participated in some Faustian social contract that takes precedence over the Rousseauan one – that we have become ‘alienated’ not as a result of incest or our relation to work but through our economic ‘profile’. Our story will have already been told by the muffin man and the stockbroker. Like the 18th-century fallen women in the London Magdalens’ Home, we will find that our story is not ours to tell.

Doniger suggests that the phenomenon of split personality as we have come to understand it is a normal way of coping with negative experience by projecting it. Women in the stories she refers to dissociate or are shown to dissociate ‘in reaction to experiencing violence, in contrast with ... stories of men who dissociate in reaction to perpetrating violence’. It’s a mechanism that can be found in different myths in a number of cultures, Western and non-Western. In The Implied Spider, Doniger explains such shared mythologies. There is no ultimate Jungian reservoir of archetypes: rather, similar experience has led to similar imaginative solutions. In considering the Eastern-Western versions of the ‘split woman’, Doniger introduces the possibility that women are expected to split so that the evil – and, traditionally, the guilt – of rape is turned inward, but borne by some other self which is not the true self. She thinks that multiple-identity stories that deal not with splitting but with masquerading – having more than one self at one’s conscious disposal – tend to be masculine, that it is the male character who deliberately adopts a dual identity. But this is not quite borne out by the fiction of the 18th century, the great age of masquerading. Female characters created both by males (Defoe’s Roxana) and by females (Haywood’s Fantomina) are capable of choosing between multiple identities and creative masquerading.

In stories from various cultures – India, Europe, Japan – the phenomena of personality exchange are closely linked to gender issues: the male/female difference, homosexuality and bisexuality. Monsters and beauties reflect on themselves: ‘Narcissus, the left-sided prince and Henry Jekyll fell in love with their other halves,’ Doniger writes, ‘but did not procreate with them. This, however, was accomplished by the single parent of the monkey heroes Valin and Sugriva in the Ramayana, who is first the father and then the mother, and then the father again.’

The self or the shadow-self can copulate with a monster, or split into pure-self and monster – and the incubus or succubus (or succuba) can then try to return the sexual favour. Doniger provides an interesting commentary on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Dracula (1897). All of these were written

at a time when questions of science and the early stirrings of psychiatry were in the air ... they suggest three different but closely related ways to split moral evil (particularly but not only sexual evil) away from oneself, three variants of the split-level alibi. Stoker’s novel says: ‘It was not I who did the evil act; it was a dead (or sleeping) form of me.’ Stevenson’s says: ‘It was not I who did the evil act; it was a drugged form of me.’ Wilde’s says: ‘It was not I who did the evil act; it was an artistic form of me.’ This search for freedom from evil was shared by a triad of fin de siècle writers who invented their own ideologies of the splitting of good from evil – Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As quickly becomes clear, the solutions of splitting and multiplicity are by no means peculiar to the West: differences in slants and biases between cultures do not disguise the basic similarities of the narrative figures, and the anxieties expressed. The transformation of a character into a member of the other sex can be experienced as horrific or liberating. One Buddhist story tells us that the Buddha said: ‘in all things, there is neither male nor female.’ Yet traditionally women are told they must assume the mind of a man as they progress to a higher plane. Hindu stories of reincarnation tend to steer clear of reincarnations into the opposite gender: mythic imagination has its boundaries.

Despite her admiration for the myths with which she deals, Doniger seems to be driven to the conclusion that they fall short in some important respects, that there are some subjects traditional myths seldom if ever deal with.

The homosexual themes in traditional myths are seldom overt, because such myths almost always have, as a latent agenda, the biological and spiritual survival of a particular race, in both senses of the word: race as contest and as species (‘us against them’). Such myths regard homosexual acts as potentially subversive of this agenda.

This seems an important caveat. If we take cultural myths as generally purposive, as governed by particular economic and political urgencies, we have to discount their universal applicability. The rise of homosexuality into a more overt and articulated aspect of our lives may itself be an indicator of our arrival at a cultural state removed from the central anxieties of agricultural peoples – owning land and giving birth. Thus we now have the responsibility of making myths of our own. Our interest in films, TV etc can be explained in these terms: we are keeping an eye out for new revelations with which to create new myths.

It is a strength – and peculiarly also a weakness – of Doniger’s argument that she relies on experience as the ultimate producer of myth. Eschewing the absolutist and essentialist paradigms of Jung and Lévi Strauss, she argues in The Implied Spider that it is possible to employ forms of structuralism and the kinds of analysis that regard myths as timeless patterns without succumbing to mere paradigm and abstraction. Comparative studies, she argues, need to be involved with both sameness and difference, whereas the recent academic critical wave has over-glorified difference. If we make everything too particular – saying that this story or custom applies only to such and such a tribe in such and such a valley – we risk the loss of meaning and of what we used to call the ‘humanities’. ‘The radical particularising of much recent theory in cultural anthropology ... seems to deny any shared base to members of the same culture, much less to humanity as a whole.’

Some of those who pretend to be able to make meta-connections are, however, mythographers with a religious bias, like the Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell, a guru of the 1960s and 1970s and inspiration of many New Agers – including George Lucas in whose Star Wars series the influence of Campbell, and especially of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), is clearly visible. (Campbell returned the compliment: his conversations with Bill Moyers of the Public Broadcasting Service took place at Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.) In works such as his Masks of God series, Campbell presents his conviction that all religious myths and great stories reveal, as Moyers puts it in the introduction to The Powers of Myth (1988), ‘principles common to the human spirit’ though these must be ‘liberated from tribal lien’ and religious-historical particularity. Campbell, a more optimistic and Western-centred Hegelian even than Jung (which is saying a good deal), believes he has found the universal substratum beneath all the great stories. He throws the carcases of the world’s religions into a giant stewpot and boils them down to make a stock, and then persuades us that the universal stock always pre-existed the soup. Such a confident mythographer is always going to attract followers. To Doniger, Campbell’s ‘static mono-myth’ appears deeply pernicious – ‘the very antithesis of the ceaselessly engaged and always subject-filled approach that I argue for.’

Doniger’s own allegiance to experience is, despite herself, likely to transport us towards mere particularity, however. She evidently feels that some myths are outdated, incapable of expressing important interests or concerns. If we have to make new myths to fill in the blanks, some of the older stories cease to be abodes of meaning.

At times, Doniger’s remarks on theory seem too hasty. ‘Even the most relentless of French deconstructionists could not,’ she writes in The Implied Spider, ‘compare the text of a Greek tragedy and, say, the text of an instruction manual for WordPerfect Windows 1995; there is no common ground, no sameness.’ Come on, give us a hard one – that’s too easy! Roland Barthes has already shown us how to analyse the ‘mythologies’ of wrestling and women’s magazines; the WordPerfect manual is intertextually related to the seamless text of discourse in various modes which is the Derridean universe. Of course a good deconstructionist could comment on the WordPerfect manual, a text which expresses a charming array of assumptions about what information is, about what human agency is, about what expression might mean – not to mention the interesting examples it provides of hortatory mode and imperative mode, of various forms of command and of ideas about ‘commands’. And what about WordPerfect as a manual opening the whole universe of logic and the Logos? I could without difficulty indulge in an excursion on the relation of the WordPerfect manual and Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris.

The Implied Spider is not as entertaining as Splitting the Difference. It is not full of exciting stories retold, but a timely meditation on what comparative studies might mean. ‘Comparative literature’ used to mean comparison of literary works written in Western Europe – it was primarily a mode of allowing study of French and German texts together, after the expansion of nation-based literary study had made such a combination seem almost illicit. Comparative religion has naturally always been regarded with some suspicion by believers. Like literature (comparative or otherwise), it seems to some unnecessary and extravagant. The study of religion in any form can seem otiose or aberrant to those who consider all religion as merely a peripheral and dying aspect of culture. (A position harder to take, certainly in the US, now than twenty years ago.) New studies are in danger of repeating the balkanisation of the old. Doniger worries with some justice that a new mode of division whereby only women study Women’s Studies and only Jews are wanted in Jewish Studies will re-create the kinds of boundary that comparatists have long wanted to escape.

We are already well advanced into a period in which studies of history, literature and culture are no longer demarcated by national borders or by academic discipline. Anthropology, philosophy and literature have mixed and mingled in a manner that has delighted some scholars and terrified others. Some scholars of literature (‘high’ literature) are hostile not only to ‘emergent literatures’ but to folk tale and oral literature. The apparently irresistible rise of cultural studies in universities, permitting the study and analysis not only of high-class French theorists but of low-class films, videos, magazines and popular songs has aroused great hostility and contempt. Yet the boundary between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture seems as impossible to maintain as that between English and French literature, or between Christianity and Islam. Within the creative arts (for want of a better term) the intermixture is already visible – as it has been throughout the century. To take an obvious contemporary example, Salman Rushdie can scarcely be called a lowbrow novelist, yet in all his work the lowbrow is insistently present; The Wizard of Oz (the film) is as important an influence as Don Quixote. In The Ground beneath Her Feet, popular songs are more than just historical background. His references demand an ear and a memory for Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, as well as a recollection of Apuleius, Plato, the story of Persephone and – again – the story of Sita.

The breakdown of barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the arts has made the term ‘literature’ appear problematic, because the word has always applied to the highbrow shelf. The advent of literature written by inhabitants of areas that used to be written about by Europeans from a colonial point of view (when they were considered at all) has contributed greatly to changing the picture of what is to be called ‘literature’. At the same time literary study has called to its aid other subjects within the humanities and the social sciences, and, ironically, done so just when we had begun to see that disciplines like anthropology and ethnography are skewed by imperialist bias and progressivist assumptions about evolution. At the moment the objects and methods of study are in an exciting and chaotic state. Doniger steps into this chaos and urges us to make sense of it.

The Implied Spider wrestles with the problems of carrying out the kind of study represented by Splitting the Difference – a cross-cultural comparison of different stories from different areas of the world, different tribes, different languages. There have to be some ground rules: ‘I would insist,’ Doniger writes, ‘that the Comparatist have a knowledge of the language of the primary text of at least one of the traditions in question, which would then inspire a proper sense of caution and limited ambitions in the inevitable dealings with translations of texts from other traditions.’ The study of languages is the beginning of wisdom for comparatists of any kind, as the first real information about the Other. It is ludicrous to talk about accepting or encountering the Other while reading and thinking only in one language. It is to be hoped that many young scholars will follow Doniger in learning Sanskrit, now that our sense of the classical and of antiquity is broadening and changing. Yet it is sobering to remember that this is where T.S. Eliot came in: when he went to Harvard he was able to study Indian literature and thought, and the study of Sanskrit and its epics seemed to have come to stay. Shantih shantih shantih.