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.

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