Presidential Lecture Series
Wendy Doniger
Stanford Humanities Center



from The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade:

The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex & Masquerade

My agenda is multivalent: I am an old-fashioned philologist who finds Freud often relevant and sometimes persuasive, a feminist who finds structuralism the best starting point for the analysis of a myth, a heterosexual Jewish woman who was raised a Communist and has come to be more interested in the imagination than in what other people call “real life.” The protagonist of e. e. cummings’s him declares three props of his essence: “I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure.” My triad is “I am a Sanskritist, I am a woman, I am an insomniac.” I am by training an Indologist, by choice a mythologist, and by nature interested in bedtricks.

I bring very different competencies to the different genres and cultures invoked in this book, beginning with my training as a Sanskritist and student of Indian literature. India, particularly Hinduism, is not only the culture that I know best, after my own (in some ways, better than my own), but the culture that I suspect of having the best stories; India has variations of mythological themes for which my own traditions do not even have themes. I have presented the Indian texts in this book in much more detail than the European and American texts, in part because I know the Indian texts best and like them best but also because I assume that most of my readers know the European texts better and have better access to them.

But the meanings of the Indian stories extend into and are often clarified and deepened by European legends, novels, and films. My second qualification to write this book is my insomnia, which began at roughly the same time as my interest in storytelling and accounts for a good deal of my knowledge of English literature (particularly Shakespeare) and all of my knowledge of B movies. I am not a scholar of films; I don’t study the old silent ones or many foreign films, nor do I keep up with the latest Hollywood trends in horror and mutilation; I am an American Movie Classic buff. I watch films but do not read much about them besides Leslie Halliwell and David Thomson; for me films are primary texts, and all I can contribute to the study of film is their classical mythological context. I earned the red badge of bloodshot eyes watching the Late Late Late Show with my mother, and I sometimes feel that I ought to win the literary equivalent of the Croix de Guerre for sitting through not only the many truly terrible films about bedtricks on “late Thursday/early Friday” television but the advertisements for used cars and phone sex (some of which also offer doubles) that punctuate them — until, at last, the coup de grâce is administered at dawn, to the appropriate military strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.” (I also owe to my mother my love of opera, whose plots share with B movies the dubious privilege of providing a happy retirement home for mythological kitsch.) (preface, p.xxii-xxiii)

from Carnal Knowledge:

Carnal Knowledge

The bedtrick is an exercise in epistemology: How could you know? How could you not know? The answer to the question, “Is it the same person?” will be expressed differently according to the different points of view of several different characters within the story. The very premise of the bedtrick is that there are two different points of view about the identity of the masquerader: that of the trickster who plays the bedtrick and knows the true identity of both partners, and that of the victim who is the object of the bedtrick and does not know the identity of the bedtrickster. In the case of inadvertent bedtricks, where neither the trickster nor the victim knows that a bedtrick is taking place, only we, the audience, and the author, know the truth. And sometimes the narrative forces us, the readers or hearers, to change our point of view mid-stream, even several times, as we discover that the protagonist (or the author) has been hiding something from us. (p.17)

from Splitting the Diference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India:

Splitting the Difference

Hindu and Greek mythologies teem with gendered narratives of doubling and bifurcation, stories that people (mostly but certainly not only men) have told about other people (mostly but certainly not only women) who have been split in half in various ways: split into an original and a double or a male and a female (in tales of androgyny and/or bisexuality), or severed head from body (or mind from body, soul from body, or left from right), or seduced by gods who appear as the doubles of mortals. These stories address questions that concern many different cultures, including our own: What is the connection between rape and the fantasy of the double? Why do the women depicted in myths fool men more than men fool women? How can you tell a human from a god? Why prefer a human lover or spouse to a god? What is the mythological source of the expression, "Put a bag over her head”?

The part of my title that might, with some indulgence, be called postcolonic (Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India) sets out an agenda that is double in several respects: I intend to discuss the duality, the two-ness, of two genders (male and female) of two bodies of creatures (mortal and immortal) in two bodies of mythology (from ancient India and Greece). I will trace each set of texts from the earliest textual period (the Vedas in India, Homer in Greece) roughly to the present, in contemporary India and Europe, touching down in passing in Victorian England (where the cultures of India and Greece interacted vividly with England at the hub of the empire) and sometimes invoking in the conclusions stories from other cultures as well, including “double features” from the Hammer Studio variants of Jekyll and Hyde to John Woo’s Face/Off. (p.1)

from The Implied Spider:

Implied Spider

In this first chapter I will consider the metaphor of the microscope and the telescope in the functions and the analysis of myths, and will demonstrate my method by comparing texts from two traditions, the Hebrew Bible and Hindu mythology. Let me begin by arguing that the microscopic and telescopic levels are intrinsically combined within the myths themselves.

One way to begin to define myth is to contextualize it on a continuum of all the narratives constructed of words (poems, realistic fiction, histories, and so forth) — all the various forms of narrations of an experience. If we regard this textual continuum as a visual spectrum, we may use the metaphor of the microscope and/or telescope to epitomize the extreme ends of this narrative vision. The end of the continuum that deals with the entirely personal (a realistic novel, or even a diary), the solipsistic (“This never happened to anyone but me”), is the microscope; this is where I would situate a dream or the entirely subjective retelling of an experience. Some novels on this end of the continuum may be contrasted with myths in several respects. These novels depend on the individual; character is all important; these novels say, this could only happen to this one person or at least only did happen to this one person. In most myths, by contrast, character, except in the broadest terms (young or old, wise or foolish), doesn’t count at all; myths say, this could happen to anyone. (p.7)

On this continuum between the personal and the abstract, myth vibrates in the middle; of all the things made of words, myths span the widest range of human concerns, human paradoxes. Epics too, so closely related to myths, have as their central theme the constant interaction of the two planes, the human and the divine, as the gods constantly intervene in human conflicts. Myths range from the most highly detailed (closest to the personal end of the continuum) to the most stripped down (closest to the artificial construct at the abstract end of the continuum); and each myth may be rendered by the scholar in its micro- or macro- form. If prose is general and translatable, poetry particular and untranslatable, myth is prose at its most general, which is one of the reasons why Lévi-Strauss was able to claim that the essence of myth, unlike the essence of poetry, is translatable. (p.9)

The human instinct, the common sense, that resists the theological argument that we are unreal is a political instinct; but there are also ways in which political narratives offer us a telescope not to turn us away from our own lives but to turn us toward the lives of others, including political others. Just as our theological vision is opened up by myths like those discussed above, so too our political vision may be opened up by our own myths; by the juxtaposition of certain texts with the events of our lives; by the comparison of myths from other cultures; and, most of all, by the interaction of political and theological texts acting as lenses for one another. In such texts, theology and politics become lenses for each other; we see each differently, better, through the insights of the other. Here again, if one should ask of politics and theology, “Which is the reality?” the answer is “Yes.” (p.19)

We can use these lenses either to see or to blur a world that we cannot fathom. In great myths, the microscope and the telescope together provide a parallax that allows us to see ourselves in motion against the stream of time, like stars viewed from two different ends of the earth’s orbit, one of the few ways to see the stars move. And when we take into account myths not, perhaps, from different ends of the earth’s orbit, but at least from different ends of the earth, we have made our mythical micro-telescope a bit longer than the one provided by our own cultures, and we can use it to see farther inside and also farther away — a double helix of the human paradox. To jump ahead to the argument that I will make in subsequent chapters, not just for myths but for comparative mythology, the individual text is the microscope that lets us see the trees; the comparison is the telescope that lets us see the forest. The myth allows us to look through both ends of the human kaleidoscope at once, simultaneously to view the personal, the details that make our lives precious to us, through the microscope of our own eye and, through the telescope provided by the eye of other cultures, to view the vast panorama that dwarfs even the grand enterprises of great powers, that dwarfs the sufferings of Job and of ourselves. Every time we listen to a story with mythic dimensions, about human beings in crisis, and really listen and think about the ways in which it is telling us the story of our own lives — and not the story of our own lives — we see for a moment with the double vision of the human microscope and cosmic telescope. (p.25)

My aim is an expansive, humanistic outlook on inquiry that enhances our humanity in both its peculiarity and its commonality. I am unwilling to close the comparatist shop just because it is being picketed by people whose views I happen, by and large, to share. I have become sensitized to the political issues, but I do not think that they ultimately damn the comparative enterprise. I want to salvage the broad comparative agenda even if I acquiesce, or even participate, in the savaging of certain of its elements. I refuse to submit to what Umberto Eco has nicely termed “textual harrassment” and Velcheru Narayana Rao calls (in Sanskrit) bhava-hatya, literally “ideacide” but in actuality a good translation for “ideology”: murder by idea, as well as the murder of ideas (Sanskrit compounds, like myths, can swing both ways like that). I am not now, and have never been, a card-carrying member of the British Raj. But I refuse to stop reading and translating texts edited by people who were. There is much in the colonial scholarship on India that is worth keeping; I am unwilling to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As the irrepressible Lee Siegel put it recently, “Those hegemonic, imperialist, Eurocentric colonialists were such amazing writers and they knew so much more about India than all of us. They could ride horses, too.”

But there is also much in the postcolonial critique that is worth keeping; indeed, we can no longer think without it. We are aware, willy-nilly, of how our texts have come to us; they now say to us, like third-world immigrants in England, “We’re here because you were there.” Colonialism is no longer the political force it once was, but it is still there, especially if we use a word like imperialism instead of colonialism and bear in mind the aspects of our scholarship that still invade the countries we study, like the Coke bottle that intrudes into the lives of The Natives in the (racist) film The Gods Must Be Crazy. In particular, the postcolonial critique has made us aware of how deeply evolutionist ideas are embedded in the history of comparison, and how hard we must work to overcome them. The joke about the caveperson and the tiger rests upon evolutionist ideas, as does, ultimately, the idea of a common humanity. (p.68)

from Other People’s Myths:

Other People's Myths

This book is about the stories that people have told about others. More precisely, it is concerned not so much with stories per se as with stories about stories — metastories, or, more specifically, metamyths. What do we learn from the stories that we have told, and that other peoples have told, about the stories that people tell? We learn something special when we focus on the stories themselves, the myths: for myths, narratives, are not merely the medium through which knowledge about others is transmitted. Myths themselves are objects to be known; the medium of myths is in one sense the message. Myths are about the human experiences and events that we all share — birth, love, hate, death — and one of those experiences or events is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the few truly universal human bonds; people in all times and places have sat down at night and told stories. Putting together words to reproduce events that engage the emotions of the listener is surely a form of art that ranks among the great human experiences. (p.1)

from Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities:

Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities

This is a book about myths, dreams, and illusion. It is about the ways in which they are alike, the ways in which they are different, and what each teaches us about reality. Transformations of one sort or another are at the heart of myths; Ovid called his great compendium of Greek and Roman mythology Metamorphoses. Transformations are particularly characteristic of the great Hindu myths, and here they may appear to take different forms: sometimes they are regarded as actual changes in the physical nature of the world, sometimes as illusions, sometimes as dreams, sometimes as temporary magic changes in the physical nature of the world, sometimes as the unveiling of another level of reality. If the storyteller sets out to tell a tale of illusion, various transformations may seem to take place, in waking life or in dreams, but in the end we cannot tell whether anything has happened or not. If the storyteller sets out to tell a tale of dreams, he may relate events that seem to be physically unreal but turn out, at last, to be real. If he sets out to tell a tale of magic, he may describe some physical transformation that a magician or a god actually caused to take place. And if he sets out to tell a tale of revelation, he may describe events that peel back the physical veil to reveal another, more mystical, reality that was always there but not recognized.

These stories tend to blend into one another; a story that starts out as a tale of magic, or even explicitly announces (as many do) that it is going to be a tale of magic, may be transformed into a tale of illusion. Sometimes it is only the genre of the story, marked by the presence of certain motifs conventionally associated with one sort of transformation or another, that lets us know whether the story is intended to depict a dream or a magic show. These interactions and interchanges are not the result of simple borrowing, back and forth, between related themes. One sort of transformation often becomes transformed, as it were, into another sort of transformation in mid-story because one of the points of the story is to demonstrate how difficult it is to tell one sort of transformation from another. (p.3)

from Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts

It is fashionable nowadays in writing about mythology to place great emphasis on methodology, often almost to the exclusion of content. A book that applies Claude Lévi-Strauss’s technique to Australian mythology is looked to for proof or disproof of the structuralist’s formulations rather than for new insights into Australian mythology. It matters little what material you choose to use, or what conclusions you draw from it, as long as you go about it in the right way or, at any rate, in some consistent and replicable way. (p.3)

In order to see the shape of a myth, one has to shine light on it from as many different sides as possible in order to illuminate its many various surfaces; in this way one establishes what philosophers of science term the “robustness” of the objective structure by showing that it is visible from a number of perspectives. Or, to vary the metaphor, it is necessary to view the myth from several different angles in order to find out where it is, just as, by photographing a star from different angles, it is possible to use the parallax of vision to watch it move against its background and hence to judge its distance from us.

When the two reductionist tendencies reinforce each other, when a single theory is used to extract a single meaning from a broad corpus of myths, the result is a thread of truth that may be illuminating when woven into a wider fabric of understanding but is pitifully thin on its own. As long as you know that you are telling only one part of the story, it is worth telling; no one can tell it all, and it is probably the counsel of discretion to tell one part well (reductionism in scope) rather than to tell all of it badly (reductionism in method). But we tend to get caught up in our own models and to believe that what we have decided to focus on really is basic or central, and this can be misleading. Any analysis will reduce the myth in some way, and one must be content to minimize this danger while saying as much as possible that communicates a useful insight into the material. One must not be terrorized by the accusation of reductionism. (p.10)

from Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva:
(retitled Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic)

Siva: The Erotic Ascetic

It is a time consuming task to sift through the Purānas in search of the myths, but none of it is wasted labour, for the mud is as valuable as the lotus which it nourishes: the myths come alive only in the context of history, ritual, philosophy, and social law. Hidden somewhere in this maze is the key to the Hindu world view, vivid, startling, fascinating, and complex. The mythology of Śiva forms only a small part of the material of the Purānas, but it is an ideal model which reveals a pattern which pertains to the material as a whole. Śiva is not only an extremely important Hindu god, he is in many ways the most uniquely Indian god of them all, and the principles which emerge from an intensive study of his mythology lie at the very heart of Hinduism.

Can the mythology of Śiva be used to reveal a still more general, perhaps universal, truth? Questions of this sort have long tempted the student of mythology. It is an old maxim that we often find our home truths in foreign lands. (p.1)

Yet the more reasonable goal—and the more rewarding—is simply to understand the myths in situ, to use methods which reveal the meanings that the Hindus saw in them, to enjoy them as the exotic and delightful creations that they are.

To extract these meanings without reducing the myths in any way is no simple task. The dilemma is at first complicated, but ultimately resolved, by the fact that there are many ‘meanings’ in a Hindu myth: ‘Hindu mythology is much like a plum pudding. If you do not like the plums in the slice you have, or have been deprived of a favour, you may always cut another one.’ The first plum is the story itself, usually a rather good story, occasionally of the shaggy-dog variety but frequently with an immediately recognizable point on at least one level, which might be termed the narrative level. Closely related is the divine level, which concerns mythology as it used to be understood by scholars of the classics: the metaphorical struggles of divine powers and personalities. Above this is the cosmic level of the myth, the expression of universal laws and processes, of metaphysical principles and symbolic truths. And below it, shading off into folklore, is the human level, the search for meaning in human life, the problems of human society. (p.2)

Repetition enables the mythologist not only to separate the discrete units but to distinguish the more important elements from the trivial. The essential themes in a myth, impossible to identify from a simple reading of one version, emerge upon consideration of a number of other versions of that myth in which, despite various changes and reversals, certain elements persist. What is important is what is repeated, reworked to fit different circumstances, transformed even to the point of apparent meaninglessness, but always retained. In this way an element which occupies a relatively small part of a particular myth may be shown, in the context of the mythology as a whole, to be at the heart of that myth.

Multiple variants have a special importance in the analysis of myths which, like the Saiva cycle, deal with contradictions. Myths which contain an insoluble problem are particularly prone to proliferate into many versions, each striving toward an infinitely distant solution, no one version able to confess its failure outright. The perplexing point, the crux, is constantly reworked in a vain attempt to find an emotional or logical resolution. This is apparent on the simple linguistic level as well, where false readings, alternative phrases, and blatantly corrupt or incorrect Sanskrit terms betray a point which the myth-maker did not himself understand but was unwilling to omit altogether, knowing it to be somehow essential. (p.18)


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