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Common Patterns in Differing Traditions

Pradip Bhattacharya

By Wendy Doniger
Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 272, $32.00


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 analysed myths of sexual doubles to reveal how myth-making can become a means of breaking barriers of gender and culture. The millennial year saw the 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 unravelling 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 centring 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 likeness. 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 ...

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