This book is about comparative mythology, specifically in the field of the history of religions: what it is, what it isn't, and why it can and should be done. Myth is: "a story that is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it...believed to have been composed in the past about an event in the past...an event that continues to have meaning in the present because it is remembered" (2). Even Plato was ambiguous about myth: the ones he didn't like were lies, the ones he did were truths. Myth is not a single story but a narrative. It is at once a) telescopic and microscopic, b) greater than the sum of its parts, c) cross-cultural, and d) expresses an idea and its opposite (3). Chapter 1 assumes that myths can be compared, and compared cross-culturally; it asserts that such work is “pragmatically possible, intellectually plausible, and politically productive” (3-4). Chapters 2-6 will engage with various arguments against those assumptions, and conclude with a paean to Levi-Strauss and a call for academic eclecticism/intellectual pluralism, which Doniger believes to be at the heart of comparative mythology.
Chapter One: Microscopes and Telescopes
We can use the metaphors of the microscope and the telescope to describe the mythic lens; in fact, they are combined within a myth itself. The microscopic level is epitomized by the novel: a personal, solipsistic, highly detailed narrative, inapplicable to anyone but the author—although, of course, many novels “assume that the drama of a few representative men and women speaks to our condition” (8). The telescopic is entirely general, abstract, almost a theoretical or mathematical formula, which deals with unfathomably great experiences: a level at which “we might imagine an ideal experience devoid of any human telling” (9). Myth vibrates in the middle of this continuum; it spans “the widest range of human concerns , human paradoxes” (9). The scholar of myth must maintain this double-vision, both ends of the continuum; his or her analysis comes down to where the “f-stop” of the lens is set: an arbitrary, heuristic choice. Through the microscope, one can see every contextual detail of the cultural in question; through the telescope, one sees the unifying themes (10). Another way to distinguish these levels of analysis: the telescopic view is psychoanalytic: Freud, Jung, Eliade. The microscopic is psychological: a focus on individual insight. The middle is the contextual detail of cultural studies (10).
In myth, an example of the telescopic extreme is the story of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Job, at the end of his horrific ordeal, and his ultimately overriden denunciation of God's infinite justice, is invited “to see through the divine telescope, to see the god's-eye view of his own sufferings, to torment himself for his own sport” (14). The dynamics of Job can also be illuminated by Krishna's epiphanic unfurling of his true identity and cosmic form to Arjuna in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. No longer is Krishna the smiling friend, the charioteer, Arjuna's pal, but “Time, destroyer of all” (as Oppenheimer famously quoted), who has already forewarned victory for the Pandavas over the Kauravas. Arjuna has to plead Krishna to return to his friendly guise, and he does, but the message is clear: the war, like the necessary evil employed to win it, is unreal, an illusion (15). The grandiosity of both theological visions does not demand that the actors accept it—after all, they continue to act in the world. However, neither does it suggest that this activity is ultimately real, purposeful. “To the question, 'Which is the reality?' the myth replies, 'Yes.'” (18).
Myths form "a bridge between the terrifying abyss of cosmological ignorance and our comfortable familiarity with our recurrent, if tormenting, human problems" (22). To the level of the microscopic, and an example from real life rather than a text: in Anne Frank's room in Amsterdam, there were two charts; one was a record of Otto Frank's children's height, measured by notches in the wall, and the other a map of Europe with pins marking the Allied forces' advance (24). The most banal, ordinary personal detail of life, placed right next to the documentation of a cataclysmic event. Like the alternating views of the Holocaust in that house in Amsterdam, listening to a story with mythic dimensions juxtaposes the "human microscope and the cosmic telescope" (25). To preface a later argument: this metaphor is not simply about myth, but 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” (25).
Chapter Two: Dark Cats, Barking Dogs, Chariots, and Knives
Myth is inherently comparative. We compare things all the time. The problem of sameness and difference, or the simultaneous engagement of the two (David Tracy calls this “similarity-in-difference”) is central to comparative mythology and postmodernism in general (28). Obviously, difference is important; the old proverb “In the dark, all cats are gray” illustrates the kind of essentialism that has often been used to demean the sexual or racial Other (31). The problem, more often than not, is not racial/sexual discrimination but indiscrimination (32). Thus comparatists [the term Doniger herself uses] must reject the doctrine of sameness, not allow similarity to be normative, but must also attempt to argue for “very different humanistic uses of the same doctrine” (33). The comparative method “forces us to come to terms with the Other, the one both different from and the same as us” (34). Perhaps we can “replace polarized grids with infinitely fluid continuums,” but in the end any assumption of likeness must also take into account the pole of difference (35). It is in the motion from initial, implicit comparative assumptions to the acknowledgment of and actual practice of comparison, and the recognition that own understanding forms the third term [recall Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 265] in the triangle of comparison, that the comparative method is explicitly developed (35-6).
Here is an example: Compare the stories of Tamar and Judah from the Hebrew Bible with that of Helena and Bertram from All's Well That Ends Well. In both stories, “a woman whose husband refuses to sleep with her disguises herself as someone else and tricks him into bed” (36). Wendy Doniger, concurrently writing a book on sexual masquerade, represents the third term in the series: Hebrew Bible/Shakespeare/Gender Issues in 1997. To fill in the gaps of the story of Tamar, we can (and should) take into account the Jewish commentaries, but also take heed of Mircea Eliade's claim that “outside a culture, the best gloss on a myth is a myth from another culture” (39). This brings the conversation about meaning out from merely the historical context of ancient Judaism into “the broader context of the human religious imagination and even beyond, in the context of human experience” (40). We cannot know that the same ideas about sexual rejection were in the minds of the authors of the Hebrew Bible and Shakespeare; but the questions are not simply our projections. The comparative method instead places the two texts themselves in conversation, “Sometimes even in the intimate pillow talk of textual intercourse” (40).
In sum, comparatists should not let difference discourse (i.e. contextualization, historicist explanations) override cross-cultural comparison. Cultural specificity is, no doubt, essential—in fact, comparing texts-in-contexts allows the advance of the comparative enterprise without lapsing into universalism. But comparative work “need not be contextualized to be rigorous […] it is not essential for this thick cultural description to be a part of the interpretation ultimately presented to the reader as a basis of comparison” (45). Comparison must justify the extraction of myths from their historical context, and the provision of different mythic contexts—as stated earlier, the best way to understand a myth can be through a myth from a another culture (45). Thus the focus of the comparatist should be on "cultural morphology": to look for parallels between the same sorts of people in different cultures (46). The cross-cultural view “is not an overview that subsumes the contextualized view, but an alternative view that slices the problem in a different way, that sees sideways, horizontally, instead of vertically” (47). One parable of similarity-in-difference across cultural tales is A.K. Ramanujan's story about the knife: it may have changed handles and blades a few times, but it is the same knife (50). A cross-culturalist would at once argue that the whole (of a myth) can survive even when the parts change, and would also take interest in those moments of change, of cross-cultural translation (51). To insist exclusively on historical context (eg. J.Z. Smith's critique of Eliade's lack of historicism) is “to deny the power of the myth or imaginal consciousness,” which is basically another way of denying difference (52).
Chapter Three: Implied Spiders and the Politics of Individualism
To talk about the sameness of myth and the difference of context is to assume that they derive from certain shared human experiences across different cultures (54): life and death, the body, parenting, sex (especially sex). Narrative does not transform raw experience; human experience is inherently narrative. But we can never give a perfect account of experience; all we have to go on is are the multiple tellings, the “refractions” (to borrow from Plato in another context—cf. The Statesman 269b), which are culturally specific and even specific to each individual (56). We can only approximate the Platonic experience behind the myth (as comparative linguists do in the case of Proto-Indo-European), “by extrapolating from what all the myths have in common, modified in the light of what we can simply observe about the human situation in different cultures” (56).
Universalism is only bad when it is constructed top-down; narrative details such as those above—the body, sexual desire, procreation, pain—are much less culturally mediated than, say, Oedipus or God (59). These shared life experiences comprise the material from which, like the spider emitting its silk to weave its web, human storytellers weave their own cultural artifacts, "their own Venn-diagram webs of shared themes all newly and differently interconnected" (61). The concept of the implied spider draws on Wayne Booth's concept of the "implied author"; we must believe that the spider, the experience behind the myth, exists, though we can only discern its existence through its creations: the webs, the myths that humans weave (61). (Theologians use this argument to prove the existence of God). The metaphor of the spider can be used in many ways: the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.1.7) uses the spider's emission and retraction of its thread to explain the unity of the creator and creation; Kierkegaard (Either/Or, I:19) uses the spider's courageous leap into the unknown to describe blind faith in the future; Joan Aitchison (The Language Web) uses the interconnectedness and complexity of webs to describe the universality of human language (62-3). According to Doniger, “the mind itself, the basis of language and myth, is part of what could truly be called a World Wide Web” (64).
This section of the chapter answers the question not of whether comparative myth can be done, but whether it should be done. In response to the postcolonial and postmodern critique of comparison: don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is plenty of bullshit out there, but comparatism can be: a) rigorous, b) self-conscious about universalist hypotheses, and c) politically emancipatory (or at least humanistic).
- Rigor: The comparatist must know the language of (at least one of) the primary texts in comparison, and must really know the context. This is a comparison “that relates, that frames, that clarifies” (65). Doniger claims that she knows (lack of) rigor when she sees it; this book itself is a corrective.
- Unfalsifiable Theories: Grand hypotheses are seldom avoidable in “conceptually bold studies,” but they can be approached with caution, and above all made explicit. At the very least, a comparative work should provide many, many, many examples and many, many, many details.
- Politics: The radical particularizing of recent theory seems to deny a shared basis for anything: cultures, people within a culture, humanity period (67). “Either similiarity or difference may lead to a form of paralyzing reductionism and demeaning essentialism” (68); after all, European colonialism was supported at once by a doctrine of essentializing sameness and of essentialized difference. There is, obviously, a salutary postcolonial critique of comparison and its complicity with evolutionist, providential theses of history (viz. Olender). But this consciousness should be used “not to exclude Western scholars from the study of non-Western myths...but to show how myths (and the comparative study of myths) can be used...to blast apart the ghettoes of ideology” (71).
How do we navigate between “the Scylla of universalism and the Charybdis of cultural essentialism [i.e. the problem of the individual]” (72)? Through a particular form of cross-cultural individualism: the many particular retellings of themes shared across cultures emphasizes at once the individual contribution of each text's author, as well as the universality of that insight. We need not posit a “transcendental agent” as the source of cross-cultural similarity (the problem with top-down theories of universalism); instead, we build from a focus on real people: authors of texts with many different agendas (73). This emphasis on the individual “at all levels of society, from high culture to popular culture,” addresses the objection that “humanism falsely universalizes an ideological fiction based on the interests of the privileged” (75). What Doniger advocates is a search for the individual spark of originality in other cultures as well as one's own (76)—“paying homage to the Tolstois among the Zulus, Prousts of the Papuans” (74).
A final note: Comparatists working from the bottom-up should view the discipline of mythology as an artistic rather than a scientific enterprise. “Art brings us together as a family because it is an individual expression of a universal sentiment” (77). There is a continuum here, too: art is not just art, nor is science just science. So the comparatist is truly, like mythmakers themselves, a—here's the rub—bricoleur (77).
Chapter Four: Micromyths, Macromyths, and Multivocality
Myth holds paradoxical meanings in charged tension. This transparency allows for: a) multivocality in a single telling, b) retellings, variations on a single theme, and c) reinterpretations from within and without tradition (80). Myth is not an idea, or a dogma; it is a narrative which contains many of these ideas and dogmas, but does not commit itself to a single one (81). It is not entirely possible to have a myth without any point of view, but we could hypothesize, for example, “an unmarked, neutral experience involving a woman, a man, a garden, a tree, a fruit, a serpent, and knowledge” which brings us to understand “how the dominant reading of the Hebrew Bible could tell that story as it does...while other tellings of that myth cast it differently” (82). To be more specific: the dominant reading of Genesis is that of the Fall (subtle serpent, forbidden fruit, evil woman, bad knowledge), while the alternative reading is of progression from the stagnant Garden of Eden to a place of possibility and creativity (and, of course, sexual pleasure). This positive reading may have existed alongside the biblical one, and was developed by the Romantics; Shelley saw Prometheus' gift in Satan's fruit. Mark Twain also said something funny: The problem wasn't the serpent, but the fact that the apple was forbidden; if the snake were forbidden, Adam would have eaten the snake. (82).
Myths speak in many voices; one of the ways they do so is, as in the case of the Mahabharata, to employ “the literary convention of nested tellings of stories within stories, which collapses all the tellers from the outermost layer to the central...so that often we do not know which voice is speaking” (86). Multivocality allows us to line up several different meanings in a myth: we could focus on each voice, “asking whether they are male or female, traditional or subversive; or on different agendas, asking whether the text seems to care more about sex, religion, or politics” (87). But the story “is not infinitely pliable; it always clusters around a given set of meanings, which it can invert” (87). Even if a single telling can have so many points of view that it cancels itself out, each telling does favor one over another, putting a different spin on it (87-8).
Another way to think about the operation of myth—in the sense of a story embodied in a group of texts—is the micromyth and the macromyth. The micromyth is not so much a skeleton or a scaffolding (i.e. archetype) as a trampoline: stories leap away to form their own specific cultural meanings (88). To return to the example of Genesis: the story of Adam and Eve as micromyth is "A woman and a serpent in a tree gave a man a fruit." Amid all the individual cultural inflections of this myth, constituting the core, determining the latent meaning, which manifests differently in different tellings, becomes entirely subjective (91). To avoid the common denominator fallacy (ahem, Joseph Campbell), we must construct the macromyth, "a composite of the details of many variants and insights; it arranges texts, and micromyths, in their possible systematic relationships [..] The macromyth makes possible the cross-cultural rather than the universalist enterprise" (93). To follow-up the example: the Genesis macromyth would not only include Adam and Eve, but what Shelley and Mark Twain and modern feminist scholars had to say about it.
Myths generate variants, often because “they wrestle with insoluble paradoxes” (95). But sometimes a new telling emerges to paper over the holes caused by these tensions; for example, the early parts of the Ramayana say that Ravana never forced Sita to his bed, although he kidnapped her out of his infatuation. To explain this puzzle, later parts of the Ramayana add the backstory of a curse which prevented him from consummating his lust (97). Another way to generate variants is through 180-degree parodies; for example, Little Red Riding Hood, in some older European tellings, eats her grandmother and climbs into bed with the wolf (98).
Myths have always been used for different political ends, and “different tellings of the same myth may make explicit different political agendas embedded in it” (101). For example: one political myth inverted in separate tellings is the American myth of cowboys and Indians-- “How the West was Won” vs. “How the West was Lost” (103). Another example of a myth with different political meanings grafted onto a basic narrative: the old Norse myth of the Valkyries, through the medieval German Nibelungenlied, into Wagner's Aryan triumphalism in the The Ring of the Nibelung, the music from which was adapted by Coppola in the film Apocalypse Now to refer to the American forces in Vietnam (103-4). Myths are not inevitably reactionary (à la Barthes), nor are they always about the past (à la Eliade); rather, they can look to the future, to subvert the dominant paradigm (106-7). “Revolutionary myths express...the fluxus quo […] Storytellers may, like judo wrestlers, use the very weight of archetypes to throw them, and with them to throw the prejudices that have colored them for centuries” (107).
Chapter Five: Mother Goose and the Voices of Women
Women. Their voices exist. Deal with it. It doesn't matter whether texts were written by men; we can retrieve these voices from existing patriarchal texts, by arguing less about the author of a text than about the points of view expressed within the text (110). We usually don't know the gender of the authors of ancient tales, but perhaps we can identify “women's stories” by subject matter: say, the pain of childbirth. Even male-authored texts which deal with the topic (Genesis 3.16, Metamorphoses 9.265-301), though it may have meant different things to the author, relied on women's experience (114-5). This method is not infallible, nor is the attempt to identity “women's interests” in standpoint (115); powerful women in a story do not equal feminism (the moral is often to destroy them: viz. Clytemnestra), nor do women's stories always express a woman's point of view (116-7). Some scholars think that women's stories can be those told for or to rather than by women; however, they may not always advance the listener's or reader's interest; women often end up the enemy in both men's and women's stories (118-9). In other words, this is the false consciousness argument that since women “share the dominant mythology of their culture...and assimilate the images that men have of them,” women's tellings often do not subvert the patriarchal viewpoint, “but merely offer ways either to satisfy or evade it (119-20).
However, "[t]exts controlled by men do not necessarily represent a man's point of view. Men cannot always erase entirely the female voices that they appropriate or imitate" (122). Doniger argues that myth often employs “androgynous” language: there is certainly a history of separating men and women through language (women speak Sanskrit in early texts, such as the Rg Veda, but are relegated to Prakrit in classical dramas of the commen era), but language is also something they share, through conversation; the folklorist and scholar A.K. Ramanujan famously said, in the vein of linguistic androgyny, that Hindu men speak a mother tongue (usually vernacular) at home and a father tongue (Sanskrit, English) in company (126-7). We can find women's voices in men's texts by reading them carefully, by noting the “artificially separate levels of two genders within a single language” (127).
For example, take the Kama Sutra's discussion of adultery. Unlike the patriarchal line represented by, say, the Laws of Manu (cf. 9.15: “Good looks do not matter to [women], nor do they care about youth; 'A man!' they say, and enjoy sex with him, whether he is ugly or good looking”), the Kama Sutra reproduces women's voices more sympathetically, listing some possible reasons for committing the act: “He is propositioning me in an insulting way” or “He has no tie to me; he is attached to someone else”...or “He has always just treated me as a friend [...]” (129). It may well be that one and the same author could have composed both texts, “who in his moments of piety excoriated women...and in his moments of relaxation sought them out,” putting on his legal hat when dealing with a husband's complaints and his lover's pants after talking to his wife or mistress (131).
Another great example of "androgynous" texts which confuse the male and female voices: Catullus' reworking of Sappho's poem about a man looking at a woman whom she also desired. After Catullus changes the genders, we now have a man (Catullus) looking at a woman (Lesbia--inspired by Sappho?) looking at a man looking at a woman (133-4). Even when the gender of the author can be determined, the ideas of that text (such as, say, the Mahabharata) were dispersed widely and received by people of different genders. It is more appropriate to say that "[t]he author of a myth is a tradition, not just one human male; and traditions have women in them too" (135).
Chapter Six: Textual Pluralism and Academic Pluralism
How do we explain cross-cultural parallels? One account is historical diffusion: the “same” myth appearing in two different cultures signals a process of borrowing (139). However, this obsession with “tale-tracking” can have political implications; British Orientalists traced everything to India, froze its glory in the classical past, and said “they used to tell great stories, but they need us now to run their country” (141). Historical diffusion also does not explain “why, when one culture borrows from another, certain elements are kept and others are not” (143). Levi-Strauss proffered the hypothesis of independent origination: that “borrowing takes place because of the similarity in structure between myths” in both lending and borrowing cultures (143). Doniger, as usual, wants a both/and: “a comparatist needs both an analogical [independent-originative] and a homological [diffusive] imagination” (144).
Structuralism still matters. It gives us a good account of how myths are made; the structuralist isolates “mythemes” (Levi-Strauss), atomic units of a myth (Doniger's “micromyth”), which constitute the core of any corpus of myths (145). We need a post-post-structuralism to rescue Levi-Strauss. Sure, there are problems: he asserted the all mythology was dialectical, while Doniger posits a continuum (148). However, Levi-Strauss did not merely reduce myth to a set of logical symbols, as the structuralist caricature would suggest, but “reveals to us more complex levels of meaning...and suggests many rich patterns of interpretation” (149). We should stay a while on the structuralist bus, although the structural mythemes “must be formulated in such a way that they can be plotted, not graphed […] For inversion is an intrinsic quality of myth” (150). In fact, why not take structuralism to its logical extreme, and suggest that domination and subversion, or good and evil (or God) are mythemes in themselves? (151)
Levi-Strauss saw beyond the polarity of history (contextualized, diachronic) and structure, or myth (decontextualized, synchronic). In the same way, we should see beyond the methodological polarities of the academy, in favor of eclecticism, which is “essential to the comparatist's methodology” (153). The scholar/bricoleur should be able to treat methodologies like a toolbox; although there are limits to the pluralism of interpretation (you can't say that Caesar killed Brutus), there should always be room for more than one (153-4). Comparison is central to the idea of a university, or better, a multiversity: “a community in which a number of scholars work together on different projects in different ways” (154). The collective enterprise implies that the academic world should be a place where we can always call for a second opinion (158).