A conduit to visions

The Implied Spider

March 12, 1999

More than 20 years have now passed since I first had the pleasure of reviewing a book by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (as she then was): her The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology impressed me deeply with its novel yet sure-handed treatment of a difficult topic, and with its opportunistic willingness to use a variety of approaches to that topic. The result was a work painting a quite different picture of Indian mythology from any that had gone before, a picture which, though it has of course been extended and modified in the intervening years, has never been subjected to serious challenge.

In her numerous subsequent works, Doniger has broadened her perspective considerably, and Indian myths are now merely one of a number of sources she uses in her studies of mythology and what it can tell us about the way people think, in particular how they think about things that are important to them. But her clarity of perception and exposition has remained undimmed as her focus has changed, and her status remains that of a major contributor to this field.

Doniger concludes her brief introduction to The Implied Spider with an explanation of the shape the book will take: chapter one will assume "that we can compare myths and that they can be politically inspiring rather than repressive". The remaining five chapters "will problematise both these assumptions, or rather, reveal the ways in which other people have problematised them"; they will therefore contain more in the way of theoretical discussion, in the course of which Doniger "will attempt to answer these objections and defend my position''. And to make the point yet plainer, she adds: "I would hope that a reader of this book, particularly the first chapter, if asked whether she believed in comparative mythology, might answer like the man asked if he believed in baptism, who replied, 'Believe in it? I seen it done.' But for those of little faith, I have written the rest of the book."

And so it turns out to be. Chapter one centres on a discussion of the way in which myths can make us shift our focus between humdrum human reality and terrifying visions, both theological and political, of what lies beyond it. God visits dreadful and inexplicable afflictions on Job, till Job comes to understand his own nothingness - and then he is restored to happiness and prosperity. At Arjuna's request, Krishna reveals his apocalyptic true form, till Arjuna pleads for the vision to cease. Told that her child has been eating dirt, Yashoda looks into the mouth of the infant Krishna, and sees within it the entire universe including her own village and herself; but as soon as she understands the reality she has seen she is blessed with forgetfulness. Examples of the shifting of political focus include Schindler's List (the scene in which Schindler's gaze focuses on one small girl in a red coat as she wanders through the destruction of the Krakow ghetto), and comparable moments from the film of Oh! What a Lovely War and an old episode of Star Trek .

In the theological cases, the shock of understanding comes from a sudden shift from seeing what is small and normal to seeing what is great and terrible beyond comprehension, while in the political ones it is the other way round; but either way, "we see for a moment with the double vision of the human microscope and cosmic telescope".

At this point, the reader has "seen it done'', and would probably like to see it done again; but he is not to be granted that luxury. Instead, as promised, there follow five chapters of theoretical debate, peppered with the witticisms and startling analogies that Doniger finds irresistible, but containing surprisingly few actual myths. This reader at least had never expected to enjoy chapters two to six as much as chapter one, but even so the degree of abstraction of the main arguments came as an unwelcome surprise. Chapter two deals with comparison, with sameness and difference, the self and the Other. Chapter three introduces universalist and essentialist ("top-down") approaches, and compares them unfavourably with the "bottom-up'', bricoleur approach of cultural studies. It is here that the book's title is explained, for if there exist "webs of significance ... webs of culture'' (citing Clifford Geertz), there must be an implied spider to supply the raw material; for Doniger, it is "the shared humanity, the shared life experience''. Chapter four discusses the way in which "the same myth'' is capable of expressing divergent points of view. Chapter five is about women's voices in myth. Finally to chapter six, entitled "Textural pluralism and academic pluralism'', which argues that the only way we can hope to address the former is by means of the latter.

Now I have no real fault to find with Doniger's arguments, which seem to me substantial; nor am I grumbling because, for once, she has chosen to write a less concrete, more theoretical work which I happened not to enjoy as much as I have enjoyed her previous writings. Indeed, my complaint is not against Doniger herself, but against the academic environment from which The Implied Spider has emerged, for it is clear that Doniger did not "choose'' to write this book; rather, she found it necessary to do so. And this is not merely a case of a Chicago scholar finally succumbing to that university's overwhelming preoccupation with theory: it is clear that Doniger considers herself under attack for daring to use a multi-faceted approach to her subject, and feels that she must defend herself against her inquisitors.

The present book arose "out of my need to justify, retroactively, the method I had already blithely used in writing a book comparing myths''. The language of page 153 is similarly light-hearted, its implications similarly depressing - Doniger writes approvingly of combining different approaches to myth, then writes: "There is a word for this, the 'e'-word in academia: eclecticism.'' But the language of page 155 is not light-hearted at all:

"When did scholarship cease to be a collective enterprise? When did interdisciplinary values cease to apply to comparative studies? When did the 'uni' in 'university' come to refer to ideology?" When a scholar of Doniger's standing starts to ask questions such as these, it is time to take to the barricades. Ten years ago I would have offered her safe haven in the old country, but we have been overrun by our own fascist pygmies: the bureaucrats and their Research Assessment Exercise. Can anyone show me the way to a university?

John D. Smith is lecturer in Sanskrit, University of Cambridge.

The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth

Author - Wendy Doniger
ISBN - 0 231 11170 3
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 200

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