The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation

The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation

The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation

The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation

Synopsis

Many cultures have myths about self-imitation, stories about people who pretend to be someone else pretending to be them, in effect masquerading as themselves. This great theme, in literature and in life, tells us that people put on masks to discover who they really are under the masks they usually wear, so that the mask reveals rather than conceals the self beneath the self.
In this book, noted scholar of Hinduism and mythology Wendy Doniger offers a cross-cultural exploration of the theme of self-impersonation, whose widespread occurrence argues for both its literary power and its human value. The stories she considers range from ancient Indian literature through medieval European courtly literature and Shakespeare to Hollywood and Bollywood. They illuminate a basic human way of negotiating reality, illusion, identity, and authenticity, not to mention memory, amnesia, and the process of aging. Many of them involve marriage and adultery, for tales of sexual betrayal cut to the heart of the crisis of identity.
These stories are extreme examples of what we common folk do, unconsciously, every day. Few of us actually put on masks that replicate our faces, but it is not uncommon for us to become travesties of ourselves, particularly as we age and change. We often slip carelessly across the permeable boundary between the un-self-conscious self-indulgence of our most idiosyncratic mannerisms and the conscious attempt to give the people who know us, personally or publicly, the version of ourselves that they expect. Myths of self-imitation open up for us the possibility of multiple selves and the infinite regress of self-discovery.
Drawing on a dizzying array of tales-some fact, some fiction-The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Wasis a fascinating and learned trip through centuries of culture, guided by a scholar of incomparable wit and erudition.

Excerpt

When I was a little girl I went to the movies; poor Cary Grant
thought his wife was dead, but Irene Dunne, she comes back
.
Oh, that just happens in the movies.

Doris Day (as Ellen) and Polly Bergen (as Bianca),
in Michael Gordon’s
Move Over, Darling (1963)

Basically, Shakespeare stole everything he ever wrote.… Essential
ly, Shakespeare was a formula writer. Once he found a device that
worked, he used it over and over again
.

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shakspr (Abridged)

PRE- and postmodern narrative recycling

Many cultures tell stories about people who pretend to be other people pretending to be them, thus in effect masquerading as themselves, impersonating themselves, pretending to be precisely what they are. This great theme, in literature and in life, tells us that many people must put on masks to discover who they are under the covert masks they usually wear, so that the overt mask reveals rather than conceals the truth, reveals the self beneath the self; and it tells us that, although such masquerades cannot change people into other people, they may change them into others among their many selves.

The widespread distribution of the theme of self-impersonation argues for both its literary power and its human value. the stories in this book do not range over the whole earth (I do not, for instance, draw upon Native American or African texts) but are drawn largely from the Indo-European world, particularly Sanskrit literature, medieval European courtly literature, Shakespeare, Wagner, Hollywood, and Bollywood. Nevertheless, they cover a pretty wide swath of time and space, from . . .

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