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

By Wendy Doniger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Mythology of Self-Impersonation

Everyone wishes to be Cary Grant. Even I wish to be Cary Grant.

Cary Grant


SELF-IMPERSONATION

The people in these stories set out to become other people but, through a kind of triple cross1 or double back, end up as themselves after all, masquerading as other people who turn out to be masquerading as them. This sort of self-imitation or selfimpersonation is a basic human way of negotiating reality, illusion, identity, and authenticity, not to mention memory, amnesia,2 and the process of aging. Many of the stories involve marriage and adultery, for stories of sexual betrayal cut to the heart of the crisis of identity; as Terence Cave has put it, “Recognition plots are full of epistemophiliacs: the knowledge they seek has the character, whether explicit or implicit, of an impossible or incomprehensible sexual knowledge.”3 A New Yorker cartoon in 2003 depicted a man in a bar saying to another man, “My wife ran off with the guy who stole my identity.”4 Some of the rejected wives in these stories win back their forgetful husbands by tricking them into committing adultery with their own wives;5 other wives (and occasionally husbands) resort to gender masquerades, face-lifts, or reincarnation.

A modern literary classic about a man who unwittingly impersonates himself is Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). When Jack, who has pretended for years to be named not Jack but Ernest, suddenly discovers his name is

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