Review: The Ring of Truth by Wendy Doniger
Wendy Doniger’s new book elaborates on “the eternal triangle of jewelry, sex, and money.”books Updated: Nov 03, 2017 19:16 IST
What do you do when you suspect that your mother’s brother Uncle Harry was a fence and that the “dicey side of jewelry” is in your blood? When contrarily, to complicate family history, “an uncle by marriage once removed” is also the Leo Robin who wrote “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” and indeed all the lyrics to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? When you possess a “seven-piece harem ring”, allegedly gifted to your great-grandmother who ran the Hotel New York in Marienbad by a Russian prince who couldn’t pay his bill in cash? When these are only some of the innumerable family anecdotes involving jewelry – personal stories that over time have assumed near myth proportions? If you are Wendy Doniger you record them with inspirational irreverence, stopping considerably short of a narcissistic exercise and using them as a starting point for a detailed enumeration and analysis of the role of jewelry, particularly rings, in human history.
The formidable variety of Doniger’s scholarship is evident in her work which includes: translations of the Rig Veda, the Manusmṛti, and the Kama Sutra; Hindu Myths; Siva: The Erotic Ascetic; and of course the controversial The Hindus: An Alternative History. At the risk of sounding facetious one could add that one reason why Doniger has courted controversy is because the ring of truth characterizes much of her writing. Drawing on the associational images of beauty, romance, adornment, and pledges of loyalty (including feudal fealty) which rings and indeed all forms of jewelry connote, this latest book examines how these attributes could mask deeper linkages to power and the ways in which they are manifest in different relationships ranging from patriarchal dominance to sexual manipulation to betrayal. Both men and women become central to this many-splendoured narrative in which Doniger pulls up history, chronicle, literature, psychology and culture with careless fluency, frequently substituting verbatim accounts with crisp paraphrases and using humour and wit to drive home her argument.
The eighteenth century author Jonathan Swift (famously known for Gulliver’s Travels, less so as a brilliant and troubled satirist) had regretted in his day that it was with writers as with wells – some were considered wondrous deep for no other reason than that they were wondrous dark (i.e. obscure). In our own time carping, joyless academics who sneer at anything that doesn’t subscribe to their notion of “serious” scholarship (read pedantic verbosity) would do well to take a cue from Doniger who places contemporary pop culture alongside what are now considered “classics”, astutely acknowledging that context generally moulds judgement. She quotes from the Elvis Presley song (“She wears my ring to show the world that she belongs to me”) in a section dealing with how rings have been equated with ownership of women’s bodies. Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe (“two film icons who seared my soul when I was a teenager in the 1950s”), who ostensibly represent two different paradigms of womanhood, are viewed as grounded in the same “slut assumption: when a woman has a piece of jewelry, she must have gotten it by sleeping with some man.” Other popular references, too many to list here, include Sex and the City and the way De Beers shifted advertising strategy to manipulate feminist sentiment (reference Sushmita Sen: “I don’t need a man in my life to have diamonds. I can own them myself.”).
The word “ring” in medieval times was associated with male and female genitalia, and Doniger lists several raunchy innuendoes in literature and art which confirm this. The “lost” ring came to mean different things, its discovery in places ranging from the belly of a fish to a bottle in the ocean perpetuating myths about loss and discovery. Doniger explores the multiple ways in which the ring was introduced into narratives (e.g. “Shakuntala and the Ring of Memory”) to change the fundamental storyline, deftly spotting parallels across continents and cultures. As the study moves into modern Europe and America it includes other kinds of jewelry, particularly necklaces. The notorious and dramatic saga of Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace leads this shift in focus. Doniger recounts how both France’s last Queen and the flamboyant Cardinal Rohan became unsuspecting pawns in the hands of unscrupulous courtiers who led the Cardinal to believe the Queen fancied him and duped him into buying a hugely expensive diamond necklace to woo her. Since truth will out, the incident became a sensational scandal. Carlyle described it as one which “imbittered all [the Queen’s] future life, and followed her to the very steps of the guillotine”, while Napoleon reportedly believed that “The Queen’s death must be dated from the Diamond Necklace Trial.”
Doniger’s concluding chapter brings in a crucial conceptual thread hinted at through the book: “the eternal triangle of jewelry, sex, and money.” She reminds us that most of the stories share this nexus “between jewelry and, on the one hand, sex and gender and, on the other hand, money and power”; that men who control the production and sale of jewelry have also created much of the mythology surrounding it; that throughout history, jewelry was the only form of property a woman could own; that jewelry became both a means of control over women and a tool of sexual maneuvering by them. Doniger presents her case with refreshing irony and satire, debunking much of the blah-blah while acknowledging its abiding significance: “it is what our deepest intuitions grab hold of instead of reason, and it is what the mythology feeds on.” The unfortunate truth is that consumerist buzz and the media boom, online shopping portals and larger than life ads, have created a mystique which exalts jewelry in ridiculous and shameful ways in today’s world, especially in less privileged societies. In the final analysis, jewelry and greed are often inseparable however much one may camouflage it. Doniger does not say this forcefully enough, leaving one with the uncomfortable feeling that the mythology of jewelry has somehow submerged this reality.
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.