The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade

"In her 598 pages of peculiar erudition on sex with deceitful strangers, Doniger delightfully analyzes everything from the popular movie The Crying Game to Shiva's shenanigans to Casanova's convoluted copulations."—Chicago Magazine

"A rich cross-cultural anatomy of myths, films, narratives and fantasies, Wendy Doniger's wonderful new book tells the story behind the story of sexual impersonation—and sexual 'truth'—in bed, from Hindu mythology to the Hebrew Bible, from Shakespeare to contemporary cinema. Brilliantly analyzed, impressively learned, both playful and smart, The Bedtrick should be on every reader's night table."—Marjorie Garber, author of Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life

"Wendy Doniger has spent decades collecting not only myths from ancient texts but stories of all kinds from novels, movies, newspapers about an old mystery: what has or hasn't happened in bed for centuries. Rich in insights about sex, lies, and personal identity, the result is entertaining, enthralling, and, yes, sexy."—Roberto Calasso, author of Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India


An excerpt from
The Bedtrick:
Tales of Sex and Masquerade
Wendy Doniger

Sex, Text, and Masquerade


You go to bed with someone you think you know, and when you wake up you discover that it was someone else—another man or another woman, or a man instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man, or a god, or a snake, or a foreigner or alien, or a complete stranger, or your own wife or husband, or your mother or father. This is what Shakespearean scholars call "the bedtrick"—sex with a partner who pretends to be someone else. The bedtrick contests the intimate relationship between sex and gender, power and identity, raising a number of questions: Why weren't you able to tell the difference in the dark? And why does it matter so much? Why is this story told over and over again? Why do we find it compelling? What deep human concerns does it respond to? How unique and unmistakable is one lover to another? Can you recognize your lover in the dark? Can true love always tell the difference? Is it the body that is desired, or the mind? How does sex change if we do or do not know who our partner actually is? And, at the bottom of it all, does sex tell the truth or lie?

The basic plot should make it onto anyone's list of the Ten Greatest Hits of World Mythology. There are Rachel and Leah, Tamar and Judah, and (I believe) Ruth and Naomi in the Hebrew Bible; Amphitryon in the Greek and Roman traditions; and, in medieval European literature, King Arthur begotten by a masquerading father and both Elaine and a false Guenever masquerading as Guenever. There are the bedtricks in Boccaccio and in so many Shakespeare plays, especially All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. In opera we have Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Cosî fan tutte, Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier and Arabella, Johann Strauss's Fledermaus, and Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Götterdämmerung. There are the transsexual and transvestite bedtricks in contemporary theater (M. Butterfly, Prelude to a Kiss) and cinema (Some Like It Hot, The Crying Game). Moving outside the European tradition, we encounter an eleventh-century Japanese novel about a brother and sister who change places in their respective marital beds (The Changelings) and a modern Japanese novel about a bedtrick (Fumiko Enchi's Masks), as well as an infinite variety of bedtricks in the Arabian Nights and in the ancient Indian storytelling tradition. All of these texts are myths by my definition: stories that are believed to be true and that people continue to believe in the face of sometimes massive evidence that they are, in fact, lies; much retold narratives that are transparent to a variety of constructions of meaning, neutral structures that allow paradoxical meanings to be held in a charged tension.

Scholars of high culture (particularly opera and Shakespeare) have tended to regard the bedtrick as a cheap trick—morally corrupt (the trickster who assumes another person's identity in bed is regarded as a kind of whore), titillating, unrealistic, or simply farcical. The fact that the bedtrick is both tragic and comic—that the very word "tragicomedy" was first coined to describe a play about a bedtrick (Plautus's Amphitryon)—is a paradox that accounts in part for the confusion in its critical reception. Dr. Jonson, damning the bedtricks in All's Well That Ends Well (in which Helena substitutes for Diana in Bertram's bed) and Measure for Measure (in which Mariana substitutes for Isabella in Angelo's bed), remarks, "The story of Bertram and Diana had been told before of Mariana and Angelo, and, to confess the truth, scarcely merited to be heard a second time." Even critics of popular culture tire of it; Terrence Rafferty, reviewing the film Multiplicity (1996), calls "the hero's anxiety that one or more of his doppelgängers will sleep with his wife (who's unaware of their existence)" a "not very compelling issue ... resolved in a protracted and mildly amusing farce climax." Yet the bedtrick continues to compel audiences; though night-lights and pillow talk made the bedtrick harder and harder to take seriously after the seventeenth century, and though it strikes a contemporary reader as counterintuitive if not counterfactual, "the irony of physical closeness and mental distance which underlies it persists in the modern understanding of sex." Terence Cave encapsulates the paradox with regard to recognition scenes in general (of which bedtrick recognitions are a subspecies) as he attempts "to account both for the extraordinary popularity of recognition scenes in all types of literature and for the contempt and suspicion with which they are commonly regarded. The accusation of fraudulence is not simply an instance of cultural snobbism, although it may well take that form."

There is a tension here between sex and text: though real people are often fooled with minor deceptions in bed, actual consummated bedtricks are rare in life but very common in texts. These stories seem to take place in a world in which many people literally do not know who they are in bed with—or, in the case of animals and gods, what they are in bed with. Why is there so much fantasy about the bedtrick if it happens so seldom in reality? The answer is that there are many good, human reasons, which are encoded in the stories in this book. These myths imagine a situation in which a man or woman goes to bed with someone s/he is crazy about and wakes up to discover the astonishing fact that the body in the bed belongs to someone entirely different, someone hated or alien or just different. Now, this is not just a myth. It happens to all of us, all the time, for that ol' black magic, sexual passion, is transformative, at least transformative of our perspective; it changes our view of our partner. Sometimes we go to bed with an animal and wake up with a god; that is, we go to bed relatively indifferent and wake up enchanted by sexual magic. On other occasions, we go to bed with a god and wake up with an animal; that is, we go to bed blinded by desire and wake up with our eyes relatively cleared by satiation. (My preliminary, unofficial opinion poll indicates that there is widespread disagreement about the prevalence of one model or the other.)

Many myths are simply the narrative embodiment, sometimes an exaggerated embodiment, of metaphors, even clichés. English-speaking writers speak of something as "just a metaphor," but metaphor in India can be the strongest possible statement of causation. The shock of violated intimacy in the bedtrick—the violation of the mind, often together with the rape of the body—is a mythologized form of the everyday shock that makes people say, as the heroine of Love Letters (1945) says to the man who is in fact a different person from the man she agreed to marry, "You're a stranger to me" or, as the confirmed bachelor in Guys and Dolls (1955) complains, "You marry a girl, and you wake up with somebody else." Perhaps the world's shortest switchback bedtrick narrative appeared in the New Yorker on October 11, 1999, in the "Constabulary Notes from All Over" department: "[From the Sudbury (Mass.) Town Crier] 1:58 a.m. A Hudson Road resident reported a strange man in her bed, but then realized it was her husband" (p. 54). The casual joke that people make so often at their own expense—"I went to bed with X and woke up with Y"—implies that sex is revelatory, that in the morning you know the truth, that Y is the real person: "Behold!" as the Hebrew hinneh is usually translated (as in "Behold! It was Leah!"), for which the modern equivalent is probably "Oh wow!" or some blasphemous exclamation.

The mythology of the bedtrick unpacks the experience expressed in these and related clichés. Thus, the authors of The Three Faces of Eve literalized a cliché to explain Eve White's split personality: "With a good deal of truth perhaps it may be stated that after her marriage, Mary Blank changed, that she became another woman." And when Eve White (Lancaster) herself told her story a year later, she argued, "This isn't as farfetched as it may sound at first. On the contrary, as an idea it's probably a cliché. . . . We say: The war changed him. Marriage made a new woman of her. He's a different person since he stopped drinking. He found himself in his new job. He isn't the man he once was." But Mary Blank does not divorce her husband for sleeping with the "new woman," which is what Eve White wanted to do. The myth of the bedtrick is about the violent disjunction that often takes place when we come up too quickly from the deep-sea dive of sexual intimacy into the cold light of the morning air and experience the emotional equivalent of the bends. Even in reaction to ordinary sexual betrayal, the betrayed partner may retroactively believe that the lover was someone else because the lover had been with someone else.

All sexual acts are bedtricks in the weakest sense: you never really know everything about your partner, and afterward, if you become estranged, the sudden distance, the total loss of intimacy, sometimes seem almost unbelievable, mythical. Similarly, the most basic bedtrick occurs, not when you mistake Joan for Susan (or Steve for Sam, not to mention Joan for Sam or Sam for Joan), but when you mistake lust for love; the shadow area between the two, lust and love, is where the bedtrick happens, and why it matters. The myths in which the impostor is not who he or she seems to be is the strong form of the bedtrick, which dramatizes the weak form that occurs in more banal situations in which the impostor is not how he or she appears to be (ugly instead of beautiful, unfaithful instead of faithful, out of love instead of in love, married instead of unmarried, and so on). Often a myth expresses the extreme case of a human situation; thus, the quandary of the copulating conjoined twins expresses the extreme case of any two people whose bed is crowded by the phantoms of other people, and the story of the French diplomat Boursicot, who discovered that his lover of twenty years was not a woman but a man (the plot that was fictionalized in M. Butterfly), expresses the extreme case of morning-after disappointment, regret, or surprise.

The bedtrick is not literally a universal theme, though it is demonstrably cross-cultural. I have found it in certain cultures at certain moments (ancient India, the Hebrew Bible, Renaissance England and Europe, Hollywood films), and different individuals in different cultures imagine different sorts of bedtricks to overcome different cultural barriers, from the great religious mythologies of the world to contemporary popular culture. Alexander Goldenweiser's "principle of limited possibilities" explains what he calls "dependent convergences" without recourse to a theory either of universal archetypes or of historical diffusion. If we apply his theory of cultures to narratives, it suggests that the constraints of the traditional narrative form must somehow accommodate the constantly changing needs of the narrative community, and there is a limit to the number of basic plots that can be used. Thus, something like a law of "irrational choice" operates to invoke bedtricks as so many dei ex machina in recurrent situations of sexual aporia. By asking profound questions about the interrelationships among sex and love, mind and body, identity and recognition, sameness and difference, illusion and reality, tales of the bedtrick offer a unique human probe into the ways in which these forces function in cultures, in stories, and in individual perceptions and individual lives.

Telling the Difference

Contemporary Americans tend to assume that sexual intimacies, even intimacies exchanged in silence and in the dark, are as highly individualized as fingerprints, that bodies as well as faces have distinctive physiognomies, that sex leads to an exploration of what is unique and distinctive about each partner. Yet many bedtrick stories seem at first to assume that if two people look alike, one cannot tell them apart (indeed, that in the dark one cannot tell anyone from anyone else). More than that: the stories often begin with the assumption that sex is an act in which the parties are interchangeable, that bodies can be changed without one's knowledge. But sometimes they go on to warn us that two people who appear to be identical are not in fact the same person, that we must strive to find other ways (the voice, the scar, memory, the mind, behavior) to tell the two apart—and that sexual intimacy is the best way of all. On this deeper level, the face proves to be a false image of sameness, and the stories warn us that we must go deeper to find the mind and soul beneath the face. Although many of the stories seem to begin by privileging vision, the fact that the reader or hearer always knows that people who look alike are not alike is a clue to the not-so-hidden agenda, which intersects with a primary agenda of our own time (particularly but not only as argued by feminists): to deconstruct vision. And some bedtricksters do not look exactly alike (except under cover of darkness): sisters, brothers, close friends, sons and fathers, mothers and daughters, servants and masters, and so forth. Thus, while some myths reaffirm sexual stereotypes, others challenge them. A gender asymmetry is also at work here: men and women do not always feel the same about the power of sex to reveal either the distinct individualism or the sameness of partners in the dark.

Bedtricksters are doublers: sometimes they become the doubles of other people (who may or may not exist), and sometimes they split themselves into an original and a double. But our double is not us: by definition, it is where we are not, and therefore things happen to it that do not happen to us. The idea of the substitute presupposes the idea of the unique, the authentic, the true form of which it is a false copy. What is it, then, that makes us say of a masquerading double, "It is the same"? The judgment that two different things are the same is, after all, our basic way of making sense out of the chaos of experience, the principle underlying all of our cognitive and scientific understandings, from the taxonomies of Linnaeus to the atomic periodic tables. When, therefore, we ask of doubles, "Is it the same? Is it the same person?" the answer is one of the many paradoxes that make people tell this story over and over again: "It is the same and it is not the same." If we choose to use a less dichotomizing word than "same," such as "similar," we might construct a continuum (or, better yet, a Venn diagram: a set of categories that interlock like chain mail), with various degrees of resemblance or what Wittgenstein called "family likenesses," an appropriate image for actors in stories in which family resemblance is often literally at issue.

But out of the infinite number of qualities that each person has, which features do we select in deciding whether two people are "similar"? Their appearance, the subverted criterion of myths? Their fingerprints? The noises they make in bed? In any case, the basic problem of discrimination remains, albeit in a more relaxed form, even when we soften "the same" to "similar." Moreover, within the narratives, there is often a vital difference between yes and no: a choice must be made, something must be done, as a result of a decision that a person either is or is not "the same" as the person he or she pretends to be. The question of personal identity, within the texts, thus inspires a variant of the Passover question: Why is this person different from all other people?

The texts in this book also inspire a related question: Why are sexual masquerades different from all other masquerades? This question requires us, from the very start, to stake out our turf. For the territory of the bedtrick is bounded on all sides by another territory, populated by people who masquerade as others in nonsexual situations: doppelgängers, mirror images, exact replicas, shadows, twins separated at birth, the creator who creates his double, clones, snatched bodies, possessions, Silent Sharers, surrogates, ghosts, tricksters, and so forth. These sorts of doubles sometimes appear as bedtricksters—Frankenstein's monster can replace him on the wedding night, brothers can replace one another in bed, and so forth—but many of them do not. Literary insights into these more general doubles may prove illuminating for the specific sexual themes as well, but I have limited the scope of this study to bedtricksters. That is, I am not setting out to solve the puzzle of personal identity posed by the broader literature of the double; rather, I hope to show that the concealment of one particular double, a sexual double, can prove more profoundly revealing than the masquerade of any other double.

Tales of the bedtrick do not solve the basic problem of identity, but they provide a vivid and captivating way to approach the problem through narrative. The bedtrick excludes from identity everything but sex, like the custom in some cultures of dressing the bride in a cloth that covers her entirely except the place where a hole is cut or left over her pudendum (here for once the Latin term seems more graphic than euphemistic), through which the groom is to extend his membrum virile. The bedtrick offers a key to other masquerades. For though there are all sorts of reasons, sexual and nonsexual, for an individual to proliferate personalities, in the sexual act the opposite happens: two become one, as the double (the couple) coalesces into the one "beast with two backs," a simple truth noted even through the distorted lens of Shakespeare's Iago in a powerful tale of sexual (and racial) jealousy (Othello 1.1). The stories of the bedtrick represent this tension between the urge to diverge and the urge to merge, between the desire to masquerade, to assume the identity of another in addition to one's own, and the desire to lose one's own identity through intimate union with the other. As Terence Cave remarks, "Recognition plots are full of epistemophiliacs: the knowledge they seek has the character, whether explicit or implicit, of an impossible or incomprehensible sexual knowledge."

Therefore, my tentative answer to the question "Why are sexual masquerades different from all other masquerades?" is that the sexual act is in itself the most "doubling" and "undoubling" of acts. Where all other doubles split into two, sexual doubles split and regroup into one. This confluence of the masquerade and the sexual act was literally embodied in David Ambrose's novel The Man Who Turned into Himself, about a man who is drawn into a parallel world inside the mind of a man who is very much like him in many ways, married to a woman almost exactly like his wife. When the couple in the parallel world make love, the original man is troubled to find himself "trapped inside the mind (if that's the word) of this spineless, dumb, near-doppelganger of myself who's making love to the equally near-doppelganger of my dead wife. He's inside her and I'm inside him." A similar pun on "inside," again conflating the ordinary sexual act and the magical bedtrick, is used in a film (18 Again! [1988]) in which an eighteen-year-old boy, whose mind/soul has been transposed into the body of an eighty-year-old man and back again, tries to explain to a sexy older woman that his body has recently undergone amazing changes, while she thinks he is just talking about adolescence; when he then says, "Do you know what it feels like to be inside another person's body?" she lowers her eyelashes and asks, "Do you?"

Sexual Lies and Sexual Truth

One reason for the great number of stories about bedtricks is that people are more deceptive about sex than about anything else. It could be argued that all forms of love are deluding, including love of one's children or country. But sexual love is, I think, the most deluding form of love. The evidence, in both real life and imaginative texts, not just that people lie about sex but that they often get away with it indicates that the victims lie to themselves as much as the tricksters lie to them; the victims, who fool themselves, are the ultimate tricksters. The lying of the trickster is the obviously false element in a bedtrick, but the lying of the victim, though less obvious, is often what sustains the mythology. Sexual fantasy is very real; seducers lie, but victims fantasize; sexual fantasy is the ghost that gums up the machines of reason.

That the body could actually be a lie was argued by medieval European authors such as Albertus, in the thirteenth century, who described hermaphrodites and effeminate males as "liars, whose bodies and behaviors mislead." Fear of sexual fraud and imposture led to the persecution even of those hermaphrodites who were "not accused of sodomy or deliberate deception." They didn't have to do anything; what they were was a lie. In our day, Amy Bloom entitled her article on transsexuals, who believe they have been born with genitals that do not correspond to their true sexuality, "The Body Lies."

In uneasy alliance with the passages cited above, which tell us that the body lies, some stories seem to argue that the mind or the soul or speech or knowledge, all in the service of true love, supplies the touchstone of identity. Against this dual faction, however, more physiologically oriented stories argue that bodies don't lie, that there is a kind of naked, brutal honesty in the sexual moment of truth. In this view, though the outer trappings of the self may lie, at the eye of the sexual storm is another sort of eye that sees the truth, for some people their only truth. One might say that, at least in the era before pornographic films, the sexual act was the one area in which people were forced to be original, to be who they really were, if only for lack of some paradigm or stereotype to copy.

Many of these stories argue, echoing the familiar in vino veritas, that there is surely veritas in coitu. The crude form of this assumption is that truth inheres in the physical act of sex; the more romantic form of the same paradigm seeks the truth in the more spiritual act of falling in love. Some of our texts argue that sexual love is the most reliable criterion of personal identity: the one you love and desire is the one you know, and the one you know is the real one; sexual love is not just a way of knowing who your lover is but also a way of knowing who you are, through the mirror of the one you love and who loves you. Peter Steinfels may have had this in mind when he wisely remarked about sex, apropos of the 1998 Clinton scandals, "It puts the self at stake in a way that even death-defying activities like mountain climbing do not. Why else do people intuitively take betraying a spouse so seriously, and understand, even while reproving, why someone would lie about it?" This line of thought supports monogamy against the forces we have just considered: it argues that if you want to stay who you are, you need to have—or at least to think you have—the same person in the bed beside you every night.

Some cultures emphasize the lies of sex, some the truth. The myths of Hollywood and of everyday Hinduism, for instance, tend on the whole to argue for the truth of sex. Shakespeare and Christianity, Buddhism and the ascetic traditions of Hinduism, argue, on the whole, that sex lies. But even in these cultures, and in many others, the two answers, yes and no, often coexist in tension within a single story. This, then, compounds the paradox of the double that is both us and non-us: the sexual act is simultaneously the most deceptive and the most truth-revealing, the most alienating and the most intimate, the most fantastic and the most real of human acts. I have always believed passionately in both arms of this paradox and lived them passionately in my conviction that sex was far more about truth than about power; and now I have written a book about them.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-10 of The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade by Wendy Doniger, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2000 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Wendy Doniger
The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade
©2000, 625 pages
Paper $27.00 ISBN: 0-226-15643-5

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Bedtrick.

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