Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zeus and Hera to Real People

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 13th March, 2010)

“This was my sweet, inconsolable, grief-stricken, beautiful sister! For a moment – and perhaps because I knew we were related, however slightly – her body, with its long limbs, fine bones and fragile shoulders, reminded me of my own.”

- The Museum of Innocence’, Orhan Pamuk

It’s the forbidden i-word. Maybe this is why Sam Shepard’s ‘Fool for Love’ ends with a standing ovation irrespective of individual performances… because the emotions outlined in the play form shadows in the minds of the audience. It is a story of tormented love, of a couple that can’t stay apart and can’t be together. They were first drawn to each other because they were alike – feisty, strong-willed, impulsive and passionate. But then they discovered why – they shared a father. Maybe their story fascinates us because it takes something to pursue a relationship with someone once you’ve discovered s/he is your half-sibling.

While folklore is rich with tragic stories of accidental incest – from Oedipus to Kullervo, from Electra to the 6th century Danish ruler Helga – hearing about two people aware of their blood ties indulging in incest shocks and horrifies all of us. We know the verdict if it involves sexual abuse, but what about two people willingly entering a forbidden relationship?

Mythology is not short of instances of this either – the Greek pantheon was the product of a union between the siblings Zeus and Hera, their son Hermes seduced his jealous brother Apollo, and the Egyptian Gods Osiris and Isis, and the Norse Gods Freyr and Freyja, were sibling-spouses. But then, there are real people, people we know, who are attracted to their own blood relatives. A former schoolmate of mine had a ten-year-long affair with his cousin, which ended at the family’s insistence. A friend’s uncle was ostracised for marrying his mother’s sister’s daughter. They chose not to have children for fear of birth defects, but decided societal norms would not get in the way of their relationship.

Is it only societal norms that tell us which relationships are allowed? Is a blood tie just another factor like caste, religion and gender? Do we unconsciously control whom we are attracted to? Does knowing someone is a relative ensure your feelings are platonic? Do some people stifle the physical chemistry they share for this reason? Or are the people involved in incest rebels, choosing to break barriers simply because they exist? Anita, a woman in her mid-forties, believes “harmless” crushes within the family are common, and says she and her sister fancied one of their cousins until he got married. “We would never have acted on it,” she says, “it was just timepass. There’s something wrong with people who act on it.”

Roland Littlewood, a Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry at University College London, identifies “eroticisation of the young” as a cause for incest, saying “the notion of ‘adolescence’ [marks] a recognition of sexually mature but socially immature adults.” (Littlewood, 'Pathologies of the West: an Anthropology of Mental Illness in Europe and America'). A resident of Chennai, Janaki, who is now in her sixties, agrees and says boys and girls in the 10 – 18 age group shouldn’t be allowed to mingle at weddings. “The occasion stirs feelings you can’t control,” she says, “and easy access is a catalyst. When we were kids, our mothers would keep an eye on everyone in that age group, especially the older ones.”

Does the difference lie between feeling and acting, or acceptance and denial of the feeling, or feeling and not feeling at all? Another dimension comes into play in the case of what Littlewood identifies as ‘post-adoption incest’ or ‘genetic sexual attraction’. Some people raised by foster families were found to be uncontrollably attracted to their biological relatives when a reunion was arranged. While some experts attribute GSA to a need to identify with someone who resembles oneself physically or in personality, others see it as a manifestation of a need to ‘connect’ in some way. They say proximity to one’s biological family in early age resolves this into attachment rather than erotic interest, whereas it causes confusion and misinterpretation if the reunion happens in adulthood.

While intellectual debates ponder over the blurry line between sexual attraction and emotional bonding, Western countries have witnessed many cases asking for the abolition of incest laws. A German sibling couple (who met as adults) have had four children in a bid to have a family of their own, as each child was given into foster care. In India, where such subjects are considered too uncomfortable to discuss, chances are that there are more people suffering in silence, torn between guilt and inclination. Counselling centres abroad report that many cases of incest can morph into more conventional relationships after therapy. But will we see similar aid in India, where talk of incest is brushed under the carpet as taboo?

* Some names have been changed


Arun Nat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arun Nat said...

Incest is not only a taboo topic but also a very complex issue. Its influenced by cultural, ethical and social factors. In some cultures (Indian) a man used to wed his brothers widow, but in some the same elsewhere will be looked upon ghastly. It was very common amongst Egyptian royalty to marry their own siblings to prevent their wealth being disbursed. We saw how the world reacted to the German brother and Sister Couple.

The issue of Cousin Marriage is an even more complex issue. In Islam its legal to marry first cousins and in western cultures it is scorned. In Hinduism is even more complex. In South India this is evident. It is very common to enter into wed-lock with ones “mama-ponnu/payan”. Usually one can wed his or her maternal cousins and not the paternal cousin (with some exceptions) but in Northern India all cousins are treated as fraternity.
But for a few, most states in USA have outlawed First Cousin Marriage and they are split on second Cousins.

Who is to judge which is correct and which isn’t? In other words who can judge one culture to be superior to the other? According to me it finally melts down to a conflict. A conflict between ethics, morality and personal choices. Morality is a personal issue and ethics is a social issues. Centuries and generations of practice and trial and error learning has led to the current set of ethics. Morality is usually drawn from based on the religious book or the upbringing of a person. I, as an atheist, just cannot digest the religious argument because I refuse to believe that we would be an immoral herd of savages without religion. And ethics, anything which passes ones judgment as moral but does not affect another person (mentally or physical) can be considered ethical.

Coming back to incest, considering what I said as moral and ethical (my definition of course), there is no ay one can break the traditionally frowned upon set of rules. The odd carnal sexual act(consensual) between incestuous relationships, is probably a spur of the moment and who are we judge the individuals involved? We as a race have a long intellect evolution ahead of us. The rules of physical constraints have been determined by evolution, now to work within that is going to take at least few hundred years if not thousands.


Nandini Krishnan said...

You have some good points in there. Yeah, I'm not judging either...but I found, among the people I know/spoke to in such relationships, most are in denial of being taken advantage of. In two cases, it seemed to me the woman was being trapped. But you're right, it boils down to an individual choice/inclination. However, I find a lot of people in incestual relationships find themselves unable to get into conventional ones with other people after ending these.

Arun Nat said...

Hmm.Understandable i guess.It'd be as difficult as fighting against ones sexual orientation when in an unnatural relationship.When the world mocks and ridicules what you went through(by choice or force),one can never come out of the closet.Most of them are parochial about sexual behaviour.

We are in a patriarchal world where most women are imposed on.Most of the rapes and molestations not only take place by someone known but within the family.We as a society have a great deal to advance before such people can out to get help.And even if one is willing to,its almost impossible to find special clinics.Its indeed pathetic. The initiation has to come from somewhere.Its more likely to be an NGO than the government.

Kimish Patel said...

Incest relations invariably and in numbers appear in literature across many different cultures as you pointed out. The knowledge of relation between the two people involved, either known before hand or discovered at some later point in the story, throws interesting perspective, both in former and latter case, for human psyche, cultural and its moral dilemmas and hidden curiosity of the members of the same society to know more about it. This latter aspect as you put it is what is there in the hidden shadows of the minds of the spectators in the form of curiosity, guilt, self validation and in numerous other ways in which words cannot capture the perplexity of human emotion although attempted it must be to appreciate the beauty of this complexity.

What I am really curious about is the counterpart evidence of such things in our own mythology, much like greek. Is it there? Or has it been suppressed or masqueraded in our conservative society because instinctive human nature does not vary as much across different culture.

I am also interested in knowing the moral dilemma they face which may conflict with their own up-bringing in the case of knowingly entering such a relation versus finding it out much later. How do they reconcile or do they even feel the need to reconcile? Do they build a parallel moral system to resolve the conflict? I am not taking sides to any side of the moral spectrum or side of any particular system. Just interested in exploring and knowing what they go through.
Let me know if you have any pointers.
Oh BTW I noticed you quoted Orhan Pamuk. I havent read the museum of innocence but I have very recently read My Name is Red. It is very interesting book both for narrative style and content. Just mentioning it here in case you have not read.

Nandini Krishnan said...

I've read all of Pamuk. :-)

And no, I can't think of any examples in Indian mythology. Interesting that you mention it.

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