Chiasmus Annotated Bibliography (2015)

In a conversation about Cormac Jone’s ‘The Cosmic Chiasmus’ this morning, I recalled that I wrote up an annotated bibliography for ring composition studies for my MFA way back in 2015. I attach below the jump my very brief reviews of nine books on the subject for anyone interested in the subject.

Breck, John. The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond. Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008. Fr. John Breck, an Orthodox Christian priest and professor of theology and ethics, makes three contributions to the study of chiasmus in Shape of Biblical Language: (1) he notes that passages that move to and from a center in chiasmus do so “with progressive intensification from the extremities inward,” a heightening movement or “spiraling concentricity” highlighting the pivot, an effect he dubs “the rhetorical helix;” (2) he demonstrates the presence of this structure in texts from Old and New Testaments, Patristic literature, Orthodox hymnography and liturgical material, as well as traditional and modern secular pieces; and (3) Fr. Breck explains what the character and ubiquity of chiasmus in scripture requires of academic theologians, devout readers, and translators alike. He concludes that it all but demands a commitment to relearning how to read for a poetic, holistic, contemplative appreciation of work that is organized for an aural, synchronic experience rather than a diachronic and disintegrative or analytic one. Like Douglas (see below), Fr Breck balks at making more than suggestive observations about why chiasmus structures are as ubiquitous, persistent, and powerful as they are (spirallic patterns in nature, etc.), a failing much more disappointing given his ordination into and experience of an iconological and Palamite body that worships in “systolic and diastolic pulse” as do chiastic texts. Despite this failing, Shape of Biblical Language is an invaluable aid in grasping the artistry and meaning of introverted parallelisms that complements the arguments and exegesis of Douglas and Fowler.

Dorsey, David. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. Ada: Baker Publishing Group, 1999. David Dorsey’s Literary Structure would seem to be a work only for the Hebrew specialist in Old Testament studies but his introduction to the work speaks with edifying clarity and simplicity to the beginning student of ring composition or chiasmus (what he terms “symmetric patterns”). His opening chapters on identifying literary units, the arrangement of said units, i.e., the patterns, and their structure and meaning, in which chapters he explains the techniques to be applied to a structural reading of each Old Testament book, are a textbook both in the subject matter presented and in how to present the subject to a novice. Dorsey’s discussion of the use of structural reading to arrive at the meaning of a passage or book is lengthy, which is unusual in itself in this sort of work unfortunately, and essential reading because in it is embedded his argument for such an approach. Having said that, Literary Structure fails to address both questions that prevent this approach from challenging, not to say displacing the exclusively linear and analytical models of conventional education, i.e., he does not offer an explanation of either how or why chiasmus or parallel structures have the effect they do on the reader or listening audience. The straight forward quality of his introductory material and of the consequent survey, however, make this text an excellent beginning point for the ring reader and writer as much as for its intended seminary audience.

Douglas, Mary. Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Anthropologist Mary Douglas’ final work, Thinking in Circles, simultaneously asserts the qualities of a near universal story scaffolding she calls ‘Ring Composition,’ argues persuasively that this turtle-back structure of parallelisms across an axis exists in epic, revealed, poetic, and folk texts of ancient, Medieval, and early modern cultures, and attempts to answer Jakobson’s Conundrum. The last is the problem of why this story form is a commonplace across centuries, continents, and cultures. Jakobson suggested it is a function of how the human mind works. The consequent conundrum is, if this is so, why did it fade out of artistic consciousness soon after Tristam Shandy and why is it so hard for modern readers to recognize? Douglas’ answer to this last is a disappointing default to “social and cultural causes” rather than exploration of theocentric versus secular epistemology. This and her acceptance of the demise of the form, however, are the only disappointing aspects of this work which illustrates the variety and flexibility of rings and acts as a textbook for serious readers and ambitious writers. Modern and postmodern writers as diverse as C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Joanne Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer ‘bracket’ their works in the fashion described by Douglas with evident success. ‘Why?’ I suspect requires not an explanation of what Jakobson neglected so much as it asks for an expansion of the idea of mind to something cardiac or noetic as well as cranial.

Duckworth, George. Structural Patterns and Proportions in Vergil’s Aeneid: A Study in Mathematical Composition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962. Duckworth’s Structural Patterns reviews three principles evident in the composition of the Aeneid – “alternation between more serious and lighter books, the parallelism of the books in each half, and [Virgil’s] arrangement of the Aeneid as a trilogy with two units of four books, each of a tragic nature, framing a central core of four books” (p 45) – before exploring in detail the ‘proportions’ used in the composition of the individual books and work as a whole. This proportion is the “Golden Mean ratio, according to which the greater part is to the lesser as the whole is to the greater; i.e., with M and m denoting the major and minor parts respectively: M/m = (M + m)/M, the quotient, computed to three decimal places, is 1.618. Likewise if the smaller is divided by the larger: m/M = M/(M + m), the quotient to three decimal places is .618” (p 36). Duckworth’s demonstrations of this proportion in the structure of the Aeneid is magisterial, even overwhelming, if the work is probably only of interest to the classics scholar or those who study poets guided by Virgil, Dante most importantly. His conclusion, that “the presence of mathematical ratios coinciding with narrative units, both large and small” should add to our enjoyment of Virgil’s epic because “it adds to our understanding of [his] learning and of [his] appreciative attention to basic principles of aesthetics,” is so lame and restrictive that the thoughtful reader is left to imagine, to hope that the scholar dreamt his exacting work revealed much more than this. The ring composition student will find the patterns chapters more helpful than the proportion chapters and many chart appendices, if the latter point to the heart of pattern writing, namely, conformity of artistry microcosm to the alchemical elements and nature of the macrocosm.

Fowler, Alastair. Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Fowler’s Triumphal Forms is not a book on ring composition or chiasmus except incidentally. The ‘structural patterns’ he explores in Elizabethan poetry are more numerological and geometric. The value of this work for the non-specialist who does not have Faerie Queen, Donne’s Songs on Emergent Occasions, or even Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart is Fowler’s command of the critical literature in his field, his boldness in suggesting then demonstrating what seems preposterous to the reader illiterate in the symbolic meaning of numbers, and his sobriety bordering on skepticism – even about his own work! – in pattern identification. Fowler acknowledges the weakness of his work himself that he cannot explain the “why” of these patterns beyond establishing that they exist and what the numbers are believed to represent. And the intricate, improbable, and mind-blowing patterns he reveals in Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Sydney, and Pope? We cannot, in Fowler’s view, say anything with surety about “the relation between form and value;” “the relation of numerology to meaning, which is of theoretical interest, remains obscure” (pp 200, 201). He only comes to this subject at book’s end because of his already daunting objectives in demonstrating that patterns exist. Without a compelling answer to why poets were consumed by creating such number-focused matrices within their poems and poem cycles, unfortunately, Fowler’s reader is left with the impression that there might not be any relation between scaffolding and effect and that this, consequently, is a conceit specific only to historical periods and ages concerned about, or with the Elizabethans, consumed by such things. Having said that, Fowler’s book, as is true also of Breck’s and Douglas,’ more than serves the function so necessary today of overwhelming readers with its evidence and cogent argument and thereby convincing them of both the reality and the power of pattern writing in poetry or prose.

Lund, Nils. Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in the Form and Function of Chiastic Structures. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992 (1942). Lund’s doctoral dissertation at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago is the base camp for modern chiasmus studies in Christian scripture, and, given the Bible’s place as source for much of the artistry of the Western canon, for ring composition work in literature in general. It is an academic work from the 1930’s, however, whose aim is demonstration of chiastic structures in the Old Testament, Gospel narratives, Letters of Paul, and Revelation with exhaustive and, frankly, exhausting reference to the relevant scholarship. Much of his work has been expanded and corrected by later scholars, all of whom acknowledge their debt to Lund’s pioneering efforts. My disappointment with the work was in expecting significant discussion of “the function of chiastic structures” as promised in the sub title. Besides pointing to the center of a series of introverted parallelisms as the sweet spot meeting point or heart of any passage, the reader does not find any exploration of why the prophets, poets, and apostles would choose to shape the Word of God as they have.

McGough, Richard Amiel. The Bible Wheel: A Revelation of the Divine Unity of the Holy Bible. Yakima: Bible Wheel Bookhouse, 2008. McGough’s thesis is that the 66 canonical books of Christian scripture line up as “wheels within wheels,” three circles of 22 texts in correspondence with the Kabbalistic understanding of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. I have corresponded with the author and confirmed that his discovery and argument were made without reference to the published work on chiasmus in scripture and while unaware of Ring Composition studies in other fields. The few skeptics familiar with the Bible Wheel thesis have largely dismissed it as crank speculation which is unfortunate. As a rule, the critics are at least as unfamiliar with the literature as is McGough and their criticisms do not reflect a serious reading of his over sized work. They also, again like McGough, are unfamiliar with the Elizabethan fascination with hermetic systems, especially Kabbalah, and ring composition (cf., Frances Yates’ work on English Renaissance occult beliefs and Alastair Fowler’s Triumphal Forms), which makes the King James Bible committee’s ordering the 66 books in the way suggested believable, if in no sense demonstrated. McGough’s work, as flawed as it is in presentation and tone, remains a remarkably challenging and unconventionally poetic and rounded approach to viewing scripture holistically, even iconologically.

Welch, John, editor. Chiasmus in Antiquity.Provo: Research Press/FARMS, 1999 (1981); Chiasmus Bibliography. Provo: Research Press/FARMS, 1999. The elephant in the room that must be mentioned immediately is the connection between modern chiasmus studies and apologetics for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). A central argument made by LDS defenders of the antiquity and authenticity of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Book of Mormon is that this work’s involved parallelisms are both unique to ancient texts, epic and scriptural, and too complicated for Smith to have invented with his limited education and rapid composition/translation of BoMor. The collection of essays Chiasmus in Antiquity is published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University and I think it fair to say it exists to give the chapter ‘Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon’ more credibility. Five of the ten chapters are written by the editor, John Welch, a Mormon and BYU professor, to include the introduction and the BoMor piece. Having said that and acknowledged the evident impulse and bias in the work, however, Chiasmus in Antiquity remains an invaluable collection, perhaps because Welch is well aware of how skeptical his ‘gentile’ audience must be. The scholarship is weighty, Welch’s ‘Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus’ exacting (perhaps even too quantitative for what is largely a poetic rather than a measured experience), and the range of materials and diversity of sources discussed right on the edge of overwhelming. The bibliography at book’s end is significant but Welch’s updated Chiasmus Bibliography is much more complete and up to date (the latter includes, for example, Ellis’ Genius of John, which Welch’s essay on ‘Chiasmus in the New Testament’ in Antiquity should have noted, cf., p. 242). If the reader looks past the apologetic function the book serves in the LDS community, s/he will be rewarded with an important resource tool for grasping the history and variety of chiasmus structures.

Whitman, Cedric, Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948. The value of Heroic Tradition to the student of ring composition is in Chapter XI, ‘Geometric Structure of the Iliad,’ in which Whitman expands on his earlier work about pottery patterns and Homeric story structures to detail the echoing, chiastic, and ring scaffolding of Homer’s Iliad. He defines ‘ring composition’ as only a “framing device, whereby an episode or digression is rounded off by repetition at the end of the formula with which it began” which he asserts is essentially a mnemonic device for the bard. He understands and illustrates the parallel structures and chiastic effects that Mary Douglas includes in her more demanding definition, as is most evident in the fold-out sheet at book’s end in which he charts the whole of the Iliad and its many parts as a remarkably coherent set of parallels and chiastic series. Whitman’s digressions on the structure as a “a form of balance by opposites” with his link to Plato’s Timaeus and the “a priori ground of all cognition” (p 254) and his back handed defense of formality for forms sake (“A poet does such things to please himself, one must suppose,” p 256) are his only discussions of why Homer organized his work in structures the “details” of which the author admits “are sometimes surprisingly precise in pattern” (p 259). Homeric Tradition is a valuable resource for the scholar wanting examples of structural artistry in the masters, but will offer little in the way of enlightenment about what Fowler calls the “relation of number and meaning.”

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