Thinking in Circles

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In 1905, Dwight Terry established an annual lectureship at Yale University. Under the terms of his bequest, the lectures were to explore the relations of science and religion or, in Terry’s words, to build “the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.” The lectures were to be given by “men eminent in their respective departments,” and for the first fifty years all the eminent thinkers (including such giants as the American educator John Dewey and the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung) were men. The British novelist and suffragist Rebecca West became the first woman to lecture in the series, in 1955, and she was followed by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1957. After that, nearly a half century elapsed before another woman was invited to deliver the famed Terry Lectures.

Mary Douglas gave four lectures in October, 2003, under the general title “Writing in Circles: Ring Composition as a Creative Stimulus.” At age eighty-two, she was looping back to subjects she had worked on at the outset of her career and was consciously bringing her work full circle. Since completing a three-part study of the Old Testament’s Pentateuch, or Torah, she had been giving lectures on what she claimed to be the organizational principle that held the five books of Moses together: the principle of ring composition. She offered a summation in the first of her Terry Lectures, “How to Recognize a Ring Composition.”

The term “ring composition” was coined in 1948 by W. A. A. van Otterlo, a Dutch scholar working on the Homeric epics. Throughout the previous century, classicists had broken down the Iliad and Odyssey into smaller poems, suggesting that they derived from a vast oral tradition. Van Otterlo asked how the fragments were stitched together and suggested that the basic principle was the “ring”: a circular pattern based on repetition and balance. In a simple frame, a narrative might have an introduction that somehow anticipated the central event and a conclusion that harkened back to the introduction. In a full-scale ring composition, there would be a careful balance of elements.

To explain the ring composition, it helps to use a visual illustration. Douglas provides fifteen figures, eight tables, and three editorial boxes. In lieu of a visual aid, one might use the analogy of a clock face. If the narrative begins and ends at 12:00, the action has its turning point at 6:00. In a simple tale, the closing action may have certain parallels to the opening action. Cinderella must return home, and the prince must come to find her. However, in a ring composition there is a quite exact set of correspondences, so that the events of 7:00, 8:00, and 9:00 echo those of 5:00, 4:00, and 3:00, respectively. There may even be a ring within the ring, so that the events of 7:00 and 8:00 are echoed, respectively, in those of 11:00 and 10:00.

Presented in this clockwork analogy (which is not Douglas’s), the ring composition seems a highly unlikely proposition. In fact, however, the ring is a type of a rhetorical figure known as chiasmus (from the Greek letter Chi, which is written Χ), the inverted relationship of two parallel phrases. A good example of chiasmus is the famous sentence from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for your country.” Chiasmus can happen on the level of the letter, notably in a palindrome like “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” It can also occur at the level of the image or event in a story. Thus, in the story of the binding of Isaac, in Genesis 22, the 6:00 turn is the angel’s call to Abraham, just after the pious father has raised his knife against his own son. The angel instructs Abraham to substitute a ram for the human sacrifice. The burning of the animal sacrifice at 9:00 echoes the gathering of wood for the sacrificial fire at 3:00, and the whole chapter forms a perfect ring. All of this may seem a mere curiosity until one comes to the age-old question of Abraham’s sanity in preparing to kill his beloved sonor God’s in demanding the sacrifice. Douglas suggests that readers who recognize the ring composition will see that Isaac’s life is never seriously at risk, only Abraham’s faith, and that the happy outcome is predicted from the beginning.

Having identified the salient features of a ring composition, Douglas turns to the book of Numbers, widely considered a grab bag of Old Testament narratives and laws. She suggests that it is in fact a carefully constructed ring, a case she first made in her 2001 book In the Wilderness....

(The entire section is 1905 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Choice 45, no. 2 (October, 2007): 277.

The Guardian, May 18, 2007, p. 44.

The New York Times 156 (March 26, 2007): E1-E6.