Thinking in Circles

by Mary Tew

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Thinking in Circles

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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...

(This entire section contains 1905 words.)

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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. She suggests further that Numbers was written for an audience with established patterns of thinking, patterns that show up in the narratives and laws.

In 2003, Douglas followed the lectures on ring composition and the book of Numbers with observations about the difficulty facing scholars from a linear print culture and speculations about the reasons that humans have thought in circles. In preparing the lectures for publication, she has added material from two other series of lectures that she gave, in London and Edinburgh, so that the published “essay” has eleven numbered sections. Moreover, she has turned the original project into a full-scale ring composition.

Lest any linear reader miss this feature, or feat, the contents page of Thinking in Circles is followed by a diagram showing “contents in a ring”: the eleven numbered sections in a circular pattern where the section on “How to Construct and Recognize a Ring” is directly across from another on “How to Complete a Ring.” This is very clever, of course, but it serves the larger purpose of showing that the ring is not an esoteric device available only to the initiated but a feature of human thought. It also reinforces her suggestionnever quite an assertionthat writers in societies from India to Israel have consciously created rings to give their creations shape. Western cultures today tend to think negatively about “circular reasoning,” and there is a gentle, self-effacing humor in Douglas’s title. Nonetheless, Douglas offers reasons to rethink our cultural prejudices.

One way to recognize a ring composition, says Douglas, is to look for a repeating element. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, there is the repeated answer to God’s call: “Here I am.” Douglas uses as her own recurring motif a statement by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. Commenting on the use of parallelism in language, Jakobson said that it occurred with remarkable frequency and served to give the parallel lines “both clear uniformity and great diversity.” He added that it was so universal as to be based, most probably, on the functioning of the human brain. Douglas mentions this observation in the first section of her essay, returns to it at the turning point (6:00 in the clock analogy), and devotes the final section to reflection on “Jakobson’s conundrum”: “that writing in parallels comes to everyone naturallybut we do not understand why we are slow to recognize it.” She explains this conundrum by “resorting to cultural theory,” which has been an important aspect of anthropology for the last generation. In doing so, she comes back to her own intellectual beginnings.

As a doctoral student in the 1940’s, Douglas did her fieldwork in what was then the Belgian Congo. While studying traditional African religions, she wanted to understand why different groups feared different risks. After writing an ethnographic study of the Lele peoples, she developed a full-scale theory, which she termed the “cultural theory of risk.” In the now-classic Purity and Danger (1966), she argued that societies generate “cultural biases” in order to create cohesion. Some biases allow more individual choice; others demand more group solidarity. She found parallels between Western systems like the taboos in the Old Testament and non-Western ones like those she had studied in the field, thus beginning a process of pattern-seeking that would mark the rest of her career.

Douglas suggests that the ring composition served the needs of more hierarchical societies, where it was important for members to recognize boundaries, and that the very concept is difficult for members of a postmodern culture that distrusts clear-cut categories. In a footnote, she observes that anthropologists have now published more than seven hundred books and articles on what they commonly call Cultural Theory (uppercase). She is too modest to note that most of these are footnotes to her own work. Her original audience at Yale would have known this, however, and readers of this deceptively simple essay should keep it in mind.

In a circular story, there is both a journey out (1:00-5:00 on the clock face) and a return home (7:00-11:00). In the ring story, there is a parallel between events in the journeys out and home. In order to meet the rules of a ring composition as she has identified them, Douglas creates a parallel discussion of the Iliad toward the end of the essay to reinforce the discussion of the book of Numbers near the beginning. In the biblical work, she has found a recurring movement from law to narrative, which serves to organize the book; in Homer’s epic, she finds alternating stories of night and day that, while fragmentary in themselves, are arranged in such a way as to create the unity in diversity that critics have long cherished in works of literary art.

In a circular story, there is also a turning point (at 6:00), at which one is furthest from the beginning but still affected by it. Douglas finds her turning point in modern literature. She takes as her test case Laurence Sterne’s wildly digressive novel Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), but she also discusses works of detective fiction like the Poirot novels of Agatha Christie. Her findings are perceptive, even ingenious, but admittedly inconclusive. There would seem to be no modern ring compositions in modern literature, and one has to wonder if she has deliberately avoided or simply overlooked such carefully organized works as Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927) and indeed such highly symmetrical plots as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611). Although well aware that poets of Shakespeare’s day were attracted to circular structures found in works of antiquity, such as Virgil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), she is most interested to see whether a ring structure can be found in works as apparently disorganized as the book of Numbers. It would be difficult to find a work as apparently random as Tristram Shandy, or an analysis of Sterne’s plot as orderly as Douglas’s.

In the first major review of this book, Edward Rothstein of The New York Times admired Douglas’s ability to spot patterns but found her book more suggestive than conclusive. He recognized that audiences always look for meaning and order, whether they are attending a concert, an art opening, or a poetry reading. He wondered whether perception of the symmetries in the ancient epics does not amount to a sort of rite, engaged in by a limited community.

Mary Douglas died a few weeks after the book’s publication. At eighty-six, she had outlived her husband of fifty years, the anthropologist James Douglas, and had completed all her projected research. Among the glowing obituaries, The Guardian’s pointed out that this final essay is a summation, continuing her long-running effort to apply discoveries from non-Western civilizations to her own cultural milieu.


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

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

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