Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition / Edition 1

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Overview

Many famous antique texts are misunderstood and many others have been completely dismissed, all because the literary style in which they were written is unfamiliar today. So argues Mary Douglas in this controversial study of ring composition, a technique which places the meaning of a text in the middle, framed by a beginning and ending in parallel. To read a ring composition in the modern linear fashion is to misinterpret it, Douglas contends, and today’s scholars must reevaluate important antique texts from around the world.

Found in the Bible and in writings from as far afield as Egypt, China, Indonesia, Greece, and Russia, ring composition is too widespread to have come from a single source. Does it perhaps derive from the way the brain works? What is its function in social contexts? The author examines ring composition, its principles and functions, in a cross-cultural way. She focuses on ring composition in Homer’s Iliad, the Bible’s book of Numbers, and, for a challenging modern example, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, developing a persuasive argument for reconstruing famous books and rereading neglected ones.

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Editorial Reviews

Harold Attridge
“The importance of this book consists in the fact that it is Mary Douglas, an extraordinarily influential anthropologist, who seeks to make cross-cultural sense of the literary phenomenon, ‘ring composition.'"—Harold Attridge, Yale Divinity School
Leonard C. Muellner
“Mary Douglas’s mission is to rescue great works of art from the trash heap in which they may have been thrown for lack of understanding, precisely, of their ring structure. In this she certainly succeeds.”—Leonard C. Muellner, Brandeis University
Gabriel Josipovici

"Not since Levy-Strauss has any anthropologist done so much to cast light on literary problems as Mary Douglas. Everything she touches she illuminates."—Gabriel Josipovici, author of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible

Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Päivi Mehtonen
"The scope of Mary Douglas's syntheticising thought is admirable. Her relaxed observations across the centuries and cultural boundaries are stimulating reading for anyone interested in the patterns of narrative, a field which is often characterised by narrow tunnel vision rather than intercultural and interdisciplinary desire."—Päivi Mehtonen, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
New York Times

"Over the course of her career Ms. Douglas has become a master at discerning order in unexpected forms and surprising places. In an unassuming way, without pretense or revolutionary claims, she reveals the logic behind the varied customs of a society."—Edward Rothstein, New York Times

— Edward Rothstein

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"The scope of Mary Douglas''s syntheticising thought is admirable. Her relaxed observations across the centuries and cultural boundaries are stimulating reading for anyone interested in the patterns of narrative, a field which is often characterised by narrow tunnel vision rather than intercultural and interdisciplinary desire."—Päivi Mehtonen, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

— P?ivi Mehtonen

Essays in Criticism

"Succinct, unpretentious, wise and, best of all, reconstructive. . . . [A] valuable contribution to cultural studies in the widest sense of the term, making one wish the term were more often stretched this finely. . . . a sagacious field guide, pleasing and teasing our tastes for turnings."—Jennifer Formichelli, Essays in Criticism

— Jennifer Formichelli

New York Times - Edward Rothstein

"Over the course of her career Ms. Douglas has become a master at discerning order in unexpected forms and surprising places. In an unassuming way, without pretense or revolutionary claims, she reveals the logic behind the varied customs of a society."—Edward Rothstein, New York Times
Bryn Mawr Classical Review - P�ivi Mehtonen
"The scope of Mary Douglas's syntheticising thought is admirable. Her relaxed observations across the centuries and cultural boundaries are stimulating reading for anyone interested in the patterns of narrative, a field which is often characterised by narrow tunnel vision rather than intercultural and interdisciplinary desire."—Päivi Mehtonen, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
Essays in Criticism - Jennifer Formichelli

"Succinct, unpretentious, wise and, best of all, reconstructive. . . . [A] valuable contribution to cultural studies in the widest sense of the term, making one wish the term were more often stretched this finely. . . . a sagacious field guide, pleasing and teasing our tastes for turnings."—Jennifer Formichelli, Essays in Criticism

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300117622
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2007
  • Series: Terry Lectures Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author


The late Mary Douglas was professor of social anthropology at University College London. After her retirement she was an honorary research fellow there.
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Read an Excerpt

Thinking in Circles

An Essay on Ring Composition
By Mary Douglas

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 Yale University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11762-2


Preface

To publish at last an essay on ring composition is a great personal satisfaction. I first read the book of Numbers in 1987 and was surprised to find that it has been much depreciated by commentators for disorderly writing. I later found that it is not disorderly but well organized as an elegant ring.

After seeing how badly that great book has fared at the hands of qualified commentators, I could not get the topic off my mind. I was, and still am, convinced that there is a lot that ought to be better known about ring composition. Something should be done to end the unworthy slurs on great authors and ancient texts. I put off making a serious study because I was not nearly qualified (and I still am not). The topic is arcane; the ground has been dug over many times by specialist scholars commanding many languages. I must regard myself as a visitor to the field of biblical scholarship. To have the courage to make a strong complaint I would have had to focus on the task exclusively and put everything else aside for at least a decade. Given these obstacles, I would never have made a start but for the honor of an invitation from King's College London in 2002 to give the F. D. Maurice Lectures. There was absolutely no restriction ontopic, and no requirement to publish. Instead of the profound and scholarly review that the occasion deserved, I settled for just waving a flag. I wanted to make the lectures a call for help. In effect, help was given so generously that when I had a second invitation from Yale University to give the Terry Lectures the next year my diffidence had been dispelled.

The audience at King's College had been stimulating and almost too polite. I jumped at the chance to invite more criticism and discussion. The audience at Yale was just as polite and full of stimulating suggestions, most of which I have tried to follow in these pages. I remember gratefully discussions with Geoffrey Hartman and David Apter, and the strong support of Dianne Witte, who organized everything. By the time I had finished I realized that the project was even more formidable than I had originally feared. I am grateful that Yale University Press offered to publish the second set of lectures on ring composition.

Ring composition is found all over the world, not just in a few places stemming from the Middle East, so it is a worldwide method of writing. It is a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning. It sounds simple, but, paradoxically, ring composition is extremely difficult for Westerners to recognize. To me this is mysterious. Apparently, when Western scholars perceive the texts to be muddled and class the authors as simpletons, it is because they do not recognize the unfamiliar method of construction.

Friends ask me, what does it matter? Why is it important to know the construction? This leads to another point: in a ring composition the meaning is located in the middle. A reader who reads a ring as if it were a straight linear composition will miss the meaning. Surely that matters! The text is seriously misunderstood, the composition is classed as lacking in syntax, and the author dismissed with disdain. Surely, misinterpretation does matter.

The anthropologists' standard criticism of attempts to interpret mythology apply to this venture. A typical gibe is to accuse the would-be myth analyst of giving free rein to her imagination. Friends have said, "Ring composition is a loose and fuzzy concept, Mary will always be able to find a ring form if she looks hard enough, in a laundry list, sports news, or whatever. Rings are everywhere." This lethal criticism I must rebut. Fear of it was one of the reasons why I was not too disappointed to find that Leviticus is not an example of construction in a ring.

I had very much hoped to reveal the ring form of that book; I tried hard and I failed. The consolation was to discover that Leviticus conformed to another famous type of composition, figure poetry, which I was not expecting at all. So the method of enquiry was justified even though the results, as far as ring composition is concerned, were negative. Healthy respect for the same criticism from Bible scholars accounts for my interest in identifying the rules that the ring authors have been following, and accounts also for some rather heavy treatment.

The chapters in this volume start with describing and analyzing ring compositions so that the reader has the tools for discovering them, and for appreciating the causes of misreading. Antique ring compositions are a precious heritage. There exist many more than I have described, all liable to the rejection that I have noted. It is necessary to work out what the maligned authors were originally saying. If it is only to rehabilitate them the task is worthy.

I have tried to sum up a few compositional rules, but I know they only apply to certain types of ring composition. If any two students were put in non-communicating rooms, each furnished with a set of these seven rules and a copy of a given ring document, I hope they would come out agreeing on the pattern they had found in it. It is an experiment that I admit I have never had the chance to try.

Pursuing this topic I discovered many new friends. In 1989 I had the temerity to lecture on the book of Numbers. That year the Gifford Lectures were held in Edinburgh in the Divinity School, and I had the good fortune to have a chivalrous Bible scholar, Graeme Auld, as my host. He is an indefatigable pattern spotter; from his analyses of one biblical story plotted upon another story from another Bible book, he has forged a powerful exegetical tool for challenging received ideas about the history and order of the biblical texts. It is thanks to his learned example and his personal support that I have gone on adventuring among ring compositions.

We need to reread them systematically with a view to making a typology of the different kinds of rings, the places and periods they flourished in. In this thought I have been inspired by the late Yehuda Radday, who did so much of the basic work on biblical chiasmus. He told me (in private correspondence) that he hoped that a typological comparison of ring styles would be useful background for the controversies on dating of Bible writings, a hope I share.

When I was at Northwestern University I had the privilege of hearing Wolfgang Roth's lecture on the pattern of the miracles in Mark's gospel. It made me remember and never again forget that pattern perception is one of the basic skills of anthropology. At that time I had not started to work on the anthropology of the Bible. Back in London after 1988, I gratefully acknowledge encouragement from Mark Geller, head of the Institute of Jewish Studies in University College. Directly on the topic of ring composition, by a stroke of good luck I met Simon Weightman, of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He himself was working with Aditya Behl on early Persian poetry, both experienced in formal analysis. I have referred to their exciting studies in this volume. And for invaluable help on figured poetry (or picture poems) I am immensely grateful to Jeremy Adler.

Most of the friends who helped me with this book are colleagues of long standing whose help is too pervasive to be picked out for this specialized topic-for example, Wendy Doniger, who has talked about it with me several times. But some are friendships made specifically on account of research into ring composition. Joan Pittock, for example, I met by sheer luck, when I visited the University of Aberdeen for a conference on the Bible. She is researching in eighteenth-century literature, focusing particularly on the history of the Oxford Chair of Poetry. She introduced me to the background of Robert Lowth's famous lectures on Hebrew poetry, whose influence on the study of biblical literary styles, including ring composition, cannot be overestimated. Again it was by luck that I first met my friend, Milena Dolezelova, the Czech sinologist, also very interested in chiastic structures. She it was who introduced me to Chinese literary conventions, including novels composed as rings. Geoffrey Lloyd also helped me by suggesting that I should think of Chinese divination in connection with parallelism.

I am indebted to Alan Griffiths, Leonard Muellner, and Malcolm Willcock for valuable advice on the chapters on the Iliad. My biggest debt is to Simon Hornblower, who was, when we met at UCL in 1997, researching on ring composition in Herodotus and Thucydides. He introduced me to John Myres's account of "pedimental" writing. "Pedimental" means writing that goes up to a central point, makes a turn, then comes down step by step on the other side, like wide-angled pediments on doorways. "Pedimental," as another name for a chiasmus, is usually applied to short pieces of writing, whereas I am using the words "ring composition" for much longer texts. It is like the difference between the decoration on a porch and the structure of the house.

The idea of a pedimental composition is clearly seen in Jacob Milgrom's design of a biblical ring that embraces in its scope the whole of the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua. He has drawn a steeply angled mountain labeled "The Theological-Literary Structure of the Hexateuch" (Fig. 1). The left side, ascending from Genesis, is labeled with an arrow "From Slavery"; on the peak, referring to Exodus, is "Theophany, My Presence." Coming down from the top on the right-hand side the arrow points "To Freedom," referring to Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua (four books are rolling down the mountainside much more quickly than the first two climbed up).

The ring is closed by the reference at the end to "Land promise fulfilled," Joshua (13-24), which matches "Land promised" at the beginning (Genesis 12-50). It shows how the circle does what writing in rings can do: raise the level of understanding.

It is a pleasure to record my debt in this book to Jacob Milgrom, specially for help on the chapters on Numbers. Without his learned support sustained over twenty years I never would have persevered with the study of the Bible as literature.

Ending is different from completion, as I have explained in the last chapter; the first is difficult, and the second impossible. I thank these people for their inestimable help. It is such a pleasure to remember them that I could go on for pages, as there are many more debts to acknowledge.

I would not forget to thank my sister, Pat Novy, for her line drawings of Abraham and Isaac, for the drawing of the scroll whose meaning is in the middle, and for her ring diagrams that vindicate such disparate materials being brought together under the one head of "Ring Composition." I also thank Tom Fardon for taking time off from his school leaving examinations and for giving invaluable skill in the tricky work of preparing the typescript for the publishers. I also extend thanks to my friendly neighbor, Colin Donne, for computer diagrams. Of course I gratefully acknowledge the publishers themselves, notably Jean Black and her team, Laura Davulis for her patience in the work of turning this typescript into a book, and Joyce Ippolito for her extreme care and attention to the text.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Thinking in Circles by Mary Douglas Copyright © 2007 by Yale University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface     ix
Ancient Rings Worldwide     1
Modes and Genres     17
How to Construct and Recognize a Ring     31
Alternating Bands: Numbers     43
The Central Place: Numbers     58
Modern, Not-Quite Rings     72
Tristram Shandy: Testing for Ring Shape     85
Two Central Places, Two Rings: The Iliad     101
Alternating Nights and Days: The Iliad     115
The Ending: How to Complete a Ring     125
The Latch: Jakobson's Conundrum     139
Notes     149
Index     161
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