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Thinking in Circles

Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition

MARY DOUGLAS
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npwfp
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    Thinking in Circles
    Book Description:

    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'sIliad, the Bible's book of Numbers,and, for a challenging modern example, Laurence Sterne'sTristram Shandy, developing a persuasive argument for reconstruing famous books and rereading neglected ones.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13495-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. one ANCIENT RINGS WORLDWIDE
    (pp. 1-16)

    A new interest in ring composition has lately arisen. This antique literary form is being discovered in documents that the scholars have known for centuries and have translated without recognizing that they have any formal structure. Many fine old texts have been disdained and disrespectfully mauled in the effort to get to the sense. What a shame, and what dull and trivial interpretations have been piously accepted in default! And how ready the commentators were to lay the perceived incoherences to the door of weak writing skills, or even weak intelligence. Writings that used to baffle and dismay unprepared readers,...

  5. two MODES AND GENRES
    (pp. 17-30)

    Literature is institutional; institutions establish stereotyped forms of behavior, and literature itself contributes to the selection and stereotyping process. It is useful to be able to think of genres as distinctive institutional forms within literature, among other “literary kinds.”¹ They coordinate with non-literary institutional forms, set up ideals for behavior, and justify them. The readers, themselves embedded in institutional life, need to recognize the genre they are reading, so it has to make itself distinctive. Assigning a work to a genre gives the readers expectations about a literary piece, and they learn to judge whether it is a good sample....

  6. three HOW TO CONSTRUCT AND RECOGNIZE A RING
    (pp. 31-42)

    If ring composition is really rooted in our universal mental heritage, why do we have to have all this explained? Why do we ourselves not compose ring structures all the time? and everywhere? Parallelism has had a universal distribution over the globe, so why does it feebly give way to other compositional forms? Why do the oldfashioned rings no longer make sense? More directly to my theme, why do ring compositions get so badly treated by Western scholars? And going back a step further, why are ring compositions so difficult for us to read?

    Moving now to show how a...

  7. four ALTERNATING BANDS: NUMBERS
    (pp. 43-57)

    The book of Numbers has the reputation of a disorderly, unstructured book. If the reader thinks that all the books of the Pentateuch enjoy equal esteem, it will be a surprise to learn that the great nineteenth-century commentator Julius Wellhausen regarded the book of Numbers as a kind of attic used for storing biblical materials that did not fit into the other books. It was a junk room for the rest of the Pentateuch. As an anthropologist, my own reading is the exact contrary. This book turns out to be another example of what Glenn Most has described as the...

  8. five THE CENTRAL PLACE: NUMBERS
    (pp. 58-71)

    We have mastered the formal structure of the book of Numbers and its outside envelope. Now we want to know what is encased inside it. Already we have come far enough to see that ring composition is a rhetorical form specially suited for summation and reconciliation. When every element in the composition interacts with all the others and nothing is extraneous or unnecessary, everything contributes to embellish the pattern. A well-made ring, like the story of the creation of Adam in Genesis, or like the binding of Isaac, gives the snowflake effect; like Francis Thompson’s “filigree petal” it compels admiration....

  9. six MODERN, NOT-QUITE RINGS
    (pp. 72-84)

    We have now examined a particularly fine example of antique ring composition. Numbers fits Roman Jakobson’s definition of parallelism as “a system of steady correspondences.”¹ With this example in mind, we can better review his idea that a faculty for creating or recognizing these correspondences lies inherent in the relation among language, grammar, and the brain. Such correspondences should enable us to answer our initial question: why is ring composition so widespread? If Jakobson is right, it is inevitably spread far around the world. We should expect parallelism and rings to rise up in any region, at any period.

    Jakobson’s...

  10. seven TRISTRAM SHANDY: TESTING FOR RING SHAPE
    (pp. 85-100)

    A pattern of alternating bands was one rhetorical device that the biblical ring makers used to mark off units of structure. We saw this in the alternation of law and narrative for the book of Numbers and will see it again in the chapters on theIliadin the alternation of nights and days. In default of an alternating principle, Laurence Sterne relied entirely on parallelism to mark his units of structure inTristram Shandy. This partly accounts for the frequent repetitions.

    The next question about the structure is, do the swirling spirals ofTristram Shandyhave anything in common...

  11. eight TWO CENTRAL PLACES, TWO RINGS: THE ILIAD
    (pp. 101-114)

    For those who know and love theIliad,this and the next chapter are going to be frustrating. In this book the concern has to be entirely with the construction, nothing about the beauty, humor, and emotional power of the story. By this narrow focus we discover that theIliadadheres faithfully to the seven rules for ring composition, though admittedly this claim is controversial.

    Many scholars would now agree that theIliadis highly structured and that the form is annular. Over time there have been many suggestions about the overall structure, but no one scheme is generally accepted....

  12. nine ALTERNATING NIGHTS AND DAYS: THE ILIAD
    (pp. 115-124)

    The fundamental question keeps recurring. What sort of mental discipline does this literary form imply? From the list of rules one might suppose that it exerts a heavy-handed control. To be able to write in this exacting form might suggest a rigorous mental set in a strongly controlling culture. Is ring composition the tip of a psychological iceberg? Is it an example of the cultural control of creativity that the nineteenth-century anthropologists attributed to the remote peoples they called “primitive”? TheIliadis renowned as the most creative literary work of our Western civilization. The great advantage of being able...

  13. ten THE ENDING: HOW TO COMPLETE A RING
    (pp. 125-138)

    Arrived at this chapter we face several questions about endings. Our first will concern the way that actual rings come to their ending. This includes what the ending does for the composition, how it is done. That will be easy. More difficult is solving Jakobson’s conundrum described in Chapter 1, which must be attempted if my ending is to meet my beginning.

    The great philologist considered that parallelism is a faculty inherent in the relation among language, grammar, and the brain. Once the ring structure has been explained as a system of parallelisms, the puzzle takes a new turn. Why...

  14. eleven THE LATCH: JAKOBSON’S CONUNDRUM
    (pp. 139-148)

    After all this, Jakobson’s paradox is unchanged. We believe what he says, that writing in parallels comes to everyone naturally—but we do not understand why we are slow to recognize it. Recall that I wish to understand both why ring composition fell out of fashion in the east Mediterranean hinterland in the fourth and fifth centuries, and also why now we have trouble recognizing rings.

    I suspect that I have not been explicit enough about this latter difficulty. Let me take advantage of the latch to give at the very end one more case of a typical misreading of...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 149-160)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 161-169)