BMCR 2007.09.37

Thinking in Circles. An Essay on Ring Composition

, Thinking in circles : an essay on ring composition. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xv, 169 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780300134957. $28.00.

Table of Contents

The timely and almost archetypal interest in the pattern of ring composition is the topic of Thinking in Circles, the last book by the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-May 2007). She finds interdisciplinary grounds for her dialogue between anthropology and literary analysis in pattern perception and the structuralist theory of language, in particular in Roman Jakobson’s theory of parallelism as a faculty inherent in the relation between language, grammar, and the human brain. The ring structure is seen by Douglas as a system of diverse parallelisms, yet despite the “naturalness” of such parallels she claims that for some reason the Western reader is slow to recognise ring structures. Douglas calls this paradox “Jakobson’s conundrum.” The eleven main chapters of the book proceed from the general definition of ring composition to a closer analysis of texts as different in age and genre as the Book of Numbers in the Bible, the Iliad, and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.

Instead of the origin of the ring composition in oral culture, ancient memory techniques or cognitive aspects of human mind, Douglas is keener to show what she calls the exegetical function of the form: “It controls meaning, it restricts what is said, and in doing so it expands meanings along channels it has dug” (13). Apart from Jakobson, Douglas leans especially on W. A. A. van Otterlo’s studies on ring composition in Homer, as well as on biblical scholarship (e.g. Nils Lund, Roland Meynet) regarding the chiastic and circular rhetoric in the Bible. In Chapter Three Douglas delineates the rules for the identification of what she considers a ring, and the gradual formulation of these rules is a rewarding journey for the reader interested in the poetics and rhetoric of composition. As Douglas shows, it is not enough to remember that in a ring composition the meaning is located in the middle and the end corresponds to the beginning. One also needs more precise tools in order to “identify the units of text that have to be paired with each other in two series, the one descending from, the other ascending back to the beginning” (86). The seven rules suggested by Douglas are then, in subsequent chapters, applied to alternation of law and narrative in the Book of Numbers (Chapters Four and Five), the turns of the plot in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (Chapter Seven), and the multiple circular layers — and the alternation of days and nights — in the Iliad (Chapters Eight and Nine). Finally, the rules of ring composition are also discussed by Douglas from the creative writer’s point of view, in other words, as prescriptive rules guiding the author (Chapter Ten).

The numerous diagrams and tables illustrate Douglas’s approach and make it easy to follow. Nevertheless, it is not always clear exactly what are the narrative or textual units on which the analysis is based. What is the “meaning” which is located in the middle of the ring structure? Or what does the word “item” mean in the following rule: “To assert a parallel with confidence there need to be at least two distinctive items found in both members of the pair, but nowhere else” (89)? The answers to these questions may be inferred from each case study; Douglas is mainly looking for patterned themes, or plot-based features in the narrated textual worlds rather than other levels of language or representation. While such other levels, too, are hinted at here and there — for example, non-plot-based aspects such as the phonetic elements of biblical language, the prosodic features or the so-called prosimetrum form in epic (116), or the visual geometrical models of figure poems (131-134) — it would have been useful to find a more detailed discussion of such possible “items,” too. Otherwise it could be counter-argued that a chiasmus or parallel in poetic language often obeys rules quite different from those observable in the plot. The units may be acoustic, rhetorical, or dictated by the needs of the performance.1 Regarding the performative aspects, the debate of the oral versus the literary nature of ring composition is omitted by Mary Douglas despite its visibility in recent studies on Homeric, biblical, or medieval poetry.2

Douglas’s essay is an enthusiastic text which has a lot to give to a general reader. However, a classicist or a student of medieval narrative patterns in literature might find superfluous the author’s repeated claim (x, 1, 11, 31, 125, et passim) of famous texts having been misunderstood due to modern (Western) readers’ inability to identify ring composition and misjudge it as chaotic or muddled in its structure. Among the many major theses of Thinking in Circles I find this alleged “trouble recognizing rings” (139) the weakest and one that hampers the reading of the otherwise rich essay which is not only a good introduction to ring composition but also to the thinking of the anthropologist, who always found fascinating ways to connect detailed textual patterns with broad cultural aspects. Although Douglas briefly mentions “a new interest in ring composition” (1), she nevertheless seems to ignore much of research in the field during the past two or three decades.3 Discussions concerning the ring composition of the Iliad belong to the commentary tradition not only of epic but also of other classical genres and rhetorical speeches. (See for instance Mark W. Edwards’s Iliad: A Commentary, vol. V, 1991, as reviewed in this venue by Robert Schmiel, BMCR 1992.03.05.) Likewise, this literary scholar would have enjoyed seeing Douglas’s anthropological contribution to and discussion with earlier research on the circular schemes of time and narration in Laurence Sterne’s abundantly studied masterpiece. Tristram Shandy is a good example of narrative structures based on both what is actually affirmed in the text but also that which is left unsaid or denarrated: vicious circles of possible or impossible, conjectural, hypothetical, or other modal courses of events and the consciousnesses of the characters. Would such levels and layers of narration qualify for “items” in the identification of a ring structure, as understood by Douglas? These questions do not emerge as she detects the circular patterns mainly in the (actualised) events of the plot and leaves aside the characteristic temporal and cognitive structures of Sterne’s work.

At the very end of the essay (Chapter Eleven) Mary Douglas reverts once more to the negligence thesis, now in the context of postmodernism. She sees it as a culture which is “heavily against boundaries, rules, and closures as such” and therefore “the ring shape would seem too formal, artificial, mechanical” (146). Yet one could also claim just the opposite: that postmodern literature is obsessed by the idea of circularity, given that one recognises its distinct features in cultivating the art of narrative constraints in the new old ways. Douglas’s method could prove fruitful with authors such as John Barth (e.g., experimentation with the Moebius strip structure), Walter Abish, or the Oulipo writers with their postmodern poetics of creativity which flourishes in chiastic, circular and other restrictions. These are basic questions which also motivate Douglas’s book as she reviews the possibilities opened up by the strict formality of ring composition for the “mental discipline” (115) of creative work.

Mary Douglas’s occasional exclamatory style and other speech acts reveal the essay’s origin in the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation lectures. Generally speaking, the essayistic mode works well, as it employs devices observed by Douglas also in the texts under scrutiny: marked orality and repeated patterns of form and content. The title and the structure of Thinking in Circles are thus self-consciously patterned to resist linear argumentative structure, forming a performance of the very techniques the essay talks about. However, in order to avoid unwanted repetition (e. g., the same quote from Jakobson on page 5 and note 1, p. 154), the readers of Yale University Press could have given the manuscript yet another look. These are the boring rules of academic essays where recognition of textual parallelism is not only the reader’s associative joy as in reading Tristram Shandy, but also the editorial cross-referencer’s job.

Despite my criticisms regarding some parts of the author’s argumentation and textual detail in the book, 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.


1. Brian Richardson, “Beyond the Poetics of Plot: Alternative Forms of Narrative Progression and the Multiple Trajectories of Ulysses,” in A Companion to Narrative Theory, eds. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell 2005.

2. Stephen Nimis, “Ring-Composition and Linearity in Homer,” in Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and its Influence in the Greek and Roman World, ed. E. Anne Mackay, Leiden: Brill 1999, 65-78.

3. Cf. for instance John D. Niles’s article (and ample documentation of the earlier research tradition) nearly 30 years ago: “Ring Composition and the Structure of Beowulf,” PMLA 94:5 (1979), 924.