Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology

Another working paper (title above): SSRN page:

Abstract: Ring-composition is an ancient way of ordering narratives, but it exists in a variety of modern texts as well. Mary Douglas has identified seven criteria for recognizing narrative rings: 1) exposition or prologue, 2) split into two halves, 3) parallel sections, 4) indicators to mark individual sections, 5) central loading. 6) rings within rings, and 7) closure at two levels. I analyze a variety of texts according to those criteria (“Kubla Khan,” Metropolis, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now), introduce the notion of center point construction as a weakened, and therefor more general, form of ring composition, and discuss ring-composition in relation to a computational model of mental behavior.

Introduction: Rings and Narratives

I first learned about ring form composition in a 1976 article by R. G. Peterson, “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature” (PMLA 91, 3: 367-375), which I probably read when it was originally published. By ring Peterson meant texts having this kind of form, often known as chiasmus:

A, B, … X … B’, A’
A, B, … X, X’, … B’, A’
Peterson was reporting on a literature that was two decades old by that time, though it was mostly about classical and biblical texts. Beyond verifying the chiasmus in Dylan Thomas’ “Author’s Prologue”, however, I did nothing with the article. I simply filed the topic away in my mind.

I wasn’t until early in this millennium, after the publication of Beethoven’s Anvil, that I put ring composition on my own agenda. The late Mary Douglas had been kind enough to blurb the book and my editor put me in touch with her after it was published. In the course of our correspondence she asked me if I had any ideas about how the brain might do such a thing. She was interested in ring forms because she thought they were somehow fundamental to the human mind. Here’s an entry from my notes at the time:
The most interesting aspect of ring-composition is the inverse order requirement. Why do I think that? Because it places the most "stress" on the brain's equipment. Consider the alphabet. School children spend hours learning to recite the alphabet. But the fact that you've learned it doesn't mean that you can recite it in reverse order. That requires further practice. The brain's standard procedure for memorizing lists (whatever it is) is unidirectional. In contrast, once the alphabet has been written down, it is a trivial matter to read it in either direction. The eyes scan right to left as easily as left to right, bottom to top as easily as top to bottom.
So, just how is it that ring forms arise? It’s one thing to have a chiasmus that spans a short time period, such as that at the end of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 – “this the world well knows yet none knows well…” – but how do we do such a thing for a much longer span?

My initial thought, though, was that the navigation system might produce ring forms. Consider what happens when you leave home for some purpose at some other place and then return by the same route. For example, Mary goes to the grocer to buy a bottle of milk:
1) Mary leaves home.
2) She walks past the oak tree.
3) She walks past the post box.
4) She arrives at the grocery store.
5) She opens the door and enters.
6) She nods to the cashier.
7) She gets a bottle of milk from the cooler.
6’) She pays the cashier for the milk.
5’) She exits through the door.
4’) She walks away from the grocery store.
3’) She walks past the post box.
2’) She walks past the oak tree.
1’) Mary arrives home.
That’s a canonical ring form, with the departure from and arrival back home being the first and last elements in the ring and the purchase of the bottle of milk being the mid-point. The events in the tale are arrayed symmetrically about the mid-point.

Given that many tales take the form of journeys perhaps the navigation system is indeed beyond some ring-form tales. But only perhaps.

As much as I’ve pondered possible mechanisms, most of my own work has been in analyzing and describing ring-forms in relatively recent texts, as opposed to the classical and biblical texts that are the traditional province of the subject. Moreover, last year I was contacted by John Granger, who has written a number of books on the Harry Potter series – note that I've not read any of the books but I've seen two of the movies, the first one and some other one. He'd learned about Mary Douglas's work on ring composition and had determined that each of the Harry Potter books are rings and that the series as a whole is a ring. As I've not read the books I have no opinion about whether or not he's right, but it's certainly possible. He’s written a book on the subject: Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle.

Granger has also argued that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is ring composed and so is Around the World in Eighty Days. He's sent me a document in which he describes ring composition in Robert Louis Steven's Kidnapped. I may have read Kidnapped years ago, but I've not read either Frankenstein or Around the World in Eighty Days and so I haven’t verified his claims. But I have no a priori reason to question his work for my own work has revealed the existence of ring composition is quite recent texts, for example, Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis from 1949 and, in film, several of the episodes of Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Gojira, from 1954. Moreover, I have recently, and almost accidentally, discovered ring composition in a non-fiction work, an essay by literary critic Alan Liu, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities.” I would also mention a popst by film critic, David Bordwell, in which he discussed ring-like embeddings: Chinese Boxes, Russian Dolls, and Hollywood Movies.

I hesitate to offer an opinion as to how prevelant ring-form texts might be. But, on the whole, I am inclined to believe that there are many out there just waiting to be idenfied as such.

The Posts

The Ring-Form Challenge: This is a call to arms, or at any rate a call for help. I summarize Douglas’s characterization of ring composition and mention two examples from my own work, Heart of Darkness, and Metropolis.

Dylan Thomas constructs a Wonderful chiasmus: The “Author’s Prologue” to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems is 102 lines long and has a ring-form (chiasmus) rhyme scheme. I demonstrate that and show that the ring-form mirroring applies to line length as well. We know Thomas did this with conscious intention because we possess a typescript with lines numbered running forward to the middle and then reversing to the end.

Center Point Construction: Coleridge, Tezuka, Conrad, and Coppola: Center point construction is my own notion, and is a weakened kind of ring. I was driven to the notion by my work on Heart of Darkness, which has a very strong, and strongly marked center section that functions as the center of a ring in Douglas’s characterization. But I couldn’t bring mysaelf to force a strong parallel analysis on the ordering of incidents before and after that center, though the very last episode echos the very first in that it closes the frame. This center loading gives these texts an affinity to strict rings and I believe they should be studied on that basis. In addition to Heart of Darkness I discuss Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Tezuka’s Metropolis, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. I score each text against the seven criteria Douglas set forth for ring composition. I also introduce the notion of an emblem, an image that somehow characterizes the whole, as each of these texts has sucn an image.

Center Point Construction: Description and Objectivity: But are these things real or are you just reading them into the texts? They’re real, and I explain why I believe that. In particular, I note that comparing texts to one another is methodologically indispensible in identifying the joints of textual forms.

Center Point Construction and the Computational Mind: I discuss Douglas’s criteria in the context of a computational model of mental processing, arguing that each of them has a plausible interpretation in such a model.

Ring Form, A Computational Approach: I try out the notion of a computer program as a model for what’s going on in these texts. I consider two examples, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia and Apocalypse Now.

Ring Composition in Alan Liu’s Essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities”: Unlike all the other texts I’ve considered, this one is not a work of fiction. And yet it exhibits ring-composition. Perhaps the form is more general than we’ve realized.

The Disciple Revisited and Revived: This is a specific example, “To a Solitary Disciple,” by William Carlos Williams. Actually, I’m not quite sure that this is a ring, and say so. Thus it nicely illustrates the problems one encounters when undertaking the pedestrian business of simply describing the form of a literary texts.

Analytic and Descriptive Work on Ring-Form Texts

For the most part, the posts I’ve gathered in this working paper only summarize analytical work I’ve done elsewhere. Here’s the sources of that work.

“Kubla Khan”

STC, Poetic Form, and a Glimpse of the Mind

“Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003.


Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan. In Timothy Perper and Martho Cornog, eds. Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World. Libraries Unlimited, 2011, pp. 37-51.

Tezuka’s Metropolis: A Modern Japanese Fable about Art and the Cosmos. In Uta Klein, Katja Mellmann, Steffanie Metzger, eds. Heurisiken der Literaturwissenschaft: Disciplinexterne Perspektiven auf Literatur. mentis Verlag GmbH, 2006, pp. 527-545.

Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

From Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now

Lévi-Strauss and Contemporary Myth: Heart of Apocalypse

Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales

Apocalypse Now: Working Papers.

Fantasia: Nutcracker Suite, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Pastoral Symphony

Two Rings in Fantasia: Nutcracker and Apprentice

Pastoral 5: Ring Form Construction

Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind


I did the analytic work on this film after I’d written all of the posts in this working paper, which is why I don’t mention it in any of them. But it’s an important and interesting example. That work is in this post:

Ring Form Opportunity No. 4: Gojira is a Ring

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Lastly, any New Savanna post on ring forms bears the “ring-form” lable, making them all available at this link:

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