Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Psychology of Ring-Composition

Actually, there are two psychologies: that of the reader (or listener) and that of the writer (or speaker). They are different, but note that the writer is necessarily a reader.

The difference, of course, is that the reader (who is only a reader) faces a completed text. Whatever’s there, that’s what the reader reads. It’s like a roller coaster; you get in the car and go for a ride. The structure of the ride is determined by the structure of the roller coaster. The reader of the ring-form text doesn’t have to know that it’s a ring-composition. The reader doesn’t have to notice that events later in the text ‘answer’ events earlier, and that the ‘questions’ and ‘answers’ are symmetrically arranged about the mid-point.

That is to say, it is my position that, in general, the ring-form doesn’t require readerly recognition in order to work. There are critics who do seem to believe that, if the reader doesn’t consciously notice something, it doesn’t exist. That’s an assumption and it is, at best, questionable.

The situation of the writer is different. The writer faces a stack of blank pages. How can the writer create a large-scale symmetrical structure if the writer isn’t doing so consciously and deliberately? That question deserves an answer. That’s one of the reasons ring-composition interests me. Coming up with an answer will tell us something about how the mind works.

Note, however, that Mary Douglas (in Thinking in Circles) believes that such large-scale rings are done consciously. Presumably she finds it hard to imagine how they could be done otherwise. It was with this in mind that I created a just-so story about someone leaving home for some purpose and then returning 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.

Now, I haven’t been able to make this kind of thing work for any of the ring-form texts I’ve investigated. But it does illustrate my point. Here’s a case where someone ‘traces’ a ring-form path without consciously setting out to do so. Mary does have a conscious intention, to buy a bottle of milk, and the world happens to be laid out in such a way that, as she pursues that goal, she traces a ring-form.

THAT’s what I’m after in the study of ring-composition. Whether I get there or not, that’s another matter. My immediate aim is simply to describe ring-form texts and see what we’ve got. I note, moreover, that I have no reason to think that all ring-compositions have to be constructed on the same underlying model. Maybe there are a half-dozen different ways to skin this cat.

Nor do I think that only one mechanism is involved in each text. I suspect that having a strong central section is a device that’s separable from the symmetrical arrangement of events before and after. The use of a frame tale is like that. Frame tales are common. When a frame tale frames a ring, it will be the first and last elements in the ring. But framing devices can be used for other tales. So, we’ve got three elements:
1) frame tale
2) center loading
3) symmetrical ordering of episodes
Maybe we’ve got one mechanism for each.

Finally, I note that writers live in a world full of poems and narratives. If some of those are ring-compositions, and a given writer particularly likes those, they’ll be motivated to imitate them. But they don’t necessarily have to consciously realize the ring-form structure. All they have to do is make a text that ‘feels like’ the ones they particularly admire.

To recap: readers and writers are different. Ring-composition poses no problem for the reader. The problem exists only for the writer. And there we will probably have to find several different quasi-independent mechanisms.


  1. Hello, WM!

    I still -- after many many posts -- don't get why you call it "ring form"! It's chiasmus, albeit extended, or chiastic. It's a sort of reflective mirror-form. It's closer to the form of a hairpin than a ring, at least the way I see it.

    What gives?

    Always interesting to read you on the topic!

    Regards --

    1. Well, yeah, it's chiasmus. But it's also ring-form, or ring-composition. I didn't give it those names, I found them in the literature and am simply using standard terms. The general idea is that the end meets the beginning, like a ring. Meanwhile, I've just ordered a book, a book new as of this year, that's about chiasmus in Shakespeare's plays.

  2. Ah. Ok, I still think it's a strange usage, but won't hold you responsible!

    I can see "the end meets the beginning" in ".. a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's .." -- but that's a "commodius vicus of recirculation" as Joyce himself says. But is Finnegans Wake considered "ring form"?

    I have a book somewhere on chiasmus in the architecture of Mormon temples, with Aaronic priesthood facing Melchisedek priesthood in the design.

    Symmetry: I love chiasmus. By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.

    I hope you'll write up the Shakespeare book in due course..

    1. Finnegan's Wake, ring-form? I don't think so. I suppose 'central symmetry/ would be a better term.