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An Essay on Ring Composition

Mary Douglas

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Exploring beyond the usual boundaries of social anthropology, a leader in the field shows why our readings of ancient literary texts may be off the mark

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.

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

“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

 “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

"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 


"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

"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

"Douglas drew on an astonishing range of scholarly and primary texts—ranging from the Old Testament Book of Numbers to Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy—to tease out the concealed, nonlinear order of 'ring composition.' . . . Scholars . . . have discerned aspects of the ring structure, e.g., parallelism and chiasmus, but none present the basic ring form and its variations with the clarity and rigor of Douglas. Essential."—Choice

"Succinct, unpretentious, wise and, best of all, reconstructive. Shrewdly surveying her ground, Douglas proceeds to rebuild . . . an ancient and lost art known as 'ring composition', belonging  largely to epic and early biblical works. Her book is a valuable contribution to cultural studies in the widest sense of the term, making one wish the term were more often stretched this finely. . . . Mary Douglas's book is . . . a sagacious field guide, pleasing and teasing our tastes for turnings."—Jennifer Formichelli, Essays in Criticism

"She examines the characteristics that define ring composition and various works of ancient literature that were written using these techniques."—J.M. White, Parabola

Selected by as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2007 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300167856
Publication Date: September 28, 2010
192 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
14 b/w illus.
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