Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (Book Review)

Author:  Douglas, Mary
Publisher:  Yale University Press, 2007
Reviewed By:  Richard M. Waugaman, MD, January 2011, pp. 192

What is ring composition, and why should analytically-oriented therapists care? Analysts have always had a deep and understandable fascination with applications of psychoanalysis to allied fields, including literature. The enrichment that comes from such interdisciplinary work can be reciprocal—we can learn from other disciplines, in addition to offering our vantage point to them.

We have an exciting opportunity for such mutual enrichment in this new theory that many previously unappreciated works of literature (including very ancient ones, from all over the globe) are organized by the little understood structure of "ring composition." It is structured as a sort of circle, or mirror image. The central meaning of the text is placed at its center. The second half mirrors the first half, in reverse order — e.g., A, B, C, D, C', B', A'. The full richness of the text is apparent only when the reader grasps the interplay between the corresponding sections, which may be linked thematically, through plot, through reversals, or (in the Book of Genesis, for example) through rare words that are used only in those two sections of the entire work.

Ring composition has been understood only the past few decades. Mary Douglas was a social anthropologist at University College, London, who died just after her book was published. She used her academic speciality to discern the similarity in ancient narrative structure across many widely separated societies in the Middle East, Greece, and China (among others). Douglas repeatedly found that when literary critics derogated some ancient epic as lacking a clear literary structure, 'such repudiations of structure are like signposts saying: "Here lies a hidden ring composition"' (p.101). It is not restricted to ancient literature, however. Douglas argues that Laurence Sterne's 1767 novel Tristram Shandy shows elements of ring composition. It appears likely that ring composition reflects a particular cultural world-view, that may not always be fully conscious, and that periodically disappears altogether with the recurrence of the sort of attacks on traditional structures that we now associate with post-modernism.

Many ancient Greek epics were 'nostos' or home-coming epics; of these, only The Odyssey survives. The experience of a short or long journey, with an eventual home-coming, was the sort of common experience that may have helped shape ring composition. 'From dust to dust' encompasses the human life cycle as a journey that begins and ends in Mother Earth. The anthropologist Robin Fox (in press) has speculated that our blind spot for ring composition might be because, 'trapped as we are in the imposed linear-cumulative view of time, we are decidedly uncomfortable when confronted with the aboriginal cycles in any form. Although we resist them we are also drawn by their archaic power: drawn back to the cyclical thought structure of the tribe.'

Our current view of time is so linear that we do not realize how much it organizes our thinking about the mind. Ring composition, however, implies a more circular view of time. In analysis, we do have many clinical observations and theories that, whether we realize it or not, allude to a more circular view of time. Anniversary reactions are a case in point. Such a perspective on time enacts unconscious wishes for immortality, and defenses against anxieties about linear time ending in death. One such defense is a use of circular time to see loss as temporary, since the past will inevitably return in some form. Transference naturally aids and abets this defense.

I suspect there are many other phenomena in clinical analysis for which we have group blind spots, based on our current cultural blind spot for circular views of time (see Waugaman, 1992). We know that core themes from the opening phase of analysis often recur in the termination phase. It would be rewarding to re-examine such clinical phenomena after familiarizing ourselves with ring composition.

Analysis has always attempted to see beyond the blind spots that result from 'group think.' Ring composition has been invisible to centuries of literary scholars, so understanding their massive blind spot about it is a fascinating challenge to the many analysts who are interested in creative literature. It is not just literary scholars who have missed such structures, of course.

An analyst reading Douglas will be stimulated by her thinking, while also adding complementary perspectives. For example, she assumes ring composition occurs only when the writer is deliberately using that structure (p.32). Analysts need think only of the intricate organizational structure of many dreams to realize this is not necessarily the case.

In closing, a word about chiasmus. Douglas applies that term to symmetrical literary structures on a small scale, and ring composition to the entire text. She suggests we look for especially prominent chiasmus midway through the text. With her thoughts in mind, I noticed that Achilles speech midway through Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (III,iii, 103-111) is a beautiful chiasmus, enacting his words about our need to see ourselves mirrored in another person's image of us. At the center of the speech is "eye to eye," nearly pallindromic in its symmetry. "This is not strange" is repeated in the first and last lines. Two words begin with "b" in the second line; two words end in its mirror image, "d" in the penultimate line.


Fox, Robin (in press), The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Janis, Irving L. (1972), Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Waugaman, Richard M. (1992), Analytic Time. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal. 20:29-47.


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