HyC Adventures
The Poetics of Perception
Chiasmus: An Introduction





An Introduction


Hyatt Carter



“Ask not what your country can do for you,

ask what you can do for your country.”


That sentence, spoken by President John Kennedy in a famous speech, is a good example of chiasmus, a rhetorical figure that reverses the terms of the two clauses that make up a sentence, or a part of a sentence.


Chiasmus is thus a linguistic twist or turn that you can use to express a crosswise mode of thought. Chiasmus (ky-AZ-mus) means “a crossing,” from the Greek letter chi, X, a cross. You “cross” the terms of one clause by reversing their order in the next.


The Greek letter chi ( χ ), the initial letter of chiasmus, is my symbol for chiasmic structures, or crosswise modes of thinking and expression. A famous line from “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” a poem by John Keats, can be represented as:


beauty is truth


truth [is] beauty


Matthew 19:30 states a simple chiasmus: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”


first shall be last


last shall be first


Indeed, the Bible is chock-full of chiasmic structures of varying degrees of complexity. For example, take note of the structure of 1 John 4:7-8:


Beloved, let us love one another.


  A For love is of God

   B and whoever loves is born of God and knows God

   B He who does not love has not known God

  A for God is love.


And from the book of Amos:


  A Seek ye me, and ye shall live.

   B But seek not after Bethel,

    C Nor enter into Gilgal,

      D And pass not to Beer-sheba:

    C' For Gilgal shall surely go into captivity,

   B' And Bethel shall come to naught.

  A' Seek Yahweh, and ye shall live.


     (Amos 5:4b-6a)


If you compare the first and last lines, and so on, you will  see that the italicized words reflect parallel correspondences in this A-B-C-D-C'-B'-A' chiasmus. A and A' are what may be called “thought-rhymes,” as are B and B', and C and C'.


Some chiasmic structures in the Bible are marvels of complexity. The Gospel of John is a good example. Not only are there, throughout John’s Gospel, many chiasmic units nested one within the other, but the book itself, as a whole, is a complex interlocking chiasmus that goes so far beyond the ordinary sense of chiasmus that it must be called a meta-chiasmus.


I’ve almost completed a new book that will explore the concept of chiasmus not only as a figure of speech but also, and more importantly, as a figure of thought. The book will show how the concept can be generalized beyond its literary meaning and that chiasmus, and the way it turns things around, is a powerful conceptual tool that enhances the poetics of perception.


Finally, for your contemplation, a progression of forms to suggest the contours, the topography, the crisscrossing . . . of chiasmus:


A  B


B  A





 Chi Graphic



 DNA Segment




 Moebius Strip



Propagating Light Wave





Chiasmus: An Introduction
Iconic Reading
Whitehead's Use of Chiasmus in PR
25 Chiasmi by Eihei Dogen
The Gospel of John: A Miracle of Composition
Amazing Literary Grace: St. Paul's Hymn to Love
Beauty of Structure in the Four Gospels
Dogen's Use of Chiasmus in Shobogenzo
Chiasmic Beauty from the Mists of Chinese Antiquity
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