Chiasmus for the Rest of Us

As a Libra, and in keeping with the current blog title about introspection and self-knowledge, it's time to delve into a little literary device called chiasmus. Why? Just for fun...and because it's a rhetorical technique that is still used often even though it's ancient in origin. Even connections to Christ on the cross have been made to the format of chiasmus, so it carries its weight.

Any dictionary will tell you that chiasmus comes from the Greek "χιάζω or chiázō" which means "in the shape of the letter X". According to Wikipedia.org the device is used in speech and in prose to achieve a kind of parallelism of thoughts and to establish a sense of balance (hence my zodiacal connection).

My own introduction to chiasmus came from its more recent, but still historical usage, in African American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I've never quite been able to devise any decent 'chiasmi' of my own, so I'll borrow from the masters to illustrate its power and eloquence when employed correctly and efficiently.

Here we go with a some examples I enjoyed from the wikipost:

"Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." John F. Kennedy

"You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Frederick Douglass

"I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." Tom Waits

"Well, it's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men." Mae West

"In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons." Croesus

This last is partuicularly appropriate for our times. Chiasmus can be succinct or befuddling. Sometimes the phrase's meaning jumps off the page and other times it requires some turning over in the mind. In more contemporary uses, like the Tom Waits quote, quirkiness and humor are what make the chiasmus form ring so truthfully.

Our President is a fan -- I've heard him use chiasmus more than once in speeches on the campaign trail -- but then again so are folks like Regis Philbin and your next door neighbor, probably when he's trying to sound wise from over the fence.

So, I declare, chiasmus for them and chiasmus for the rest of us!

1 comment:

  1. I'll provide the sole commentary here unless others have the soul for commentary. Get it?


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