|Eastern Fence Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus, seen on a Fort Braden trail near Tallahassee|
C is for Chiasmus
Pattern defines Nature and Nature defines Pattern. In the chiastic nature of things, some animals' longevity derives from their ability to reflect or mimic their surroundings. If an animal doesn't blend in but stands out in its surroundings or looks out of place, like this lizard on a trail marker, it's liable to be spotted by a predator or a curiosity seeker and picked off the tree. And, of course, it would have trouble hiding itself from its prey, losing the element of surprise when looking to snatch its next meal. I know I might be taking this analogy a bit too far, but if it weren't for the orange paint, you would see that the lizard conceals itself in a tree bark's pattern, and a tree bark's pattern conceals itself in the lizard.
Writing that makes use of chiasmus gathers strength from a similar principle, especially if it explores an uncomfortable, unpopular idea. The more obvious chiasmus is, the more likely it is trying to elicit support for--or at least response to--something. Take, for example, John F. Kennedy's famous call for volunteerism: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Humans by nature don't usually jump at the chance to help unless asked nicely or forced to do so. All it took was a little chiastic, patriotic reminder from a popular President to get people on board with him and spur them into action. Of course, that was back in the days when love of their country and its ideals came naturally to most Americans.
Some writers prefer a subtler approach to broaching a controversial subject or two. In Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants," he takes on Prohibition and abortion with one swell foop. Both of those taboo topics eventually appear, but they don't just jump out at you. Time means everything to this story. It was written in 1927. Prohibition in America was in effect from 1919 until 1933. It's no wonder there were so many expats running around Europe then. Censors in this country were keeping close watch on anything that reeked of Prohibition criticism, and of course pregnancy was not something that people talked about in public. Abortion? Forget it. The publication of Hemingway's story would not have been possible if not for a little sneakiness on his part to get past the censorship and attract attention, the kind of attention that would sell his story and get him book deals.
You realize--if you're in the habit of looking closely at stories--that the setting here is a train station, something often associated with 20th century progressivism. (You can read what that's all about here and here.) That point is obvious in the first paragraph. What's not so apparent but stands out, if you know what to look for, is Hemingway's use of descriptive and syntactic reversal in the first two lines: "The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun." Not only the setting described but also the pattern of the first sentence (order of nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases) is at odds with yet somehow mirroring the next one, right off the bat.
You know how your right hand suddenly becomes your left one in a mirror image? What's natural becomes manmade, prepositional phrases are suddenly at the fore, and passive voice in both sentences parallels the "two lines of rails" which are empty at the moment. Nothing is happening in this mirror image! Or is it? The taboo topics get presented beneath the censors' radar, and the story sells. The power of chi. It's Greek to me. It's Chinese to someone else. Either way, it's a force to reckon with in storytelling as well as storyselling.
See A to Z Blogging Challenge for links to more "C's" from Challenge sponsors and other writers.