Friday, September 6, 2019

Chiasmus in Twilight

Chiasmus has long been cited as one of the evidences that the Book of Mormon is of ancient Hebrew origins.  I first learned about this during a special fireside given by a member of my stake who'd recently visited Central America.  I was about 14 at the time, but he was what I would refer to today as an amateur apologist.

It's pretty impressive to think of what complexity Joseph Smith was able to work into the Book of Mormon using Hebrew poetic devices that he would not have been academically aware of.  But what didn't occur to me in the midst of that tour de force of turn-of-the-millennium apologetics was that, in a lot of cases, you can find chiasmus if you squint really hard and look at the text just right.  Although the concept has been covered by church magazines, BYU researchers, and apologists, I was recently reminded of the more implausible branches of issue by stumbling across one particular site that claims the entire book of First Nephi was written as one giant chiasmic narrative.

So I took the methodology I felt had been employed in this particular case (starting with the conclusion and working backwards to find the supporting data) and applied it to some famous pieces of the written word to see if I really could force something to be chiasmus just by wanting it badly enough.  It was a surprisingly amusing exercise as I opted to revisit Lewis Carroll's masterpiece of silliness, The Jabberwocky:

please excuse my amateurish formatting
Sure, some of those things are a stretch, but that's what makes it fun.  And I do see a lot of Book of Mormon analysis citing things that are thematically chiasmic, even if they aren't syntactically chiasmic.  So even if similar words aren't used, as long as we can find some connection between the two ideas, we can decide that they match up.  And in this particular case, I think we can learn that something doesn't have to claim Hebrew origins or contain any kind of solemnity in it to have the framework of a chiasmus.

But since Lewis Carroll is a minor literary monument (I mean, he's not on par with Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but he's celebrated as a classic writer), maybe he had the wherewithal to consciously structure his poetry this way—assuming it wasn't just the opium talking. So I decided to try a larger piece of writing, in much the same way that the aforementioned website tackled the full breadth of First Nephi.  I went to someone who, though popular, is not a celebrated as a wordsmith.  I went to someone who I perhaps take too much pleasure in ridiculing.  I went to Twilight.

I can make an argument that the sparkly-vampire-high-school-melodrama-adventure that took the world by storm a little over a decade ago is laid out in that sort of nested, mirrored, symmetrical structure that we've been examining.  Some of it takes a little work to dig up, but I think that this is every bit as rickety and every bit as defensible as the claim that Nephi recorded his own story as a giant Hebraic Easter egg.

Observe, chapter by chapter:

1. Bella attends gym class, where she stresses about her clumsiness
2. Bella says she moved to Forks so her mom could travel with Phil, who plays minor league baseball
3. Edward saves Bella’s life by stopping an out-of-control van
4. Bella is surrounded with people and attention after surviving a life-threatening situation
5. Bella leaves school early
6. Against advice, Jacob tells Bella about werewolves
7. Bella makes plans to travel from Forks to Port Angeles
8. Bella is targeted by a group of dangerous men
9. Bella learns the supernatural aspects of vampires in conversation with Edward
10. Bella’s instinct is to lie by denying she’s scared of Edward
11. Edward drives Bella to her house
12. Bella pretends she’s not going to the dance to deceive Mike
13. Vampires sparkle in the sunlight
14. Bella pretends she’s asleep to deceive her father
15. Edward drives Bella to his house
16. Bella’s instinct is to lie by keeping her father from knowing she’s involved with Edward
17. Bella sees the supernatural aspects of vampires at the Cullen’s baseball game
18. Bella is targeted by a group of dangerous vampires
19. Bella prepares to travel from Forks to Arizona
20. Against advice, Alice tells Bella how someone becomes a vampire
21. Bella plans to leave Alice and Jasper
22. Bella isolates herself and James corners her in a life-threatening situation
23. Edward saves Bella’s life by sucking venom out of her wound
24. Bella’s mother reveals that her husband Phil was signed with a Phoenix minor league baseball team.
Epilogue: Bella attends the prom in the gym, where she stresses about her lack of dancing ability

It's not airtight, obviously.  But I think it's roughly on par with the analysis of First Nephi.  And more importantly, I think it demonstrates that the chiasmic construct can be a construct in more than one sense of the word.  It can be a post hoc fabrication that does not necessarily reflect the reality of the composition or the intent of its author.

I mean, unless Stephanie Meyer had some kind of seer stone we don't know about.


  1. She is a Mormon and a BYU grad, so you never know. Perhaps she was inspired by multiple readings of Nephi I.

    1. And she also rewrote one of her books with some adjustments to the same basic plot, kind of like the Book of Lehi/Book of Nephi thing. Hmmm...there might be something to this.