Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Masterpiece? Alma 36

A recent comment in which John F. playfully proclaimed himself “the chiasmus Nazi” renewed my curiosity about the subject. Some, like John F., are unapologetic (forgive the anti-pun) about chiasmus as evidence for ancient origins; other interested students are more nuanced in their claims. (The brilliant doggerel in the first link of the preceding sentence, so apropos to the thread in which it appeared, is not to be missed. I wish I knew the identity of its true author so I could offer well-deserved recognition.) John’s comment provoked me to read both “Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm” by Earl M. Wunderli in the latest issue of Dialogue, and “A Masterpiece: Alma 36” by John W. Welch in the FARMS compilation Rediscovering the Book of Mormon. Here, in addition to mentioning some questions raised by Wunderli, I offer my own half-baked speculation as to how inverted parallel structure with significant ties to the meaning of the text could arise without an author’s conscious intent.

A number of considerations may induce doubt as to whether Alma 36 is an objectively verifiable, purposeful, carefully crafted masterwork of chiasmus. Differences in Welch’s chiastic parsings over time and differences between the chiastic structurings perceived by different authors undermine the objectivity of its alleged presence. In a couple of instances the chiastic structure is imperfect, with no apparent subsidiary purpose for the deviations; this is implicitly admitted in Welch’s graphical constructions, but goes uncommented in his brief accompanying commentary. Some claimed pairings exhibit nontrivial imbalance. Selectivity seems to be an important question: some words designated as key to the chiastic structure occur in other places, but are not given much weight as evidence against a tight chiastic construction. Another manifestation of potential selectivity is that some important ideas seem not play a role in the chiastic structure—a structure that relies in part on seemingly less-significant words.

Having noted these cautions against the manifest presence of tight crafting, there nevertheless seems to be an overall sense of inverse parallel structure—more than Wunderli seems to credit—but I’m not sure it’s obviously purposeful. John F.’s elite Oxford breeding leads him to believe that
…intricate literary forms that combine both substance and form into the structure of a passage so that because of the substance the form conveys its meaning even more strongly simply do not happen unconsciously.
I don’t know how John’s Oxford colleagues feel about Alma 36, but I offer two suggestions as to how this very thing could happen unconsciously—one specific to Alma 36, and the second more generally applicable.

For one thing, Welch seems to think that Alma made an astutely appropriate æsthetic choice in selecting the chiastic form for a conversion story centered on the Savior, but this argument can be turned on its head: the spontaneous narration of pre-conversion conditions, a conversion to Christ, and the contrasting post-conversion aftermath could quite naturally take on an unconsciously inverse parallel form like that in Alma 36.

More generally, and by way of explaining some detailed features, in laying out a linked chain of ideas it could be somewhat natural for the human mind to ‘drill down’ into the argument in one direction, and then follow the same logical chain back out again. This may be particularly so for (originally) oral texts, where I get the sense most chiasms originate. (Note in particular the oral origin of Alma 36, either with Alma talking with his son or Joseph dictating his imagination of this scene. Are we to think that Alma carefully crafted a written masterpiece for the occasion of parting counsel to his sons? And moreover, that he then read it to his first son, but not to his other two sons?) To begin and end with the same logical point is of course naturally pleasing, and may even be the explicit intent of the orator/author. However, the overall inverse parallel structure might not necessarily represent artistic purpose, but instead constitute a window into the orator’s mind working its way back on the fly—not by fixed memorization or deliberate composition, but by active (and sometimes meandering and imprecise) real-time logical processing back to the starting point. (N.B.: work on this post last night was interrupted by putting our girls to bed, during which our three-year-old uttered a spontaneous elementary inverse parallelism: “Tuck me in, mommy, tuck me in!”)

The possibility of ambiguity and selectivity in the attempted extraction of a tight and precise chiastic masterpiece, together with a possible cognitive explanation of the spontaneous generation of an inverse parallel structure, constitute sufficient reasons to not consider Alma 36 as incontrovertible objective evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity; but the content, as opposed to the form, of this very chapter yields an even more important reason for believers to not lean on it heavily:
And I would not that ye think that I know of myself—not of the temporal but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind but of God. Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things.
This suggests a scriptural claim that should give us pause: no objective evidence—the kind demonstrable by secular arguments, and available even to carnal minds—could ever yield conviction of the truths important to Alma and other believers. When presented with claims to the contrary, beware: if Alma’s assertion about the nature of his knowledge is to be believed, such ‘evidences’ are almost certainly not as incontrovertible as they are occasionally made out to be.


I personally don't believe that anyone should lean too heavily on chiasmus or anything else as some kind of secular proof of the religious. I know that Jack Welch doesn't believe that either. The fact that he already believed that the Book of Mormon was true allowed him to be confident that chiasmus would be in it, since his belief was that it was written by Hebrews according to the customs, learning, and knowledge of the Hebrews.

However, for people who already have this basic belief, it is thrilling to find such characteristics in the text, things that bring the authors to life for the reader. This is, of course, nonsense to those who believe the book to be fiction.

Anyway, it certainly takes a lot of effort and sophistry to debunk something that is supposedly "clearly" not evidence of ancient origin.

As for my "Oxford colleagues," they would have nothing at all to say about Alma 36 except that, undoubtedly, they would be unabashed in expressing their view that a belief in the Book of Mormon or angels or golden plates is ridiculous and embarassing. Their pre-conceived prejudices would prevent them from performing a good-faith analysis on the chapter. (See Wilfried's comment here  for a description of how Jack Welch experienced this with the very professor from whom he learned about chiasmus.)

My point about Oxford was to refer my immersion in German classical literature and the fact that great geniuses couldn't "accidentally" write in classical formalistic structures that enhanced the substantive meaning because of their form. I actually prefer Alma 41:13-15 as an example of rigid formalism conveying substantive meaning. I have provided a counter-analysis of those verses here in response to an analysis that purports to debunk the verses as "really" chiasmus.

I never have been of the view that chiasmus will be definitive proof for anyone that the Book of Mormon is what Joseph Smith said it is. But for me and others I know, chiasmus is something joyful to know about and understand, and it helps us get into the minds and feelings of Book of Mormon writers, who we believe were real people and not just characters in a 19c novel. 

Comment by john f. | 2/04/2006 04:24:00 PM  

Interesting thoughts Christian. A related question that I think is still debated by experts is whether iambic pentameter was unconsciously spoken by commoners in Shakespearean times. If chiastic structure was something common among Jews, I think this would support the historicity argument.

But I agree that trying to use chiasm to support BOM historicity is unwise. My belief in God is largely based on the idea that there is something crucially important about us learning faith, else why hasn't God left more secular proof of his existence? The more I've thought about this, the more it feels like an either or to me (i.e. either there's a God who is adamant that we learn faith w/out intellectual short-cuts, or there is no God...). 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/05/2006 01:07:00 AM  


In my studies in biblical Hebrew, we've noted that the chiasmus is one trait among many in a pool of literary forms employed by OT authors, and is one of the few that actually manifests itself in a (English) translation. Phonetic mechanisms acrostics or aliterations won't necessarily manifest themselves in a translation (sadly). For example, the book of Nahum contains a small acrostic in chapter 1, and a name acrostic in chapter 3, but in the KJV these things are lost (logically). I think this strengthens the arugment for the antiquity of the chiasmus because the chiasmus is probably one of the more difficult forms to produce. I'm with John, in that I don't think an author can just whip out chiasms unconsciously -- neither can one whip out things like acrostics or aliterations unconsciously, but these latter forms require less work. Even still, the English Bible that JS knew may have contained these other forms, but he never would have known that because they're lost in translation. That said, it's difficult for critics of BofM authenticity to explain the presence of the chiasmus given Smith's ignorance (I'm not using that term pejoratively) on the subject of ancient literary forms. But if we could view the plates today, it wouldn't surprise me if the other forms were there, especially in the more "poetic" stanzas (I'm with Kügel -- there's no definitive line between poetry and prose), or elevated prose sections.

That the presence of this form (chiasm) in the BofM serves as the foundational aspect of one's testimony of the book is not what is intended by the author, translator, the church, or its God. As John indicated, they just create a more rational belief (vs. irrational belief) in the believer. But I like Alma 36 a lot, even if the chiasmus is strained.

In the Bible, sometimes people go through chapters and chapters of prose to find chiasms, and they feel they find them when sometimes the link between inverted hemistitches or colons is very, very weak (like the word "Noah" occurring in both colons yet surrounded by thousands of other words). That said, Alma 36, to me, is not straining at too much, but is more of an ideological chiasm than it is a verbal one, despite some cross-overs. Either way, John Welch is 50 gzillion times smarter than I am or will ever be, and I trust his findings. Plus he's a nice guy.  

Comment by David J | 2/05/2006 01:15:00 PM  

Everyone, thanks for the comments. My intention is to respond to them later this evening. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/05/2006 02:22:00 PM  

I don't think my first point above made much sense, so don't waste time trying to make sense of it. I was just thinking about whether chiastic type speaking could be something that was common in earlier times when there was more emphasis on oral tradition. I don't think it unlikely (for similar reasons as some experts think iambic pentameter was more common in conversations in Shakespearean times).

But that doesn't seem too relevant, what matters regarding BOM authenticity is whether this was common in Joseph Smith's time, which I have no clue about. However, in every writing class I've taken, they've taught the hour glass approach in terms of intro and conclusion, so I don't find Christian's theory too far-fetched (though I think the case for Welch's point is reasonably strong).  

Comment by Robert C. | 2/05/2006 11:14:00 PM  

john,  perhaps then my concerns do not apply to either you or Bro. Welch. I'm not sure, but I gather from what you say that neither of you thinks there is sufficient secular proof that all reasonable people should accept the Book of Mormon's ancient origin.

On the other hand, some of the things you say make it sound like you do  think they should, if only they could evaluate the matter objectively, dispassionately, and in good faith... In this connection, thanks for the reminder of that exchange with Wilfried, which as I recall I provoked with similar comments as I made to you about your colleagues! Jack Welch's encounter with Herr Doktor Profesor (sorry for painfully botching the German) sounds remarkably like Martin Harris and Charles Anthon. The thing is, Anthon's initial cursory superficial opinion that he could identify and translate the ancient characters was wrong? His initial ancient linguistic description of it hasn't held up, has it? And so too, perhaps, was the German professor's initial perfunctory offhand view too hasty.

I certainly agree it is an intriguing subject for anyone of an intellectual bent interested in Mormonism---you're right, I was provoked to read a couple articles and write a whole blog post! I don't know if you were referring to me, but if so, I'm a little flattered if my humble W.A.G. rises to the level "sophistry." If my guess were right, chiasmus would still be interesting in what it reveals about the logical structure of the passage, even if it were not ancient.

Look, it could be ancient and intentional on Alma's part---I'm not saying I have evidence it isn't---I certainly would not say that anyone in their right mind ought to reject it. I merely wanted to suggest that there might be other ways to think about the phenomenon of chiasmus that don't require this instance to be ancient---ways sufficiently plausible that someone could find it less-than-conclusive with respect to historicity and not be accused of utter loss of objectivity or acting in bad faith.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/05/2006 11:47:00 PM  

Robert C.,  you're right, if God wanted anyone to believe by objective proof he could easily provide it in a way that wouldn't require a penetrating intellect to detect it. Interesting thought about iambic pentameter in Shakespeare's time---I don't remember if Rosalynde (who has relevant expertise) said anything about that on that T&S chiasmus thread. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/05/2006 11:55:00 PM  

David J,  I'm certainly not in a position to dispute Jack Welch's being either 50 gazillion times smarter than you, or a nice guy! ;-> And I agree there's inverse parallel structure there, more than some of the critics apparently allow---I just don't have the same confidence it was consciously produced by anyone either ancient or modern.

I will say I think the idea that Joseph  knew of chiasmus and intentionally put it there to make it seem more ancient seems far fetched. I find a naturalistic unconscious mechanism a much more interesting possibility.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/06/2006 12:04:00 AM  

I find a naturalistic unconscious mechanism a much more interesting possibility. 

Christian, I guess this is where you and I (respectfully) part ways. For me, a chiasm, especially a large one like Alma 36, would be difficult to write without planning it out first or constantly checking back to the previously made hemistitches. You're a learned guy, from what I can tell--have you ever unconsciously written one? If not, I suggest maybe giving it a shot. It's tough stuff to produce; especially one equal in magnitude to Alma 36. 

Comment by David J | 2/06/2006 12:25:00 AM  

David, that's fine. There are at least three barriers to my successfully taking up the challenge of demonstrating my theory myself: (1) At this point I could not do it unconsciously! (2) I don't have the same cultural background and experience of oratory that Joseph or Alma would have had, but am much more inclined to written text. (Joseph: extended listening to spontaneous sermons, debating club, some experience as a Methodist exhorter, inclined to speaking and dictating rather than writing). (3) We don't need that any random human could produce chiasm, just the rare talented person---which I may not be. This last is a general problem for all such challenges to reproduce Joseph's feats (or those of the ancient prophets whose world he portrays).

Nevertheless I have a potential modern example that may illustrate my ideas. I'll try to put something together on it soon. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/06/2006 12:43:00 PM  

Ah, Christian, now you're starting to swing back the other way.... ;) 

Comment by David J | 2/07/2006 11:15:00 PM  

David J, here's  an example of mine after all! 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/09/2006 11:42:00 AM  



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