While rewatching the first Xmen movie this morning, I was reading Dániel Darvay’s 2014 Philobiblon article: “Chiastic Modernism: Rational Uncanniness and Uncanny Reason.” What attracted me to it was that I am teaching a course on the Bible, a book largely structured in terms of a rhetorical device called “chiasmus,” named after the Greek word for X. In its simplest form, this is abba, e.g. the phrasing of Darvay’s subtitle: “Rational Unncanniness and Uncanny Reason.” Remember in the movie Mystery Men, the character Sphynx whose sentences all had this form, such as “When you care what is outside, what is inside cares for you“. This is A (you) B (care) C (outside), C’ (inside) B (cares) A (you)–with C and C’ being exact opposites, which therefore pair with one another.
As to the bIble, take for instance the section of Genesis from 2:4 to the end of chapter 3. It begins: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Here we have abccba: “heavens…earth…created…made…earth…heavens.” Then, according to the Harper-Collins Study Bible, we get:
Chiasmus is a structure of real and/or apparent reversal. When things become their opposite, the change appears definite. While trying to effect psychological improvement in his patients, the pioneer of modern hypnotherapy, Milton Erickson, would often tell a series of stories he would interrupt and then continue in a giant chiasmus, with the first story completed last, the second finished second to last, etc. The strain the complexity of this put on patients’ conscious attention forced them to dip into their own unconscious for aid, as he could only create such complexity by self-hypnotizing as he was hypnotizing his patients. But chiasmus was not just a way of altering consciousness; its very structure implied what he wished to suggest to them: that radical change was possible. And mathematics has chosen X as symbol of that unknown yielded by change while pop culture makes it into a shorthand for the extreme–the farthest limits.
Why then has the chiasmus/x become a joke in Mystery Men or in the pervasive quip today that X is being slopped into the title of movies to boost ratings? Darvay’s article is about the pivotal point in this change in change: the early twentieth century. Long before that in ancient times, opposites were expected to stay apart, e.g., heaven and earth. God says:”The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Man is banished lest he become immortal. Similarly, God stops mortals from climbing to heaven via the Tower of Babel, and when the Sons of God beget children of human women, God blots out this mingling of heaven and earth with the flood.
Darvay, however, finds in early-twentieth-century literature a time when all such binaries as heaven and earth were breaking down, because faith in a God who divides them was floundering in an ever-changing science replacing scriptural certainties. To the horror of conservatives since then, reversal seems less and less apt an image in that everything appears to be already and simultaneously its opposite.