"Dennis Ridley?" you may be thinking, "Who the heck is he? And what is he doing among such luminaries as Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde?" Well, let me tell you.
Dennis Ridley is currently on the administrative faculty of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia (when we first met, he was Director of Institutional Research and Planning at Virginia Wesleyan). Dennis first came to my attention in 1999 when he submitted two entries in the October Chiastic Quotes Competition:
The five competition judges (one of which is me) responded favorably. The first quote won Third Prize in the competition, and the second received an Honorable Mention.
The very next month I was presented with an unexpected problem. Dennis submitted so many splendid entries that it looked as if he might run away with the competition. I had to make a decision. Here's what I said in the November announcement:
"Last month, one person sent in so many superb entries that, if we had included all of his entries in the list of finalists, he would have dominated the competition. So, to honor him, and to be fair to the many other people who submitted great quotes, I have created a special 'Master of Chiasmus' Award, to be given occasionally to a person who sends in a large number of fabulous quotes. The winner of the first 'Master of Chiasmus' award is Dennis Ridley of Virginia, Beach, Virginia."
We honored eight Ridley quotes that month:
This last one is especially impressive. It's not only a neat example of "chiastic piggybacking," it's also a perfect example of double chiasmus (note the two separate reversals). The Humble-But-Lovable Dennis had this to say about it: "Of all my chiastic creations, this reversal of an old saying is my favorite. Sooner or later someone was destined to take credit for this one. I was lucky to be the first to tumble upon it."
To be honest, when I created the original award for Dennis, I didn't think he would continue to create chiastic gems. But create them he did, month after month. I continued to be impressed, and sometimes amazed, at his creations. Finally, I decided that he deserved to be honored in an even more special way. Hence these pages, a tribute to his chiastic virtuosity.
First, a little more about the talented Mr. Ridley. Originally from Portland, Oregon, he is a graduate of Amherst College and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Dennis has spent most of his career as a professor, researcher, and administrator (when I first met him, he was working at Virginia Wesleyan College; he's now at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia). A lover of language and a word game aficionado, he has dabbled in creative writing for many years. He has also published extensively in his fields of psychology and higher education research. He and wife Liane, married 34 years at the time of this writing (2008), have two grown daughters and two grandchildren.
As we proceed, I'll occasionally let Dennis speak for himself, letting him share his thoughts about chiasmus and some of his quotes. Take it away Dennis:
"Making chiastic creations has been some of the best fun I've had in years. It has been both challenging and pleasantly addictive. Occasionally, when I've come up with a winner, it was exhilarating. Thanks to Mardy Grothe, who is truly the modern master and guru of chiasmus, for providing the inspiration. I also thank my friend Fred Weiss. Fred, a business professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, was the first Chiastic Quotes Competition winner in September 1999. Once these good folks turned me on, I could hardly stop."
You've already seen a neat example of double chiasmus. Take a close look at this quote, which is even more impressive:
And here's Dennis's comment: "This chiastic quote was inspired by an amusing TV commercial depicting a sheep in a wolf's clothing. Mardy had to yawn through several forgettable versions before I hit upon a winner. Since there are three distinct reversals, can we call this one a triple chiasmus?" Yes we can, Dennis, yes we can.
Some of Dennis's best creations are simple reversals with a funny or clever twist:
Others are more thought-provoking, and invite us to linger over them and savor the additional thoughts they stimulate:
Dennis also tried his hand at chiasmus by letter reversal. Notice how the letters "m" and "f" reverse in this oh-so-true observation:
Early in my research into chiasmus, I developed a special fondness for thought-provoking questions of a chiastic nature. The very first one I discovered was Nietzsche's famous rhetorical question, "Which is it? Is man one of God's blunders? Or is God one of man's?" Some other wonderful examples occur in this "Types of Chiasmus" edition: Chiastic Questions. When rhetorical questions are framed chiastically, they have a special quality. Dennis excelled at posing such questions:
Implied chiasmus is the reversal of an existing, often well-known, phrase, like "A hangover is the wrath of grapes" or Kermit the Frog's "Time's fun when you're having flies." If I had to choose my favorite form of chiasmus, it would be tough, but in the end I'd probably select implied chiasmus. Dennis also demonstrated a fondness for it:
Chiasmus has had a special appeal to poets over the centuries, and all of the greats have experimented with the device. In fact, W. H. Auden even offered a wonderful chiastic observation on the subject: "In poetry you have a form looking for a subject and a subject looking for a form. When they come together successfully you have a poem." Dennis demonstrated his versatility by composing this little chiastic ditty:
In "chiastic piggybacking," people take an expression from someone else and reverse it in a clever or witty way. Here's what Dennis had to say about one of his most impressive creations: "In the 'pure fun' category, it was pure fun for me to take the famous saying of General Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell and turn it around. I substituted his ersatz Latin with an equally bogus phrase."
After seeing this quote for the first time, I found myself feeling a little envious, and thought, "Damn! Why didn't I think of that one?" I've seen the daily grind make bastards out of a number of people over the years, but it never occurred to me to reverse that popular saying (which, by the way, Harry Truman also loved, and prominently displayed on his desk in the Oval Office). Here are several more piggybacking examples (notice the double reversal in the second one):
In the chiastic shorthand category, Dennis only came up with one, but I liked it:
Over the centuries, the dynamics of love, marriage, and family life have inspired many wonderful chiastic observations. I can't talk to an expectant couple without reminding them of the Peter de Vries observation: "The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults." And whenever I meet a parent or boss who's having trouble getting someone to listen, I remind them of the saying, "People don't care how much you know unless they know how much you care." Of all of Dennis's observations in this arena, my favorite was:
There are two reversals in this observation, making it a kind of chiasmus within a chiasmus. One is obvious, the other not. Before reading on, take a look and see if you can detect the not-so-obvious one. (Here's the explanation: "a man" reverses to "manna"). Here's another one I especially liked:
Dennis said about this quote, "As the loving father of two grown daughters, I witnessed and took part in many such battles." Having a daughter myself, I could relate. Here are a few more Ridley observations on the theme of love and marriage:
Several months ago, Dennis wrote and suggested that I add a "Chiastic Challenge" to my monthly chiastic quotes competition. Here's what he said:
"I know you have quite enough to think about right now, but how about a specific challenge to chiasmus creators? For example: 'Create a chiasmus about Bob Hope.' Here's one: 'Hope renewed laughter in the troops, and the troops renewed hope in their laughter.' Not very good; only an illustration. A specific challenge puts a tight hedge around the task. For me, that's fun."
I fired back an e-mail to Dennis saying, "Here's your first Chiastic Challenge: Elvis." Dennis was amazingly quick on the draw. I received a couple of quotes within 24 hours:
I was impressed. Yes, it's possible to quibble over some aspects of the quotes (was Elvis really the Salvation of Rock?), but the quotes revealed a quick and agile mind. I immediately threw out another challenge: Hugh Hefner. As quickly as before, Dennis came back at me:
In December of 2002, Dennis approached me with the idea of featuring a chiastic tour of the U. S. presidents. He said he was trying to create a chiastic quote for every U. S. President, and he shared a first draft of his creations. I was immediately impressed. He further suggested that we try to launch the feature around President's Day, which is celebrated annually on the third Monday of each February.
Dennis has now finished the project, and I am proud to feature his efforts. Take it away, Dennis!
Thank you, Mardy!
Even Mardy did not know that, thanks to his encouragement, this feature fulfills a fantasy I had as a boy — one day writing something about the Presidents.
I first surprised Mardy with a simple list, one chiasmus for every President from Washington through Clinton. What follows has been updated, adding one for George W. Bush and a second for some Presidents, plus a few words of historical explanation as might be suitable for President's Day, 2003. While I strove for reasonable historical accuracy, if that aim conflicted with the literary goal of an entertaining chiasmus, the latter goal won out. Apologies go to some Presidents and their fans. They might have deserved better. But I have an alibi: a chiastic history lesson is not a real history lesson. Its first intent, pure and simple, is to entertain.
We start with George Washington. As a man of unflinching devotion to duty and to the new nation, we can say of him:
What we often forget is that Washington's father, Augustine Washington, was born and died in a different country than George, there being no United States at the time. We could also say of Washington, therefore:
When it came time for a second President, who turned out to be John Adams, a different method of succession was used than today. An election was held, and while the winner of the Electoral College became President, the second place finisher did not go off to practice law or become a college professor; he became Vice-President! Here's what happened to John Adams:
The third President, Thomas Jefferson, had already grown weary of political life after serving as a Revolutionary leader and then Secretary of State under Washington, who reluctantly accepted his resignation in 1794. He returned to the life of a gentleman farmer at Monticello in Virginia. We could say of Jefferson:
Jefferson is remembered today as a brilliant scientist, inventor, and 18th century rationalist. These thoughts, combined with recent evidence confirming a liaison with his slave Sally Hemmings, inspired the following:
More than any other founding father, James Madison was the architect of the constitutional system of checks and balances that form the basis of our government. During his forty years of service, he added a strong dose of pragmatism to the solution of difficult problems and challenges, including the second war with the British in 1812.
The following observation about the fifth President, James Monroe, refers to perhaps the greatest contribution of his presidency — the Monroe Doctrine, which formed the policy basis of the United States' domination of the Americas.
Perhaps until Jimmy Carter, no President had a more distinguished career after his presidency than John Quincy Adams. He successfully argued a case before the Supreme Court that was made famous in the Steven Spielberg film, Amistad. He also began a 17-year career as a U. S. Congressman, eventually suffering a stroke and dying at the age of 80 while on the job. His arguments for the abolition of slavery helped shape Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
The seventh President, Andrew Jackson, was far from common or ordinary in his accomplishments. However, because of his humble roots, he was a person that ordinary people could easily identify with. In turn, he offered himself as a champion of the common man.
The eighth President, Martin Van Buren, was of Dutch descent. Beginning early in his administration, he faced challenges arising from the depression, border disputes, and many others. He steadily gathered more enemies than friends, and lost decisively in his re-election bid.
The rise of William Henry Harrison as a popular war hero was largely responsible for his election as President. Some of his famous victories, such as the Battles of Tippecanoe and the Thames, defeated Native American Indians. Harrison showed little sympathy for the plight of the Indians, including the infamous uprooting of the Cherokee Nation, known as the "Trail of Tears."
John Tyler assumed the presidency upon Harrison's untimely death after only one month in office. Harrison, a military hero of the War of 1812 and earlier Indian wars, ran on a political slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." That phrase came from a successful battle against the Shawnee Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The following simply reverses that slogan, although for obvious reasons, it could never have been used. Tyler had virtually no distinctions of his own to bring him into the presidency.
James K. Polk, the 11th President, assumed an aggressive posture in expanding the nation's borders, particularly at the expense of Mexico in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, leading to the acquisition of California. About him, it could be said:
Strictly speaking, David Atchison does not belong in this list. He is found in no official list of Presidents of the United States. Nonetheless, because of an interesting historical curiosity, some historians assert that he served as President, if only for a day. The President-elect, Zachary Taylor, was supposed to have been inaugurated on March 4, 1849, but refused because that date was a Sunday. As a devout Christian, Taylor's religious scruples kept him from keeping that date, and the official inauguration was deferred one day. As president pro tempore of the Senate and next in line of succession, Atchison technically filled the "vacancy" for one day. This unique situation is described in the following observation:
Another war hero, the 12th President, Zachary Taylor served in the military during most of the history of the republic.
The next three Presidents were undistinguished men who were seemingly powerless to avert the coming Civil War. A tiny town in upstate, New York, where I used to live, was named "Fillmore" in honor of the thirteenth President, Millard Fillmore. I am afraid there is very little else for which to remember this obscure President, leading to the following thought:
The fourteenth President, Franklin Pierce, is remembered for struggles with alcoholism and his ineffectual handling of the brewing sectional conflicts.
Pierce's successor, James Buchanan, was, if possible, even more of a disaster. Civil War became inevitable during his administration.
Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, was self-taught. A voracious reader, by the time he was a young man, he had a better grasp of history than his better-educated contemporaries. The first observation below, which attempts to capture his impressive grasp of history, was inspired by a comment from Lincoln's Secretary War Edwin Stanton, who said upon Lincoln's death, "Now he belongs to the ages." The second refers to Lincoln's assassination, shot by John Wilkes Booth in the Ford Theater during the performance of a play.
The 17th President, Andrew Johnson, was one of several Presidents who had a serious problem with alcohol, leading to the following thought:
However, drinking was a minor problem compared with the enemies that Johnson accrued over issues such as treatment of the Southern states after the Civil War. Those enemies, including members of his own administration, attempted to bring his presidency down through impeachment proceedings. One of only two Presidents to be impeached, his case was a much closer call than Clinton's — he survived by only one vote in the Senate. Another reason for remembering Johnson could be expressed this way:
Of all the Presidents, none presents a clearer example than Ulysses S. Grant of the contrast between his prior success and a disastrous presidency. As commanding general of the Union forces, he accepted the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia, ending the Civil War. An honorable man and a popular war hero, he seemed a natural choice as President after the trauma of Andrew Johnson's presidency and impeachment trial. However, his political inexperience, questionable political appointments, and bad judgment in accepting gifts eventually led to scandal and disgrace.
In the 1876 election, a stalemate occurred in the race between Rutherford Hayes and his Democratic opponent. The election was contested because four states submitted two slates of electoral returns. A special Electoral Commission was appointed, dominated by Republicans. Southern Democrats agreed not to oppose the Commission's decision, but only if Reconstruction came to an end. What happened can be expressed this way:
One of four U.S. Presidents to have been assassinated, the tragedy of James Garfield's assassination brought an untimely end to a presidency that was unlikely in the first place.
Had it not been for the tragedy that befell Garfield, Chester Arthur, known as a New York machine politician, might never have become President.
Grover Cleveland was the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms of office. The first observation below is based on nothing more complicated than the fact that he was both our 22nd and 24th president. In any case, to win the presidency twice is quite an accomplishment. The second suggests how he managed that feat.
While there were two father-son pairs among U. S. Presidents (the Adamses and the Bushes), and the two Roosevelts were distant cousins, Benjamin Harrison and his grandfather William Henry Harrison were the only two who were related in that way. I wondered how it would have felt to be Benjamin Harrison's father, John Scott Harrison. While he served in Congress, he was nonetheless relatively undistinguished compared to his father and his son. This thought inspired the following:
William McKinley, our 25th President, was in office when the Spanish-American War erupted. An explosion on the Battleship Maine, sent to Cuba to protect American citizens during the conflict between Spain and Cuban insurrectionists, was blamed on Spain. The phrase, "Remember the Maine," became an American rallying cry in the ensuing war.
One of the most interesting occupants of the White House was Theodore Roosevelt. Frail and sickly as child, Roosevelt undertook a strict regimen of daily exercise and self-improvement that finally made him a fit and virile specimen of manhood. He advocated a rigorous and active lifestyle, which he called "rugged individualism." In many ways, he proved that:
During the Spanish-American War, serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, Roosevelt was the leader of a legendary military force that became known as the Rough Riders. Throughout the rest of his career, it could be said of Roosevelt that:
William Howard Taft, our 27th President, was a somewhat reluctant presidential candidate. What he really wanted to do was serve on the Supreme Court. That chance came after his presidential term was over, when Warren Harding appointed him to the court, where he served as Chief Justice.
Woodrow Wilson's desire to "make the world safe for democracy" did not bear the kind of fruit he hoped for. The League of Nations failed. Within twenty years, war erupted in Europe again. With apologies, I suggest he might have fared better at this:
One of the worst scandals to beset an American President occurred during the administration of Warren Harding. The Teapot Dome scandal occurred when the Secretary of Interior illegally leased public oil reserves to private firms. This and other scandals ultimately ruined public confidence in Harding, causing a major depression and, quite possibly, even his premature death.
The 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, had a legendary economy of speech. In more recent times, silence almost surely raises suspicions that a politician is hiding something. In Coolidge's case, there are no lurking suspicions. He merely appears to have been rather bland and colorless.
Herbert Hoover, our 31st President, had the misfortune of seeing the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression occur on his watch. The following saying may be a little unfair to Hoover, but it was too juicy to resist. It approximately reverses the Latin phrase found on our coins — e pluribus unum, which means, "Out of many, one." "Bums" recalls the term that was commonly used to refer to the many destitute people found in bread-lines during the Depression.
In American politics, there has never appeared a phenomenon quite like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was born to privilege, raised in upper-class society, and educated at Harvard. Author of the New Deal, and serving as President an unprecedented four times, his political allegiance belied his background. It is a near paradox that:
After Roosevelt's untimely death, one of the big surprises was how his successor Harry S Truman became a tough military and political leader, despite serving mostly in the shadows under Roosevelt. We might say of him:
One of Truman's remarkable contributions was his shift from war-time leadership to the job of building the peace, specifically rebuilding Europe. His administration's Marshall Plan, which helped restore a devastated European economy, was a very generous act of a victorious nation. Noting one other remarkable fact about Truman — that his "middle name" was literally only the letter "S" — we might take a bit of literary license in saying:
One of several popular war heroes to rise to the presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower inspired confidence as few of his predecessors ever did. When I was a young boy, a poster of Ike adorned my bedroom wall. However, as time passed, the judgment of both historians and ordinary citizens appears to be that other presidents surpassed him. I took the poster down a long time ago.
The idea of a frontier has had incredible significance in the American experience. Part of the genius of John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, was to capture the nation's imagination with the phrase, "New Frontier." With bold initiatives like the Peace Corps and the space program, we could say that:
Despite his great strengths and accomplishments, Lyndon B. Johnson also had major flaws. These were magnified, and perhaps even blown out of proportion, as his unpopularity grew during the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, suspicions about how he won so many elections so handily persisted throughout his life.
Anyone who lived through the administration of Richard Nixon will never forget the long nightmare that was Watergate, culminating in the only resignation of a sitting President. But even then the gruesome question lingered: Would Richard Nixon go to jail? In one of his first official acts as the new President, Gerald Ford answered that question decisively by pardoning Nixon. After the pardon, Americans fell into one of two camps:
A former Eagle Scout and a man of dignity and strong character, Gerald Ford had the formidable task of attempting to restore trust in the presidency after Nixon's resignation. Many believe that, whatever else his accomplishments or shortcomings, he achieved that goal.
Since he was defeated by Ronald Reagan more than 22 years ago, Jimmy Carter has performed amazing service in support of the principles of democratic and human rights reforms all around the globe. Having come close to a Nobel Prize because of the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, that honor was finally bestowed, suggesting the truth of the following saying:
Before Ronald Reagan became President and even before he was elected Governor of California, he served as President of the Screen Actors' Guild. Although his career as an actor was less than top-flight, most would agree that he was one of the most effective communicators ever to occupy the White House. Even difficult challenges and scandals, such as "Irangate," appeared to roll off Reagan's Teflon-like persona. We could say of him:
George Bush, our 41st President, is featured in two chiasmi. The first points out that he served in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, a great communicator if there ever was one. As he was finally emerging from that shadow, he ran up against Bill Clinton in his re-election bid, and again suffered by comparison. The second chiasmus looks at Bush's decline from another point of view.
One of the most intellectually gifted Presidents was the former Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton, our 42nd president. Clinton's leadership lost a great deal of luster during his second term, when he was impeached by the House of Representatives. The first observation below is primarily a reference to that period. The second observation is based on remarks that he looked pudgy when jogging next to fit-looking Secret Service agents. By the way, the reversal of "fit" and "tried" was just too tempting to pass up!
Our current and 43rd president is George W. Bush, the son of our 41st president. Anyone who was awake during the past two years will know what our final chiasmus is about. Just say the word "Florida" and the memories — excruciating for all — of perhaps the greatest squeaker of all time come rushing back. From that shaky beginning until 9-11, when he began to fully emerge as a leader, Bush was serving a kind of "in-limbo" presidency. About him, we could say:
This brings our chiastic tour of the presidents to an end. I hope you've enjoyed it. If you'd like to comment on any of my creations, or would simply like to offer feedback on the piece, feel free to e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This completes our look at the chiastic Dennis Ridley. In our next edition, we'll take a look at the Chinese sage known as Confucius.