All examples of chiasmus share the same distinctive structure-a reversal in word order that can be
"marked with an X" (as described in Welcome to the World of Chiasmus.)
However, there are a number of interesting variations on the chiastic theme. We'll examine all
of them here at "Types of Chiasmus." In this edition, we take a look at Chiastic Questions.
When I first got interested in the subject of chiasmus nearly ten years ago, a thought-provoking question from the German
philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of my early discoveries:
"Which is it, is man one of God's blunders,
or is God one of man's blunders?"
From his 1889 book The Twilight of the Gods, Nietzsche's question is similar to one that freethinking philosophers
have asked for centuries: did God create man, or did man create God?
For many, many centuries, chiasmus has been an excellent device for posing penetrating questions. In his Euthyphro,
"Are things pious because the gods love them,
or do the gods love them because they are pious?"
And in the 5th century B. C., Sophocles asked in Antigone:
"What greater ornament to a son than a father's glory,
or to a father than a son's honorable conduct?"
Also in the 5th century B. C., Euripides asked:
"Who knows but life be that which men call death,
and death what men call life?"
Quotes like these are not "questions" in the normal sense of the word because they're not requests for information.
Rather, they're attempts to provoke thinking and stimulate deeper reflection about important topics. They're all examples
of a "Rhetorical Question," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "A question to which no answer is expected,
often used for rhetorical effect."
Poets have been especially fond of posing chiastic questions of a rhetorical nature. In his poem "What is It?"
William Blake writes:
"What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire."
On the surface, it looks as if both men and women require the same thing, but I don't believe that's what Blake meant.
Lineaments are the distinguishing features or details of a person's face, body, or even personality—their unique characteristics.
Blake is suggesting that everybody needs someone who can gratify their particular—perhaps even idiosyncratic—desires.
Other poets have also posed some pretty interesting chiastic questions:
"Has the Church failed mankind,
or has mankind failed the Church?"
— T. S. Eliot
"And what should they know of England
who only England know?"
— Rudyard Kipling
"Is getting well ever an art
Or art a way to get well?"
— Robert Lowell
"When water turns to ice does it
remember one time it was
When ice turns back into
water does it remember it was
— Carl Sandburg
Good chiastic questions get people to pause, to think about things from different perspectives, to see something first this
way, and then that way. They invariably promote what educational theorists used to call "higher-order thinking." Take the
subject of Romance, for example. Why does it have such allure for people? And why has it had such appeal for so many
centuries? You'll never think about the subject in the same way again after pondering over Thomas Wolfe's great chiastic question:
"Is this not the true romantic feeling—
not to desire to escape life,
but to prevent life from escaping you?"
Many wonderful chiastic questions are not about abstract, theoretical problems, but about the stuff of real life. Dr.
Harry Benjamin, the American surgeon who coined the term "transsexualism" once asked:
"I ask myself, in mercy, or in common sense,
if we cannot alter the conviction to fit the body,
should we not, in certain circumstances,
alter the body to fit the conviction?"
Dr. Benjamin was explaining his rationale for sex-change surgery in the case of James Morris, whose story about feeling
like a woman trapped in a man's body so touched Dr. Benjamin that it persuaded him to do the operation. After the
successful surgery, the patient became Jan Morris. On the occasion of Dr. Benjamin's death in 1986, a grateful
Ms. Morris recalled her first consultation with Benjamin, saying, "I told him everything, and it was from him that I
learned what my future would be."
A number of years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As I was surveying my options, I came across an
article on "The Prostate Predicament" in a 1994 issue of Health magazine. An American physician and urologist
named Dr. Gerald Chodak wrote:
"There's an old saying in medicine,
'When a cure is possible, is it necessary?
And when it's necessary, is it possible.'"
Dr. Chodak was pointing out that prostate cancer often progresses so slowly that doctors don't know exactly how
much danger the disease poses to a newly-diagnosed patient (and, therefore, whether or not an aggressive therapy—like
surgery or radiation—should be done). The maxim obviously had a special salience for me. I chose surgery
(and five years later, it looks like it was a wise decision).
Chiastic questions are not the sole province of serious thinkers; they often show up in pop culture as well.
In a song from the 1957 musical Cinderella, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics to a song called "Do I Love You
Because You're Beautiful?" The song posed this intriguing chiastic question:
"Do I love you because you're beautiful?
Or are you beautiful because I love you?"
In the 1950s, the blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren engaged in some clever chiastic thinking when she said:
"It's true that gentleman prefer blondes.
Is it possible that blondes also prefer gentlemen?"
More recently, Eddie van Halen asked a question that many Rock 'n Rollers have asked themselves (and certainly many other people have asked
of Rock 'n Rollers):
"Are we this way because we're in a rock band,
or are we in a rock band because we're this way?"
In my weekly e-mail subscription service called "Chiastic Quotes of the Week," I come up with a personal chiastic observation.
Sometimes I've tried my own hand at framing good chiastic questions:
"When I hear it said that people are stuck in the past, I think,
'isn't it more accurate to say the past is stuck in them?'"
"Wheaties has long been known as The Breakfast of Champions.
Why haven't they also hailed it as The Champion of Breakfasts?"
"Why is it that the people who have the power generally lack the wisdom,
and the people who have the wisdom generally lack the power?"
Try it yourself sometime. It's not as easy as it looks. And the rush you get when you frame a particularly good one is
hard to beat.
This brings to an end our examination of Chiastic Questions. If you come across any examples in your reading or research, please
send them along.