Chiasmus: ivory, white, and the dynamics of description in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”. Recipe included: how to build your own chiasmus.

edited from image by photo-nic-co-uk-nic https://unsplash.com/photos/NIX7pbp6UGU
Not quite tumbling, not quite the right colours, but close enough


The American hard-boiled crime genre of the mid-twentieth century threw up at least three models for the private detective: Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Of those, only in Marlowe do I find an unabashed ear for the poetic and the elegantly humorous. And only in Chandler’s writing an unapologetic use of rhetorical figures to achieve both ends.

In No One Knows About the Dark Blue Clocks, I highlighted the introductory paragraph of Chandler’s The Big Sleep; today, and in the next few posts, I continue to discuss a selection of quotes from the same book and what tips&tricks can be gleaned from them.

Here’s Marlowe describing a scene

Quote: The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The near-symmetric structure.

I chose this Quote for the symmetry used in its second sentence; however the first sentence has a hidden gem too: the drapes lay tumbled. Had it said: the drapes tumbled, the sentence would have exchanged the sense of weight and bulk of something that lay tumbled, for that of active, tumbling energy. A subtle, subtle choice, but one which makes the difference between—let me paint it vividly—an energetic frothing of an ivory waterfall and a dense cloud of clotted cream.

The second sentence has white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out—a statement that hardly invents or even reinvents the wheel with regards to content. But it looks good (even if the colours don’t play off each other well), and it sounds as if something deep is being said for long enough to impress you. It smacks of sophistry, and of puns, oxymorons, and paradoxes. And it’s wonderfully easy to recreate at will in your own prose!

(Until you try to say something genuinely deep, then you’re on your own.)

What is at the core of the Quote?


galina-n https://unsplash.com/search/white?photo=jBh3BGP-gjA

Chiasmus is a figure where the order of words of two parallel structures, A and B, is inverted to get the overall shape ABBA. The name means crossing and is derived from the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet chi χ whose shape mimics the following sentence representation:

A   B
B   A

The astute reader may point out that in the Quote we have a broken symmetry, because look dirty and look bled out are hardly in mirror symmetric places, and their juxtaposition resembles antithesis. True, the look dirty is like a tail tacked onto AB, and the look bled out is like a tail with a twist tacked onto BA. A further blending of chiasmus and antithesis, where the latter element were strengthened, could go something like this:

He told her the truth when it was convenient, and she told him the truth when it was most inconvenient.

Either way, you could think of this blend as a tail-and-twist chiasmus. (You heard it here first!)

In my post T. S. Eliot and the Extended Chiasmus and on the definitions page under the entry for chiasmus, I give various examples. But here I’d like to use Chandler’s model, let’s call it the drape model, to demonstrate how easy it is to create new tail-and-twist figures. If you are looking for clever sentences like Kennedy’s Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind, or Samuel Johnson’s Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good, my recipe will disappoint you. On the other hand, I propose more substance than the mirror symmetry of the trivial chiasmus: I looked into the mirror and into the mirror I looked.

Why would you care? Because in general the chiasmus’s ABBA structure, as simple as it is, can do two things for you:

  1. It can connect the two components A and B in a way which is much stronger than a side-by-side placement (stone, bird) or a binding via conjunction (stone and bird); and much different in nature than binding via preposition (the bird sat on the stone) or binding via complex meaning (the bird painted on the stone).
  2. It can draw a contrast and draw a parallel between A and B. The flipping of the two elements gives the contrast; the existence of both AB and BA gives the parallel.
joshua-ness https://unsplash.com/search/x?photo=q2nVJX7rJ4U
Put your meaning in the centre


Richard A. Lanham gives his interpretation in the Handlist of Rhetorical Terms:

Chiasmus seems to set up a natural internal dynamic that draws the parts closer together, as if the second element wanted to flip over and back over the first …

Dynamic is the key word: the crossing adds dynamics to the binding. But before I lose you in all this pontificating, let’s look at some examples built on the drape model. I take a pair of words and write down the first chiasmus that comes to mind. (Meaning, with some thought, you could do much better.)

Stone, bird:

The stone made the bird feel light and the bird made the stone feel grounded.

He, she:

He made her look good, she made him look old.

She made him look like a god, he made her look like a dog.

I, she:

I made her happy and she made me whole.

I, reflection:

I made my reflection move and my reflection made me uncomfortable.

Did you like anything you saw (or see anything you like)? More importantly, do you see yourself chucking in a chiasmus somewhere—a much better one than mine—to bind two things in a slightly quirky way, almost as a smoke-and-mirrors trick to charm your readers?

If yes, here’s the secret recipe for the drape model:

  • use make and a complement (the complement is your tail),
  • find a fairly standard application for the AB part,
  • find a humorous, whimsical, informative, contrasting non-standard application for the BA part (this is the twist in the tail).

The twist in the tail determines the quality of the chiasmus, just as the twist in the tale determines the quality of the story.

Reading Recommendations

  1. The Moving TargetRoss Macdonald. His take on the Philip Marlow is called Lew Archer; this it the first book in the series.
  2. Windows Ain’t Walls, QQ. Featuring a quote from Macdonald’s book Find a Victim.
  3. T. S. Eliot and the Extended ChiasmusQQ. Because the whole poem is structured around a chiasmus.
  4. Handlist of Rhetorical TermsRichard A. Lanham. Excellent, comprehensive reference with insightful comments.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

6 thoughts on “Tail-and-Twist”

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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