In The Great Chiasmus, Olson explores the use of the grammatical figure called the chiasmus in the work of Miguel de Unamu. The chiasmus, a reversal in the order of words or parts of speech in parallel phrases, appears on a variety of levels, from brief microstructures ( blanca como la nieve y como la nieve fria ), to the narrative structures of entire vels, and even, Olson suggests, to encompass the stages in Unamu's velistic work, forming a chiasmus that can be schematized as ABC:CBA. As a phemen of enclosure, the chiasmus is related to other enclosing phemena such as the image of Chinese boxes and the mise en abyme. These structures, three-dimensional versions of the chiasmus, are also frequent in Unamu's texts. The chiasmus is also found on the conceptual level, in which Unamu regards apparent contraties as freely reversible and thus identical. From early adulthood he was fascinated by the Hegelian idea of the identity of pure Being and pure Nothingness, and that concept provides the structure underlying a wide variety of his paradoxes and verbal conceits. In this connection, Unamu explores concepts usually considered opposites, such as mind and body or spirit and matter (subsumed in the Word and Flesh of Olson's subtitle). Olson's close readings of the texts lead to observations on Spanish history, events in Unamu's life, the psychological dimensions of his characters, and the authorial self found within his texts.
Paul R. Olson received his doctorate in 1959 from Harvard University. After teaching at Dartmouth College from 1956 to 1961, he was appointed assistant professor of Spanish at The Johns Hopkins University and subsequently professor and chairman of the Department of Romance Languages.