Thursday, February 27, 2014

Frank Conroy's pyramid of literary craft and the Incarnation of the Word

Frank Conroy's Pyramid of Literary Craft
 A. Frank Conroy's Pyramid of Literary Craft 

 I read the article "How Iowa Flattened Literature" and found an interesting image by Frank Conroy, the successor of Paul Engle in the Iowa Writing Workshop, on the art of writing as a pyramid:
The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers' Workshop
The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers' Workshop
What did [Frank] Conroy assault us in service of? He wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called "Meaning, Sense, Clarity." The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor. This is from memory: I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it each time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as "the fancy stuff." At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract.
Although you could build a pyramid without an apex, it was anathema to leave an apex hovering and foundationless. I’ll switch metaphors, slightly, since Conroy did too. The last thing you wanted was a castle in the air. A castle in the air was a bad story. There was a ground, the realm of the body, and up from it rose the fiction that worked. Conroy presented these ideas as timeless wisdom.
 Physically, what occurs is that a reader deciphers the words and sentences.  In order to make sense of the meaning of the text, he uses the laws of grammar and syntax.  If the word is a "cat", a part of the brain light's up and draws an image from its repository of cat images, then associate this image with a sound like "meow".  If the word is a "rose", the brain draws the memory of the rose, and associates this with the memory of the rose's fragrance and the soft texture of its petals.  As the writer adds more words, the reality of the thing described becomes real as memories--as if the words "take on flesh and dwelt among us."  Reading of the text becomes a vicarious experience.

B. The Word became Flesh

The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary
The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary
 In the Gospel of John, we read:
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.k (Jn 1:14) 
John explained further in one of his letters:
 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—a 2 for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—b 3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.c (1 Jn 1:1-3)
A writer can only hope to incarnate a word, such as a "rose" or a "stone," in the reader's mind, so that the reader can "see" and "touch" and "smell" them, as if they are real, for the brain can perform these functions in the imagination by gathering memories of similar things and piece them together to create a new reality.  But the new reality resides only in the memory, but not in actuality.  But God took one step further and perfected the incarnation of the word: God made His Own Word take on Flesh and become Man.

C. Literary Craft and Christology

Frank Conroy presented his description of the pyramid of literary craft.  What we shall do now is to show how this pyramid can be applied to the analysis of the words and the Person of Christ:

Grammar as Science
Grammar as Science
1. Grammar and Syntax. This Word, Christ, the Jews know who he is: "Is he not the carpenter,* the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" (Mk 6:3).  In Frank Conroy's pyramid, this corresponds to grammar and syntax: the Word is replaced by the pronoun "he" and this pronoun is defined by its relationships with other nouns--carpenter, son, Mary, brother, James, John, Judas, Simon, and sisters.  The Word is rooted in time and space, because He is part of the human family.

2. Senses evoked. As people know Christ more as he live his life on earth--when he tells his parables, answer questions of Pharisees, change the water into wine, heal the sick, or raise the dead--people saw His face, heard His words, felt His touch, smelled His hands, and tasted what He offered. This is the second level in Conroy's literary pyramid: the senses evoked.

3. Character. But Christ also reveals his character as a human being. He became angry and overturned the tables of merchants in the temple.  He felt pity to a sick man in Bethsaida.  He ate and drank at the Marriage in Cana.  He wept before the tomb of his friend, Lazarus.  He cried to heaven on the cross before breathing his last. Some listened attentively to his words.  Some became angry and left Him.  And some praised God because of Him. Character is the third level of Conroy's literary pyramid.

The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh
The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh
4. Metaphor.  Christ has likened Himself to many things: the gate of the sheep, light of the world, bread from heaven.  This is the fourth level in Conroy's literary pyramid: metaphor.

5. Fancy stuff.  We'll just not discuss this in depth, because we don't know yet the literary techniques that this includes.  But with Peter we can confess: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" (Mt. 16:16).

6. Symbolism.  A symbol is something that stands for something else.  It is in this limited sense I shall say that Jesus is the symbol of the Father (though I don't recommend Haight's book, Jesus, Symbol of God, because Vatican pronounces that this book has serious doctrinal errors):
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?e 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.f 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. (Jn 14:9-11)
7. Incarnation.  This is the ultimate aim of the literary craft: the word becomes flesh.  When God created the heavens and the earth, He simply uttered the words and thing existed from nothing: the moon, the stars, the plants, the animals.  Literature can only conjure the images of these objects in the mind, but never create them in reality.  When God uttered His Word, the Word became a perfect image of God. And when the Word became Flesh in the person of Christ, what existed out of this world became part of this world--a person who is both God and Man.  A metaphor can only suggest. A symbol can only represent.  But an incarnation became an Is.