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Cathedral by Raymond Carver, 1983

by Raymond Carver, 1983

Many of the cathedrals of Europe took hundreds of years to build. Historians of architecture and culture have marveled at these wonders, noting that they are best understood as monuments to people who find value and meaning in doing. At first blush it would seem that the world of the makers of Europe's great cathedrals could not be further removed from the world of working class people in Raymond Carver's fiction. But a more leisurely reflection upon the cathedral builders and the characters in the title story of Carver's collection Cathedral opens the possibility that some of the late stories of Carver offer a promise of resurrection that he usually so brutally denies.

At one level the postmodern world in Carver's fiction is understood as one in which the mechanical age of reproduction strips objects and images and art of its aura, its meaning, and its value as something original, leaving in its place only the simulacrum, the hyperreal. This interpretation of postmodernity accounts for much of the experience charted by Carver. His stories are about people who work mindlessly, drink, have broken marriages, and take in life not directly but through an immersion in mediated images, be they received visually through television or aurally by listening to mediated messages reported on the airwaves or transmitted through popular culture, most frequently in song lyrics. American playwright Eugene O'Neill created language to capture the lyrical stammering of the fog people in his famous play "A Long Day's Journey into Night." Carver's alcoholics lack even the eloquence of O'Neill's fog people. They are often crude and utterly lacking in the powers of introspection. They cannot express what they mean, but they want to tell stories. Very often they quite literally have nothing to do: they are out of work or about to be fired. They know they once had hopes and ideas about the kind of people they should be and how they should live their lives (having a job, wife, and maybe children), but they do not know how to connect the everyday reality in which they live with the dim, secondhand ideas they have about who they should be and why. Their lives are measured out in bouts of drinking or long stints in front of the television, interrupted most frequently by visits to the refrigerator and some trysts in bed. They are full of prejudices. One narrator does not like fat people, another dislikes blind people, still another dislikes anyone who seems different. His narrators, male or female, want to be taken seriously, but when they think about it they are not sure why they should be. They are afraid and hide behind bravado and alcohol to avoid confronting themselves. "Cathedral" needs to be understood against this background.

Carver's writings typically take the working-class man or woman as their subject. With an economy of style that has caused many to describe Carver as a "minimalist" of short fiction, these stories usually depict the emotionally impoverished lives of people who cannot speak their thoughts in words and who cannot accept responsibility. His people are, indeed, workers—"doers" we might say—but they, unlike the builders of Europe's cathedrals, take little pleasure in their work and accord it even less meaning or value. They do not understand their lives nor why they execute the ritual of work.

The story "Cathedral" reflects a breakthrough in Carver's style. It begins disarmingly enough with one of his familiar unnamed narrators, a working-class, married man musing over an impending visit from an old friend of his wife's, a blind man whose impairment bothers the narrator. But the story moves towards a moment of illumination and transformation, taking the limited narrator to a rare epiphanic moment typical of the kind found in James Joyce's short stories. This moment is achieved through a simple kind of doing. The blind man, Robert, and the narrator drink and smoke dope into the wee hours of the morning. Irritated that his wife has not stayed awake and handled the burden of the unwanted guest, the narrator flicks the channels on the TV, searching for something to watch. He finds a program on the church and the Middle Ages. To his annoyance he cannot find anything else and turns apologetically back to the first program. Robert wants to know what the cathedrals of Europe look like. In an amazing moment of trust, the narrator, after struggling to define the word "cathedral" and admitting that cathedrals do not mean anything special to him, agrees to try to show the blind man the meaning of the word by drawing a cathedral. The narrator has confessed that he only knows about cathedrals through watching late-night TV, but Robert does not accept his explanation. He insists that he and the narrator draw cathedrals together in order to teach him what they are. Urged on, the narrator fetches paper and a pen and begins by drawing a box that looks like a house and adding windows, and arches, and flying buttresses. The blind man runs his fingers over the image and then rides his fingers on the narrator's fingers as his hand passes over the drawing paper and the narrator completes the image of a cathedral with his eyes closed. Prompted by Robert, he puts people in the cathedral and closes his eyes as the two of them continue to draw.

The narrator does not want to open his eyes. With his eyes closed he knows he is in his own home, but for once he does not feel that he is inside anything. He feels liberated. The closing line of the story is his simple utterance describing what he feels. "It's really something," he says, leaving the reader in that puzzling realm so familiar in Carver's stories. The words are inadequate for the occasion. What, after all, do they mean? Are they just the clichéd observation of a man who does not know his own meaning? Or is he asserting that the image that he cannot see with his eyes but that he does see with his mind's eye is really something remarkable? Or is his statement ironic, and are we to understand that he actually has never escaped the four walls of his home and by extension of his provincial, limited life in which few experiences are authentic, with their own aura, and most are mediated replicas of the experiences of others?

Carver's stunning achievement in a story like "Cathedral" lies in his ability to capture the textures of the narrator's life and yet permit him a moment of recognition when he glimpses something much bigger than the world he knows. Carver's craft with words has always earned him high praise, but many thought that the relentless bleakness of his vision would finally limit him as a writer. Carver thought otherwise and often pointed to his story "Cathedral" as evidence of a new turn in his evolution as an artist. Part of the brilliance of the story lies in his ability to breathe new life into an old literary theme—the theme of the partially blind man who sees, a theme as old as Oedipus and as recent as T.S. Eliot's creation of one-eyed Reilly in "The Cocktail Party," the seer in the play. In "Cathedral" it is the blind friend who holds a precious kind of knowledge. The narrator is right to be jealous and worried about his wife's friend: he does know the narrator's wife well; he has lived fully and known a whole love for his wife before her death from cancer. But more important is Carver's understanding of the bodily knowing that can connect a blind man to a sighted one. The author fully enters, imaginatively, the domain of the blind man, reporting that not only does he have one TV but that he has two and that he enjoys listening to both and that from sound he discovers sight. The narrator, too, learns this precious lesson. He moves from a posture where he cruelly mocked the condition of blindness, confiding that he knows nothing about blindness except from seeing a blind man on TV, to a position where he will close his eyes and draw, letting the blind man speak the drawing and allowing their two blind hands to travel over the page together seeing images that neither man has actually ever seen. Part of the thrill of the last line is that it achieves such dazzling feats, spanning great spaces, like the cathedrals, and yet built by a man who at one level only knows the very smallest part of the edifice he builds. And, yes, it is the doing of the drawing, just as it was the doing of the cathedral building, that gives the action moment.

It is a great loss that Carver did not live longer and leave further proof of his growth as a writer. "Cathedral" and several other stories show him to be a writer deeply knowledgeable about a certain kind of blue collar worker but also charitable and forgiving, capable of depicting worlds where humans can connect and an aura, almost metaphysical, is in reach.

—Carol Simpson Stern

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