Cathedral

22/02/2024

        If seeing is believing does this mean that a blind person cannot believe? As with any truism, pushed in a certain direction, it can seem like nonsense. In Cathedral, Carver reverses it. Not seeing is believing, as the narrator cynically muses over why his wife has wasted her time for many years being friends with a blind man he finally meets when the man comes to visit. “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night, His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws. Arrangements were made.” 

  The narrator’s tone is flat and indifferent. This will be a chore. He gives the impression he doesn’t have much time for his wife, and when he says he doesn’t have any blind friends, his wife replies: “you don’t have any friends… Period.” As he relates to us aspects of his wife’s past, her sweetheart, her time moving from air force base to air force base with him, and her friendship with the blind man, he offers it with the narrative enthusiasm of the bored. “…She was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc.” “…She let the blind man run his hands over her face, said goodbye to him, married her childhood, etc.” This is a man who doesn’t do belief; he doesn’t even do curiosity. 

  But halfway through the story, something changes. The narrator’s wife has fallen asleep and the blind man and the narrator sit watching a programme about cathedrals. The blind man, Robert, says he didn’t know much about them but they did take fifty or a hundred years to build and that generations of the same family would work on them. However, the narrator wonders what visual idea of a cathedral Robert has, and says “do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion of what they are talking about? Do you know the difference between that and a Baptist church?” This comes from a man whose idea of a question has thus far been asking Robert if he wants a little water in his Scotch. 

   Carver doesn’t explain what marks this shift in sensibility, perhaps hoping the reader will see the story as a performative attempt to get us to believe in this incurious cynic’s realisation. If this moment comes as such a surprise to the narrator, shouldn’t it also come as a surprise to us as well? However, if that were simply the case, we might struggle to believe this is a bloke who over one evening would be able to see the perspective of a blind man, and have a new sense of the world as a consequence. However, Carver manages to propose that this is a man who, though he lacks friends, doesn’t seem to listen much to his wife, and observes Robert with cautious scrutiny, will turn all these negatives into potential positives without generating implausibility. 

     How? Let us look at three details in turn. We are told he lacks friends. We can read this as inevitable given his cynicism, or we might choose to view his misanthropy as a consequence of his loneliness, of his inability to make connections with others. Secondly, it appears he doesn’t listen to his wife as he says etc. as though he couldn’t be bothered hearing the rest. But this is someone who is telling us about his wife’s sweetheart, a man who meant so much to her, one the narrator may have for years been trying to make sure was of little importance to him. Who would want to relate in detail the great love of their spouse’s life? And what about the jaundiced perspective he has on Robert? Maybe even the decent might have a problem with their wife constantly talking up this man she has known for many years and that, before the start of the story, the narrator has never met, especially when he himself feels ignored. As he says, “They talked of things that had happened to them — to them — these past ten years. I waited in vain to hear my name on my wife’s sweet lips: ‘And then my dear husband came into my life’ — something like that. But I heard nothing of the sort.” Here he sounds almost sentimental and surely loving — those sweet lips of his wife. Initially, we might read this ironically but by the end of the story we may look back on such passages, seeing in them a decency and sincerity he hasn’t always found easy to express. 

       Carver says, “it is a menacing place for many of the people in my stories, yes. The people I've chosen to write about do feel menace, and I think many, if not most people feel the world is a menacing place.” ('An Interview with Raymond Carver') Our narrator would presumably be one of the menaced and assumes the worst unless anything proves capable of contradicting it. This is exactly what Robert manages to do as he helps the narrator draw a cathedral with his hand guiding the narrator’s. “He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. 'Go ahead bub, draw,' he said. 'Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw.'” And so he draws flying buttresses, great doors and then peoples the cathedral as well. Then he closes his eyes when Robert proposes he does so, and “his fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”

   This is a very big claim for a short story to make, even if many a tale will choose a moment of crisis as its starting or finishing point, from Anton Chekhov’s 'The Lady with the Dog' and John Cheever’s 'A Country Husband', to Chinua Achebe’s 'The Sacrificial Egg' and Doris Lessing’s 'The Habit of Loving'. But Lessing’s story covers years in a man’s life and so does Chekhov’s, while 'A Country Husband' suggests a man’s imminent breakdown, and 'The Sacrificial Egg' wonders whether the special egg a man stands on leads to the death of his fiancee and her mother. Carver, though, wants us to believe in the transformation of a cynic based on one meeting with his wife’s blind friend. If we accept that it is too easy to claim Carver wants us to believe by insisting that belief is a belief after all, and evidence would turn it into a stronger argument but a weaker belief, then we might ask how does Carver accept that he needs to convince us without turning the story into the overly empirical, which would counter the belief he seeks?

  This is the conundrum 'Cathedral' tries to resolve and we have noted already that if we look at the narrator less as a cynic than a solitary, wary and vulnerable man, we see how this space might begin to open up inside him. We could also note an exchange between him and Robert as the narrator has been trying to describe cathedrals to the blind man. “Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offence,” Robert says. “You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious. You don’t mind my asking?” The narrator replies, “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?” In between the question and the narrator’s answer, the narrator says he nodded but that wasn’t much use: a wink is a nod to a blind man, he thinks, and we might notice once again the casually callous. However, we might instead choose to make much of his lack of faith. When he is asked if he is religious he doesn’t just say no, he insists he doesn’t really believe in anything, and then acknowledges that this isn’t easy. We might also see that what can appear as coldness perhaps contains a different type of warmth. When he describes his wife’s unhappiness before meeting him, the narrator says, she was travelling from place to place, wherever the officer was posted, when one day she took a pile of pills, washed down with a bottle of gin, and passed out. Telling us the story, he says “her officer — why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart and what more does he want? — came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance.” Again, we might notice the misanthropic or we could see that the narrator is the man who has been there for her in the wake of her breakdown and suicide attempt. Details are a bit vague, but in time she divorces the officer and marries the narrator. 

   The more we see the narrator as indifferent, the harder it is to buy into the transformation. Yet on a first reading, his apparent lack of interest in his wife’s poetry, his disdain towards blindness, his lack of friends, his disregard for his wife’s past, all suggest a man very far away from the shift the story proposes. But this appears to be Carver’s wily craft at work as he uses it as a deflective mechanism not only for the character but for the reader as well. Michael Wood reckons “there is danger in these lives. The expected catastrophe, though absent as crisis or melodrama, is perpetually present as fear, and this is why these worried people are so lively and the stories so full of menace.” (New York Times) Meanwhile, Frank Kermode believes: “Naturally no writer on this side of the ocean sounds very like Carver, deep in what is now a naturalised tradition and in a world of his own.” (London Review of Books) Carver’s characters are not inclined to religious faith but they seem to live with the traces of its absence, as though God could be there to get them out of a hole, as a response to desperation, as a way of trying to cope with fear and that threat of catastrophe. “These were lives where people really were scared when someone knocked on their door, day or night, or when the telephone rang; and they didn't know how they were going to pay the rent”, Carver says, “or what they could do if their refrigerator went out.” (Mississippi Review

    Part of Carver’s brilliance as a writer rests on seeing the mundane and the metaphysical, the every day and the transcendent, as interlinked — as if praying to God is a wish as much as a prayer, hoping that the refrigerator needs a fuse for a dollar rather than a new fridge that will cost hundreds. It is as though the trepidation many critics see in his work is always greater than the reality it conveys. This doesn’t mean Carver underestimates it, as he says: “the things that have made an indelible impression on me are the things I saw in lives I witnessed being lived around me, and in the life I myself lived.” (Mississippi Review) But the stories always seem to have a dimension greater than the reality they appear to convey, without proposing that this greater thing needs, unlike the work of a writer he much admired Flannery O’Connor, a theological underpinning. 'Cathedral', with its titular reference, with his wife’s suicide attempt, the narrator’s feelings of futility, and Robert’s, if you like, blind faith, hint at its possibility. However, if the story works, it doesn’t ask us so blindly to believe in anything beyond the power of the writer to convince us that this is a man who needs a bit of faith in his life, however we choose to define it, if we need to define it at all.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Cathedral

If seeing is believing does this mean that a blind person cannot believe? As with any truism, pushed in a certain direction, it can seem like nonsense. In Cathedral, Carver reverses it. Not seeing is believing, as the narrator cynically muses over why his wife has wasted her time for many years being friends with a blind man he finally meets when the man comes to visit. "This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night, His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife's relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws. Arrangements were made."

The narrator's tone is flat and indifferent. This will be a chore. He gives the impression he doesn't have much time for his wife, and when he says he doesn't have any blind friends, his wife replies: "you don't have any friends... Period." As he relates to us aspects of his wife's past, her sweetheart, her time moving from air force base to air force base with him, and her friendship with the blind man, he offers it with the narrative enthusiasm of the bored. "...She was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc." "...She let the blind man run his hands over her face, said goodbye to him, married her childhood, etc." This is a man who doesn't do belief; he doesn't even do curiosity.

But halfway through the story, something changes. The narrator's wife has fallen asleep and the blind man and the narrator sit watching a programme about cathedrals. The blind man, Robert, says he didn't know much about them but they did take fifty or a hundred years to build and that generations of the same family would work on them. However, the narrator wonders what visual idea of a cathedral Robert has, and says "do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion of what they are talking about? Do you know the difference between that and a Baptist church?" This comes from a man whose idea of a question has thus far been asking Robert if he wants a little water in his Scotch.

Carver doesn't explain what marks this shift in sensibility, perhaps hoping the reader will see the story as a performative attempt to get us to believe in this incurious cynic's realisation. If this moment comes as such a surprise to the narrator, shouldn't it also come as a surprise to us as well? However, if that were simply the case, we might struggle to believe this is a bloke who over one evening would be able to see the perspective of a blind man, and have a new sense of the world as a consequence. However, Carver manages to propose that this is a man who, though he lacks friends, doesn't seem to listen much to his wife, and observes Robert with cautious scrutiny, will turn all these negatives into potential positives without generating implausibility.

How? Let us look at three details in turn. We are told he lacks friends. We can read this as inevitable given his cynicism, or we might choose to view his misanthropy as a consequence of his loneliness, of his inability to make connections with others. Secondly, it appears he doesn't listen to his wife as he says etc. as though he couldn't be bothered hearing the rest. But this is someone who is telling us about his wife's sweetheart, a man who meant so much to her, one the narrator may have for years been trying to make sure was of little importance to him. Who would want to relate in detail the great love of their spouse's life? And what about the jaundiced perspective he has on Robert? Maybe even the decent might have a problem with their wife constantly talking up this man she has known for many years and that, before the start of the story, the narrator has never met, especially when he himself feels ignored. As he says, "They talked of things that had happened to them to them these past ten years. I waited in vain to hear my name on my wife's sweet lips: 'And then my dear husband came into my life' something like that. But I heard nothing of the sort." Here he sounds almost sentimental and surely loving those sweet lips of his wife. Initially, we might read this ironically but by the end of the story we may look back on such passages, seeing in them a decency and sincerity he hasn't always found easy to express.

Carver says, "it is a menacing place for many of the people in my stories, yes. The people I've chosen to write about do feel menace, and I think many, if not most people feel the world is a menacing place." ('An Interview with Raymond Carver') Our narrator would presumably be one of the menaced and assumes the worst unless anything proves capable of contradicting it. This is exactly what Robert manages to do as he helps the narrator draw a cathedral with his hand guiding the narrator's. "He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. 'Go ahead bub, draw,' he said. 'Draw. You'll see. I'll follow along with you. It'll be okay. Just begin now like I'm telling you. You'll see. Draw.'" And so he draws flying buttresses, great doors and then peoples the cathedral as well. Then he closes his eyes when Robert proposes he does so, and "his fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now."

This is a very big claim for a short story to make, even if many a tale will choose a moment of crisis as its starting or finishing point, from Anton Chekhov's 'The Lady with the Dog' and John Cheever's 'A Country Husband', to Chinua Achebe's 'The Sacrificial Egg' and Doris Lessing's 'The Habit of Loving'. But Lessing's story covers years in a man's life and so does Chekhov's, while 'A Country Husband' suggests a man's imminent breakdown, and 'The Sacrificial Egg' wonders whether the special egg a man stands on leads to the death of his fiancee and her mother. Carver, though, wants us to believe in the transformation of a cynic based on one meeting with his wife's blind friend. If we accept that it is too easy to claim Carver wants us to believe by insisting that belief is a belief after all, and evidence would turn it into a stronger argument but a weaker belief, then we might ask how does Carver accept that he needs to convince us without turning the story into the overly empirical, which would counter the belief he seeks?

This is the conundrum 'Cathedral' tries to resolve and we have noted already that if we look at the narrator less as a cynic than a solitary, wary and vulnerable man, we see how this space might begin to open up inside him. We could also note an exchange between him and Robert as the narrator has been trying to describe cathedrals to the blind man. "Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I'm just curious and there's no offence," Robert says. "You're my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious. You don't mind my asking?" The narrator replies, "I guess I don't believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it's hard. You know what I'm saying?" In between the question and the narrator's answer, the narrator says he nodded but that wasn't much use: a wink is a nod to a blind man, he thinks, and we might notice once again the casually callous. However, we might instead choose to make much of his lack of faith. When he is asked if he is religious he doesn't just say no, he insists he doesn't really believe in anything, and then acknowledges that this isn't easy. We might also see that what can appear as coldness perhaps contains a different type of warmth. When he describes his wife's unhappiness before meeting him, the narrator says, she was travelling from place to place, wherever the officer was posted, when one day she took a pile of pills, washed down with a bottle of gin, and passed out. Telling us the story, he says "her officer why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart and what more does he want? came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance." Again, we might notice the misanthropic or we could see that the narrator is the man who has been there for her in the wake of her breakdown and suicide attempt. Details are a bit vague, but in time she divorces the officer and marries the narrator.

The more we see the narrator as indifferent, the harder it is to buy into the transformation. Yet on a first reading, his apparent lack of interest in his wife's poetry, his disdain towards blindness, his lack of friends, his disregard for his wife's past, all suggest a man very far away from the shift the story proposes. But this appears to be Carver's wily craft at work as he uses it as a deflective mechanism not only for the character but for the reader as well. Michael Wood reckons "there is danger in these lives. The expected catastrophe, though absent as crisis or melodrama, is perpetually present as fear, and this is why these worried people are so lively and the stories so full of menace." (New York Times) Meanwhile, Frank Kermode believes: "Naturally no writer on this side of the ocean sounds very like Carver, deep in what is now a naturalised tradition and in a world of his own." (London Review of Books) Carver's characters are not inclined to religious faith but they seem to live with the traces of its absence, as though God could be there to get them out of a hole, as a response to desperation, as a way of trying to cope with fear and that threat of catastrophe. "These were lives where people really were scared when someone knocked on their door, day or night, or when the telephone rang; and they didn't know how they were going to pay the rent", Carver says, "or what they could do if their refrigerator went out." (Mississippi Review)

Part of Carver's brilliance as a writer rests on seeing the mundane and the metaphysical, the every day and the transcendent, as interlinked as if praying to God is a wish as much as a prayer, hoping that the refrigerator needs a fuse for a dollar rather than a new fridge that will cost hundreds. It is as though the trepidation many critics see in his work is always greater than the reality it conveys. This doesn't mean Carver underestimates it, as he says: "the things that have made an indelible impression on me are the things I saw in lives I witnessed being lived around me, and in the life I myself lived." (Mississippi Review) But the stories always seem to have a dimension greater than the reality they appear to convey, without proposing that this greater thing needs, unlike the work of a writer he much admired Flannery O'Connor, a theological underpinning. 'Cathedral', with its titular reference, with his wife's suicide attempt, the narrator's feelings of futility, and Robert's, if you like, blind faith, hint at its possibility. However, if the story works, it doesn't ask us so blindly to believe in anything beyond the power of the writer to convince us that this is a man who needs a bit of faith in his life, however we choose to define it, if we need to define it at all.


© Tony McKibbin