Cathedral: How Can We Truly See?
***Quentin Forberg is a Tree District Books author. He is writing a collection of works, comprised of poetry and short stories. The collection is a transformative journey that will challenge your outlook and leave you pondering and reflecting. Be sure to look for his first collection later this year!
In this post, Quentin explores Cathedral by Raymond Carver, and how its lessons should be taken by the people of United States in its current political and social climate.***
Cathedral tells the story of a disappointed man meeting his wife’s blind friend. Together they draw a picture of a cathedral, and he finally understands some sort of metaphysical truth. He is able to truly connect with a person, but not after questioning the blind man’s ability to truly “see.”
For the first half of the story, the narrator questions how his wife could ever be friends with a blind man, especially such close friends. He learns of the blind man’s wife, and this further bewilders him. How could he love her if he’s never seen her appearance? As the blind man arrives, the narrator is still unsure of himself and is quite thrown off by the blind man’s open personality. After dinner, they smoke marijuana, allowing the narrator’s inhibitions to melt away, and they eventually come together and see as one.
The question Raymond Carver is trying to answer is how do we truly connect? The narrator’s fundamental assumption is that plain vision will automatically connect us with our observable reality, and therefore other's. The narrator acts as the questioning and afraid loner, quick to dismiss ideas contrary to his own. He assumes superiority over his wife and the blind man. Because of this, he engages with little to no effort, and cannot form meaningful bonds with others. His wife at one point states that he has no friends. Just like his wife’s attempted suicide, a life of loneliness can drive anyone insane.
It is apparent that the narrator is dissatisfied with life, and the blind man helps him understand why. Throughout the story, the wife and blind man connect through various mediums: storytelling through tapes, poetry, and plain conversation. It is also mentioned that the blind man is a ham radio enthusiast. He converses with strangers from different states and countries and it is inferred that not even language is a barrier in his ability to connect with others. The narrator, meanwhile, cannot even break down the barrier of communication with his own wife.
As stated, the narrator and the blind man smoke marijuana and watch television. At first, a news program is played so the blind man can simply listen and understand. Eventually, a program about cathedrals plays, and the blind man asks the narrator for a description. He cannot find the words, so the blind man asks the narrator to draw as he holds the pencil. Here is when the narrator has his epiphany. A man who can see and a man who cannot see become one in understanding. They connect with each other in a Buddhist-like way. The narrator understands that attention and intention will lead to change in his life. It is his choice to connect with people and not the plain act of seeing them. The cathedral houses a divine truth. It can be interpreted in many ways, but for the sake of this piece, connection between humans is the universal truth that had been hiding from the narrator.
How can we use Cathedral to understand our modern social and political climates? It is apparent that the U.S. is extremely polarized and people seem to hold absolute disdain towards others with differing opinions. A simple surf through Twitter exemplifies 21st century communication. Neither party listens while both parties attack each other ad hominem. The rise of social media has relegated an entire generation to exist as narcissistic shells of themselves holed up in predetermined beliefs. Since so much communication takes place through social media sites, it seems like people commit to a superficial image that unfortunately, engulfs their entire personality. There is no nuance in character, personality, or even political belief.
This brings me to my next point: the U.S. population has been raised on notions of good and evil, whether that be through religion or education, and therefore politics are regarded as such. A tribalist mentality has swallowed the politically active, and they have committed to their camps. The average discussion is continually left versus right, without a bridge to cross the gap. We are much like the narrator at the beginning of the story. Entrenched in our assumptions, judgmental, and frankly, assholes.
So what does Raymond Carver tell us to do? First, it takes a bit of self reflection. Like the narrator, we must realize we are wrong to live in such a black and white world. We claim to see, but are we really understanding? Then, we must connect. In Cathedral, the act of drawing a hidden truth is the catalyst for change. Nothing evokes more emotion and understanding than true art. We must make art that connects every human being, rather than splitting them apart. The act of seeing is too one dimensional. To truly connect, we must engage and live with intention. Conversation between two poles is the only way some sort of middleground will ever be found, and right now, the U.S. absolutely needs to draw the Cathedral.