Raymond Carver's Heart & Soul
December 1988By Robert Coles
Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School. His latest book is Harvard Diary, a collection of his columns from the NOR, published by Crossroad.
A Small, Good Thing and Cathedral are two of Raymond Carvers later stories. I ask my college students and medical students to read them, an introduction to his particular late 20th-century American world. Carvers people are, mostly, quite ordinary, and often enough down on their luck. Perhaps they drink too much. Perhaps they have never known how to get ahead in life find a good job, make the kind of marriage that is satisfying and gives them a big boost as they take on bosses or fellow workers, not to mention all the annoyances, frustrations, and irritations that go with trying to make a living so you can pay your bills. Perhaps they are men and women who are getting by, maybe, but at a big cost hence, lots of fighting at home, or an unrelenting boredom, or silence (the grim, tenacious silence of a nothing-time this side of death). Sometimes Carver is content to render such dead-end lives; but occasionally he moves toward some important shift that is spiritual in nature, as he does in these two stories, and of course, in Errand, which I discussed in an earlier column.
In Cathedral a blind man enters the family life of a plain, working-class couple no big-deal home, no pretensions to social success, to intellectual achievement, to cultural sophistication. The wife has known him for years, kept in touch with him turned to him, really, as someone whom she could trust to hear her personal news, to respond with attentive concern. The husband (her second) is now to meet the blind man, who has recently lost his wife. The story takes place in a living room, a dining room. The husband is perplexed at his wifes obvious interest in, affection for the blind man. The blind man seems to be laconic, enigmatic. His eyes, obviously, tell nothing; a beard covers his face. To the husband he is at first creepy. Carver more than hints at the familiar triangle mostly rendered through the husbands rising dissatisfaction. But soon enough the story changes direction. The three eat a plain, hearty meal; the wife tires and goes to sleep; the husband and the blind man are left with that other great companion of our days and nights, television.
On the screen a program about the Church and the Middle Ages comes on. The two men have been matching drink for drink, and it is late, and they, too, ought to be dozing off. But instead they resist sleep, pay closer attention to each other, respond to the television program and soon enough the husband is drawing a cathedral, with the blind man attentively at his side, and eventually, an awakened wife is there, too. A man utterly indifferent to religion (I guess I dont believe in it) has been prompted by a stranger to think carefully about cathedrals how they look, their structural nature and then convey that appearance on paper. The story ends with a threesome newly alert, with some mystery and excitement in the air. As in the Bible, the blind lead the blind but now toward a new vision. Carver is too good a storyteller to load down this noumenal moment with preachy dogmatics. But the reader is prompted to think of things seen and unseen, of what he or she has or has not noticed; the reader, too, has been asked to consider what it is that might break the spell of indifference and isolation and loneliness that shadows us so much of the time. Cathedral at the very least offers a visual epiphany and of course the storys title, the subject matter of the drawing, is of some implicit significance. One thinks of those distant ancestors of ours in southern France, untold centuries ago, marking the walls of the great cave of Lascaux, and perhaps asserting thereby their speculations and dreams, their questions about the world, about lifes purpose and meaning.
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