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Raymond Carver’s Heart & Soul


By Robert Coles | December 1988
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 Carver’s later stories. I ask my college students and medical students to read them, an introduction to his particular late 20th-century American world. Carver’s 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 wife’s 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 husband’s 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 don’t 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 story’s 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 life’s purpose and meaning.

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