Arguing from Experience
“Cathedral”, Raymond Carver’s short story from the collection of stories with the same title, is a concise guide to the nature of human interaction and the role prejudice and intellectual blindness play in communication.The narrative includes only three people, the narrator, his wife and Robert, a visitor to their house.
The fact that Robert is blind irritates the narrator, as well his long-term relationship to his wife.Starting from intense protest to Robert’s visit and repulsion, the narrator is miraculously transformed when he is doing a simple project with Robert: drawing a cathedral when guiding Robert’s hand moving across the paper.
A change in the narrator’s attitude indicates his liberation from his prejudice replaced by compassion and human attitude.
The author in this story first of all focuses on liberation from a specific kind of blindness – moral blindness caused by prejudice and bias, something that is more serious and impairing than real blindness.
The path to liberation from stereotypes for the narrator in “Cathedral” starts from the first moments of the story. The narrator’s reaction from the start seems overstated as he vehemently rejects the presence of the blind man in his house: “He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me.” Putting blindness as the reason for his distaste, the narrator appears to be a very self-centered person. Blind to the feelings of people around him, he seems immersed in his own prejudice and narrow-mindedness.
He does not even have power to attend to the needs of his wife bound to the blind man by a long-term friendship and willing to see him in their house as a way to support the man after his wife’s death. The author seems totally blindfolded by his prejudice that looks like instinctive aversion of the healthy man toward an unhealthy one: “But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses.
I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind”. His prejudice makes him see the blind man through the prism of his bias, blinding him to the real personality of the man who seems to be a cheerful and pleasant person. Only in his drawing project does he shed his blindness and get a glimpse into human personality, stating that his guiding experience is “really something” (515).
Moral blindness is something that many people have experienced in one form or another. Stereotyping has become the norm in human communication as more and more people accept seeing their friends and peers as representatives of a class and attribute to them all the fixed ideas about this class.
I faced this situation in my high school class when a group of students were trying to bully a girl who did not fit into their ideas of ‘coolness’. She did not only wear clothes different from what everybody had on – she was totally different, listened to different music, saw different movies, and read books that were beyond their understanding.
Her family was so poor that she really could not afford the clothing that most thought fashionable, and she found her personal way out by remodelling the clothes that remained after her elder sister, acting as her personal designer. Everything about her was special, and this was what alienated everybody, perhaps because they were afraid that she thought them, ‘stereotypical’ youth interested in parties, dating and pop music as ‘uncool’.
I, too, had a long period of blindness when I saw Mary (she had this simple name) as simply a freak in an outrageously long skirt and weird interests like astronomy and teaching Hebrew in the local synagogue. My moment of truth came when I happened to be surrounded by the local ‘gangsters’ on my way from school.
The title ‘gangsters’ seems too impressive for a bunch of teenagers, but being surrounded by a group of guys with knives in some hands was really scary. They arrived just as I was discussing some classroom assignment with Mary, talking over the problem we had to do in class. This time, she was not their target – it was me they had a disagreement with. I was truly surprised when to their advice to get away, she firmly responded she was not going to leave me alone.
We had never been friends, not enemies, either, but not special to each other so that we would stand each other by in any situation. In agreeing to stay with me, she demonstrated courage and strength of character I would never have expected in a girl whom I used to see as a weak and ineffectual wimp submerged in her dreaming and outlandish pursuits. Later on, I felt compelled to talk to her more and discovered a profound personality who was able to reveal to me many interesting things about her hobbies and life.
Looking back on this incident, I think about how many individuals like this we miss in our lives, going past as people who are focused on their stereotypes. Our moral blindness shields us from real life, from what is going on in the minds of the people since we see external characteristics and draw our hasty generalizations from them.
The same is evidenced in racism, sexism, ethnic prejudice and any other –ism based on outward characteristics. A boss who sees an Afro-American guy and is unwilling to employ him just because the previous Afro-American in his place was lazy and ineffective also acts on stereotypes. We are blinded by clothing fashion, appearance, income, and any other thing that can trigger stereotypical ideas.
Raymond Carver in “Cathedral” gives a vivid example of this moral blindness in a person who finally finds strength to overcome the stereotype and see the world with a broader vision. Not each of us will have a transformational experience like that of the narrator in the story to open our eyes to the diversity and unconventionality of people around us.
The rest are on their own, and it is up to them to change their vision of the human world without waiting for guidance from God. Freeing our minds from constraints that stem from upbringing or our environment, we will be able to see a new world, full of interesting and attractive people.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” In: Reading Literature and Writing Argument. 2nd ed. Eds. James Missy and Alan P. Merickel. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005. 471.