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Blindness creates a world of obscurity only to be overcome
with guidance from someone willing to become intimate with the
blind. Equally true, the perceptions of blindness can only be
overcome when the blind allow intimacy with the sighted. Raymond
Carver, with his short story Cathedral, illustrates this point
through the eyes of a man who will be spending an evening with a
blind man, Robert, for the first time. Not only does this man not
know Robert, but his being blind, “bothered” (Carver 98) him.
His, “idea of blindness came from the movies”, where, “…the
blind move slowly and never laughed” (Carver 98). These
misconceptions of blindness form barriers between the blind and
the sighted. Carver breaks down these barriers as he brings the
vastly different lives of these two men together.
Those of us with sight find it difficult to identify with
the blind. This man, like most of us, can only try to imagine
what life is like for Robert. As a result of his inability to
relate with Robert, he thinks his behaviors are odd, and is
unable to understand the relationship he has with his wife. His
wife worked for this blind man many years ago, reading him
reports and case studies, and organizing his “…little office”
(Carver 98) in the county’s social-service department. He remem?
bers a story his wife told about the last day she worked for him.
The blind man asked her if he could touch her face, and she
agreed. She told him that Robert had touched every part of her
face with his fingers, “…her nose-even her neck!” (Carver 98).
His wife wrote poetry whenever something important happened in
her life, and she “…tried” (Carver 98) to write a poem about
this unforgettable experience. He said he didn’t think much of
the poem, (although he didn’t tell her that), reasoning it was
because he didn’t understand poetry. In reality though, the act
of the blind man touching her face is what he didn’t understand.
To him this seemed a bizarre encounter. Some people, like his
wife and myself, are able to realize how meaningful this
experience is. As a child I developed a close relationship with
my blind grandmother, similar to that between his wife and
Robert. My grandmother would often run her fingers over my face,
which would make me feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. As I
became an adult though, I began to realize the importance this
act held for my grandmother, and eventually for myself. Touching,
for the blind, becomes a vital aspect of relating with the world.
To touch something is to see it with your fingers. It was my
grandmother’s way of becoming familiar with me through her hands
instead of her eyes. His wife had experienced this emotional
closeness with Robert, while he could only try to understand it
by hearing and reading about it.
Without personally knowing anyone who is blind, the
imagination takes over and preconceived ideas are formed. This
man had created a picture in his mind of what Robert would look
like, and how he would act. When Robert arrived at his house he
learned that none of his assumptions were correct. Robert didn’t
wear the typical dark glasses, or walk with a cane. Even without
the cane Robert didn’t move slowly like he thought he would. He
had read somewhere that blind people didn’t smoke, but Robert not
only smoked cigarettes, they also enjoyed some laughs together
when he introduced Robert to “dope” (Carver 104). As it turned
out, Robert wasn’t so humorless after all. He was also surprised
to see that Robert wore a full beard and was dressed well, even
looking, “spiffy” (101). When he turned the TV on, to his wife’s
irritation, they both learned that not only did Robert own two
TV’s, but he preferred to watch the color one. When he realized
that his assumptions about Robert were false, and that they
actually shared some things in common, he began to feel more
comfortable with the blind man, even being, “glad for the
company” (Carver 105).
Once the misconceptions of blindness are revealed by knowing
someone personally, a closer relationship can develop. This man
now knows Robert as more than the blind man, and he allows
himself to become vulnerable with him. While this man and Robert
are watching and listening to the TV, a program about cathedrals
comes on. The man was watching closely as the huge buildings and
countryside’s flashed across the screen. The man becomes aware
that, “There were times when the Englishman who was telling the
thing would shut up, would simply let the camera move around over
the cathedrals” (Carver 105-106). The silence in the room became
awkward for him because he realized that has long as the narrator
wasn’t speaking, Robert didn’t know what was happening. Waiting
as long as he could, he felt he had to say something. He began to
portray what was on the screen to Robert. Robert explained that
he only knew what the narrator had said, but wanted him to
describe what they looked like. Robert struggled trying to make
comparisons, and used words like big and tall. He soon gave up
though, realizing that he wasn’t getting through to Robert.
Robert had an idea and asked the man to bring a pen and some
heavy paper. He brought the items and they sat side by side in
front of the couch with the paper on the table. As the man held
the pen, Robert brought his hand over his and told him to draw.
He began with a simple square building then put in windows with
arches. “I drew flying buttresses. I hung doors. I couldn’t stop”
(Carver 108). They continued to draw even after the TV station
went off the air, even after the mans fingers began to ache.
Robert told him to draw people, so he did. “Close your eyes now”
(Carver 108), Robert said, and he did. They continued to draw,
both of them in darkness now. When they were done Robert told him
to take a look, but he left his eyes closed. “I thought I’d keep
them that way a little longer. I thought it was something I ought
to do” (Carver 108), the man said to himself. When they finished
Robert said, “Well? Are you looking?” (Carver 108). With his eyes
still closed, the man replied, “It’s really something” (Carver
108). The man had allowed himself to experience, even if just for
a few minutes, what the blind man experienced every second of his
life. This, with the same man only a few hours ago he didn’t want
in his house.
Overcoming prejudices, fears, and misconceptions is only
possible when you allow yourself to get close to a person these
feelings are directed towards. By becoming close with Robert, the
man in this story experienced what was necessary to gain an
understanding of what life is like for the blind. The man began
to draw the cathedral to try and help Robert visualize what one
looked like. What he didn’t realize at the time was that Robert
was helping him to visualize what blindness felt like.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral”. The Story and Its Writer by, Ann Charters. Bedford Press. 1999.
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