The Sacred and Profane of Fictional Space: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”
Raymond Carver’s 1983 short story “Cathedral” is about a blind man who comes to visit a woman and her husband at their home. The woman, who used to work for the blind man, has kept in touch with him by sending recorded tapes back and forth. They haven’t seen each other for ten years. The husband, who spends most of his evenings after his wife has gone to bed drinking and getting stoned while he watches TV, is not looking forward to the blind man’s visit. He is threatened by the blind man’s friendship with his wife even though there is no indication that she and the blind man have romantic feelings for each other. After the three of them eat supper, and they all smoke pot, the husband turns on the television and finds a documentary on European cathedrals. The woman falls asleep on the sofa, and the husband tries to describe the cathedrals to the blind man. “They’re really big,” the husband says. “They’re massive.” He soon gives up trying to describe what he sees and says, “I’m sorry…I’m just not good at it.” When the blind man asks the husband if he is in any way religious, the husband says, “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard.”
Though “Cathedral” represents the height of late 20th century American minimalist realism, it is also a modern allegory, a story constructed around the framework of an extended metaphor in which, as with many of Hawthorne’s tales, the characters function less as people and more as emblems serving the central meaning of the story. The husband doesn’t have a name. Nor does the wife. The blind man is the only one with a name, Robert. He calls the husband “Bub.” The husband (Bub) drinks, watches TV, goes to his nothing job. He is not the kind of person who thinks in great depth about cathedrals, and in that sense he serves as the perfect counterpoint to everything the cathedral represents. Bub is also the perfect counterpoint to the blind man, who cannot see the cathedral but does possess a second sight.
The cathedral is a physical space, a building set up as an antithesis to what we see of Bub’s house. The cathedral represents sacred space, and Bub’s house profane space. In the early part of the twentieth century, Mircea Eliade and Emile Durkheim introduced the idea of the sacred and the profane to describe the historical human relationship to time, myth, ritual and the physical world. In Durkheim’s terms, the profane describes the small concerns of the self, while the sacred describes the enduring concerns of the community. For Eliade the physical world is broken up into sacred and profane space. The profane space inhabited by post-religious humans has no meaning, has no “qualitative differentiation and, hence, no orientation is given by virtue of its inherent structure.” Profane space is emptiness, is chaos. In contrast, sacred space is a “revelation of an absolute reality, opposed to the non-reality of the vast surrounding expanse.” Durkheim and Eliade are describing the deeper human need for a relationship to reality. Metaphor, allegory, story, myth, religion—all concern the relationship between subject and object, between self and other. Without a relationship to some higher reality—to a god, to an idea, to a movement, to some kind of truth—the self has no definition, no space. He doesn’t know it before the blind man arrives, but Bub craves some connection with the sacred.
Every story is a house. You enter through the first sentence and walk through the rooms. The language constructs three-dimensional physical space in the imagination: dialogues, buildings, weather, smells, thoughts, emotions, characters. Like himself, Bub’s house is small, confined, poorly lit, and full of the generic objects of domestic life. In contrast, the cathedrals of Europe, which were constructed over many years by multiple generations of the same families and served as the centerpieces of village life, represent not so much the religious life as the structure of a life beyond the small definition of the self. Post-religious, post-industrial modern culture in America finds us living in an empty husk with our sofas and marijuana staring through the small TV screen at the soaring structures. America has reached the apotheosis of the cult of individualism after the age of capitalist mechanization has systematically stripped the individual of all connection to community, history and cosmology—of all things sacred. The mechanization, which delivered us from the field, the village, the church, and finally even the factory, left us with little more than a stubborn belief in the cult of the self. Bub has no friends, he doesn’t like his job, he is not close to his wife. Bub, a palindrome, has only Bub.
The minimalist style of the story confines the prose in short, simple sentences. It goes without saying that minimalism in fiction functions through the evocation of the unspoken. The sacred is evoked when its absence is defined. As with the great Hemmingway stories of In Our Time, the texture of the prose in “Cathedral” is a photo negative of the repressed. In Bub’s fumbling, blocky prose (“How could I even begin to describe it?” he asks), he tells the blind man that the cathedrals are “very tall. They reach way, way up. Up and up. Toward the sky… They’re really big… They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those older days, God was an important part of everyone’s life.” We have imitative form here but not imitative fallacy because we feel Bub’s repressed longing underneath the flat language. As a physical form, the prose squeezes our vision. The reader tries to reach the cathedrals by wriggling through the portal of Bub’s language, through the portal of the TV screen, and into the ethereal space we can sense but not see on the other side. The story creates the same architectural dynamic that Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned for the office attached to his home in Oak Park: the potential client would pass through a narrowing hallway that squeezed the vision creating a sense of claustrophobia before giving way to a large, high-ceilinged octagonal room (a kind of cathedral) where they would have felt an expansive sense of relief.
At the end of the story, Bub and the blind man trace the outline of a cathedral on paper, with the blind man resting his hand over the husband’s hand. The blind man tells Bub to close his eyes and keep drawing. Bub obeys and for the first time in his life looks inward. The blind man (who has inspired Bub’s wife to write poetry, who seems to live a full life, who is “comfortable” with himself) wants to know if Bub sees the cathedral inside himself: “Well…are you looking?” the blind man asks. Yes and no.
The story does not give us the kind of epiphany (the sudden connection, either secular or religious, with the sacred) readers might expect from reading James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor. Space expands upwards into the cathedral ceiling of the tent in “Araby” and out over the vast expanse of time and space of Ireland in “The Dead.” In Joyce’s stories, especially in “The Dead,” the characters are absorbed into and elevated by the high lyricism of artistic form. At the end of O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” grace strikes the grandmother like a bolt of lightning in the moment before she dies. None of this happens for Bub. His encounter with the blind man has dislodged him from the profane self, as Durkheim describes it, but he is not connected to sacred space. “I didn’t feel like I was inside anything,” he tells us as he draws the cathedral. He now occupies a space defined by absence, which is the definition of profane space. Like the idea of outer space, profane time and space have no beginning and no end. However, with the blind man as a model, Bub may embark on an inward journey to a sacred space within himself. We have hope for Bub because he has moved, albeit slightly, away from his usual mode of being. After having been so resistant to everything to do with the blind man, Bub now does what the blind man tells him to do. He keeps his eyes closed “a little longer” because he feels it is “something I ought to do.” “It was like nothing else in my life up until now,” he tells us. For now he is moving away from what he has known toward the unknown. We hope, of course, that he will not retreat back into the numbness of his previous state, that he will pass through the narrow confines of his life to a more meaningful relationship with himself, his wife, his world. Wherever he is going, we hope he makes it. We hope he doesn’t turn back.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Knopf, 1983.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1912.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. W.R. Trask. New York: Harvest/HBJ Publishers, 1957.