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Edging Toward Japan: The Zen-like insight of Raymond Carver

The Lincoln Cathedral in Britain (Photo by Damian Flanagan)
The Salisbury Cathedral in Britain (Photo by Damian Flanagan)

By Damian Flanagan

    It's been many years since I read Raymond Carver's iconic short story, "Cathedral" (1981), so I thought I might reread it. The plot runs something like this: a wife announces to her husband, in some humdrum East Coast American town, that an old friend -- a middle-aged blind man who she used to work for -- is coming to stay. The blind man has over the years become her great confidant, someone with whom she exchanges her emotional problems and deepest feelings.

    Carver's signature style in all his short stories (apart from poetry he only wrote short stories) is extreme brevity, first person narratives and a deceptively plain depiction of everyday life.

    There's a wonderful moment in "Cathedral" in which the blind man sits awkwardly on the edge of the sofa with the husband on the other end, nervously making small talk, while the wife fusses upstairs over getting their guest's bedroom ready. Then she comes downstairs and falls asleep between the two men on the sofa. On one side is her husband, the uninspiring man with whom she shares her daily life; on the other side the man who has never seen her, but who is intimate with all her deepest thoughts.

    What makes "Cathedral" Carver's masterpiece is what happens next. The two men, with the sleeping wife between them, start "watching" a TV documentary about European cathedrals, and the blind man asks the husband to describe what he sees.

    How can you describe a cathedral to a blind man -- particularly if you have trouble expressing your own thoughts to yourself and others? Overwhelmed by the prospect of putting into words something as visually spectacular as a cathedral, the husband flounders but the blind man asks him to attempt to draw a cathedral, joining their hands together as he draws.

    Finally, the blind man encourages the husband to close his eyes and helps him to trace the contours of the cathedral in the darkness of his mind.

    This is an idea which profoundly connects to many insights of Zen. It's a concept of Zen that art is ultimately something which is not so much created but unearthed from the soil of your soul. It already exists somewhere deep in the darkness and you somehow have to bring it into the light. In that sense, the exterior everyday world you see is a distraction, not an aid to bringing great art into being.

    The Milan Cathedral in Italy (Photo by Damian Flanagan)

    In "Cathedral," the wife slumbering on the sofa between her husband, her everyday companion, and the blind man, her distant but deepest confidant, becomes less a portrait of Middle American life and more a symbol of us all, caught between the mundane frustrations of everyday life and artistic longings buried deep in our subconscious.

    What Zen teaches the artist is this: close your eyes and begin to draw and the cathedral already constructed within the darkness of your mind can finally reveal itself.


    (This is Part 32 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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