Blindness and Insight

raymond carver_cathedral_coverWhen I worked in Waterstone’s back in 1993, Raymond Carver was the man. I hadn’t even heard of him, but it wasn’t long before I realised he represented some pinnacle of writing to the people I worked with. A collected edition of his stories had recently been published and I bought a copy of it, though it was in fact many years before I actually started reading him. Short stories aren’t something I read very often. I did appreciate him, and all those blue-collar depressives he wrote about, self-consciously ordinary people on the run from their better natures. But I didn’t love him, not in the way I felt I ought to. One story, though, stuck out in my mind, awkward and yet fascinating. This was ‘Cathedral’, the story in which a man overcomes prejudice and experiences a moment of pure revelation.

Our unnamed narrator is waiting at home, anticipating a most unwelcome visitor. Long ago, before she married him, his wife became good friends with a blind man named Robert, who saw her through some difficult times with compassion and support. For a long time they have been corresponding by means of recorded tapes and this friendship and its unusual communication is clearly very important to her; ‘Next to writing a poem every year,’ our narrator tells us, ‘I think it was her chief means of recreation.’ But now Robert’s wife has died, and he is coming to pay a visit. ‘I don’t have any blind friends,’ the narrator whines to his wife. ‘You don’t have any friends,’ she retorts. She tells him a tender story about Robert’s marriage but the idea of being married to a blind man sparks a train of perjorative speculation in our narrator, who is made deeply uncomfortable by the thought of having to be in proximity to someone so mysteriously disabled.

Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one,’ he ponders. ‘Someone who could wear makeup or not – what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter.’

We can see he’s a guy who idealises a certain kind of normality, a man trying too hard for simplicity and ending up with emptiness, ringed by danger. He wants things to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but when that easy, dependable sight is out of the equation, what creeps in instead is chaos, the breakdown of civilisation represented in that mad Picasso-woman he imagines. While he tries to exert his own superiority in his prejudice against the blind, we only hear wilful ignorance and ugly anxiety, provoked by a stranger who threatens not to be exactly like him.

When Robert arrives, he is easy-going, friendly, happy to fit in with the couple and to appreciate any little thing that’s done for him. Together they share drinks and a meal and then a joint. For most of the evening Robert and the narrator’s wife talk, and when the talk slows, the narrator turns on the television in a gesture that’s pretty much an insult. But Robert is as unruffled as ever, content to learn through listening, as he puts it. When a program comes on about cathedrals, our narrator feels obliged to add a little commentary. Robert admits that he knows very little about cathedrals, and says he’d be grateful to have one described. Our narrator is once again bumping into his limits, lacking the words, let alone the intelligence, to make a decent attempt at it. So Robert asks for pen and paper and he asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him, covering the narrator’s hand with his own and following the lines. After a while, completely engaged in the task, Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes and together they keep drawing. ‘It was like nothing else in my life up to now,’ the narrator confesses: ‘”It’s really something,” I said.’

So the point of the story is clever but obvious. The blind man is not the one who is physically blind. It’s our narrator who has to open his eyes metaphorically to all sorts of things he has been strenously keeping out – wonder, amazement, new experience, sensitivity, insight. That last one says it all: ‘insight’, the ability to see beyond the façade or to look inwards to the experience of a different but potent world. Though Robert may be blind, it’s clear he is open, aware, flexible, loving, engaged with everything around him. He manages to bring his would-be enemy to a point of unexpected revelation, and it’s important that whatever that revelation is, the narrator can’t describe it in ways the reader can see. This is how we know his internal paradigm has shifted.

I wonder whether we can’t take the analysis a little further, though. A literary critic called Paul de Man wrote a book of essays entitled Blindness and Insight. His argument was that blindness and insight are not an either/or, but an ‘and’. We cannot have one without the other. This argument came out of looking closely at various critical readings of books that seemed to select only certain points of a story to base an interpretation upon while ignoring others. This was considered a flaw, but Paul de Man suggested it was a necessity; to try to deal with the entirety of a story at once is too overwhelming and complex. His point was that you can only get an insight with the help of a little selective blindness. So to return to our story, perhaps it’s no coincidence that blind Robert seems to have uncanny powers of understanding and empathy. Nor that the narrator, who privileges sight in an excessive way, seems to know nothing and understand nothing and this quite willingly. He has to be made to slow down and focus in tight, to deprive himself of his cherished sight, in order to gain that special quality of insight.

Maybe this is a reason why so many writers – and Raymond Carver was exemplary here – hit the bottle as part and parcel of a writing life. Maybe they need to anaethetize some part of themselves, tune out the white noise of the world or the multiple voices inside their heads, in order to select the elements that make a story. Only alcohol, being such a blunt instrument, tunes out more than they bargained for.

10 thoughts on “Blindness and Insight

  1. That is so intriguing…I must read this book..I think most of us fear blindness as our society promotes self reliance yet we all do depend on others in reality.You’ve written a beautiful account.:)

  2. I remember that same reverence for Raymond Carver when I started my stint at Waterstones. You might like to take a dekko at Olivia Laing’s Trip to Echo Spring about the relationship between writing and drink if you haven’t seen it already. Raymond Carver is one of the writers she looks at although not in as much depth as the other four. Perhaps more of a library book than a purchase, and best read when cheerful!

  3. I liked Carver when I was younger, and still have a set of complete stories which I have read more than once. He is incredibly influential, to the point that a lot of (mostly, young male) creative writing students tend to wear his influence rather heavily. It is perhaps ironic that his rather pared-down style which is so attractive turned out not to be entirely his own work, but the result of brutal editing – most of his stories started off more than twice as long until Gordon Lish got his hands on them.

  4. I see examples of Carver’s short stories come up a lot when I read books about writing. I wish I could come up with ideas as good as that, and reproduce them in such a variety of voices. I am reading a biog of George Elliot at the moment and the author Kathryn Hughes talks a lot about which people in Eliot’s life were the basis for which characters. Which I find quite reassuring, that someone so great took moments from her real life as bases. Whereas the ideas that Carver comes up with seem so… cerebral. So based on minute, clever, momentary observation of character. He must have been able to see so many things that the rest of us don’t pick up on.

  5. I love short stories and I have at least one Carver book (and maybe others lurking on shelves or in piles) in reserve–knowing he is a ‘biggie’ when it comes to short stories. Why I set writers like him and Cheever and others aside is beyond me–knowing I need to be more present in the reading or up for something special or something I imagine. Anyway, I knew about his alchoholism–so am interested in what you have to say about it in terms of his writing/creativity. It’s like he can see into the inner lives of his characters better than dealing with his own inner life. And I think de Man is on to something when it comes to insight and blindness–the bigger picture is often too much to take in sometimes….

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that blindness is necessary for insight. Isn’t it only when we’re blind to something in someone else that – when it’s confronted – a revelatory thing happens (or at least has a chance to happen)?

  7. Oh, I love Raymond Carver. He is indeed, The Man. Well, next to Haruki Murakami who praised Carver so much I had to find out what all the fuss was about.

  8. What an eloquent post, Litlove. And this fusion of blindness and sight is insightful indeed. As I read, I was thinking of a continuum, but not expected that the two could co-exist; and it makes a lot of sense. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your analysis here.

  9. I’ve not read much Carver even though he is held up as one of the best American short story writers. This sounds like a good one though. And Paul de Man, very interesting. What he says makes sense.

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