The Seeing Man
Plato’s “The Republic: Book X” and Longinus’s “On The Sublime” both can be used to outline the end of Raymond Carver’s short story, “Cathedral”. The actions of both men, the blind man and Robert, could be better understood in reference to Plato’s idea of the real vs. the imitative and Longinus’s adaptation of the sublime. “Cathedral”, at times, seems to be written with these two authors in mind. Plato’s conversational, teacher/student style of writing is somewhat reflected at the end of “Cathedral” as the blind man coaches Robert through the drawing. Likewise, Longinus’s passion for the sublime and appreciation of art is equally noted.
Plato, in “The Republic: Book X”, says “But the real artist…would be interested in realities and not in imitations; and would desire to leave as memorials of himself works many and fair; and, instead of being the author of encomiums, he would prefer to be the theme of them.” The blind man, after receiving a lackluster verbal description of a cathedral, demanded that Robert draw the cathedral under his hands-on supervision. Robert’s fumbling with the height of a cathedral was nothing but a worthless imitation of what the blind man supposed was quite magnificent. Plato, like the blind man, didn’t see size as a pre-requisite to greatness and Robert’s infatuation with the height of a cathedral was less than satisfying to the blind man. The blind man became the “real artist” when he took Robert’s hand and traced what he could determine to be a true cathedral. Earlier in the story, the narrator explained that the blind man had done the same sort of thing with his wife when she read to him in Seattle. The blind man asked the narrator’s wife if he could touch her face. He touched every part of her face in order to get a true impression of what she looked like. Plato would say that the blind man was in pursuit of the true image of both the woman’s face and a cathedral.
Another description of what the blind man was thinking when he asked to draw along with Robert is in Plato’s explanation of human weakness and its remedy. Plato references the power of illusion in the appearance of an object. Objects, he says, “appear straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colours to which the sight is liable.” Robert’s description, to the blind man, was like seeing the cathedral under water - blurry and confusing. Plato goes on to say that this weakness is helped by “the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing.” The blind man could take Robert’s description as truth or he could use the fore mentioned scientific arts, measuring the lengths of Robert’s lines, to approach a true image. This remedy allowed the blind man to see the cathedral in its true form, away from the deception of light-bending water.
Longinus’s “On the Sublime” is another source in explaining Robert and the blind man’s actions. In Book XIV, Longinus says that when creating something great, one should “…imagine within ourselves how, if need were, Homer would have said this same thing, how Plato or Demosthenes, or, in history, Thucydides would have made it sublime.” In “Cathedral”, the blind man wants Robert to recall the greatness of those geniuses who created such a masterpiece in order to draw his picture. It took an inspiration, something that Plato thought could be foolishly mistaken as reality, to create a cathedral that could be interpreted by the blind man. The blind man knows that Robert’s picture of the cathedral will, no doubt, be shadowed in comparison to the cathedrals on late-night television. But, as Longinus goes on to say in Book XXI, the sublime is amazing and its greatness often recognized only when one tries to achieve it, and fails. The blind man wanted Robert to realize the splendor of the cathedrals because he had just one minute before, said that cathedrals meant nothing to him, thus showing his ignorance to the genius of it.
Robert enjoys his interaction with the blind man and his drawn cathedral. True, he is high and drunk at the time, but assuming he’s coming down from the thrill of being intoxicated, Longinus would say that he has been thrust into a state of ecstasy. Longinus says, in Book VII, that you are transcended by the “beautiful and genuine effects of sublimity which please always, and please all.” Plato would say that Robert loses his senses and his touch with what is real, but Longinus sees this as an extraordinary and important experience. Whether or not Robert is chemically intoxicated at the time of his drawing, he is twice as intoxicated by the touch of sublimity. Robert, a man that appears rather dull and obtuse throughout the story, is finally brought to life. Carver demonstrates this through his use of language. Almost the entire story, narrated by Robert, is choppy and factual. It isn’t until the end that the sentences begin to flow and emotion is interpreted by the reader.
Longinus, in Book XLIV, describes an aspect of Robert that I assumed from the story. It is said, in “Cathedral”, that Robert rarely goes to bed at the same time as his wife. He usually smokes marijuana and watches late-night television until he falls asleep by himself. Robert seems disconnected from his wife and surroundings. His life seems boring and consumed, perhaps, only by his work and money. Longinus says that he “…cannot discover how it is possible that we who so greatly honour boundless wealth, who, to speak more truly, make it a god, can fail to receive into our souls the kindred evils which enter it.” I only assume that wealth is important to Robert because nothing else is until the end of the story. The priority of money bothers the blind man as much as it bothered Longinus. The blind man, before he says anything about drawing a cathedral, asks Robert if he is in any way, religious. This is the blind man’s way of finding out how empty Robert is. Robert’s indifferent response spawns the blind man’s determination to take Robert to the sublime.
Both essays, written by two very notable geniuses, can easily be applied to a recent work such as “Cathedral.” Robert and the blind man’s portrayal of the sublime and things imitated vs. things that are, according to Plato, real and true is maybe less implicit than what I have described, but their ideas are universal enough that they can be applied explicitly.
Word Count: 1107