Wednesday, June 16, 2010
A Digimodernist Reading of Raymond Carver's "Cathedral"
This is the 3rd post in a series looking at Raymond Carver's short story "Cathedral" in the context of the new media paradigm. Before reading this post, please read my previous post, where I introduce digimodernism as a theory that explains the effect of new media technology on the relationship between authors, audiences, and texts. In this post I will look at "Cathedral" through a digimodernist lens.
On the surface, "Cathedral" is the first person narrative of an isolated man who is transformed by an encounter with his wife's blind friend, Robert. While watching a television program about cathedrals, the narrator attempts to describe to the blind man what a cathedral looks like. When the narrator is unable to complete the task, Robert suggests that they draw a cathedral together. This is a transformative experience for the narrator as he learns to connect with another person. However, just as important as the transformation of the narrator is the transformation of the relationship between authors, audiences, and texts in the story. Raymond Carver is quoted as saying "Cathedral" was "totally different in conception and execution from any stories that [had] come before." In his article "Raymond Carver and Postmodern Humanism" Arthur A. Brown argues that this change was merely a shift from existentialist postmodernism (objective, godless, banal) to humanist postmodernism (more subjective, metaphysical, theological). But according to Alan Kirby, since postmodernism and digimodernism are "historically adjacent and expressed in part through the same cultural forms, digimodernism appears . . . as the logical effect of postmodernism, suggesting a modulated continuity more than a rupture." I will argue that, although "Cathedral" may be postmodernist in that it was written before the advent of digimodernism, the story's portrayal of the transforming relationship between authors, audiences and texts makes "Cathedral" a proto-digimodernist text.
Relationships with Texts
Before meeting Robert, the idea of creating or altering texts is completely foreign to the narrator, evident in his ridicule of his wife's attempts at writing poetry, which he "didn't think much of" (357). Instead, the narrator merely consumes texts in the form of television. He describes how every night he "smoked dope and stayed up as long as [he] could," presumably watching "run-of-the-mill TV fare" (368-369). If anything, rather than the narrator altering texts, texts alter him. For example, the narrator is unhappy with the idea of his wife's blind friend coming because his negative "idea of blindness came from the movies" (356).
Robert, on the other hand, has a more creative, and therefore digimodernist, relationship with texts. For example, Robert meets the narrator's wife after putting an add in the newspaper that said "HELP WANTED--Reading to Blind Man" (356). To keep in touch, Robert and the narrator's wife "made tapes and mailed them back and forth" (356). By submitting content to the newspaper, or making tapes, Robert creates and alters texts, recalling Kirby's claim that a major aspect of digimodernism is the ability of the "reader or viewer to intervene textually, physically to make text, to add visible content." It is this digimodernist relationship with texts that Robert teaches to the narrator.
After an evening of catching up between Robert and the narrator's wife, the narrator and Robert are left watching (or listening) to television together. "Something about the church and the middle ages was on," and then "the TV showed this one cathedral" (369). As the title "Cathedral" indicates, this program is the main text within the story. At first the narrator simply consumes the show. He even admits, "cathedrals don't mean anything special to me . . . They're something to look at on late-night T.V." (372). However, soon Robert asks the narrator "maybe you could describe [a cathedral] to me" (371). This question causes the narrator to alter his relationship with the text of the television show from merely consumptive to creative as he tries to use his own language to describe a cathedral to Robert. When the narrator is unable to adequately describe a cathedral, Robert has another suggestion: "I got an idea. Why don't you find us some heavy paper? And a pen . . . We'll draw one together" (373). The narrator alters the the text of the television show even more substantially now as he transfers it to paper by drawing. The final transformation of the text is evident in the fact that the narrator is narrating. By telling the audience the story that is "Cathedral" the narrator's relationship has gone through a digimodernist transformation. According to Kirby, in digimodernism "You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’." By narrating his experiences the narrator completely transforms the text of the cathedral television show, making himself the text.
Although the story "Cathedral" as written by Raymond Carver may not be considered what Kirby would call a "pure" digimodernist text since its print form prevents readers from literally altering or contributing to the story, I would certainly classify "Cathedral" as proto-digimodernist. When "Cathedral" was first published in 1983, computers were just beginning to be ubiquitous in American society. By 1983 more than 10 million Americans were using computers, and Time magazine nominated the personal computer as "Machine of the Year." Since then, technological advances and the emergence of new media have completely transformed the relationship between authors, audiences, and texts. By reading Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" through the lens of digimodernism, the roots of that transformation appear.