I’ve read Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ a few years back and was never really taken by it. As I was going through my box of college things (handouts, prompts, etc.), at ease with my hoarder status, I happened upon the short story handout and thought about giving it another try. Then, I realized that it was part of the course reading so I thought that was quite serendipitous so I decided to write about it here.

It’s not a daunting story—quite the opposite really. I remember we had to write about it in my English 101 class and I was confused about the direction my essay would take. Though it was an easy read, there was something, I suspected, heartily throbbing behind Carver’s clean and simple prose that I could not grasp.

It was the same simplicity that prevented me from enjoying Billy Collins’ poetry when I read him a few years back. Taken by the electric incantations by Neruda, the scholarly brooding of Eliot, and puzzle-plays of Cummings at the time, I was of course to regard ‘simple’ poetry to also be ‘simple-minded’. How wrong I was, I thought, a few year later when I gave Collins another try.

There’s nothing difficult to understand about ‘Cathedral”s plot. A blind man, an old acquaintance of the narrator’s wife, visits. Uneasy with the man’s disability and relationship with his wife, the narrator finds it difficult to entertain due to his asocial and disregarding nature—we also find a less severe form of this as he discusses his wife’s past. As the night pressed on, the narrator and the blind man find themselves watching a special about cathedrals. The narrator realizes that the blind man might never know what a cathedral really is besides being a conceptual word. The blind man asks the narrator to describe cathedrals to him.

Reluctant, the narrator tries to describe cathedrals to him. Feeling that he was doing an unsatisfactory job, the narrator apologizes to the blind man. The blind man pays no mind and instead asks for a pen and paper. He tells the narrator that they will draw a cathedral together. He will place his hand on the narrator’s as he draws a cathedral. And as they draw a cathedral together, the narrator experiences an epiphany.

From what we knew about the narrator, who’s apathy seems to be alienating, it comes as a surprise when he “kept [drawing the cathedral]”. It was unbecoming of him. The narrator was enjoying an intimate moment—perhaps the first such moment in his life—letting himself drown in this unfamiliar feeling, keeping his eyes closed although the blind man told him to assess their scribble. He describes it as “really something”.

At this moment, I remember that the essays we had to write back in my English 101 class dealt with epiphanies. This was paired with Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and I suspect some other short story, but I cannot for the life of me recall it. I digress…

The final statement of the short story—where the narrator says their drawing is “really something” even though he kept his eyes shut all along—seems simple but it actually acts as both climax and dénouement. If there is one thing I have to praise in ‘Cathedral’, it is this final moment. It’s a technical feat that inspires jealousy in me. But of course, the whole story set itself up for that moment.

The characterization in ‘Cathedral’ lays the groundwork for the potency of its ending. It seems to be explained too simply but this is actually impressive—it shows how tightly structured this deceptively simple story really is. The narrator is unenthusiastic in how he describes his relationship with his wife, his wife’s history, the blind man, and all other things he pays attention to—as if narration was a job he didn’t care for; something he was ordered to do.

The narrator of ‘Cathedral’ has a mocking tone; one doesn’t feel he takes anything seriously. When his wife fell asleep while the three of them were in the living room, he closes her robe only to open it again for a little chuckle—what can the blind man do? But he also doesn’t seem to be one who likes stepping on others’ toes. He does try to suppress himself during the whole of the blind man’s visit. He even seems apologetic that he may be offending the blind man. So I would posit that he is really just world-weary; there is nothing for him to enjoy.

It is a surprise then, for him, that the blind man is so optimistic and full of life, interested about every thing. It wasn’t that the narrator is on the flip-side; he is not a pessimist. He is simply a realist. He expects someone who has a disability to be depressed—this is simply what he expects to be true. If the blind man’s disability doesn’t hamper his ability to enjoy life, what does this mean for our narrator?

Nietzsche’s accused poets of being “shameless” because they exploit their experiences. Our narrator then is shame-full because he doesn’t exploit life to the fullest—he admits he does not “understand” poetry. In this way, he does not understand how to take advantage of life, live it to the fullest. And if this is true, then despite his physical well-being, is he not in ways crippled, even more so than this blind man who dons a “full beard”?

It is here when we realize that the point of ‘Cathedral’ is likely the idea of empathy and being sensitive to the world. Through the fight against being world-wearied, we can experience a rebirth, an epiphany, that could help us understand the world better—through the eyes of others.

Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” is a short story about one man’s artistic endeavor and how it consumes—pun intended—his life. Three particular things jumped out at me while reading the short story. First is what Kafka suggests to be an artist’s demeanor towards his art. Second is the artist’s struggle of relevancy. And finally, what Kafka seems to argue that, ultimately, an artist’s struggle is for naught.

The main character in Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” is the hunger artist himself, whose profession is to fast (327). The hunger artist is locked in a cage for all to see. In ways, the hunger artist is a performance artist. Interest in his profession relies heavily on it’s implausibility that a person would choose to fast for so long. This can be seen in the way that during the artist’s fast, there are always people who watch him to ensure that he is not cheating them in any way. This audience interest due to “suspicion” is interesting because in reality the artist finds it “easy to fast” (328-29). The reason the artist finds fasting easy is that, we can assume, it is in his nature.

The narrator explains how the artist “was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast” (329). In here, we find that there is a need in the artist to fast—he cannot be satisfied until it is done the way he wants to: when he breaks his own record time and again. This means though that as a hunger artist to reach the pinnacle of his art is to die of the very art that he dedicates himself to, which is quite a statement, and an ironic one at that: that for the artist to starve himself enriches his artistic endeavor and feeling of self-worth.

The audience’s inability to understand the hunger artist’s passion to his art hinges on the fact that they find the whole deal to be foolish and honestly unnatural. This is seen in the way that people choose to go see the menagerie of the circus instead of a man starving himself to death (332). As the narrator explains, “Anyone who has no feeling for [the art of fasting] cannot be made to understand it” (333). In this way, the artist’s passion is wholly misunderstood by the people, which is the main tragedy of the whole short story. It is odd though that people finds the artist’s art to be unnatural when it is actually something the artist feels natural and comfortable doing. The audience can’t understand this passion though. And although, in his death—his artistic transcendence—his cage was replaced by a panther that people seem to favor more than the artist, readers are, in the surface, fooled into thinking that the panther is the opposite of the artist. In fact, they are the same; their habits are natural to them, but they shock people.

The relevancy of the artist relies on this shock factor. Watching a man starve himself can be initially shocking, but it takes too long to see the end result. It’s quite a morbid idea of entertainment really. For this reason, the hunger artist wasn’t a big deal any more. In fact, the hunger artist’s existence was so irrelevant that Kafka gives only a sentence about his death and burial (334). The artist’s replacement, the jaguar, seemed to be more fantastical than the artist because the audience “did not ever want to move away” (334). Could it be because the panther is more exotic than the artist? So then the question of economics come into play because what exactly do the audience want to see?

I can’t help but think of the current dealings when it comes to art when it comes to Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.” Going back to James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” where Sonny’s art was a necessity to express himself, Kafka’s short story seems to foretell the ultimate fate of art, where it is simply turned into some commodity and investment. There are two ways to look at this: first is that art is communal and is part of human history and must be preserved and great importance must be placed on it; but, the reality is that art has become part of someone’s financial portfolio. This is telling of the rise of commercialization of art. Warhol and Koons are prime examples of this commercialization of art, where art is made to simply be a commodity to be sold. These hollow surface-bound art, though great to look at and does have some relevance in culture, is ultimately a commodity, plain and simple. These are the panthers that grab people’s attention much like Warhol’s prints and Koon’s sculptures. Does Koons Balloon Dog say anything about the human condition? No, it is a shiny big dog that is meant to be irreverent and invoke a consumerist attitude. This type of art—though I very much enjoy it—I feel, detracts from those who create art out of need, like the hunger artist. People nowadays want easily digestible entertainment, and this is what Kafka seems to have envisioned when writing “The Hunger Artist.”

The hunger artist ultimately dies. His passion was not given its proper due. This is the tragedy of the story. The history of art is a fickle thing. Artists are often reappraised and the artistic community is always changing. What we know right now about art is because of some problematic hegemony that guides artistic endeavors. And in this age, it’s money—though it’s not much different from patronage back in the day. Still, I feel that there is hope than what Kafka suggests is the death of a passionate artist as well as his art. Nowadays, artists have outputs they can use in order to show their passion—it is immortalized into bytes online. This lets artist have a sense of accomplishment, in ways, about their craft, unlike the hunger artist. And unlike in “The Hunger Artist,” artists today have audiences who seek for such outputs. And this is ultimately the hunger artist’s downfall: the lack of an audience for his craft. Ultimately, “The Hunger Artist” is a look at the importance of an audience when it comes to art. An artist’s struggle may eventually be for naught unless their proper audience is found.

When I first read “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” a few years ago, I was enraptured by it. The way the poem built itself for its last line simply blew me away. The understated quality of it all was moving; I had to stare at the page for a few seconds to collect my thoughts. It has initially been one of my favorite poems.

In order to understand its power, the poem’s narrative needs to be addressed. The speaker of “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is, of course, the river-merchant’s wife. In brief, the wife is telling her husband, the river merchant, about their history together.

They have known each other since when they were “two small people, without dislike or suspicion” (line 6). The first stanza is about the wife and husband’s childhood in “the village of Chokan” (5). Their innocence is seen in the way the wife talks about how they played back in the village: she “played about the front gate” while he played horse and with plums (2-4). One thing to note is their indifference towards each other in their childhood. Even though the husband “walked about [her] seat” he was busy “playing with blue plums” (4). They didn’t regard each other much in their childhood as seen in this stanza; the wife never mentioned them playing together; they were separated by their own playthings. They were simply childhood acquaintances back then. When she writes how they “went on living in the village” there’s a sense of how their childhood together was not really a childhood lived together—they just went on with their separate lives, knowing each other from a distance (5). This all changed when she was fourteen.

In the second stanza, the wife talks about the first year of their marriage (likely to have been an arranged marriage). The indifference in their childhood turned into one of dislike, at least for the wife. She “never laughed” (8). In fact, she recalls how when “[c]alled to, a thousand times, [she] never looked back” (10). In this the wife recalls her initial resistance against her marriage with her husband. The following stanza, which recalls their second year of marriage, is a complete turn around from the preceding stanza. Whereas in the second stanza she talks about “lowering [her] head, [looking] at the wall,” which suggests her resignation to being trapped in their marriage, the third stanza celebrates it.

In the third stanza, the wife not only accepts their marriage, she wants her “dust to be mingled” with his (12). What is a more claustrophobic an urn or box where two people’s ashes are mixed? She accepts that their lives are now intertwined and must be lived together; they are a couple and she wants it to stay that way even after death. The wife no longer finds herself trapped in their marriage, she actually loves it. She says, “Why should I climb the look out?” (14).

After a year of the wife finding bliss in their marriage, the husband had to go on a business trip. He is a river-merchant after all; he travels for business. The interesting part of the stanza that talks about this business trip is that this is the first time sound is pointed out in the poem. Although in the second stanza the wife does mention being “[c]alled to,” she disregards it (10). It is the first time in the poem, in this penultimate stanza, that sound was acknowledged. And it holds such weight because it is not just any sound, it is the sound of the nature outside. The wife hears “monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead” (18). Suddenly, the wife is aware of nature and everything outside, outside the walls of their marriage and outside the urn she wishes to spend eternity with her husband.

From the point when the wife talks about her husband leaving for business, she begins talking about the outside walls of their marriage: the river, the monkeys, mosses, and other objects that reside outside (16-26). If it was that the wife was only concerned of their marriage contained between walls prior to him venturing out, it makes sense that the wife would suddenly notice nature once her husband went out into the world. In this sense, the wife relies her identity and worth on her husband. From initial indifference in their childhood to contempt in their first year of marriage, the wife now, in the final stanzas of the poem, shows reliance on her husband.

He is out there while she is at home and yet her mind travels with him—it is also now on the outside. And she detests this distance between them; it hurts her (25). Though nature indicates to her the time she and her husband has spent apart, the outside hurts her due to a greater reason (20; 22-3). To have outside forces mingle with their marriage disrupts her romantic fantasy of being one with her husband inside a sealed urn. It is for this reason that she writes her letter to her husband. Her letter is one of longing to be reunited and live this romantic fantasy of their marriage, one that is hermetically sealed. Her love has grown so much that she is willing to meet her husband “[a]s far as Cho-fu-Sa” (28-9). It is in this last line where readers find the wife pleading to her husband but also reveals her ultimate growth. The understated power of this poem relies on sentimentalism hiding behind utility. And the drama of the poem is added by uncertainty: Will the letter reach its addressee? Will he write back? Will he ever come back? This is the reason I always enjoy reading “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”.

Re-reading the poem raises some interesting questions for me. These questions hinge on two things: “translation” and gender roles. “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is, as the book explains, a “loose paraphrase” of the Chinese poet Li Po by Ezra Pound (p. 519). Though I don’t find it a problem, it is interesting that this was a paraphrase by an American poet. A Chinese poem that was translated by an American makes for an interesting discourse about authenticity in terms of authorship and the speaker’s experience. Add to that the fact that Li Po and Ezra Pound were both men who wrote and translated about a will-go-to-the-four-corners-of-the-world-for-her-man woman, readers may find themselves truly distanced from the speaker of the poem.

What is read in this poem is a translation of its original author’s persona’s experience. Being aware of this, it makes the river-merchant’s wife’s letter all the more haunting. This poem could be read as a wife writing to reclaim her identity, one that has been muddled by outside forces: imaginings and translation. The speaker has successfully married the Jungian anima and animus inside her, but she was turned into a one-dimensional wife by Li Po, tearing apart her animus (her masculinity) from her. From there, the speaker’s animus was shipped away via Ezra Pound’s translation. As seen in this poem, the speaker is in dire need of being whole again. And although it is an uncertain task, she will travel, as far as Cho-fu-Sa.


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