A Building, A Program, A Story

The fire yesterday at Notre-Dame Cathedral set off many thoughts, one of which took till this morning to announce itself. In 1981, I opened The Atlantic to find a story called “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. I knew the name but hadn’t spent any time with him, his oeuvre being slight and the volume of stories that would make his name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love only appearing that same year. Still, the magazine had been pretty reliable as a source of good-to-great fiction, so I read it. I was instantly hooked despite the unsavory quality of the narrator/main character, or maybe because of that. His voice and attitude fairly screamed, “something big is bound to happen to him.” And it did. After complaining about “this blind man” who was coming to visit his wife, the nameless main character (whom the blind man, Robert, calls “Bub”) reaches his revelation while watching a program about building cathedrals and helping Robert draw one by guiding his hand, that being the only way Robert can “visualize” a Gothic cathedral. In Emily Dickinson’s words, it blew the top of my head off.

But so did something else: I had watched that program a year or so before the story appeared. It was the moment when I learned how flying buttresses worked. And even what they were. Suddenly, I had a personal point of contact with this piece of fiction. That never happened with Dickens or Joyce. From that unlikely commonality, the story lodged itself in my consciousness, and I inflicted it on decades of Intro to Fiction students, who seemed to like it well enough even if they hadn’t seen that program. 

That sentimental attachment came back yesterday, watching Our Lady of Paris in flames, complete with burning roof and tower, and a falling spire to do Yeats one better. While we all thought of Victor Hugo–whose tale involving a hunchback is actually titled, Notre-Dame de Paris in French–I felt, although it took a while to recognize the sensation, the tug of a much smaller piece of writing by a contemporary about sin and redemption and hope, which especially during Holy Week is the message the great cathedrals were built to convey.

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