‘LINCOLN IN THE BARDO’: Loving in a World of Conditionality
Posted on November 17th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala

The 2017 Man Booker Prize winning novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by American writer of fiction George Saunders is almost entirely peopled by corpses or ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington DC, on a February night in 1862. The text reads like a film or drama script that comprises an assortment of conversations among the shades of some recently dead and a biographical scrapbook about Abraham Lincoln the 16th president of America containing diary entries, and extracts from actual and invented historical accounts of the American Civil War period (1861-65), which are carefully attributed to sources.

George Saunders was born at Amarillo, Texas, USA on December 2, 1958. He graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a BS, and later obtained an MFA for creative writing from Syracuse University, New York, where he now teaches a course in the same subject. He is a practicing Buddhist and a student of Nyingma Buddhism, oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. His scientific/engineering background and training in creative writing impart a unique quality to his fiction. Until Saunders was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2017 for this his first novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ he was best known for his satirical short stories. Saunders is described as an extremely kindhearted man, something that comes out in this novel.

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is the efflorescence of an idea conceived in Saunders’s creative imagination on hearing in the 1990s a heartrending detail in the story of how president Lincoln absorbed the shock of his son Willie’s unexpected death of typhoid. What Saunders heard was that Lincoln visited Willie’s crypt several times by himself in the night to hold his son’s lifeless body in his arms. This affected the writer very much. The circumstances of Willie’s death tended to aggravate his parents’ grief. The Lincolns were in the midst of a customary wintertime state dinner in the White House while the boy was dying in a room upstairs. They had wanted to stop the function because of their son’s critical condition, but the doctor looking after the patient assured them that he would soon recover and asked them to go ahead with the party as planned. Lincoln was president; the civil war, still in its first year, was intensifying. Young soldiers were dying in their numbers. People immediately started criticizing the Lincolns for holding parties while their son was mortally ill. The implicit criticism of the president was in fact on a national scale: What was this unfeeling man doing about stopping the civil war that was claiming so many young lives? On the other hand, Lincoln himself realized that thousands of other American parents were experiencing the same agonizing grief that he was feeling over his son’s death.

Now, turning to the book, the most loquacious among the wraiths are the three known by the names of Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas, who also feature most prominently in the narrative. The shade of Hans Vollman, who was a printer, an elderly man married to an eighteen year old bride, goes about naked with a dent on his forehead caused by a falling roof beam that killed him, and a distended male organ that resulted from his death occurring some time before a long delayed consummation of his marriage could be performed; he is ‘bearing his tremendous member in his hands, so as not to trip himself on it’, as fellow ghost Roger Bevins III comments.  The ghostly body of Roger Bevins III, a young homosexual man who killed himself by cutting his wrist, is covered with multiple sets of eyes and hands because of unfulfilled desires; the spirit of Reverend Everly Thomas is in dread of his impending judgement. The ghosts don’t know that they are not among the living. They believe that they are temporarily sick and are lying in their ‘sick-beds’ (coffins) in a ‘hospital yard’ (cemetery) awaiting recovery. They tarry in this situation (bardo) out of their attachment to their previous lives. Willie wants to stay here waiting for visits from his father. The ghosts must encounter a strange ‘matterlightblooming’ phenomenon that escorts them to a terrible judgement.

The action centres round the crypt of William Wallace Lincoln (Willie), the latest arrival in the graveyard, the recently dead eleven year old third son of the president. An interesting fact is that all these ghosts are unaware that they are dead, and engage in verbal disputes as if they are alive. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ records a mighty struggle among these ghosts who are wrangling over the ‘soul’ of  Willie. The only two living characters who appear in this ghostly drama are the gravedigger (or the night watchman) and Abraham Lincoln, the bereaved father. The struggle among the ghosts may be seen as a reflection of the agitated state of grief stricken Abraham Lincoln’s own mind.  In my opinion as a common reader, the novel’s most striking feature is this unconventional device for communicating the central experience of the novel, the most dominant aspect of which is the spiritual enlightenment that the senior Lincoln achieved in coming to terms with the loss of his beloved son.

The title of the novel needs some comment. The word ‘Bardo’ is taken from Tibetan Buddhism, where it refers to an intermediate plane between the death and the reincarnation of an individual. The name of the Tibetan language book composed by Guru Padmasambhava of the 8th century CE, which used to be known to the West as the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ is ‘Bardo Thodol’. ‘Bardo Thodol’ means ‘The Great Liberation upon Hearing on the Intermediate State’. Actually, the book contains elaborate instructions for a dying person to follow in order to be reborn on a wholesome plane of existence. Something similar to the concept of bardo is known to the Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka. It is the metempsychotic state known as the ‘gandhabba’ or transmigration state of consciousness (passing on at death to be reincarnated elsewhere). Saunders is not strictly adopting the authentic bardo or gandhabba idea; he is only adapting it for his fictional purpose.

The folk wisdom expressed in the English ballad ‘The Unquiet Grave’ seems to be present at the back of Saunders’s mind: A young lover sits and weeps ‘twelvemonth and a day’ by the grave of his beloved; the dead woman wakes up, and asks why he is weeping like that. He says he wants to kiss her ‘clay-cold lips’ once. But the woman warns him that if he does that he will die. So she admonishes the young man:

…………..our hearts decay;

So make yourself content, my love,

Till God calls you away

The ‘Lincoln’ in the title is more Abraham Lincoln than his young  son Willie, who is actually in the grave, and has a better claim to be imagined to be in the bardo state. The implication is that Abraham Lincon, the private individual as a distraught parent and the public man shouldering grave responsibilities, particularly at the time of a fratricidal civil war, as president of America, finds himself in his own bardo. This is not surprising when we realize that, through his novel, Saunders temporarily consigns not only himself, but also the reader, to the same state of positive inner transformation (equivalent to the Buddhist concept of ‘transmigration’ of personality or consciousness at the time of death).

The literary form known as the novel, as distinct from other forms of creative fiction, is in general defined as an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). A novel can incorporate elements from other literary forms (e.g., drama, poetry, film, etc.) in its ‘narrative structure’ (the story and the way it is told). For this reason, we might say that the novel is the most adaptable form of verbal art. In ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ Saunders uses this high adaptability of the novel form to have the reader participate with him in a kind of shared literary tour de force that leads to a certain state of becalming spiritual awareness of the innate human capacity for love (compassion) and of the inescapable reality of death. He put it in different words in an interview when he said that the book is about loving in a world where the objects of your love are so ‘conditional’ (depending on conditions being met, or subject to change).

Saunders hints at this obviously Buddhist theme in a pre-publication telephone conversation (the interview mentioned above) with the ‘Arts and Entertainment’ magazine on February 8, 2017. The book was published six days later on February 14 by Random House, USA. During the phone exchange, Saunders claimed that he wanted to make the novel emotionally compelling, while avoiding the approach of other novelists who produce successful big novels with multi-generational narratives, by which, he confesses, he can’t pull his work off;  his own way he describes as ‘making verbal overflow’ (as readers can see demonstrated in ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’), walling himself off within a narrow restricted area. To the interviewer’s suggestion that, if he set out to ‘convey the sadness of losing someone dear’, his strategy was successful, he responds:

………. For me it was also about that, and you know how a book just writes its way into some other thing than you planned. It was that conundrum that… if I look at my intuitions about things, the one thing that I know is that affection and love comes naturally. In difficult times, I’m sustained by that, I look to that as kind of a bedrock. That seems to be true for most of us. And then, the conditionality of everything. It’s so harsh, the juxtaposition of those two truths: that you love, and that everything is gonna…… [change].”

For this informal description of the first George Saunders novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, I am using the Bloomsbury UK paperback edition  of 2017. There are 108 chapters indicated in Roman numerals in the book, which are grouped into two roughly equal sections as ONE (55 chapters) occupying pages 3 to 176, and TWO (53 chapters) taking up pages 179 to 343. I don’t know whether this particular 108-fold chapter division is by design, though it appears to be so considering the fact that the chapter lengths are uneven ranging from the shortest chapter LXXXIX (89) consisting of a single short sentence of just eight words to the longest chapter XXVII (27) running to 14 pages; almost 75% of the chapters are only three pages or less. Why is this apparent concern with dividing the text into exactly 108 unequal chapters? As far as we know, 108 is a mystical or sacred number in popular Buddhism, even in Theravada Buddhist Sri Lanka, like in other Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism and even in some Abrahamic religions. Its significance is variously interpreted, but one common strand in all such explanations is its connection with the Eastern tradition of meditation. The purpose of meditation is to train the mind to be non-judgmentally aware. This is supposed to relieve the mind of unwholesome feelings such as fear, anxiety, anger, etc. The practice of meditation leads to the cultivation of compassion towards others, and personal happiness. The rosary that Buddhist meditation practitioners use while meditating has 108 beads. This seems to be relevant to the contemplative attitude towards the fact of death that is central to the novel.

Saunders says that he, in reaction to the tragic existential contradiction that you love, and that everything is gonna…… [change]” makes up a kind of New Age reassurance  (‘New Age’ refers to a broad movement characterized by alternative approaches to traditional Western culture): Yeah, but that’s why life is beautiful”. However, he immediately qualifies this, referring to his real life experience of about fifteen minutes of scary uncertainty when one of the engines of a plane he was travelling in stopped working. It was then that he realized to his amazement how ill-prepared he was for such a situation. He adds: I’m Buddhist and I meditate and everything, but when that happened, it was almost like if you think you’re in really good shape, and you talk yourself into that, and then somebody suddenly leads you on a leash on a 20 mile run. I didn’t realize how off my perception was from reality. In that moment, I saw how ill-prepared I was for death. So I’m trying to figure out a way to engage that stuff without being so depressing that it can’t be taken, but in the thought that, if you could walk right up to that truth, and figure out a way to live joyfully and live safely with it that would be a real spiritual accomplishment.” Here, Saunders is touching on the general thematic preoccupation that characterizes his short fiction. This applies to his first novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ as well.

Let me end this essay with an admirable comment on ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ from the Elle magazine, which probably cannot be bettered:

A brilliant, Buddhist reimagining of an American story of great loss and great love…. Saunders has written an unsentimental novel of Shakespearean proportions, gorgeously stuffed with tragic characters, bawdy humor, terrifying visions, throat-catching tenderness, and a galloping narrative, all twined around the luminous cord connecting a father and son and backlit by a nation engulfed in fire”.

(Note: Quotations used here are from the public domain of the internet. An abridged version of this article was carried in the Sri Lanka national dailies The Daily Mirror and The Island on 16 and 17 November 2018 respectively under different titles.)

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