Friday, March 24, 2017

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Speaking of mythology, I just read George Saunders's highly touted new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017).  If you haven't read it yet and would like to do so without learning details of what happens in it, some of what I have to say here will probably count as spoilers, so be aware.  It was fun to read on the whole, well-written and entertaining, so if you're curious, check it out and then return to this post if you wish.

I hadn't heard of him until I saw Lincoln in the Bardo mentioned somewhere, but Saunders has apparently made quite a name for himself.  In 2013 he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine for his short stories.  Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel.

Here's the historical background: Willie Lincoln, age 11, died in the White House on February 20, 1862 of typhoid fever.  This was early in the Civil War, and in the second year of Abraham Lincoln's presidency.  His death was tied to a big party his parents threw in the White House, under some criticism because of the war.  His doctor assured his parents that he was recovering, and "Both the President and First Lady took turns slipping away from the party to sit with their sick son."  He died a few days afterward, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.  (After his father was assassinated three years later, both were moved to Springfield, Illinois.)  The night after Willie's funeral, his father visits the graveyard, opens Willie's coffin, and cradles the dead boy in his arms before returning to his duties in the White House.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set mostly in that graveyard, told mostly by the dead but with snippets from historical and contemporary writings about Lincoln and his son's death.  It's more like a radio theater script than a conventional novel, though judging by numerous complaints about the audiobook by customers on Amazon, it doesn't work well in that mode.  It has obvious forerunners in Spoon River Anthology and Our Town, two other works composed of the voices of the dead.  As indicated by his title, Saunders explicitly draws on Tibetan Buddhist notions of the afterlife, as Euro-American laypeople understand it anyway: the bardo is a limbo between death and rebirth into another life, where the soul's responses to its experiences will affect one's next incarnation.  But one must move on, hindered neither by attachment to the previous life nor by the visions and hallucinations that induce confusion and terror while in the bardo.  It's a trial by ordeal, as set out in the Bardo Thodol, the fourteenth-century Tibetan manual known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for which the living must train themselves.  (According to the Wikipedia article, tradition claims that the Bardo Thodol was composed several centuries earlier and the manuscript "discovered" in the 1300s. This sounds suspiciously like West-Asian apocalyptic literature, so I'm supposing that the date of "discovery" is most likely the date of composition.) 

Saunders's premise is that Willie's ghost hovers around as most ghosts do at first, and his father's visit encourages him to stay on.  The other shades crowd around, hoping that Lincoln will hear them and respond to their complaints.  Others, hungrier and even angrier, try to bind Willie to the spot.  With help from the three main narrators, Willie is freed so he can merge with his father's living body long enough to realize that he is not just sick, but dead.  (The conviction that they are not really dead is the rationale used by many of the shades for staying where they are.)  After his father leaves the cemetery, Willie announces his realization to the other shades, and moves on, as do numerous others.  The ghost of one African-American man merges with Father Abraham and possesses him as he rides back home.  That may be creepiest detail in the novel: the suggestion that Lincoln finally abolished slavery (a year later, in a half-assed way) because he was occupied by the spirit of a black person.  (This even though the novel makes clear that the ghosts are unable to make the living obey them.)  Saunders' treatment of race and racism is not terribly good, it seems to me: it's white-liberal sentimentalism of the sort that informed Uncle Tom's Cabin and many similar works since.

What bothered me enough to set me writing about Lincoln in the Bardo was a sequence near the end, in which the three main speakers address a woman who has entrapped herself in the hallucination of "a scaled-down smoking wreck of a rail car [with] several dozen charred and expiring individuals trapped within her barking out the most obscene demands as Miss Traynor's 'wheels' turned mercilessly upon several hogs, who (we were given to understand) had caused the crash, and possessed human faces and voices, and were crying out most piteously as the wheels turned and turned and crushed and re-crushed them, giving off the smell of burning pork" (page 331)  They apologize to her for not having encouraged her to go on to the next stage.
We are sorry this happened to you, I said.

You did not deserve it, Mr. Bevins said [332].
One of the three then sacrifices himself, and he and Miss Traynor go on.  Many of the shades remain, however.

According to the cosmology that underlies the novel, however, if Miss Traynor and all the others didn't "deserve" their condition, they had nonetheless done it to themselves.  By clinging to their memories, frustrations, grudges, and desires, they kept themselves in the bardo; all had to do was click their heels together three times, realize that they were dead, and all would be well.  C. S. Lewis tried to get around the traditional Christian conception of Hell in The Great Divorce, by postulating that the damned, too, could free themselves from their torment, but they refuse to submit and abandon their selfish selves.

The novel makes much of the importance of love and sex and human relationships, which seems to me a distortion of traditional Buddhist teaching.  (Another odd thing: Abe Lincoln himself is not "in the bardo" in this story.  I don't think the title is meant to refer to Willie.)  If you want to escape suffering, you must give up attachment, which includes not only erotic desire but family ties as well.  The sentimentalization of children, centered on young Willie, who frees himself and some of the other shades simply by his naive declaration of the truth (The Bardo Has No Clothes!), is also a form of attachment rather than an escape from it.  Caleb Crain, reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo for The Atlantic, summed it up as sentimental sadism, a phrase which sums up most popular religion.  Saunders has cobbled together a liberal American Buddhism that will appeal to many readers, but then this is a mashup, along the lines of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  It's really meant only to entertain, and it does that well enough.  But it's no deeper than its predecessors.