As a student of literature, always a beginner, and one interested in a wide variety of wisdom literature or philosophical texts, certain books of historical and literary significance have crossed my radar, have maybe even made it into the home library, but have never been read, you know, famous philosophical or spiritual texts like the Tao Te Ching or The Bhagavad Gita or, more modern texts–Gibran’s The Prophet, for example. Among these kinds of work I would include the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Until recently, even though I was aware of the title and its historical, cultural, and spiritual mega-importance, I had no idea what it was about. It turns out–it is, in short, about a place called The Bardo–which I will feebly attempt to describe in the progress of this entry. This word “bardo,” too, was new to me. Only recently was I introduced to the concept of the bardo by the songwriter, composer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson–a huge influence on me, by the way–since the late 80s she has helped shape me as a writer and a musician–being, as she is, one of the most successful artists (in my humble opinion) to bridge the literary and musical worlds. In 2015 Laurie Anderson wrote, directed and produced a film with an accompanying soundtrack album, “Heart of a Dog.” Here we are on dogs again! At any rate, her film is a meditation on a number of things: living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11, her midwestern childhood and early traumatic brushes with death, but primarily, the loving relationship and ultimate loss of her pet terrier Lola–and by thinly veiled metaphor–her loving relationship and ultimate loss of her husband, Lou Reed. Actually, I don’t know that the metaphor is thinly veiled at all, it’s pretty obscure–Reed’s name is mentioned not once in the film–but the film does close with perhaps one of his last recorded songs, the beautiful and haunting “Turning Time Around.” At any rate, at one point in her film, she imagines her beloved puppy in this place–not just as an exercise, but as part of her spiritual practice–her rat terrier Lola is in the bardo.*
Don’t worry, eventually, I will arrive at the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m serving up this long preamble, in part, to kind of demonstrate what we do sometimes when we are faced, from the get-go, (from the title!) with an allusion that we don’t understand. What’s the bardo?–the first question a reader is going ask when they approach this thing–that is, if they do not have the requisite prior knowledge. And I talk about this with my students all the time regarding allusion. What’s are the consequences, for a reader, of not understanding an allusion? If Shakespeare’s character mentions a Greek myth, for example, one that you don’t know, are you completely out in the cold? Can you still move forward without that knowledge with full understanding? Maybe you can. I know that Greek Myth was an absolute hole in my education when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time–and somehow I managed not only to understand Shakespeare but to love him. Here’s the thing I say. If you come across an allusion, and you DO have the requisite prior knowledge, your understanding of the work is enriched, as is your appreciation for how interconnected human beings are by STORY; it is a thread that binds us all together.
So, what’s the bardo? Now, granted, this is, as I have confessed, a new one for me. I have not read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but, through Laurie Anderson’s work and some time with the google machine, I have discovered that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a transitional space between one life and the next. When you die, you spend, according to Tibetan lore, 49 days in the bardo, at which point you are reincarnated into the next life. Granted, this is a cursory, a superficial definition. Our job then, is not to understand everything there is to know about the bardo in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but rather, to simply describe the way it is revealed in George Saunders’ novel.
We can get to that in a minute. First, it might be important to establish, quickly, a historical context for the novel, and to describe somewhat the unique, the super-strange, the inventive way, and the very challenging way, this novel is put together. First, it’s February 20th, 1862, about 10 months into the American Civil War, and president Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, 11 years old, dies at home in bed of typhoid fever. And to provide, again quickly, the premise of the novel: William arrives, after his death, in the bardo–where an enormous cast of characters who already occupy this space, are serving out their time, and who become immersed in the drama and tragedy of William’s death and the effort to help him through this liminal space to the other side.
Stylistically, the storytelling method here is singular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen–breaking both with conventions and tradition of narrative fiction, it is a highly experimental work. While the entire novel is mostly delivered in short bursts of prose separated from other bursts by a break or double space, the story is revealed to us in essentially two ways. Some chapters, a full quarter of them, I’d say loosely, are collections of, what seems to me, quotes from primary texts from the era–histories, news articles, essays, op ed articles, letters, oral histories or interviews–and it appears that these pieces of text are recorded faithfully by Saunders without changes. So these are pieces that Saunders has not written, per se, but only selected and then arranged. So that, for example, in several chapters that describe a party the Lincolns host at the White House while 11 year old Willie is upstairs dying, the description, the narrative line, speech and commentary are all made up from these quotes from primary source documents–each one with an identifying source note afterwards. Miraculously, these quotes from this wide range of sources, in the way that Saunders has selected and arranged them, provide a coherent and compelling narrative–a cacophony of voices that nevertheless provide clarity.
The remaining chapters, the bulk of this novel, (and what could be decisively described as Saunders’ own imaginative work), are delivered as a kind of play. Each burst of prose in these sections, then, are delivered by characters who occupy the bardo–unlike a play, however, where the character’s name is placed before the line they speak, in this case the lines the characters speak are followed by the name of the character speaking. This provides a challenge for the reader–the choice between a temptation to look ahead to the end of the burst to identify the speaker, or, to read the speech without knowing who the speaker is, and thus, be kind of guessing all the time until you might be able to identify the voice even before you’re told whose voice it is! This is hardly an issue when the lines from characters are short and follow one another in rapid-fire succession as they often do–the attribution is right there. Identifying characters or not seems to be more of an issue when the characters are given long lines or paragraphs of prose. Does it matter? I think it does–because each of these speakers has been uniquely characterized–they all have their back stories, their histories, their quirks, their syntax and rhythms. Who are these people? One of the questions that I had, which was never satisfactorily answered, was whether the characters in the bardo are also historical figures–or–are they purely the fictional creations of the novelist. Without time for further digging, my gut tells me that the latter is the case here. Still–who are these people?
There’s a mess of them, from all walks of life, it appears, with no common denominator save for the fact that they’re all in the bardo–and oddly, somewhat oblivious to their “condition.” –but primarily, there are three main characters in this bardo cacophony (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas), characters who take center stage, speak most often, interact with each other, seem to have established in the bardo a long-term relationship, take turns telling the story, each from their own unique perspective, and guide us, the readers, through the drama–while all the others, dozens of them perhaps, interrupt, introduce bizarre side stories or other kinds of historical revelation, sometimes help out, other times provide insight, often provide comic relief, absurdity, and sometimes, other windows into the horrors of the 19th century, slavery, the civil war, occurring in what the characters often call “that previous place.”
I fear that I could go on and on an on about this novel and only scratch the surface. As I write this thing, conscious of wanting to stay under 2000 words or so, or, 20 or 25 minutes on the clock, my brain just swims with possibility. And I fear leaving out something key–not in the way of a spoiler–because I want to be really conscious of avoiding those, but in the way of capturing the most important and striking features of this novel for me. You know what I think I’ll do–something I do often when stymied about how to proceed organizing big ideas? I’m gonna make a list:
Let’s begin with some observations about the bardo.
The people there seem to be unaware that they’re dead–
The people there, when they are not out and about, inhabit what they all refer to as “sick beds,” which seem, to me anyway, to be a unintentional euphemism for coffin. Unintentional, again, because these residents don’t seem to be aware of their true nature–
The bardo is full of these sick beds–which seems to indicate that the bardo is essentially a massive cemetery–that the people in the bardo have not really travelled that far from their resting place.
Many of the people in the bardo are in various stages of anguish, or self-torture–if one did not know better, you might say that many of them are in Hell–
Or, you might say that they are in a process of repeatedly acting out or experiencing some of their worldly defects or traumas–although, some appear to be content where they are–do not wish to leave.
The environment there seems prone to surreal and bizarre states–people physically mutating in grotesque ways, hats raining from the sky, people being mutilated in an act of violence and then miraculously repairing themselves.
People in the bardo (in this bardo, anyway) seem to have been there a lot longer than 49 days–so, either Saunders is breaking with that particular convention of Tibetan Buddhist belief, or, the residents of the bardo experience time in an excruciating and elongated way.
When someone leaves the bardo, the process is referred to somewhat crudely as the matterlightblooming phenomena. It’s quite something. Clearly, a process that is bewildering to the residents of the bardo.
One of the most exciting features of bardo existence, and one of the devices that moves this story along and provides us with an exhaustive knowledge about the star of the show–not the folks in the bardo, not the young dead 11 year old boy, but the president Abraham Lincoln–is that the folks in the bardo discover they have the ability to inhabit the bodies of others–living others–and dramatically in a few key passages, some of them–actually many of them, inhabit the body, and therefore the mind, of Abraham Lincoln, while he is visiting his dead son in the crypt.
And I guess I would like to stop here to say that for me the single most profound takeaway from this novel is that I feel like I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever have–I feel like I have had the privilege of inhabiting that incredibly monumental historic figure–and the central drama of this piece seems to be the inconceivable, incomprehensible burden of losing a child–coupled with the potential loss of a nation that is under one’s charge. Most of us cannot imagine the second–but all of us who are parents or who had parents (I think that’s most of us), can imagine what it might be like to lose a child–and this novel gives us that viscerally. As bizarre as this novel is in its subject and in the way of its telling, it is an incredibly moving, heart wrenching, heavy work. But I am so glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. And I can’t have been alone–again–as strange as it is, it became a best seller for George Saunders and catapulted to many lists of great books made by people who know things about great books.
In my last installment of The Book I Read, I was inspired to end the episode/entry with a poem written by a friend of mine. This seems like a good tradition. Last time, too, that choice didn’t come out left field, but was a logical decision–in that the friend’s book recommendation was wholly responsible for the content of that episode–and the poem I had chosen served as a fitting bookend to the general subject matter under discussion. I want to keep that tradition going–or at least–let it be a motif in this series.
My friend and poet Don Colburn has published a book of poems called Mortality with Pronoun Shifts. It is a brilliant collection of poems that serves as a meditation on, you guessed it, mortality–and while there are no poems specifically about the bardo, there are poems here about great historical figures, two 19th century figures to be precise, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to close by sharing with you a poem by Don Colburn, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat”
Abe Lincoln’s Hat
at the Smithsonian Museum
Topper, stovepipe, smokestack, cylinder,
it made him seven inches taller
than he was (and he was tall)
and, at a distance, fashionable.
But here, dim-lit behind glass,
without a gangly, scrabble-bearded president
to dignify and heighten, it looks lost.
Unlike those who saw him, say, at Gettysburg,
I can look down on the hard flat top,
the rub of wear and weather, streaks
like rust, their grainy whorls
a time-lapse of the overbearing stars.
And see, barely, darkness on darkness,
the black silk band he added after Willie died.
Someone named Davis made this hat,Don Colburn
a modest seven-and-one-eighth,
stiff-walled oval pillbox on a plate,
no give or dimple in the plush.
He wore it last and doffed it last
the night they went to Ford’s, arriving late.
After cheers, after the orchestra struck up
Hail to the Chief, the play resumed, Act Three.
Hatless again, he folded his 6-foot-4
into the rocker in the presidential box,
his top hat by his feet, out of the way.
Oh my god. Right? Lincoln’s hat is perfectly preserved. He probably wouldn’t have thought to leave it on his head while watching a play, but, you know, he could have fallen over on top of it after he was shot. But no–it’s “out of the way.” I love this poem. And it makes me think of what people leave behind after they’re gone, you know, people who aren’t presidents. And I can’t help but think about a musician friend of mine who recently died. I wonder where he put his bass guitar–whether it might be preserved. But he made music and he recorded music. Bob’s bass. Lincoln’s hat. Bob’s music. Lincoln’s hat. Hey Abe, say hello to Bob for me, in the bardo. Meanwhile, I will keep listening.
Here is a link to the podcast version of this blog entry
*I discovered today, that after Laurie Anderson’s 2015 “Heart of a Dog” film and album, in 2019, she released an album called “Songs from the Bardo.” I’m listening now for the first time–kind of embarrassed that it was not on my radar–but I’m thinking that this, for the uninitiated, might be a wonderful introduction to all things bardo–perhaps a more accessible route than tackling The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and one that might provide some insights ahead of time to the imagery Saunders incorporates into his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.