I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
If you have more than one copy of a beloved book, you can be the charming, laissez-fair book owner who lends freely and says “return it never,” instead of the saturnine turd who continues to brood over a two-dollar copy of Lonesome Dove which someone may have, but probably did not, fail to return in 2003.With this in mind, I was glad recently to find a paperback “twofer” (or whatever it is called), with Lucky Jim (Kingsley) on one side and The Rachel Papers (Martin son of Kingsley) upside down on the other. Lucky Jim is, of course, one of the most wonderful books every written, and thus in perpetual danger (in my mind) of theft disguised as borrowing. I am sort of dubious about this two-in-one format, but the price was unbeatable, and the Lucky Jim cover reproduces the delightful Edward Gorey illustration from the dust jacket of the first American edition (which, as Edan’s poignant last post reminded me, was the first nice book I ever bought, and which I bought for someone as a gift, and which I sort of wish I had kept for myself. That’s me, a real peach). [Ed. Note: That same Gorey illustration now graces the cover of the new Penguin classics edition pictured above]Anyway, the bonus of purchasing this Lucky Jim insurance policy was that I got to read The Rachel Papers. I haven’t read much Martin Amis, only Time’s Arrow, which I thought was painfully great (painful because of subject and painful because demonstrative of real live contemporary virtuosity, and not the non-threatening dead sort). The Rachel Papers, his first novel (written when he was 24, the bastard), is not, understandably, in the same class as Time’s Arrow, but it is retro and foul and a lot of fun to read.It is similar in its theme to Lucky Jim (which explains the cutesy father-son edition): there’s an obsessive, ostensibly relatable comic Everyman, who outwits frauds and gets the girl. But The Rachel Papers is a post-Sexual Revolution fairy tale – Jim Dixon thinks about putting his hand on a breast, while Charles Highway (the the younger Amis’s protagonist, just out of high school), masturbates furiously to his sister and talks about genitals smelling like wounds. Unlike Jim, Charles inspires rather less admiration than he does pity and mild horror. But he’s precocious, and he’s got a way with words, and I like any book that can make me laugh aloud.Here’s Charles in his room, preparing for seduction:”Not knowing her views on music I decided to play it safe; I stacked the records upright in two parallel rows; at the head of the first I put 2001: A Space Odyssey (can’t be wrong); at the head of the second I put, after some thought, a selection of Dylan Thomas’s verse, read by the poet. Kleenex well away from the bed: having them actually on the bedside chair was tantamount to a poster reading “The big thing about me is that I wank a devil of a lot.”In other passages, I was reminded of Nabokov, and also Günter Grass. Charles has a distinctly Oskar Matzerath quality, smart and disgusting. Here’s Charles with his tutor:Twenty-minute Maths lesson with Mr Greenchurch. Vacuum-chamber office redolent of dead man’s feet; hairless, cysty-eared octogenarian sucking noisily and ceaselessly on his greying false teeth (I thought at first he had a mouthful of boiled sweets; on the Wednesday he allows the coltish dentures to spew out half-way down his chin before drinking them back into place); mind like a broken cuckoo-clock, often forgets you’re there). Ten minutes in the hall, talking to Sarah, the less ugly girl.The novel also recalled a dim memory of a book I read years ago called Wilt, written by Tom Sharpe in 1976. Wilt (and its sequels) came after The Rachel Papers, but they seem born of a similar raunchy zeitgeist, although I seem to recall the eponymous hero being a grown-up, and thus significantly more pathetic than young Charles.Ultimately, The Rachel Papers’ snazzy style could only elevate its lacklustre plot so far. Nearing the end I was the slightest bit bored with Charles and the lessons he learns about girls and love (here’s a hint: the main lesson is skidmarks). I prefer old-fashioned Lucky Jim, where we relish only the triumph, and don’t have to hear about Jim breaking up with Christine because her slightly imperfect teeth and large breasts begin to try his nerves. That said, I think even if you didn’t know that Martin Amis would become one of the bigger deals in living novelists, when you finish the book you suspect that both he and Charles (still vile, but Oxford-bound and one year older), have extraordinary things in store.
He’s the guy with the electric eyes and unkempt hair. The guy with the daddy issues and the temper and the drug problem. One day, he loves us, and the next, he’s gone. We are the good girls. We don’t drink or make trouble. We come from good families. So why do we need to tame that wild thing?
In her memoir, Land of Enchantment, 32-year-old Leigh Stein takes us inside this invisible addiction. In 2007, she pursues a life in Albuquerque, N.M., with her own wild thing: 18-year-old rebel Jason, who she meets at an audition for Medea. They make a pact to live together, be in love, and work on their careers — she will write her novel while he will chase acting gigs. Everything about their life starts out exciting, until slowly, Leigh realizes, it isn’t anymore.
Enticed by other girls and stricken with manic episodes, Jason’s violence breaks the surface. He begins by playfully hitting Leigh on her arms and legs, and then escalates his frightening behavior. Leaving Leigh increasingly anxious and depressed, his abuse takes her to the point where she no longer recognizes herself, “I could feel myself molting like an animal–,” she says, “shedding my childish skin, my kindness, my passivity, and in its place growing the scales of a woman who would do anything to get what she wanted.” Leigh feels like Jason’s only hope. She will take the physical and figurative hits for him. Even when she tries to move on with her life, Jason continues to haunt her. Then in 2011, everything changes. She learns that Jason has died in a motorcycle accident. The book cycles mostly between 2007 and 2011, and recounts Leigh’s mental exercise in recognizing her abuse, processing her grief, and at last, attempting to heal.
While reading, I couldn’t help but picture my own wild thing. I’ve always been a good girl. I was raised to follow the rules and do what was asked of me. The guys I dated were Nice Jewish Boys (NJBs), who my mom applauded and who I smiled at, uninterested. What I craved was the bad boy. In college, I ventured slightly out of my comfort zone and met a poet at my first frat party. It felt like he and I were the most uncomfortable people in the room, and we started talking over my first drink ever. He had an entrancing accent; troubled eyes; a murky past; and was also, I later found out, a severe alcoholic. I was in trouble, but I didn’t turn away.
Stein’s book made it easier for me to see why I would make that choice, and continue to make those choices even after I supposedly learned my lesson. I recently got the chance to talk to her about the book and the puzzling cycle of abusive relationships for FORTH Magazine. We also discussed her various dimensions of grief after Jason’s sudden death, as well as her dependence on the Internet to make friends and get her voice out to the world. Plagued by depression as a young girl, Stein felt comforted by the burst of life that Jason gave her, even if the experience was largely abusive. “If you’ve never experienced it,” she told me, “you might think, why is she with that asshole if he’s such a dick to her, and she says it’s so bad? But it’s not so bad all the time — sometimes it’s amazing.”
This is how the young brain works, Stein said. That wonderful “sometimes” is enough to justify all the not-so-wonderful other times. She told me that she’s done some research: The prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and behavioral control, doesn’t stop developing until we’re 25. This, Stein said, could be why “people become addicted to drugs and alcohol when they’re young. Of course they want to try, and then they become hooked and can’t control their behavior. That’s what happened with Jason. I was young; he was young. I couldn’t say no.”
Not being able to say “no” is something I’ve heard as early as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in elementary school, then again in health class in junior high, and again in Sex Ed in high school. It would seem we’d be able to get it into our heads by now. But the good girl complex makes us resistant to displeasing, and we’re often those girls that say “yes” to everyone and then end up overwhelmed by promises we make that we can’t deliver. Addiction is often invisible in the same way that abuse or depression can be. Depression, Stein told me, makes women more vulnerable to abuse, and vice versa. As a person who has experienced bouts of depression, I asked her about criteria. I’m often frustrated by criteria provided by the DSM-V — a manual on mental health (not one easily digested by the lay-person). In a similar way, people often think there are criteria for abuse. If there are no bruises to prove it, was I abused? In Land of Enchantment, Stein tells us that abuse, like depression, can live beneath the surface, that emotional abuse can be even more painful and long-lasting than physical abuse.
It seems as though for me, Stein’s book came out too late. If I had had the opportunity to read it in college, I might have avoided some heartbreak. But sometimes the only way to understand something is to go through it yourself. While I hadn’t heard anything bad from my peers about the poet, I just had a bad feeling I couldn’t name. The day I officially became his girlfriend, there was a massive hurricane — the corniest omen I could have expected. (Almost as corny as Leigh meeting Jason at an audition for a Greek tragedy.) I called my mom and she told me to get out of the relationship. Curiosity and boredom with my follow-the-rules philosophy got the better of me though, and I decided to wait out the storm instead.
It took a month for me to realize that the omen and my mom (as always) were correct. I would walk home alone at night after the poet dismissed me coldly from his apartment. A friend of mine found him one morning passed out under a bench. He had cut his face in a fist-fight that he said was from a fall on the street and covered it with makeup. He told me he thought about killing himself, but didn’t want to scare me away. He didn’t want to be the good boy. He didn’t know how to be good. I felt sorry for him and wanted to help, but knew I needed to get out.
In a similar way, the last time Jason visits Leigh is in New York years later. She has great friends and is enjoying her prestigious new job. The visit starts out with as much excitement as when they first met, until Jason hooks up with a bartender. He has another manic episode when Leigh invites him out with her friends. She realizes it’s over for good, and she just wants him to leave.
I knew it was over with the poet when we went home for spring break. Stein’s book made me think about the reasons I wanted him in the first place. He needed help, and I was available. I was bored and craved his intrigue, his foreignness. I didn’t want to be treated like a princess. I wanted to be treated like a confidante or therapist. In a way I loved to feel miserable with him. Then I realized I spent way too much time trying to fix someone who didn’t seem to want to be fixed.
Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, echoes my sentiments in her blurb of Stein’s book: “I wish I could give this memoir to my younger self, and to all those smart, deeply feeling girls who so easily mistake intensity for intimacy.” This intensity, Stein told me, is something that feels like love, and sometimes is indistinguishable from it. The success of abuse is attributable to its duality. One moment, you hate each other, and the next, you don’t know how you could ever live without each other.
Leigh writes that though her mother, like mine, warned her about Jason’s empty promises, she remained “his believer, the one person in his life willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Finally, with the aid of therapy, antidepressants, and a new attitude, Stein was able to siphon her painful experience into something good. After Jason’s death, Stein started following a Facebook group devoted to women writers, which led her to found a nonprofit organization called Out of the Binders that encourages women to pursue careers in film and television.
Stein’s Land of Enchantment teaches us that it’s not cowardly to retreat at signs of trouble. Early on, she quotes a torch song by John Moore that I think sums up the nature of the good girl’s eternal obsession with the wild thing: “It no longer matters why she loved her mediocre man while he was there, all that matters is that she loves him now [that] he has gone.”
As the art director at Columbia Records in 1940, Alex Steinweiss came up with the idea of designing record sleeves to be more than plain monochromatic paper wrappers, solidifying the longstanding relationship between music and color. When Steinweiss added visual flourish to the packaging of music, Columbia’s sales skyrocketed, converting innovation into a market necessity. Since then, countless books about album covers, packaging design, and color have been published. Chris Force and Scott Morrow, the editors behind Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music have put together a survey of how contemporary musicians and designers perceive and are inspired by the union of music and color, from elements of graphic design to dramaturgy.
In the book’s introduction, Morrow makes it clear that Chromatic is not meant to be comprehensive. How could it be? Since Steinweiss’s first offering of album art — a glitzy theater marquee trumpeting an orchestral recording of Rodgers and Hart songs — there isn’t a musician in the world who has performed in public and not given color some consideration, whether in terms of what to wear, DIY photocopied show posters, or slick merch. In truth, there is really no way to separate music and color, which makes the book incredibly interesting, and at times mildly frustrating.
It feels as if certain musicians have been shoehorned into the book for questionable associations with the theme of color, such as the band Dark Dark Dark. Compared to other bands that explicitly utilize color to make a point, as documented in Chromatic’s ample visual content, Dark Dark Dark seems to be included by virtue of its name; in a sunny outdoor space that can’t decide whether it’s a junkyard or art installation, the band’s five members pose in the standard untucked slim-fit uniforms of indie rock, trying to decide whether they are brooding or just bored. This is not to say the band isn’t good — it is — but in the book’s context, its presence distracts from those actively incorporating color into their musical output. Luckily, Chromatic is just shy of 400 pages and the majority of the content provides a great deal of insight into the processes of manipulating waves of sound and light.
Mathias Augustyniak says of designing Björk’s Volta, “Each time we do an album for Björkk, it’s like doing a portrait of her . . . she sort of has a new personality for each album. All of those personalities complement each other or contradict each other; they make sense within a line of characters. But each time, we have to do a new portrait.” Most of the featured artists in Chromatic are not as famous as Björk, but on some level they all share in this approach. Individual songs are not necessarily the purpose of making music for these artists; they are crucial but not exclusive elements in bodies of work that are meant to elicit sensations that you hear, feel, and see as a whole.
Take for example Timothy S. Aames’s account of how the charred remains of the Deyrolle taxidermy shop in Paris connect to the set design for a tour by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi. From a book of photographs to full-blown multimedia spectacle, Aames reveals how Jónsi and Fifty Nine Productions brought to fruition something neither party had imagined until collaborating on the presentation of a narrative arc built of music and color.
Jessica Steinhoff’s overview of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers an involuntary sensation in another sense, is among the most interesting sections of Chromatic. There is a long history of people seeing colors when they hear music, including composers Franz Liszt and Jean Sibelius, as well as Duke Ellington and Robyn Hitchcock. Steinhoff’s gloss of the phenomenon is full of entertaining anecdotes and first-hand accounts of how one sees music. For Greg Jarvis, from The Flowers of Hell, colorless “shapes float above the sound’s source, with high-pitched notes creating shapes high in the air and the shapes of bass-register notes almost scraping the ground.”
Many of the featured designers and artists have musical backgrounds, making for explanations that far exceed what you would hear in a graphic design class. Andy Gilmore, whose fractal repetitions of color have earned him commissions from the likes of The New York Times and Wired, views “the CMYK color process as each color being a note . . . like these stacked values of these tones, so when I make an image, the computer-based imagery, I kind of distribute value in a way that I can create a melody. I view each individual value as kind of its own pitch.” The creations of Sam Blunden, Seripop, Walter Scott, and Lisa Czech are singular voices in a motley chorus of color and form that make you forget about music.
In his introduction to Chromatic, Morrow writes, “As human beings, we are fortunate to be trichromats — organisms with three types of color-receptor cells. . . This allows us to differentiate approximately 1 million colors.” It’s no wonder we are such subjective beings, especially when it comes to issues of personal taste. Chromatic is as much about the editors’ taste in music as it is about color. If you don’t like Force and Morrow’s taste it doesn’t matter; the book is a riot of ideas sure to engage anyone interested in visual communication.
Truly interesting is that so many of these musicians embody Richard Wagner’s 19th-century notion of Gesamtkunstwerk (“ideal work of art”), the fusion of visual art with drama, music, and poetry. Chromatic is a first in the way it documents a segment of today’s music scene by favoring exciting and important visual examples that contribute to a sensory overload that better represents the music than words or notes ever could on their own.
Image Credit: Flickr/Creativity103
When Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman translated the text commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he began by changing its title. The Tibetan appellation — bardo thos grol — lost its meaning in Americanization, he claimed. A direct translation would yield no references to a “book” or indeed even “the dead.” The bardo is something other than death; it is an intermediate state. In Buddhist cosmology, it is most commonly understood as the period of transmigration, between death and new life, when the consciousness is waiting on the platform for the proverbial next train. To reject the common misnomer and restore the sense of the bardo that his forebears had misconstrued, Thurman was descriptive in naming his new translation. The full title of his 1994 publication: The Tibetan Book of the Dead as Popularly Known in the West, Known in Tibet as The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. The keywords, in case you missed them: in the between.
The bardo is a karmic gauntlet. The deceased, untethered, experiences a succession of phenomena both terrific and terrible, proceeding eventually to the next life-form. The passenger is besieged by an overwhelming weakness like melting. Her vision becomes “a mirage of water down a highway.” She feels a thickening of the tongue. The sky is “full of orange sunlight,” and then, suddenly, “full of bright dark-light, or pure darkness.” The bardo is experienced differently by each individual in a manner determined by her actions over the course of a lifetime, or several. Was the passenger ruled by hate, frustration, and ignorance? Or, on the other hand, did she practice generosity, sensitivity, and tolerance? To spend one’s life preparing for this time — by reading bardo thos grol, for starters — can mean the difference between passage to a higher life-form or a sojourn in one of several hells, each unique in its particular hellishness. The passenger who understands the between is the one who might have influence over its machinations and the verdict delivered at its outcome. Her liberation is for the taking.
With Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders — like Thurman — elevates the in-between to titular status and therein joins a tradition of American poets and prose stylists whose work signals tutelage in Tibetan Buddhism. He’s in good company; such heavy-hitters as the Transcendentalists and the Beats also availed themselves of the Buddhist texts available to them in their respective epochs. The title also announces his induction to a second healthy club; the life and times of Honest Abe are a Pierian spring.
The bardo — though named nowhere in the text other than in the title itself — is the stuff of both setting and plot. The narrative takes place within a graveyard, a cage where ghosts endure the shape-shifting, sense-confounding phenomena described in bardo thos grol. The residents of this graveyard are subject to physical transformations that reflect, in thrilling Saundersian dream-logic, their particular karmic burden. The novel features three primary narrators: Reverend Everly Thomas is frozen in likeness to The Scream; Hans Vollmann is impaired by an unwieldy erection; Roger Bevins III can’t finish a story without spiraling out on Whitmanesque rants — unbidden catalogues of the senses — while his features multiply until he is a kaleidoscopic vision of too many mouths, eyes, and hands.
The narrative concerns the struggle of those who, in Thurman’s words, have not developed “the ability to die lucidly, to remain self-aware…during these transitional experiences.” Saunders dramatizes their ineptitude by casting a familiar funerary world in the vocabulary of those who would deny the reality of their death during its progress. As the ghosts would tell it, they are not dead; they are just ill. Coffins are “sick-boxes” in which to wait out an interminable recovery period. Ghosts look upon their decaying bodies with passing curiosity. The mechanics of their phantom world — the ability to glide across surfaces without the customary steps, to slip through walls, to occupy someone else’s body and assume their thoughts — amount to the symptoms of an as-yet undiscovered illness.
The story begins when the president’s young son, Willie Lincoln, joins this cast of revisionist ghosts. Willie died of fever toward the beginning of the Civil War. A long procession saw him to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. In Saunders’s telling, Willie is not ready to be cut loose. He waits in the bardo for his mother and father to collect him. Against the advice of other ghosts, who warn Willie of the particular grievances that befall children in the bardo, he sticks around because he is so in love with the world he knows that he is not ready to leave it. Be warned, reader — when young Willie narrates, Saunders most often foregoes the period:
It is soon to be spring The Christmas toys barely played with I have a glass soldier whose head can turn The epaulettes interchangeable Soon flowers will bloom Lawrence from the garden shed will give us each a cup of seeds I am to wait I said
In this nostalgic stance Willie is no different from the others in the bardo. All of them are besotted with longing for their own equivalent Christmas toys and cup of seeds. They wait for relatives, they wait for vengeance, they wait to amend their regrets. They wait — for weeks, or decades — for return. They are ruled by their own stories, thrust by disorientation toward self-absorption and magical thinking. These are stubborn ghosts, holdouts; they have rejected multiple opportunities to move on. All of them, Willie included, are trapped by their tireless belief in an eventual homecoming. Willie becomes exceptional, however, when the object of his longing actually shows up. Into the crypt walks a tall, unkempt man of flesh and blood, quietly sobbing: enter Lincoln, in the bardo.
When asked what inspired him to write a novel, Saunders cited the generative power of this image. Lincoln’s storied nighttime visits to the graveyard called for a longer form — a “mansion,” as Saunders himself has put it, instead of the “tiny custom yurts” that he is wont to build. His objective wasn’t to write his first novel. It was to “discharge the idea” of Lincoln, commander-in-chief, taking leave from his post at the helm of the most deadly crisis in American history to pay clandestine visit to the corpse of his eleven-year-old. “At some point,” said Saunders, “just from the accretion of pages, it was clear that the arc of the story was going to be… longer.”
Saunders is as qualified to build mansions as he is to build yurts. His virtuosic range of narrative voice — previously on display in his several short story collections — finds expression in this novel thanks to an inventive formal arrangement that allows for literally dozens of narrators. Though the first two pages are formatted as one might expect a novel to be, the narrative is soon interrupted by a curiously-formatted name, and then another. These names are attributions that follow each utterance; in some senses, this novel reads more like a play. Though initially the cast is composed solely of ghosts, Lincoln’s entry into the bardo (and thus into the narrative) multiplies the number of voices that Saunders must call on to tell this story. The author includes entire chapters of primary- and secondary-source material “curated,” in his terminology, to give his readers necessary historical context. The number of voices proliferates further because, in the fictional world of the bardo, the event of Lincoln’s visit brings forth ghosts that had hitherto been silent or silenced. Each “line” is attributed to one member in a vast symphony of narrators counting among its members historians both real and fabricated, a motley crew of phantoms, and the living graveyard watchman. The bardo is no place for omniscient narration.
Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is thus, itself, its own kind of bardo. If anything, its formal qualities condition its readers to develop a palate for the bardo’s active ingredients: dynamism, plurality, impermanence. Consider, for example, this account of the sky on a night shortly preceding Willie’s death. This comes from a chapter that, at first glance, weighs heavily historical on the historical-fiction axis, in which Saunders cites witnesses and scholars qualified to weigh in on a party that the Lincolns threw while their son was gravely ill. Whether the source material is real or not is irrelevant — what matters is that the reader can ground this fantastic plot in a context with which she is familiar. As the accounts accrue, however, the bedrock of historical fact begins to shake loose and sensation takes over. Reading it, I am reminded of the changing sky so vividly described in bardo thos grol:
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.
Wickett, op. cit.
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly.
In “My Life,” by Dolores P. Leventrop.
The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.
As I moved about the room I would encounter that silver wedge of a moon in this window or that, like some old beggar who wished to be invited in.
Carter, op. cit.
By the time dinner was served, the moon shone high and small and blue above, still bright, albeit somewhat diminished.
In “A Time Departed” (unpublished memoir), by I.B. Brigg III.
The night continued dark and moonless; a storm was moving in.
In “Those Most Joyful Years,” by Albert Trundle.
Keep reading and realize that Saunders’ bardo signifies more than that one transitional state when the tongue grows huge and the world begins to look like a hot desert highway. Saunders elevates the status of the in-between; the in-between is everything.
In the process of grieving his dead son, Lincoln is made to acknowledge that impermanence is the only constant. Reflecting on Willie’s life, he remembers a baby, a toddler, a boy. Lincoln realizes “he was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst…he had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.” Lincoln thus describes the bond between him and his son as such: “Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another.” This moment could be read as Sauders’s contribution to a growing corpus of American translations of bardo thos grol. In Thurman’s rendition: “All moments of existence are ‘between’ moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience.” Where the bardo begins and ends, no one can know.
While Lincoln was inside the crypt ostensibly having this realization, the country beyond the graveyard was in the grip of a fearsome between of his own command. The outcome of the war was uncertain, and it was only just beginning to dawn on many what kind of mess the country had gotten itself into. In 1863, Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg Address and the tides would turn against the Confederacy. In ‘62, however, the president’s legacy was far from assured.
This reality bears heavily on fictional-Lincoln’s realizations in the bardo. One might think that a dawning sense of total temporariness could threaten the president’s resolve. Why fight for for capital-D Democracy, for the capital-U Union, if any potential outcome (and every step along the way) is just a transition to a next transitional state in an infinite sequence of assured, unpredictable transitions?
I don’t want to give away the ending by telling you whether Abe escaped nihilism, but we all know how the Civil War resolved. According to Saunders, the president’s time in the bardo conditioned in him a reverence for fluidity and the resolve to act rightly because (not in spite) of it. The bardo — for its ghostly inhabitants, for the reader, for Abe and Willie Lincoln — is a training in the hard work of choosing generosity, sensitivity, and tolerance over hate, frustration, and ignorance; needless to say, this makes Lincoln in the Bardo a timely read. Saunders suggests that Lincoln’s time in the bardo gave him the perspective he needed to lead the country through its own transition as the bardo thos grol would have it: lucidly.