by Lawrence Bush
Discussed in this essay: Lincoln in the Bardo, a Novel, by George Saunders. Random House, 2017, 343 pages.
WHAT IS THE SIN that will land me in hell when I die?
What is the shortcoming, illusion, mental script, that keeps me living in two dimensions instead of three, four, or five?
I asked my wife this question, in both its religious and secular forms, as we were driving from a Thanksgiving visit with my daughter’s family in South Carolina while listening to the audiobook of George Saunders’ remarkable novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. These are the kinds of conversations that this deeply clever and richly emotional book can provoke.
The bardo is a Buddhist purgatory, a state of existence between death and reincarnation. Saunders’ novel (recently awarded the Man Booker Prize) deals with the arrival in the bardo of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son, Willie, dead of typhus at age 12, in early 1862, as the Civil War begins to gather steam.
More than 160 characters narrate Lincoln in the Bardo — most of them unwittingly dead souls in the bardo, a grotesque, fluid, mysterious place of wonders and torments. (The audiobook we listened to used more than fifty actors.) And then, of course, there is Lincoln, the grieving president, perhaps the most romanticized figure in American history, certainly among the most written-about.
Saunders exercises his imagination as audaciously as the very best science fiction writers, while breathing a rich humanity into all of his characters, whether they be clowns or wise ones, racists or lovers. I can think of only two other novels that have provoked me as deeply into self-reflection: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which made me more acutely aware of myself as a post-Holocaust Jew than any text written by a Jew; and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which led me to realize how much repression I have built into my life in order to get along . . .
SO WHAT IS THAT SIN that will land me in hell? Pride, I said. I had just been humbled all weekend by missteps I’d taken with my daughter; by the center-of-life preoccupations and anxieties of both my kids; by the daunting 1,800-mile drive; by an I’m-not-quite-feeling-so-well that made me contemplate my own mortality; by my 66-year-old visage in hotel mirrors.
Pride. I was raised to think I was the greatest, the smartest, the prettiest. I’ve written books and seen them published. I’ve saved Jewish Currents from the graveyard. I play music, I make art. I’m wonderful!
And I’ve spent my life judging people and their ideas . . . and assuming that I’m right . . . and eschewing activities I’m not good at . . . and worrying about what people think of me . . . and filling my time with activities that affirm my splendor. I’m a very big fool.
What about my wife’s sin? Her embrace, she said, of political movements (communism, the Cultural Revolution) that proved to be deadly and horrible. She feels bad about that. But what, I said, was the personal trait that provoked her embrace (which, after all, had no impact on those political movements)?
She had a hard time, in our conversation, moving from the deed to the motive, which I found really interesting. Her sin, I finally suggested, was self-righteousness. That’s another form of pride, sure, but she doesn’t suffer from conceitedness or a need for constant affirmation or a tendency to narrow her range of experience, the way I do. Still, she was definitely raised to think she was right, to see the world in black and white, and to drive hard towards her goals. Self-righteousness.
But how do you do social-justice work without believing in the righteousness of your causes? How do you cultivate belief without cultivating certainty?
It’s my work, now that I’m getting old, to answer such questions — to turn off the pride, embrace the humbling, move away from centerstage, learn how to learn, democratize my soul, celebrate other people. And read a lot more great novels.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and is the author of BESSIE: A Novel of Love and Revolution.