On Nov. 14, Dr. Alan Daniels operated on several vertebrae in my neck to relieve severe compression on my spinal cord – a compression that had caused extreme weakness in my left forearm, wrist and all five fingers.
At some point during my two-and-a-half-day stay at The Miriam Hospital, Dr. Daniels was at my bedside, tellin me that he had relieved the compression and that it was now up to my spinal cord to do its job. Fortunately, within two weeks of my surgery, I had regained much, though by no means all, of my lost function.
I came home from The Miriam relieved that the surgery was behind me, but filled with the sense of vulnerability that comes from feeling physically and emotionally threatened.
Upon my return, I found that my brother Bill and sister-in-law Pat had sent me a book that spoke directly and forcefully to my sense of vulnerability: “Lincoln in the Bardo” (Random House, 2017) by George Saunders.
Saunders’ work is a wonder of historical fiction, which focuses on the night of Feb. 25, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, had died five days earlier of typhoid fever. The funeral was held in the White House on Feb. 24, followed by a procession to Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where the boy’s body was placed in a crypt. Multiple historical records attest to Lincoln returning to the crypt on the night of Feb. 25 to spend several hours with his dead son.
Drawing on his depth of human empathy, Saunders imagines his way into Lincoln’s soul during his night of darkest despair.
What makes Saunders’ novel unique is that he relies on dozens of voices – mostly fictional, a few known to history – to propel his story forward; moreover, almost all of these voices are ghosts! To be more specific, the voices are those of the ghosts who inhabit the “bardo” of the Oak Hill Cemetery – “bardo” being a Buddhist term for an in-between state of existence separating the end of life from the beginning of a new life. In the context of this novel, the bardo is somewhat akin to the Catholic notion of purgatory, a transitional period between this life and the afterlife.
A feeling of vulnerability permeates Saunders’ novel. Early on, one of the ghosts describes Willie’s corpse in his crypt as “[r]esembling a fish who, having washed ashore, lies immobile and alert, acutely aware of its vulnerability.”
In describing Willie’s bereaved father, President Lincoln, one of the ghosts comments, “As we approached, he lifted head from hands and heaved a great sigh. He might have been, in that moment, a sculpture on the theme of Loss.”
In addition to being consumed by the death of his son, Lincoln is at the same time being torn apart by news of massive death and destruction during the early stages of the Civil War. Despite the recent Union victory at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, the cost of the battle was thousands of dead young men.
A ghost in the bardo imagines Lincoln’s double torment as both private citizen and commander in chief of the Union forces: “Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I – .”
Though for a time “a sculpture on the theme of Loss,” Lincoln refuses to remain frozen like a statue, immobile in thought and deed. Rather, an overwhelming sense of the vulnerability of every man, woman and child reaches his very core, inspiring a renewed sense of duty and loyalty – to Willie and to the nation he has sworn to serve.
Yet another ghost intuits Lincoln’s resolve not to remain “stuck” but to move forward: “Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”
For the rest of his life, cut short by an assassin’s bullet, President Lincoln does “remain useful,” signing the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, and bringing the bloody war to a conclusion, for all practical purposes, on April 9, 1865, in the stillness of Appomattox, Virginia.
It seems to me that it is no accident that the testimony of the ghost of a black slave fills the last page of “Lincoln in the Bardo.” This ghost confesses his spiritual identity with Abraham Lincoln, although the president is a white man: “And then I roused myself, and sat up straight, and fully rejoined the gentleman.
“And we rode forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen.”
In these final words of the novel, there is a suggestion of reconciliation between the races, a reconciliation born of an awareness of our common vulnerability as mortal beings – a suggestion of a healing of our divided nation that is yet to come.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.