I’m so ambitious / I’m looking back
— David Byrne, “The Book I Read”
Right-wing minds betray a constant paradox: their passion for capitalism is matched only by their nostalgia for the very world that capital destroys. In Donald Trump this contradiction is pushed to an extreme. Economic damage calls for more destruction; suffering warrants further punishment. The dark vision of “American carnage” on Trump’s inauguration day was quickly followed by a rollback of regulations that hit Main Street with especially nasty force.
The contradiction between backward-looking conservatism and headlong development has now arguably reached its terminal impasse. By favoring tax cuts and big business over climate protection the Trump administration has put the lie to right-wing calls to return to an earlier time, to rebuild the economy, to make America a great white ethno-state again. This is because the denial of climate change winds a clock that can’t be turned back. History, known for its fits, starts and reversals, now runs on fast-forward only. For climate scientists, the watchword of this awful predicament is irreversibility.
Life will get worse and there’s no going back: if this stark message has failed so far to rule our days, it’s because we’re used to coping with the rising costs of progress. The tax cuts passed by the Senate today will surely increase those familiar hardships. The difference now is that our collective delusions of profit and security are troubled by our fast-widening distance from the homeostatic past. In this way, we’re like the characters in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: looking back with regret at the world we’ve left behind, unwilling to face the future — and unaware that we’re already dead.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a treatise on irreversibility. The novel is anchored in a painful, lovestruck sense of irremediable loss. Like all great works of art, the book feels not only important but necessary. One might say timely, but it’s not clear what the word means to the untimely present. In Bardo’s Lincoln, Saunders gives us a head of state whose soulful anxiousness at the start of the Civil War is strangely suited to the man’s crushing historical responsibility. This topic can’t fail to move today’s readers with renewed wonder and horror at what we’ve suddenly lost over the past year. We face crises much greater than Lincoln’s, but we do so at a time when willful malice occupies the White House, language and truth are martyrized daily, and a government of vandals lays us open to disasters without end.
Obviously these problems have been a long time coming, but a cynical view of the past may underestimate the moral value of stubborn, agonized and desperate nostalgia, the reigning condition of Saunders’ main characters. Bevins, a young gay man thwarted in love, is in thrall to vivid yet chaotic images of earthly beauty — a stammering, captive Whitman. His regular companion, Vollman, knew a single night of perfect bliss before losing his wife and home. As they understand it (poorly), Bevins and Vollman succumbed to the same ailment and were confined to “sick boxes,” they say. At night, though, they can climb out of the “boxes” to share their grief and perplexity with the other captive residents of Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC.
Like these characters, Lincoln is unable to give up what he has recently lost. The night after the funeral of his young son, the president can’t help returning to the cemetery, where his desperate love drives him to remove Willie from the crypt to hold his body again. To the watchful ghosts Bevins, Vollman and others, this remarkable act of devotion — a “miracle” in their eyes — suggests that they, too, are perhaps not unloved, that they may not be unwelcome after all in “that previous place,” as they confusedly call the world of the living. Amazing also to the ghosts, Lincoln stays late into the night at the cemetery, and during a second visit to his son’s crypt, the distinguished revenant’s mind is host to many curious phantoms, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln becomes legion, and on his way home, one of the ghosts, a black man, rides with the head of state into the dark and uncertain future.
The theme of metempsychosis allows Saunders to display his marvelous gifts of empathetic character portrayal, familiar to readers of his short stories. In this novel, Saunders’ first, the writer’s empathy takes literal form in the ghosts’ visitations of Lincoln’s mind and each others’ troubled spirits. The ghosts know each other’s life stories verbatim and often complete each other’s sentences, having heard everyone’s litanies of desire and regret thousands of times. This makes their condition tiresome, but the ghosts are fiercely proud of their persistence; they’re determined not to abandon the world they remember, and they even deny they are dead. When a newly-buried civil war soldier emerges from the grave and opts for the afterlife, the ghosts furiously desecrate the “sick-mound” he has left behind. Vollman, observing the scene, explains with scrupulous care that they do this “not out of meanness, for there is no meanness in them; but rather from excess of feeling.”*
The episode suggests an allegory of historical remembrance, albeit one almost saintly in its forgiving empathy. We see an equally suggestive “excess of feeling” in the gruesome image of a soldier on the battlefield who has quite literally spilled his guts. Saunders yields the pen to historical testimony, and cites directly:
I had never seen a dead person before. Now I saw my fill. One poor lad had frozen solid in the posture of looking down aghast at his wound, eyes open. Some of his insides had spilled out and made, there on his side, under a thin coat of ice, a blur of purple and red. At home on my dressing table was a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and this fellow looked like that, only his bulge of red and purple was lower and larger and off to one side and him gazing at it in horror (153).
The “thin coat of ice” covering the ghastly wound of the soldier echoes the “placental sheen” that begins to cover Willie’s ghost, threatening to trap the boy’s spirit forever in the cemetery. Bevins and Vollman make it possible for Willie to finally pass on to the afterlife, and Willie, in turn, disabuses them of their delusion of returning to the world of the living, having learned from his father that they are all, in fact, dead. Saunders’ vision of American carnage ultimately leads to redemption and renewal.
We might fault Saunders’s novel for offering a moral that, despite its Buddhist echoes, reinforces familiar Christian motifs of purgatory and salvation (“Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the liminal state between death and rebirth). More generously, we could say the book is conflicted on this score. When Vollman complains that “the architect of this place” has judged that a child’s wish to to stay in the cemetery is “a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” it is as much the author as the “architect” who can be faulted for the injustice. For it remains unclear why, in this fictional moral universe, it is wrong for the adults “to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here,” as Vollman, Bevins and others do. Saunders puts a thumb on the scales by making many of the ghosts’ characters flawed in some way, but this only exacerbates the moral conundrum. The case of Elson Farwell, a former slave, is instructive. Buried among the poor and criminal class in a common “sick-pit,” Farwell holds fast to the desire to go back and massacre every member of the family that owned and abused him, wife, children and baby included — a wish that should hardly be the cause of a reader’s reproof. It might instead serve as a model of moral justice.
Elson’s apparent “sin” is as fictional and deluded as the idea of his “sickness.” Likewise, by holding to what remains irreparable in history, Black justice may not turn back the hours, but it often faces counterclockwise. So too do socialism and ecological justice, which look back today at our lost best chances. At a time when the current president sows discord and makes good on his vision of “American carnage,” we can glean a different lesson from the ghosts’ insistence on returning to the past. To stop time in order to “reverse it,” as Bevins says, may not be to indulge in conservative bad faith or deluded nostalgia. Instead, it would be to commit ourselves to the impossible and to acknowledge what is truly hopeless in our present state.
* George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 140.