Opening: “On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now I know what you’re thinking…But that is false. That is exactly what I refused to do, you see.” (3)
Ending: “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” (343).
The stage and problem of the entire story arise from the impasses generated by selfishness, or better put, from the understandable but self-directed desires that prevent us—mortal and ghost alike—from an honest assessment of our situations and ethical engagement with those most proximate to us. The novel’s conceit is that the souls of the dead are trapped in the bubble of their situation at death. Take Hans Vollman, with whom the novel opens. He was a middle-aged man whose new eighteen-year-old wife married him to escape a life of poverty. On account of this structured incompatibility, Vollman offers his young wife a platonic marriage of companionship and mutual respect; she accepts. Tragically, his death-day arrives just after this sexless co-dwelling had begun to turn hesitatingly to the erotic pursuits salient to conjugal relationships. His ghost thus registers this death-situation and presents as, “Quite naked Member swollen to the size of …It bounced as he Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s Quite naked indeed” (28).
When or if the ghosts release their hold on this death-moment, they transition—with “the matterlightblooming phenomenon and its familiar, but always bone-chilling, firesound” (300)—to the seat of Judgment, a quite different stage and problem that remains mostly offstage in this novel except for one scene and one character (who is not inconsequently a Protestant Christian minister). If they cannot release their hold, then these ghosts are stuck in between life and eternity—in the “bardo” of a D.C. cemetery—telling and retelling their story to anyone who will (or can be imposed upon to) listen, and referring to their coffins as “sickbeds.” In other words they are stuck in selfish repetition of their self-centeredness, mired in their absorption by care, in that Heideggerian sense of Sorge that designates the structure of Dasein as human interconnection and temporal anticipation.
The exception seems to be children, souls who simply are not supposed to be so narrowly focused on their lives, desires or/and situations that they would have any reason to linger in the bardo. Or perhaps children do not have the strong sense of self that is woven from years of egoic desire, trauma, and pleasure, and so they should not have Sorge magnetic enough to anchor them in their death-situation. If for some terribly erroneous reason a child does linger in the bardo, tortuous vines and visions invade their spirits, literally cementing them to the cemetery. For children, the bardo is hell.
Thus when young Willie Lincoln shows up in the bardo and does not rapidly transition, the spirits are thrown into a tizzy. Suddenly their attention is wrenched away from their own stories; suddenly their Sorge throws them into Willie’s death-situation and Willie’s story. The vast civic diversity of the bardo—bankers, businessmen, slaves, a preacher, a mother worried for her daughters, a gay man, a poetess, three rapscallion college boys, etc—all becomes laser focused, like the reverse action of a prism, e Pluribus Unum, in acting to prevent Willie’s torment, in trying to convince him to let go and move on from the bardo.
Well, their shift in attention is not completely unmotivated. What sharply draws the ghosts’s attention is the shocking fact that President Lincoln comes to the cemetery, opens his son’s crypt and holds the body of his son. “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community,” Hans Vollman narrates. “Individuals we had not seen in years walked out, crawled out, stood shyly wringing their hands in delighted incredulity,” adds the Reverend Everly Thomas (66), explaining that, “It was the touching that was unusual” (67).
The dead ache for touch, for intimacy, for the connection that surpasses voice and eye with the connection of the heart that is expressed in loving touch.
But, then, so do the living. The President’s difficult grief endangers his son’s soul, but also the soul of the nation. Only as he finds a way to say goodbye to Willie does he find the will to wage a ruthless war for the sake of democracy:
“His [Pres. Lincoln’s] heart dropped at the thought of the killing” (307). His own climb to the Presidency stood as claim “against this: the king-types who would snatch the apple from your hand and claim to have grown it, even though what they had, had come to them intact, or been gained unfairly…, and who, having seized the apple, would eat it so proudly, they seemed to think that not only had they grown it, but had invented the very idea of fruit, too, and the cost of this lie fell on the hearts of the low….
Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, …it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself. Well, the rabble could. The rabble would” (308).
To me, the story and conditions of the bardo clearly evoke a complicated metaphor for our contemporary civil society. We are divided by our selfish absorption in self-centeredness and we speak over and against each other, screaming our stories to any who will (be coerced to) listen. White folks, especially, our petty desires distract us from collective endeavors, and our profound longing for the touch of love ironically leads us to isolate ourselves, to hole up and turn away from those who need us, to silo ourselves in echo chambers and wish destruction on those who differ from us.
This reading of the novel was really brought home to me by the racial apartheid that Saunders underscores and then overcomes. When the spirits chase Willie’s ghost into the cemetery church (a sacred space that protects from the vine and torments threatening the child-ghost), Mrs. Francis Hodge, the ghost of a slave says,
“We black folks had not gone into the church with the others. Our experience having been that white people are not especially fond of having us in their churches. Unless it is to hold a baby, or prop up or hand-fan some old one” (310).
But the ghost of Thomas Havens does what other “black folk” do not. He passes into the President as quickly and unremarkably as when a shadow from a cloud passes over a party and lingers there. He mind-melds with the thoughts and feelings of the President and he responds to his grief and worry, to his Sorge:
“We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do” (312).
It is no surprise, then, that Saunders gives Mr. Havens the last word of this novel. His spirit fully possesses the President, making a “we” out of the beating heart of a white man who grew up poor and the dead spirit of an old slave. Then the spirit of Mr. Havens claims the “our” of “our countrymen” and we-the-readers are left with the momentum of their riding “forward into the night” (342).