SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: What’s a bardo, and why is Abe Lincoln in it?


It was only just at bedtime, when the boy would normally present himself for some talk or roughhousing, that Mr. Lincoln seemed truly mindful of the irreversibility of the loss.
— In “Selected Memories from a Life of Service,” by Stanley Hohner; quoted in Lincoln in the Bardo.

Currently I’m reading George Saunders’ prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo, loaned to me by my friend Jerry, who raved about it.

In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other.

February 1862. The Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son is gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory — called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo. Within this transitional state, where ghosts mingle, gripe, and commiserate, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices — living and dead, historical and invented — to ask a timeless question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Admittedly, given the litany of mortality in close quarters during the past two years, there was a certain wariness in my mind about reading a second novel in six months pertaining to death, ghosts and the afterlife (Alan Moore’s entertainingly whacked-out Jerusalem preceded this one).

So, what did I do? Opting for “lighter” reading, it was my decision to first tackle Demons (formerly known as The Possessed) by Fyodor Dostoevsky — you know, one of those 600-page novels about competing ideas and world views in Tsarist Russia that leave you craving vodka.

Lincoln in the Bardo has been a faster read, though no less weighty in the sense of ruminations engendered. In fact, I’ve been deeply moved by Saunders’ narrative daring. No other figure occupies a central position in American mythology anywhere close to Lincoln’s, and Saunders adroitly leverages it to telling effect, primarily by means of the observations of the transitioning dead (a concept also embraced by Moore).

Surreal to be sure; so was Jerusalem, but these novels are poles apart. However much I’d like to discuss both works at length, now’s not the time, because Shane has a word to dissect a tad more closely.

What exactly is a bardo? Purgatory comes close as a parallel, although I think this is a better explanation.

What’s a Bardo? (Lion’s Roar)

Bardo is the Tibetan term for the intermediate state or gap we experience between death and our next rebirth. The Tibetan title of the fourteenth-century text published in 1927 as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is Bardo Tödöl, meaning “Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing.”

More generally, the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life—which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death.

When you finish reading this article, there will be a moment of bardo.

We actually experience bardos throughout our day. When you finish reading this article and look up, there will be a moment of bardo, a tiny gap following the end of one activity and preceding the start of another. If you notice them, these bardos of everyday life are places of potential transformation.

As it says in the London subway, “Mind the gap.” In meditation practice, you can notice the simple, nonconceptual awareness in the gap between thoughts. The bardo between death and rebirth is considered a particularly good opportunity for enlightenment.

Bardos are spaces of potential creativity and innovation, because they create breaks in our familiar routines and patterns. In that momentary space of freedom, the fresh perception of something new and awake may suddenly arise.

After all this, a glib sentence seems senseless, so we’ll stop here.