(Ed. Note: David Stang, one of my dear friends (with whom I disagree on many issues), has long been interested in the concepts of an afterlife, the spirit, the soul, and the disincarnate, all of which are foreign to me. Nevertheless, we continue to meet and talk and exchange views about many things. Today, this Guest Post is spurred by David’s reading of two recent novels which have received strong reviews, including ones by MillersTime readers.)
The Literary Resurrection of Spirits in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Colm Toibin’s House of Names
by David Stang
One powerful dogma of Science for well over a century has been only what is material or measurable with scientific instruments may legitimately be considered real and therefore any notion of spirit, soul, afterlife consciousness or disincarnate beings – or even that is possible for humans to communicate with such entities – is necessarily a hallucination or a delusion most likely arising out of a mental disorder. In place of religion Science offered us Darwinism, followed by Neo-Darwinism, the present day majority view. There are no deities. There was no Creation. There is no afterlife. There is only evolution and adaptations. Our only purpose for being alive is to propagate and perpetuate our species.
In addition to the attacks on anyone who questions Neo-Darwinist theory, there have often been attacks from the Christian Church on those who seek to make connections with spirit realm entities. Mediums, also called necromancers, who communicated with dis-incarnate spirits and other world entities have for centuries been accused by the Church of doing the work of the Devil.
The effect of the Church coupled with attacks from science adversely affected those persons engaged in the Arts who had interest into delving into matters involving deity, soul, spirit and the afterlife. Artists were intimidated from writing plays, novels, film scripts, short stories almost any other kind of fiction which showed sympathy or acceptance of such other worldly phenomena. In time the artists caught on and stopped writing novels, short stories and film scripts about the spirit realm and all of its varied denizens. But in recent years there have been signs that the pendulum was about ready to start swinging in the other direction.
Within the first six months of calendar year 2017 two novels with a heavy duty emphasis on necromancy have been published with little apparent risk that their authors would be subjected to defamation, scorn and other such as punishments. This year George Saunders (author of Lincoln In The Bardo) and Colm Toibin (author of House Of Names) each jumped fearlessly into the spirit realm with both feet. The term Bardo, based upon Buddhist tradition, is best defined as a state or states of being or consciousness following death.
Lincoln In The Bardo
Stunningly, over ninety percent of Saunders’ novel Bardo pertains to communications between and among disincarnate spirits. The principal focus of this new novel is on the death and afterlife of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s ten or eleven year-old son Willie who was laid to rest in a borrowed crypt at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Our principal host narrators in this highly forgetive novel are three scintillating, albeit highly eccentric souls, who at the time were leading residents of Oak Hill Cemetery. By name they consist of the late Rev. Everly Thomas and his pair of non-clerical colleagues the late Roger Bevins, III and the late Hans Vollman. The disincarnate spirits of these three men, in addition to the spirit of Willie Lincoln, are the leading commentators in Bardo on all actions involving the ghosts inhabiting Oak Hill Cemetery.
President Lincoln borrowed use of the yet uninhabited crypt at that cemetery owned by his wealthy friend Mr. Carroll in which to place the body of his dead son Willie. After placing his son’s body in the crypt following the funeral President Lincoln chose to return secretly alone later that evening. As his father approached Willie saw him coming. With the “look of joy on his face” he ran straight toward his father and in fact passed right through him. President Lincoln continued toward the crypt, entered it, slid the coffin (referred to throughout the novel by George Saunders as the “sick box”) “out of the slot in the wall, and set it down upon the floor and opened it. … He looked down upon the lad’s prone form in the sick box.” President Lincoln was sobbing with grief looking down at the body of his favorite son, Willie, in whom he “had invested his fondest hopes.”
Then the father stroked Willie’s hair, “patting and rearranging the pale, doll-like hands.” Willie’s spirit at this moment was standing close by his father, urging him to look his way and come pat him. Yet Willie’s words could not be heard by his bereft father, who reached down to the casket and lifted Willie’s body from it, placed his head between Willie’s chin and neck and “sobbed raggedly at first, then unreservedly, giving full bent to his emotions.” This scene endured for about ten minutes, during which time President Lincoln was gently rocking his son’s body while Willie’s nearby standing ghost was feeling increasing frustration that his father did not recognize the now very real Willie in spirit form was standing right next to him, but instead chose to focus his affection on Willie’s dead body.
Soon Willie came closer and leaned against his grieving father. Willie then decided to climb back into his corpse and did so. At this point in time a crowd of disincarnate residents of the cemetery had begun to gather round the crypt. As described by Hans Vollman, a narrator and fellow resident of the cemetery, “The lad threw one arm familiarly around his father’s neck, as he must often have done, and moved closer, until his head was touching his father’s hand, the better to hear the words his father was whispering.”
In the process Willie’s spirit moved from being wholly in his own dead body to partly into his father’s living body, and he gave this description of that experience:
Could feel the way his long legs lay How is it to have a beard Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten somewhat already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar form when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to – It has done me good. I believe it has.
It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; ensuring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty and other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.
[Kindly note that George Saunders sparsely uses punctuation in his book. Accordingly, this essay’s quotations from Bardo honor that sparsity of punctuation.]
Quickly the word spread to all of the cemetery’s denizens. Willie had experienced what none of them ever had. His disincarnate spirit was rejuvenated by feeling the loving and uplifting embrace of his father.
Most of the remainder of Bardo involves the cemetery’s disincarnate inhabitants visiting Willie in his crypt to learn of the heretofore unprecedented joy resulting from reentering one’s dead body to be lovingly held and caressed by a still incarnate loved one.
One other noteworthy feature of this very impressive novel is to be discovered is how its author, George Saunders, understood or imagined the nature of this disincarnate consciousness. Saunders intimates that there are two phases of afterlife consciousness. In the first phase each ghost or departed spirit thinks, feels and acts exactly the same way he or she did during most of the span of their incarnate existence. Thus, in phase one of the afterlife the decedent’s character remains largely unchanged.
The second phase of afterlife existence was not disclosed in any detail by George Saunders. But he did inform the reader that at a certain almost unpredictable moment the human form of the disincarnate spirit ceased to exist and suddenly disappeared completely from the cemetery landscape. This very important spiritual transitional moment Saunders simply labeled, “the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” It appears at that this frightening moment one’s spirit was either captured and eternally controlled by the demons or absorbed by the Light.
Late in the novel the demons come chasing furiously after the very saintly spirit of Willie Lincoln seeking to claim him as one of their own. But the demons failed to capture Willie what happened to Willie as a result of his encounter with the matterlightblooming phenomenon? This is what Willie explains to us:
I am Willie I am Willie I am even yet.
Not willie but somehow
All is Allowed now All is allowed me now All is allowed light-
lightlight me now
Getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed
Candy bees, allowed
chunks of cake, allowed!
Punch (even rum punch), allowed!
Let that band play louder!…
Whatever your beliefs may be as a result of reading Bardo you may very likely conclude that George Saunders’ characterization of after-death consciousness comes over rather convincingly. George Saunders deserves huge credit for his latest brilliant literary achievement. It would seem foolish to characterize George Saunders’ imagination as mediocre. His novel to many others who have reviewed it is a real stroke of literary genius. The chances are that when you read Bardo you will tend to believe and accept at face value nearly everything all of the disincarnate spirit denizens of Oak Hill Cemetery had to say.
House of Names
Now on to Colm Toibin. The title of his novel House of Names refers to a house in which an aging Greek widow woman whose apparent medium-like skills may have enabled her to identify and recall the names of a group of teenage boys, including Agamemnon’s son Orestes, from families loyal to Agamemnon who had been captured to be kept as hostages by the usurper Aegisthus in league with Agamemnon’s widow Clytemnestra. Colm Toibin’s giant imagination empowered him to reconstruct or reinvent the drama of the ancient Greek mythological figures Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their three children, Electra, Orestes, and Imphigenia at Aulis.
Theirs is a most gruesome story featuring Agamemnon having his daughter Imphigenia’s throat slit on the morning of the day she was to be married to Achilles in order to appease the gods so that the winds would change and enable Agamemnon’s fleet of warships to sail off to battles in foreign lands which would result in impressive territorial conquests.
This dirty deed of assassination of his younger daughter, fully dressed for her wedding, was followed by Clytemnestra’s slashing her husband’s throat upon his return from conquests abroad.
Soon after his escape from capture as a hostage Orestes (along with the other teenage boys whose names the old woman chanted in her House of Names) was reunited at the Palace with his sole surviving sibling, his sister Electra. She persuaded her just returned brother to slit their mother, Clytemnestra’s jugular vein in retaliation for her killing their father, Agamemnon and for slutishly bedding down with the usurper Aegisthus. These three unlucky ancient royal Greeks whose throats were slashed by unloving family members were grist for Colm Toibin’s mill. In his novel he describes their disincarnate spirits and has them communicating somewhat strangely with their still living family member Electra who turns out to be a top flight necromancer.
At this point we switch from this novel’s constant focus on the dangers facing these targets of assassination to the nature of the continuing connection between the assassinated and now disincarnate beings to their surviving family members. We turn to Electra after her mother killed her husband who was Electra’s father. Electra describes below the nature of her medium-like connection to the spirit of her slain sister Iphigenia and to the spirit of her father Agamemnon who had been assassinated by his wife Clytemnestra.
“My room is an outpost of the underworld. I live each day with my father and my sister. They are my companions. When I go to my father’s grave, I breathe in the stillness of the place where his body lies. I hold my breath so that this new air fills my body and I release my breath slowly. My father comes toward me then from his place of darkness. I walk to the palace with his shadow close, hovering near me.
“He approaches the Palace with care. He knows that there are people of whom he should, even in death, be wary. I do not make a sound while he finds a space in this room to settle. And then as soon as I whisper her name, my sister Iphigenia appears, first as a faint disturbance in the air. They edge towards each other.”
Then Electra wonders why the spirit of her dead sister and that of her late father who had arranged for his daughter’s sacrificial slaying appeared to be on such good terms with one another and whether her sister’s memory of her untimely and ghastly death had been erased. Electra speculates that “the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.”
She continues her mediumistic monologue:
“They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I’m not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.
“Thus I do not speak to my father and my sister as their spirits hover gracefully in this room. It is enough for me that I have them here.”
Electra did, however, later decide to ask the disincarnate spirits of her sister and father if they knew the whereabouts and status of her captured and still missing brother, Orestes. When Electra learned from her mother that Orestes had escaped captivity and would soon be arriving at the Palace she noted that, “As soon as my brother’s name was spoken, I sense my father and my sister become more densely present, more fiercely active. I felt my father tugging at my sleeve, my sister holding my hand. And then there was stillness as the sound of the guard’s footsteps faded.
“I decided to speak my brother’s name myself. When I whispered it, and then said it again more loudly, I heard a voice, a quickened sound in response, but I could make out no words. My sister put her arms around me as though to hold me in place. I struggled for a moment to free myself as my father tugged at my sleeve again, trying to get my attention.”
She asked them each whether her brother Orestes was finally coming back. They each answered no. She stated to them, “I have to go and see my brother, to welcome him…
“But when Orestes did not arrive as had otherwise been expected Electra tells us, “Later, I went again to my father’s grave. I was sure my sister’s spirit was still with me. The air was thundery, the light purple. As I waited at the grave, I tried to move nearer my father’s spirit than I had ever been before. And it was then, as the rain came in heavy drops, that I understood what would happen.” What would happen, of course. was the return of her brother Orestes.
So much for Electra’s involvement with necromancy. Her brother Orestes finally did return to the Palace and not long after his arrival she informs him that their wicked mother treacherously killed their father on the day he returned home from his foreign conquests. Then she persuaded Orestes to kill their mother as punishment for her assassination of their father. Electra created a step-by- step plan for him to kill their mother Clytemnestra while she made her way down the steps to visit a sunken garden.
Now Clytemnestra as well had become a disincarnate spirit. Colm Toibin in a masterful four and a half page chapter has Clytemnestra describe for us in great detail the nature of her afterlife consciousness. Here are a few excerpts from that monologue.
“There will come a time when the shadows fold in on me. I know that. But I am awake now am almost awake. I remember some things – outlines come to me, and the faint sound of voices. What linger most are traces, traces of people, presences, sounds. Mostly I walk among the shades, but sometimes a hint of someone comes close someone whose name I once knew, or whose voice and face were real to me, someone I once loved perhaps. I am not sure…
“I know that there was feeling, and that is the difference between where I am now and the place I was once. There was a time, I know, when I felt rage and I felt sorrow. But now I’ve lost what leads up to rage and sorrow. Maybe the only reason I wander in the spaces has to do with some other feeling, or what is left of it. Maybe that feeling is love. There is someone whom I love still, or have loved and protected, but I cannot be sure of that. Some words come but not the words I want, which are the names. If I can say the names, I will know then whom I love and I will find them, or know how to see them. I will lure them into the shadows when the time is right…
“I walked in the corridors of the palace where I had once lived. I could almost remember some things that have happened. There was an image of someone in a garden, or on steps that led to a garden, staring hard, breathing hard, but then nothing, just stillness in the garden and then there was not even a garden, there was merely a space.”
And now the plot becomes even more definitively spooky. Clytemnestra announces, “My husband is dead and my daughter. They have become pure shade. My other daughter is here, but the one I am searching for is my son.”
Analysis and Conclusion
Colm Toibin deftly paints a picture for us of afterlife consciousness full of fading memories but retaining the ability to walk hauntingly through hallways of one’s former incarnate residence and feel a continuing connection to one’s survivors. He vividly presents to us his perception of the nature of disincarnate consciousness and the ability of still living people able to feel a remaining connection to their deceased relatives including a very strong sense of spirit presence.
In sum, it is seems that George Saunders and Colm Toibin have in no way dared to enter a realm in which angels fear to tread, but rather have chosen to visit a realm in which angels comfortably tread. It appears as if the two authors have each gotten in touch with their own individual soul, one of whose functions is to allow them (and anyone else who is willing to open the door to their own soul) to recognize their already existing connection not only to all other incarnate beings but also to disincarnate beings, angels and other spirit beings. Indeed to experience that their soul is that part of their consciousness that has also always been connected to the spirit realm .
Death is one doorway to the other side. But the soul, whether in incarnate or dis-incarnate form, is always connected to and is still part of the other world. When one experiences this reality one moves beyond duality into a state of oneness with all there is – whether incarnate or disincarnate.
Finally, we address what this resurrection of Spirit we have witnessed in Bardo and House of Names means for the potential future of novel writing and other fiction which focuses on afterlife consciousness and related matters. The implication here is that we are no longer chained to Neo-Darwinistic dogma insisting that as human beings we are merely an evolving species undergoing one random adaptation after another with no purpose but to propagate and perpetuate the species. Rather, due to the existence of our individual souls and remarkably expansive consciousness, we live, we learn, we die, we dwell in the afterlife realm, we learn more things and we return to incarnate form again.
With this kind of freedom and immortality we can envision our cyclic lives on earth and in the afterlife as ascending a ladder of growth, expanded consciousness and an ever increasing capacity for greater compassion and the acquisition of wisdom.
This awareness empowers us to refocus our attention on how we can mature to the point of recognizing our interconnectedness to one another and to all that there is.
Thank you George Saunders and Colm Toibin for walking us through the door.