George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier this year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)
Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:
- Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
- Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
- Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
- Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
- Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
- Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo
Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.
A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.
Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.