Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Nostalgia Once Removed, or Stardust Memories

Chinatown is a wonderful movie. One of the great things about it is how it portrays Los Angeles in 1937. The city looks so shiny and new. Watching Chinatown always makes me nostalgic for Los Angeles, even though I lived there decades after the 1930s. 

What’s odd is that I don’t have especially happy memories of Los Angeles. Living there, it often seemed as if the really good stuff was happening on the other side of town.

My nostalgia, my “bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past”, my “wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period”, is mostly for the past that didn’t happen. It’s for the past that might have been, a longing for missed opportunities in a setting that promised something wonderful.

The Germans could have a word for it: “Sehnsuchtnacheinervergangenensie hattennie”.

Sehnsucht nach einer vergangenen sie hatten nieNostalgia for a past you never had.

We might also call the phenomenon “stardust memories”.