Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow,” Saunders writes of Lincoln, “toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”

  • The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.
  • He was softly sobbing, his sadness aggravated by his mounting frustration at being lost.
  • He was his father over again both in magnetic personality and in all his gifts and tastes.
  • He was the child in whom Lincoln had invested his fondest hopes; a small mirror of himself, as it were, to whom he could speak frankly, openly, and confidingly.
  • From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.
  • I shall never forget those solemn moments—genius and greatness weeping over love’s lost idol.
  • and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within.
  • He did not seem to see me, but only endeavored to possess me;
  • What seems like abundance is in fact scarcity.
  • Strange that the gentleman had come here in the first place; stranger still that he lingered.
  • When one owns four homes and has fifteen full-time gardeners perfecting one’s seven gardens and eight man-made streams, one will, of necessity, spend a great deal of time racing between homes and from garden to garden, and so it is perhaps not surprising if, one afternoon, rushing to check on the progress of a dinner one’s cook is preparing for the board of one’s favorite charity, one finds oneself compelled to take a little rest, briefly dropping to one knee, then both knees, then pitching forward on to one’s face and, unable to rise, proceeding here for a more prolonged rest, only to find it not restful at all, since, while ostensibly resting, one finds oneself continually fretting about one’s carriages, gardens, furniture, homes, et al., all of which (one hopes) patiently await one’s return, not having (Heaven forfend) fallen into the hands of some (reckless, careless, undeserving) Other.
  • driven mad by the certainty that some sort of satisfaction must be near at hand.
  • He must either be in a happy place, or some null place by now.
  • Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do.
  • His headstrong nature, a virtue in that previous place, imperils him here, where the natural law, harsh and arbitrary, brooks no rebellion, and must be scrupulously obeyed.
  • Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.
  • I was dead. I felt the urge to go. I went.
  • have been here since and have, as instructed, refrained from speaking of any of this, to anyone. What would be the point? For any of us here, it is too late for any alteration of course. All is done. We are shades, immaterial, and since that judgment pertains to what we did (or did not do) in that previous (material) realm, correction is now forever beyond our means.
  • The saddest eyes of any human being that I have ever seen. In “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, account of John Widmer.
  • He never appeared ugly to me, for his face, beaming with boundless kindness and benevolence towards mankind, had the stamp of intellectual beauty.
  • But even when you are a solitary older lady it is no treat to be dumb. Always at a party or so on you are left to sit by the fire, smiling as if happy, knowing none desire to speak with you. – Miss Tamara Doolittle
  • Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.
  • He was attempting to formulate a goodbye, in some sort of positive spirit, not wishing to enact that final departure in gloom, in case it might be felt, somehow, by the lad (even as he told himself that the lad was now past all feeling); but all within him was sadness, guilt, and regret, and he could find little else.
  • How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.
  • Well, what of it. No one who has ever done anything worth doing has gone uncriticized.
  • Those of us who knew the Lincoln children personally, and saw them running around the White House like a pair of wild savages, will attest to the fact that this was a household in a state of perpetual bedlam, where indiscriminate permission was confused with filial love.
  • If the party did not hasten the boy’s end it must certainly have exacerbated his suffering.
  • He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness. Only I did not think it would be so soon. Or that he would precede us. Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay. I am.
  • We were as we were! the bass lisper barked. How could we have been otherwise? Or, being that way, have done otherwise? We were that way, at that time, and had been led to that place, not by any innate evil in ourselves, but by the state of our cognition and our experience up until that moment. By Fate, by Destiny, said the Vermonter. By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do, the bass lisper said. And then are cruelly punished for it, said the woman.
  • To be grouped with these, accepting one’s sins so passively, even proudly, with no trace of repentance? I could not bear it; must I, even now, be beyond all hope? (Perhaps, I thought, this is faith: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.) – The Reverend Everly Thomas
  • At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.
  • He was leaving here broken, awed, humbled, diminished. – Roger Bevins
  • Reduced, ruined, remade. – Roger Bevins
  • Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.

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