Bardo Birdsong

George Saunders has written a great sentimental inhumanist novel. The book comes at you time-sorted and many-voiced, like the chat room history of channel #civilwargraveyard. In Lincoln in the Bardo, messages come in slices, and names come uncapitalized, like a child’s signature, or a Twitter handle. Even the blocks of interspersed historical (or pretend-historical) text that ground the story have the feel of a link followed, or a long block quote shared as a photo, as those on bookish corners of the platform might recognize.

Amy Ireland has the best description, from 2016, of the sliced up, liminal design affordances of the birdsite, and so this novel:

Twitter is excellent. The botlife runs wild and free, swerving into sheer paranoia-inducing bizarreness at times (Weird Sun Twitter) and there are writers doing really innovative work that engages directly with the unique formal possibilities of the medium (Uel Aramchek’s ‘This Could Be Your Past’ is one of my favourite recent examples). It’s the Arcadia of human/bot collaboration.


Only here we have a scroll updated to capitalise on the possibilities of hypertextuality: it is effectively nonlinear yet accommodates series of interlinked tweets, its citation system harbours abyssal potential for embedded referencing, its search function and the public nature of its contents make for a vast and bizarre dataset […], and it forces the honing of expression to a compact 140 characters Per unit of information. […]

During its first exciting moments, Twitter appears as an open horizon for the accumulation of all sorts of gratifying information, […] Nevertheless, the illusion of accumulation inevitably breaks down and it does so in perfect correspondence with the intensity of one’s Twitter habit. Accumulation cycles pathologically into dispersion, and before you recognise what is occurring, the mesmeric infinity of the digital scroll has entirely voided your capacity to focus or reflect. There is nowhere to go but further into the abyss.

If one could allot a genre to the platform as a whole, Twitter would be horror. The interface manifests visually and cognitively as a series of incisions. What begins as a benign mode of textual organisation quickly becomes applicable to human concentration. Its twentieth century prototype can perhaps be found in the mechanical writing/torture machine of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Both oversee the virulent machining of the human through text, and both tend towards a similar outcome in which the relentless numerical insistence of machinic agency ultimately succeeds in eradicating the latter.

Poetry is Cosmic WarAJ Carruthers interview with Amy Ireland

Klee - Die Zwitscher Maschine (Twittering Machine)

Klee – Die Zwitscher Maschine (Twittering Machine)

The bardo is an intermediate state between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism, a purgatorial place where we are separated from ties to mortal lives. So the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is more literally translated Liberation Through Hearing In The Intermediate State. Saunders populates the bardo with ghosts, imprisoned within the frame of a Washington graveyard, lost in scripts of their former lives, niggling at their traumas without accepting the central fact that they are dead.

The story follows the ghost of the boy Willie Lincoln, and the imagined aftermath of his sad death of typhoid at eleven years old. Eleven years old, that transitional age; “A sunny child, dear & direct, abundantly open to the charms of the world.” The talking, however, is largely done by more experienced graveyard spirits. There are quite a number – slave women and plantation owners, soldiers and farmwives – but with three men foregrounded: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Now with ghosts, Buddhism, death, presidents, Christianity, the US civil war, and what not, there’s a vast swathe of cultural allusions you could be drawing from. But I found myself most reminded of Journey To The West 西游记.

Delving into spoilery detail, three imprisoned spirits become disciples to a younger mortal, after a bit of ear-boxing encouragement at the start. Following his teachings and example, they protect him on his long journey, saving him from many demons intent on eating his flesh. Though they possess great magical power, when they get really stuck they need to call on Guanyin 观音, the bodhisattva goddess of mercy, to tip the scales a bit in their favour, and in the end they are released to positions of worth and enlightenment.  In this mapping, Willie Lincoln is the monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (Tripitaka), another real historical figure. The three disciples represent different virtues and sins. The Reverend Everly Thomas is the devout and overserious Sandy 沙悟净. Roger Bevins III is Pigsy Eight-sins 猪八戒, consumed by earthly gluttony and lusts, immersed in senses, always growing new eyes, ears and noses. Hans Vollman is the Monkey King 孙悟空, with a more than usually explicitly phallic giant red staff. ((You can even link the names – Vollman – Full Man – 悟空 – 无空 / Without Space, though I’m not sure if anyone really puns in three languages outside Hong Kong.))

Which makes Abraham Lincoln Guanyin. The One Who Perceives The Sounds of The World. Lincoln, in this mythic shape, is too large to fit onstage for long. We see his shaking grief through the eyes of the spirits, and then he leaves. He is the only character who re-enters and re-exits the graveyard. The Goddess of Mercy. The Great Emancipator.

Of course Lincoln was not just the rail splitter and the breaker of slavechains. He’s also the Doctor Frankenstein of the American body politic, stitching the dismembered states together for reanimation. Both George Saunders and Amy Ireland talk of writing as sampling and reassembling snippets from overwhelming torrents of data. Saunders describes it as curation: “I’d be in my room for six or seven hours, cutting up bits of paper with quotes and arranging them on the floor”, he tells Zadie Smith. Ireland notes that “the diminishment of human authorship plunges the human reader into a problematics of scale. … In response, less linear and sedentary methods of reading start to take precedence – techniques akin to scanning, scrolling, and – for the unashamedly hyperstimulated – spritzing.” In assembling his novel, Saunders does this for us across the corpus of civil war history, Lincoln biography, Sino-Tibetan Buddhism and his own imagination. Yet it still shows the zigzag path across that vast field more honestly and artfully than most novels. The omniscient narrator is replaced with the hyperstimulated archaeologist of the past-saturated present, asynchronously replayed by the reader at a rate just slow enough to allow understanding.

Lincoln’s mutated industrial union doesn’t fit in the novel’s timeline. The reader and the characters are severed from it by a bullet and the matterlightblooming phenomenon of a bound book’s last page. The sensory systems of the brain cut down, sample, pre-processes, and outright alter everything we see and hear. Our machines and our spirits do the same. There’s too much data for human consciousness to comprehend. Wasn’t there always?

Lines of Sight

Architecture can be like a conversation. A very slow, expensive conversation. The centre of cities like New York or Hong Kong are like bustling parties full of people angling for attention but not wanting to veer too far from convention. Some cities like Singapore or Barcelona have made grand fashion catwalks at their centre, so pretty buildings can preen to the appreciative, slightly bewildered, self-congratulatory applause of people with money.

Temple cities are theological arguments, sermons and counter-sermons, schism and revival, self-conscious reinventions of grand traditions. In Angkor, the serene omnipresent faces of Bayon are a Buddhist reply to the Hindu temple mountain of Angkor Wat up the road, punctuated in symbolism and stone. And so too it is in Washington, D.C.

When I visited the Jefferson memorial, an enthusiastic young woman came up to me on the steps to politely and arbitrarily testify her Christian faith. It’s an appropriately argumentative way to exit the monument to a man suspicious enough of religion he edited his own version of the gospels to take out all the miracles. (I doubt she saw a contradiction, and perhaps she should not: American civic experience is a broad church). The monument itself was actually only dedicated in 1943, two hundred years or so after the birth of the figure at its centre. It’s neoclassical, or in other words, pretends to be two thousand years older than it is.

The monument was suggested and dedicated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was an admirer of Jefferson, and also presided over a massive international war, and an expansion of federal government quite opposite to Jefferson’s white-knuckled anti-federalism. Both of them were rather aristocratic and patrician, and both found themselves with the financier class as political enemies; like many farmers, Jefferson was heavily indebted, and hated bankers. FDR could use the monument as a tribute to an American and Southern genius while also getting political cover for his now-established constitutional upheaval of shooting fascists and stopping people starving. FDR’s own memorial is a bit of a disorganized liberal wishlist elsewhere on the pond. It speaks well of the man that his own wish was for no more than a simple plaque.

Jefferson’s statue looks straight at the Whitehouse, the doorway framing his view to see little else. It’s a little unfair. Tommo’s restless mind rarely settled on one thing that long, and he was far from that breed of singleminded politician who only cares for power. Still, if the statue were true to life, under the well armed kindergarten teacher of the modern US state, Jefferson would more likely be furiously scribbling letters calling for blood to run in the streets rather than gazing with sphinx-like detachment across the water at the house of America’s monarch.

While Jefferson watches the Whitehouse, Martin Luther King watches Jefferson. Dr King’s statue is a new addition, but I was in Washington for the first time, so I had the privilege of seeing it as part of the existing landscape, rather than an afterthought. It leaps forward out of a mountain ridge of white marble with the metaphorical literalness of a comic book superhero, or Sun Wukong 孙悟空 bursting out of a stone egg.

Dr King’s statue stands near the water’s edge, letting him keep an eye on a brace of Virginians on the east shore – the Washington monument, George Mason, and then the Capitol itself further in the distance. But it is the small temple housing the slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence that falls squarely in the middle of his gaze. Thomas Jefferson’s statue is not hewn from stone, but cast in neoclassical bronze. So the republic’s third President sails forth in memory clad in black, while his watcher stands in the sun and the snow, in seraphic white.

The Vengeful Angels Of Our Nature

It’s not surprising, in a movie such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to find a great deal of hunting vampires, but I did find rather more than I expected of Mr Lincoln. Part of the point of such a piece is of course the glorious joke of its title. Given the basic setup is pretty much explained before reaching the cinema, even more so for those who saw the earlier novel, the challenge is to put something else behind it.

Critics have come out uniformly negative, like a line of Union soliders wielding Springfield rifles of hate. Actually, Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith don’t do too bad a job. Abe: VH has its problems. It doesn’t take the approach (I would think a mistake) of being just a fight movie in 1860s costume. The second act even takes time out for political exposition and smaller scale Whitehouse family drama; a saggy but welcome variation from a simple progression of action scenes. It’s an action movie that makes time for the Gettysburg address. It’s not a long speech, but somehow a little more than expected.

Some parts are flawed. Others are freaking awesome. They are freaking awesome in the same way as Brad Nelly’s George Washington.  They combine mythic fragments of the American Civic Religion with mythic fragments of American action movies and mythic fragments of vampire lore in a mosaic that celebrates their symbolic role while signalling it is also a fiction.

Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith play the material straight. Again I think this is the right choice when presenting such a flagrant counterfactual. Winking at the content would destroy the premise of the fantastic world. The viewer can always step back to laugh at the absurdity of the hook; they shouldn’t be pushed back. There are some good fights, much influenced by the post-Matrix martial arts style. At 105 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

American presidents have a role not unlike saints or Hellenic gods in the American Civic Religion. And many-named Lincoln is at the heart of the pantheon, equal to the founding fathers in symbolic weight, the great hinge on which the chronology of American statecraft swings. Lincoln even sounds mythic. He had, in Adam Gopnik’s words, “mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis”.

This movie’s Lincoln is not the Lincoln of history books, though the complexity of the man lends him weight as an action hero. Don’t all politicians have secret lives run in parallel with their very public lives? This story reverses the usual superheroic trope – the secret life is the one of clean hits and unambiguous moral purpose. The famous, public life is the compromised one beset by moral quandaries. (Batman is a variation where both identities are famous.)

How much of the real Lincoln is really told by popular history? The Lincoln of this movie doesn’t say anything like those dismaying words of the First Inaugral,

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

… and yet, how often does that enter the foreground in the history of poular memory? Lincoln is the great American nationalist, and the great liberal imperialist too. I view this from a non-American vantage point, so maybe I’m missing some cultural context. Maybe all elementary schools tease out the multifarious economic, demographic and historic causes of the War between the States and all Fourth of July barbeques are accompanied by nuanced discussion of the political factions faced by the 16th president.  Many Americans do know their own history well.

I suspect that even when the history is well known the myths of civic religion require certain narrative simplifications. Conor Cruise O’Brien argues much the same about Jefferson. (Jefferson para-scholarship is also largely silent on whether he was a vampire.) The virtue of a movie like this is acknowledging that mythic need while separating it somewhat from history. Grahame-Smith even constructs a scene where Pickett’s charge makes sense – vampires need not fear bullets and can infiltrate an enemy line with invisibility. It’s far more rational than the psychology of armies and generals failing to learn new tactics in the face of new tech.

Civic religions are worthwhile when they support worthwhile ideals. The American variant supports liberty and democracy and a system that for all its flaws is the great exponent of the same. They let us make the transformation from merely thinking republican democracy is a good idea and truly believing it.

Maybe it’s for the best that in these days of targeted US drone assassinations a movie imagining a president individually killing evildoers with a silver coated axe has not swept all before it. When I put it next to such monumental pieces of kitsch as Harrison Ford’s Air Force One or Mt Rushmore it hardly seems out of character. At least Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is honest about what it confabulates.

Readings From The Book of Bartlet

We finished Season Seven of The West Wing recently. Yes, at last, I guess, but one of the glories of the DVD is how easy it makes attacking a TV series serially. I first saw Virginia Postrel mention this novelistic bonus side-effect of laser technology. And like Buffy, or War and Peace, watching it this way lets the grander themes unfold in a way that the deconstructive experience of catching a dozen arbitrarily ordered M*A*S*H repeats does not.

The comparison with Tolstoy is warranted at another level, as the world Aaron Sorkin gives us is a sweeping and moralistic one. It’s one of high power and great privilege, but also of real, intertwined relationships. It’s also a religous world. The West Wing has to be seen as a text in what Normal Mailer called the American Civic Religion, the set of beliefs and rituals in self-government and the transcendent nature of democracy that keep the institution running. The West Wing has an almost fairy tale idealism about political institutions that could serve as a counterpoint to the skepticism of Tolstoy towards Napoleon and his ilk.

It is a tribute to the comprehensiveness of Sorkin’s vision, but also the embedding of that vision in strands of civic religion, that a writing team was able to continue his work for the last three seasons. They were able to continue his work – rather brilliantly too – because the work itself was an extension of a culture. There are not many examples of great (or Great) works successfully being picked up by a second writer after the first had to leave it. Dreams In Red Mansion is the only one I know offhand, and that too was trying to capture the spirit of an age amongst people of privilege, though in private, not public.

Unlike War and Peace, but like Buffy, The West Wing is also genuinely funny. This was also the only way I was able to convince my wife to watch it, as she is neither a political tragic nor particularly fond of American political kitsch. It’s funny in a highly verbal, rat-a-tat-tat way of a good play or a screwball comedy. The ever marvellous TV Tropes lists three main characters as being Deadpan Snarks. B wouldn’t have lasted one episode without that element, let alone seven seasons. I am going to stray to spoilers now.

I think this dynamic also explains why the series evolved from having Sam Seaborn as the main character (of an ensemble) to the character of Josh Lyeman. Josh was supposed to be highbrow comic relief but in the end his character arc becomes that of the show over the seven seasons. The pilot episode starts with him being a Young Turk foolishly insulting the Christian Right on TV, and the final episode has him become Chief of Staff.

Josh, despite being a nutcase of sorts, is an also an easier protagonist to follow, because he has a job of more obviously doing things. Sam’s main job as Deputy Communications Director was a speechwriter, a relator of events. Furthermore every episode that features Sam writing an excellent speech is also a letter of congratulations from the writers of the show to themselves (and these were mostly in the Sorkin-dominated early seasons).

Of course I still love the character of Sam, who for a while was the last scientific positivist on American TV. I love all of the original characters for that matter, except maybe Mandy, who just left one day at the end of the first season, in the manner of Sorkin characters, and of a certain kind of office. But I didn’t like the ending. There are various suggestions that the writers plans were thrown by the sad death of John Spence. It’s understandable, given that, that they got distracted by the character arc of the team. But they discounted that the power of the show comes from its feeding off of, and contributing to, a myth of democratic process. Seen from that perspective, the show’s ending is weak.

At the end of this tale of the American civic religion, we get the saintly genius Jed Bartlett, who as well as being the nerdiest president since Jefferson nearly became a priest, handing over to the saintly Matt Santos, the everyday dad and fighter pilot, like Thomas Aquinas handing over to the Archangel Michael. It’s a changing of the guard at left-wing fantasy central, not a meaningful, orderly changeover of power. And that’s the great victory of civic politics: handing over power to people, to an organisation, you might hate, who you fought for months and years, but ultimately recognise as patriots, and retreating into loyal opposition yourself. That sourness of loss, that heartbreak, that recognition of the worth of the system, even though balance has tipped for a moment – that is democracy’s catharsis. I know Hollywood doesn’t like tragedies, but Americans of all people should know that a peaceful change of power is really a triumph. Enoch Powell said that all political lives end in failure, but on the West Wing they all have a fairy tale ending. Even Arnie Vinick (R, California) gets to become Secretary of State.

The Supremes is probably my favourite episode. It’s an episode which was setup by the story arc, without being heavily reliant on it. The Chief Justice is fictional – conservatives have held that position for some time – but the situation is recognizable, so it is not a trite allegory. Details like the fading Chief Justice writing judgements in Alexandrine hexameter and the insufferable intern have set it up earlier in the season. Yet it unfolds like a good science fiction short story, exploring an idea. A series of justices second as avatars of judicial philosophies, but it’s also funny, with a drunken hurrah. It’s an episode that puts forward an argument, that promotes debate as being at the heart of good government. The West Wing ever combined a wonkish political hyper-literacy with a fairy tale idealism. These irreconcilable opposites pulled at and fought with each other in every episode, and it was exciting, intelligent, funny television. And then sometimes the wonk and the fairy princess stopped fighting and danced a waltz.