George Saunders is the most humane American writer working today. He need not ask, as Sheila Heti did in the title of her novel, how a person should be. He knows. A person should be courageous and hopeful, generous and kind. A person should sacrifice herself for the good of those who are more vulnerable. A person should live in the knowledge that life is suffering, and that the most, or least, she can do is attempt to ameliorate the suffering of others. And — this is where it gets interesting — a story should be as compassionate as a person. “A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer,” Saunders noted in an essay called “My Writing Education.” “A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained.”
In the wrong hands this would be a recipe for treacle. But over four story collections, two novellas, and a children’s book, Saunders has shown that a moral approach to the writing of fiction needn’t preclude aesthetic panache. Now — finally, the Brobdingnagians will say — he has published a novel. It is a good one. LINCOLN IN THE BARDO (Random House, $28) is the story of a single night in 1862, when the homely, grieving, long-legged sixteenth president of the United States visits Oak Hill Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., to commune with Willie, his deceased eleven-year-old son. In some sections, sentences culled from sources real and imaginary explain the political scene; in others, characters speak in short bursts. The collaged, choral form allows Saunders to preserve his usual clipped rhythms, frank pronouncements, and pregnant silences while managing the large cast and wartime context.
Most of the people we meet are ghosts — unchained consciousnesses clinging to the limbo of the graveyard, delaying the judgment that will determine their final resting place. (In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is the state between physical death and rebirth.) They spend their days inside their decaying, wormy carcasses and their nights flying free. Like living skeptics convinced that they are the dreams of an evil demon, these dead souls do not know, or refuse to believe, that they are dead.
In summary, it sounds pretty crazy, but ghosts, zombies, the supernatural — and the Civil War, for that matter — are long-standing features of Saunders’s work. This time our guides are Roger Bevins III, whose predilection for other boys led him, as a youth, to slash his own wrists, and Hans Vollman, a heavyset printer with a “body like a dumpling” and an outsized sexual organ who can’t stomach the thought of his much younger wife remarrying. (Something about the bardo makes bodies mutate: Bevins has a surfeit of eyes and noses.)
Most children pass through this limbo state in a matter of minutes, but Willie is detained — first by his father’s visit, then by a whirl of demons. They wrap him in tendrils and form a carapace of “thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.” It is a powerful image, suggestively akin to a scene in the recent television series Stranger Things, in which a little boy is held captive in a parallel dimension by alien vines. Our notion of child endangerment must be wrapped up in this idea of a dangerous embrace, a fatal womb — love turned to smothering. It is fitting that Willie’s fate hinges on his, and his father’s, ability to let go of each other, which in turn depends on recognizing the truth of what has transpired. “Absent that spark,” Abe finally admits, “this, lying here, is merely . . . meat.”
Oak Hill is a chattering place, a society of cliques and gossip and wretched solipsism that mirrors the world of the living. The visual artist Nick Cave recently asked if there is racism in heaven; I don’t know, but there sure is racism in Saunders’s bardo. When the African-American ghosts emerge from a common grave to tell their stories, they are driven back by a violent white patrol. Before they go, we meet a traumatized young slave whose life on earth was hell; she was repeatedly raped, things “done to her as if no one else were there, only him, the man doing it, she nothing more than a (warm, silent) wax figure.” Another slave, named Thomas Haden, recalls a gentler arrangement. He was never beaten, and was allowed to live with his wife and children:
I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments.
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.
Over the course of the novel, Saunders’s ghosts discover an ability to enter into one another’s minds — and into Abe’s as well. From inside, they can listen to the guilt-stricken father’s thoughts, think and feel with him as he tries to reconcile his sorrow with the sorrow of the parents of the fallen soldiers he has sent into battle. At times, the empathy plot is heavy-handed, as when Haden’s ghost enters Lincoln, which seems to suggest that only such a psychological identification could explain the president’s future embrace of the abolitionist cause. But this being Saunders, sentimentality is leavened with squalid sensuality — a crouched, defecating body here; a casual orgy among friends there; and a simple dick joke. As Abe sits on the ground near the tomb of one dear departed “Bellingwether, Husband, Father, Shipwright,” Hans Vollman enters his body:
The two now comprised one sitting man, Mr. Vollman’s greater girth somewhat overflowing the gentleman, his massive member existing wholly outside the gentleman, pointing up at the moon.
In “My Writing Education,” Saunders said that writing was about “finding and accessing and honing one’s particular charms.” This image of Mr. Vollman’s oddly corporeal spirit “overflowing” the unknowing Lincoln is charming in all of Saunders’s particular ways — dirty, and comforting, and sad.
A rather different view of mortality, consciousness, and the spark and meat of life is to be found in Mark O’Connell’s TO BE A MACHINE: ADVENTURES AMONG CYBORGS, UTOPIANS, HACKERS, AND THE FUTURISTS SOLVING THE MODEST PROBLEM OF DEATH (Doubleday, $26.95). “Adventures” might be overstating it a bit, but O’Connell, an Irish journalist with a literary bent, does have fun. He visits a cryonics lab, a house of biohackers, a robotics competition sponsored by the Pentagon, and various tech conferences. He learns about the dangers of artificial intelligence — how do you design a robot that doesn’t wind up eradicating humankind? — and the attractions of mind uploading. He meets many hyperrational white men who are united by their belief that the universal trajectory of birth, aging, and death is “basically unsatisfactory.” Or worse: inhuman. “Ask anyone who’s transgender,” explains Tim Cannon, a so-called grinder who experiments with implanted biometric devices. “They’ll tell you they’re trapped in the wrong body. But me, I’m trapped in the wrong body because I’m trapped in a body. All bodies are the wrong body.”
“A” body, of course, is hardly a neutral category. Philosophers since forever have divided the world into rationality (masculine, good) and embodiment (feminine, bad). It’s a familiar, boring dichotomy, but remarkably resilient, like some horrible discursive Whac-A-Mole. If only we could be free of our desires, our addictions, our irrationalities, and those disgusting female bodies; let’s hear it for the purity of information and clean, metal machines! O’Connell spends a chapter with Zoltan Istvan, whose third-party campaign for president on the Transhumanist Party line in 2016 largely consisted of his driving a bus across the country with a coffin strapped to the roof. I would have liked to hear more about Istvan’s wife, who is a gynecologist. “Obviously she’s a little resistant to transhumanist ideas,” he says, “because in the near future her entire profession will be obsolete. What with actual childbirth becoming a thing of the past. You know, with babies being produced by ectogenesis and whatnot.” Istvan’s young friend and campaign volunteer, a calorie-restricted virgin named Roen, clarifies what he’s looking forward to in the future: sexbots. “A real girl could cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an STD. You could maybe even die.”
Of course there is no natural, pre-technological state to which humans can return; of course our smartphones have become prostheses. That doesn’t mean that much transhumanist thinking isn’t silly and specious, or frankly immature: Laura Deming, a leading antiaging scientist, is still recovering from the blow she received at eight years old, when she learned that her grandmother would die. But, as O’Connell makes clear, this is difficult material to argue about — less a debate over ideas than a clash of worldviews. “My skepticism was more temperamental than logical,” he writes. Maybe his subjects really do experience their brains as functioning like computers. His own, he admits, is “a profoundly inefficient device, prone to frequent crashes and dire miscalculations and lengthy meanderings.” For O’Connell, the meaning of life is its finitude. For the transhumanists, death is another problem to be “disrupted.” Their projects, he suggests, are ultimately Rorschach tests — the way we respond reveals nothing more than our own values, fantasies, and psyches.
After reading Damion Searls’s THE INKBLOTS: HERMANN RORSCHACH, HIS ICONIC TEST, AND THE POWER OF SEEING (Crown, $28), I should know better than to lean on such a tired cliché. A Swiss psychiatrist’s 1918 invention became, by the 1960s, a metaphor for freedom, seeing what you want to see, and a culture without authority. But this image of the test wholly mischaracterizes its origins. The diagnostic power of Rorschach’s cards resides in their being neither arbitrary nor meaningless — there is a structure within which interpretation occurs. The swirls, smears, and smudges really do look like bats or butterflies or bears, though I cherish the response of one “depressed farmer” in a study about ten years ago, who saw in one card a “tragically misunderstood piece of cauliflower.”
This excellent book begins as a biography and becomes, when the doctor suddenly dies of a ruptured appendix at the age of thirty-seven, a cultural history of his creation. As Searls explains, the inkblots are not in fact blots. Rorschach, the son of an art teacher and himself a gifted draftsman, designed and painted the ten images, which have proved to be uncannily accurate: again and again, therapists who see only a patient’s Rorschach answers have arrived at the same diagnosis as those who meet the patient in person. At its midcentury peak, the Rorschach test was given a million times a year in the United States alone, used by assessment specialists as well as by military doctors, anthropologists, and lawyers. Fundamentally open-ended and exploratory, it had a hard time adapting to a technocratic culture of standardized testing, what Searls refers to as a new data-driven era of American medicine, in which the operative questions were guilty or innocent, sane or insane. He estimates that in America today the test is administered to no more than one or two hundred thousand people a year.
The Rorschach test seems to have the greatest therapeutic benefit when it is used as an experiment — a way to show the patient that her approach to the blots, and what she sees there, are reflective of how she organizes her experience more generally. While previous inkblot tests measured how much imagination patients had by tallying the number of their responses to each image, Rorschach asked about the meaning of what they saw. His premise was that seeing does not precede thinking; it is thinking. His test was supposed to reveal it all — “a person’s grasp on reality, cognitive functioning, susceptibility to emotions.”
Scoring protocols note the following elements: symbolic content (“That’s a demon” is the kind of answer that gets you in trouble), attention to the whole and the detail, response to color, and, critically, response to perceived movement. Are the bears cavorting, the fairies dancing, the waiters kissing? It matters. If Rorschach cared only about the unconscious, he could have used Freudian free-association or word-association games to excavate his patients’ latent desires. But he wanted to combine psychoanalysis with physiological aesthetics. His dissertation was about the dynamic mental processes that undergird the experience of einfühlung (“feeling-in”), which we now call empathy. Originally, einfühlung did not have anything to do with seeing the world from someone else’s point of view. It was a way of explaining the human capacity to be moved by form. Why does something as abstract as a landscape have the power to make us feel so much? Because we have entered the world and allowed it to enter us. “Our selves, refound in the world, are what we respond to,” Searls explains, “feeling outward things as parts of us.” If that isn’t transhuman, I don’t know what is.