From Sophocles to Banksy, the big-picture boys have always argued that in taking us outside ourselves, art is empathy’s Miracle-Gro. If it “doesn’t make us better,” asks Alice Walker, “then what on earth is it for?” A few years ago, researchers at the University of Arkansas reported that a single visit to a museum had the power to boost the compassion and critical thinking of students who’d gone on a field trip compared to those who had not.
Maybe suspecting that some of us could use a little booster shot on that front right about now had something to do with the some 1,000 George Saunders people who RSVP’ed for an appearance by the “Lincoln in the Bardo” author — and known proponent of the notion that “if you could inhabit the secret thoughts of your enemy, they wouldn’t be your enemy” — at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch last week.
The once-Catholic Buddhist, who says, “I come equipped with my own inner nun, Sister Mary Low Self-Esteem,” is quite a comical moralist. But what he is really hawking, along with his best-seller just out in paperback, are some big, basic, old-fashioned ideas about art, death, decency and getting over ourselves in this absurdly siloed, dangerously partisan moment.
He’s a political creature, too, “a liberal left of Ghandi.” But in covering the Trump campaign for The New Yorker, he as always saw that whole categories of people are rarely as tidily toadish as we imagine them. At first, OK, he saw some Trump supporters behaving appallingly, then as he kept walking around with this eyes open came upon a 70-year-old woman being hit on her knees by an anti-Trumper. “So that kind of rounded out the picture for me,’’ he said in a recent interview with Jeremy Siegel. He still concluded “there was an energy Trump was releasing that was infecting everybody.”
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But his larger point is that the specific has a way of revealing the lie of the generalization that begins, “You people...”
Since the election, he’s often been asked whether resistance or empathy is the way to go. But they’re the same thing, as he sees it, because resistance without understanding never persuaded anyone.
The “bardo” of his novel’s title is a kind of Buddhist limbo where young Willie Lincoln goes after dying of typhoid in 1862. As he imagines this way station, we are there as we were at the time of our death, only more so.
“Buddhists,” he said in his talk here, “say if you want to know what your death will be like, look at your mind right now.” Which is why a character who dies just before consummating his marriage has to spend his years in purgatory holding his giant member to keep from tripping over it, and another who’s died just as he’s changed his mind about suicide and finally realized how beautiful this world is has hundreds of eyes.
In one of Saunders’ early stories, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” just as in “Lincoln in the Bardo,” ghosts are able to enter into another person and come away changed, overwhelmed with love. That’s what happens when he writes, since “your mind on novel is really expansive and generous.” It’s also what happens when we read.
“I think a lot of the trouble that we’re in,’’ he said recently, “you could say it has to do with the way we’ve abandoned art.” And for what? Strokes from such broad brushes that there’s no truth in them, and certainly no love.