Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Afterlife, American History, Bixby Letter, founding fathers, friendship, John Adams, Kazuo Ishiguro, loss, Mortality, mourning, Noam Chomsky, personal letter, Ravelstein, Saul Bellow, Thomas Jefferson
The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding.
Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.
Thomas Jefferson’s letter to his friend and political rival John Adams, upon hearing that Adams’s wife Abigail had died. You can find it along with more the best letters in American history in The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence.
I finished graduate school at Georgetown a week and a half ago, and have now found myself, for the second time in a year, living in my childhood home, as a graduate, idling away a brief but ambiguous stretch of days before moving on to the “next stage” of life. Twelve months ago, I had just finished four undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, and had lugged home a bag of dirty clothes to wash and suitcase of books to read.
One of those books is Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, which I inhaled last July and have since picked up off the shelf and re-read in the past week. The novel (Bellow’s final book, published when he was eighty-five) is a roman à clef and thinly disguised paean to his friend and colleague Allan Bloom. Bellow speaks through the narrator, Chick, as he recounts his long friendship and final months with the renowned academic Abe Ravelstein (re: Bloom) as well as the erotic and intellectual conversations they rehearse as the undercurrent of impending mortality slowly submerges their long-developing friendship. Bellow gives voice to these anxieties with a quivering, careful solemnity that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. His text simultaneously affirms Martin Amis’s claim that Ravelstein is a masterpiece without analogue, while flouting Kazuo Ishiguro’s suggestion that no great novels are written by writers who have matured beyond the class of quinquagenarian.
Bellow’s voice is inflected with the ambiguities and uncertainties of one who is aware of his limited earthly future yet wary of traditional immortality narratives. Chick defers to Ravelstein’s afterlife-agnosticism for much of the book, until its final scenes, wherein the two old pals are overwhelmed by a sensation that Ravelstein’s deathbed is not — and perhaps cannot — be their final meeting place. This impulse is rendered and pondered beautifully by Bellow:
“I wonder if anyone believes the grave is all there is… This is the involuntary and normal, the secret, esoteric, confidence of the man of flesh and blood. The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.”
By the tone of his letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, who was an absolutely determined skeptic for his entire adult life, seems to have embraced some loose version of Bellowian death-survival. The body decays, Jefferson certainly knew that, but as it is eventually cast off, does the spark of consciousness continue to flicker elsewhere? Jefferson may not have really thought that — he may have merely been bowing to the grief of his good friend — or perhaps, like Bellow, he didn’t just want to believe it, he had to.
As a side note: Last summer, in the throes of obsession with Ravelstein, I sent the above quotation to Noam Chomsky, to which I attached the question, “So Bellow intuited that life may go on after death — can you sympathize with, or make sense of, such a view?”
Chomsky’s response was typical in its sobering candor: “Bellow is clearly wrong in saying we all believe it. I can sympathize with a young mother who hopes fervently to see her dying child in heaven, but not with someone like Bellow who chooses the same illusions.”
I didn’t push Chomsky to amend his answer in light of Bellow’s crucial use of the word “involuntary,” though I perhaps should have (or may even in the future). The whole point of the quote — and the related speculation about Jefferson’s view of the afterlife — is to suggest that there is something reflexive, something automatic about the human belief in immortality.
Finally, returning to Jefferson’s letter: does anyone know if his apposition of “loved and lost” in this context inspired Abraham Lincoln’s use of those same two words in his famous Bixby Letter?