Two Cheers for “Blab” Books: How Corny Quotation Collections Shaped Two of the Greatest Minds in American History

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Two of the best books I’ve read over the last year have been Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Own Age, by David S. Reynolds, and Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.

Both men, Lincoln and Douglass, show that anyone can learn wisdom, gracefulness of expression, and moral courage from salutary books, no matter how humble or, indeed, corny. Even the most plebeian texts imaginable can help us furnish our minds beautifully, as the lives of these two giants show us.

One reason we hail Lincoln as a great democrat is his reputation as a rail-splitter–a frontier working man. But this image had only the tiniest grain of truth to it; he put up one rail fence, in 1830. The idea was seized on by Republican senators for Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860, and it took on a life of its own. Lincoln actually spent nearly all his pre-political working life behind a desk or arguing in front of a court. His roots in frontier culture, however, are of course real. As a boy, he attended country schools for a total of one year, on and off. Frontier schools were dodgy affairs back then; teacher certification was not a thing and many “teachers” were outright frauds. There were few books to be had and no standardized curriculum. Mostly the children just listened and repeated back what they heard.

“Much of the school day,” Reynolds reports, “was devoted to individual and group recitation. The idea behind these ‘blab’ or ‘vocal’ schools was that information could best be imprinted on the memory if spoken aloud–a habit that stuck with Lincoln, who later irritated colleagues in his Springfield law office by constantly reading aloud from newspapers or books.”

It is in Lincoln’s early reading habits, not in his over-hyped reputation for manual labor, that his real roots as a democrat begin to reveal themselves. Not only did he form his mind from the crudest intellectual clay, but even more importantly, he became completely receptive to cultural elements in his environment that were as eclectic as the content of his blab books. “[H]is mind was fed early on by all kinds of sources, high and low, sacred and secular,” Reynolds writes. As an adult Abe would speak one moment like a preacher, the next like a barroom raconteur, full of earthy jokes, then quote Shakespeare.

Among the most formative of Lincoln’s school books were “William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, The Kentucky Preceptor, Noah Webster’s The American Speller, . . . and Lindley Murray’s The English Reader.” Lest we dismiss these eclectic, archly didactic books as merely the stage-setters that opened Lincoln’s mind to finer literature later in life, they actually stayed with him. Lincoln carried ideas and passages from these odd, humble books all his life. He developed a great capacity for memorizing texts from them and invoking them later.

Reynolds writes, “Lessons in Elocution included literary passages such as the soliloquy of Hamlet’s uncle on the murder of his brother (‘Oh! My offense is rank; it smells to heaven’), which Lincoln would spontaneously recite during his presidency.” From Aesop’s Fables, Lincoln took with him the image of bundled sticks, the strength of which he invoked “in a political circular . . . encouraging his fellow Whigs to act in unison rather than separately.”

These are just two examples of the scattershot collection of texts that shaped Lincoln’s mind. What mattered about the passages he memorized was not always their inherent greatness. Some were homely and modest, some scandalous, some preachy, and many–about spelling or grammar–destined to be outdated. But in all they reflected an amalgam of American impulses and ideas, a bounty of differing viewpoints that seemed in a way to embody the “multitudes” that captivated Walt Whitman.

The lessons Lincoln took from his school books were simple but powerful. The first was the importance of clarity. Though we recall the language of 19th century as florid and meandering (just try getting through the longeurs of Melville or Hawthorne), Lincoln led Americans into a new linguistic paradigm of brevity and precision. Say exactly what you mean, was the new injunction. But Lincoln also managed to cultivate a sense of style that gave his words literary power and moral weight. Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address, in only three minutes–a mere ten sentences that defined a whole new model of political language. To this day we still believe that anyone with something to say should be as clear and brief as possible, but without sacrificing beauty or style.

Lincoln also learned from the blab schools and quotation books that texts are intrinsically worth committing to memory. He didn’t know he would become president when he started memorizing all those lines; they just spoke to him. We can learn from Lincoln that this remains a habit worth emulating. If a passage of a poem, essay, play, or novel speaks to us, we can and should carry that passage with us. Words anchor us to the world, with all its wonders and trials. When we have nothing else, they are there to guide us, as they did Lincoln, during the gravest tests of human wisdom and courage.

Ringing literary allusions do not merely reflect our inner selves, though; they connect us to others. This was a third lesson Lincoln learned from his school books. A good communicator must know his audience if he wants to relate to them. It is a lesson tailor-made for a politician, but it it applies to the rest of us too. One of the things we say about experts and academics when they talk is that they are “off in their own world.” How true! They only seem to relate to their own kind. Lincoln’s school book readings taught him there are all kinds of people in the world, and to be fully human–especially in a democratic society–one must understand them and empathize with them. This starts with speaking their languages.

It was in the winter of 1830 that young Abraham Lincoln discovered a school book called The Columbian Orator. Like other school books already mentioned, it was a hodgepodge, a collection of texts laid out in no particular order but with the ring of nobility to them. As its name implied, The Columbian Orator was designed to teach effective public speaking. The winter after Lincoln began reading his copy of the book on the Illinois prairie, the young Fredrick Bailey, 900 miles to the east, in Baltimore, would acquire his.

We know Bailey today by the name he took after escaping slavery–Frederick Douglass. In a a way that mirrors the young Abraham Lincoln’s personal history, Bailey-Douglass was also the product, pedagogically speaking, of whatever school books were to be found in his immediate environment. David W. Blight recalls in Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, that young Bailey acquired his copy of The Columbian Orator from Irish friends of his who were carrying their school books with them when they would see young Frederick on the streets of Baltimore.

As it turned out, The Columbian Orator did have a guiding theme, chosen by its editor, Caleb Bingham, but it would have been hard to tease it out of its haphazard contents. Blight writes of Bigham’s book,

[Its] eighty-four entries were organized without regard for chronology or topic; such a lack of system was a pedagogical theory of the time designed to hold student interest. It held Frederick Bailey in rapt attention. The selections included prose, verse, plays, and especially political speeches by famous orators from antiquity and the Enlightenment. Cato, Cicero, Demosthenes, Socrates, John Milton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, William Pitt, Napoleon, Charles James Fox, and Daniel O’Connell . . . all appear at least once, and some several times. Most of the pieces address themes of nationalism, individual liberty, religious faith, or the value of education.

(Image: Open Library)

Taken on the whole, the book was, if the term is not too disparaging, a ragbag. I mean this word in the same way Orwell did when he used it to describe a genius no less than Shakespeare. What Orwell meant, and what I mean, is that a compelling voice–like the one in The Columbian Orator–can impart great wisdom even if it fails to evoke systematic understanding, minute design, or even erudition. It is in the powerful expression of an idea that the reader (or hearer) can see a life-changing truth as in a flash of lightning or hear a higher call to duty as in a clarion note. It’s the voice that matters.

As Frederick Bailey recited the words of The Columbian Orator to himself, essentially undergoing the same rote exercise in elocution and memorization that Abraham Lincoln did in the frontier schools of Illinois, those words took shape and caught fire. This sort of awakening was exactly what the passages in The Orator were meant to produce. Bingham, the collection’s editor, was a Dartmouth-educated abolitionist. He had chosen the texts for the Orator to showcase the central, founding idea of America–that each individual is sovereign and may not be owned or ruled over by others. Without saying the words “slavery” or “abolition,” Bingham assembled The Columbian Orator to teach the reader that slavery was un-American and indeed was at war with the liberal arc of history. In its pages, American school children, Blight tells us, “would have repeatedly encountered irresistible words such as ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘tyranny,’ and the ‘rights of man.'” It was “a vocabulary of liberation.”

All throughout his life, Douglass would refer to his copy of The Columbian Orator as his “rich treasure” and “noble acquisition.” He carried it with him when he escaped slavery. The Orator‘s promotion of American ideas poured “floods of light,” Douglass recalled, “on the nature and character of slavery, . . . penetrat[ing] the secret of all slavery and oppression.” Put simply, America would not have in its cultural possession one of its greatest books, Douglass’s epochal autobiography My Life as a Slave, without young Frederick Bailey’s chance acquisition of The Columbian Orator, that stiff, eclectic, grandstanding collection of liberal ideas. One of our great prophets might not have found his voice. And the chorus that eventually called for America to hold true to its ideal of freedom would have lacked its most plangent, powerful tones.

Review of “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” by Timothy Snyder

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I was going to open by saying what a tragedy it is that we still need books about the Holocaust. The quintessential crime against humanity, we are supposed to be past it now. But genocidal war fueled by the Big Lie has made something of a comeback with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “Sane,” “rational” people with an “elected” government are waging a brutal, murderous war to destroy, not just a country, but a nation, in Europe. Here we are again.

Still, we must deal narrowly with the events of today, right? How much can a liberal democrat like myself gain by reading a new history of the Holocaust? All it can serve to do, seemingly, is to highlight again what has been clearly and repeatedly established as humanity’s worst, most monstrous failure. Isn’t rehashing irremediable atrocities a kind of political pornography? And so Lublin, Treblinka and Auschwitz cannot really tell us much about Bucha, Mariupol, and Kramatorsk.

But maybe the recurring justification for revisiting the Holocaust lies in the audience, not the subject matter. I come from a country, America, where the people think they are naturally too virtuous to commit genocide, and I live in a country, Germany, where atonement for Nazi crimes has become so routine and ubiquitous that it can feel like a hollow ritual.

I am, it turns out, precisely the kind of person for whom Timothy Snyder wrote his 2015 book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. As someone who thinks we understand Nazism and its crimes, I tend to believe that unformed sorrow and a stark pledge of never again is all we can offer the wounded human race after the Holocaust. It was all so much pure evil. But Snyder insists we still get the political facts of the Holocaust wrong, and thus we risk repeating it.

The actuating force of the Holocaust was not pure, unmotivated evil, according to Snyder. It was the intersection of humiliated nationalism, economic crisis, and conspiratorial racism. At the crossroads where these elements come together, Snyder argues, “few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.”

Before I offer my views on how history is repeating itself today, let me lay out Snyder’s main thesis and arguments. The effectiveness of Hitler’s genocide, Snyder writes, can be measured geographically, on the map of Europe. Although westerners typically call to mind the Third Reich’s deportation of Jews from Western Europe, it was in the East where the mass killing was most effective. More than 90 percent of the Jews in Poland, the Baltic countries and Nazi-occupied parts of the USSR were murdered; whereas half or more of the Jews in western Europe survived. Ironically (if the word can be used), Germany’s Jews had one of the highest rates of survival.

The East became Ground Zero for Nazi genocide, Snyder argues, because of how thoroughly Germany destroyed the state institutions there. When government authority was destroyed by the Wehrmacht‘s Blitzkrieg, so was the link to the rule of law. Even Hitler’s re-introduction of the law of the jungle, though, was only an enabling condition for the Holocaust. Had the situation been so simple as Einsatzgruppen rampaging without any laws to constrain them, Snyder argues, far fewer Jews would have died. The Nazis acting alone simply didn’t have the capacity to kill by the millions. What they needed, Snyder argues, was a large cohort of highly motivated local collaborators.

And they got them. This is the heart of Snyder’s argument: the unique tragedy of Eastern Europe during World War Two was the fact of double occupation–military conquest first by the Nazis then by the Red Army. To signal loyalty to each occupying power in turn, or often just to survive, thousands of eastern and central Europeans actively contributed, albeit in different ways, to the wholesale killing of Jews. When the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in 1939, they divested Jews of their property and businesses because they were anathema to communism. Non-Jewish Poles moved in and occupied their stolen property. When the Nazis invaded, they coopted the new Polish property owners into a scheme to kill the former owners, “racializing” what had been a purely political oppression by the Soviets.

In some areas Jews formed partisan groups that proved successful at killing Nazi occupiers. When the Red Army began liberating areas in 1943 that had been defended by partisans, Stalin ordered the partisans killed so they couldn’t claim credit for helping win the war. These patterns repeated themselves in dozens of variations across the East, and the Jews got it coming and going, by the Nazis and the Red Army.

The historian’s first task, of course, is to present the facts faithfully. Snyder obviously would not have written Black Earth had he not believed he was unearthing some new, objective evidence about what the Holocaust really was. But it is the moral of his book–the warning–that gives it urgency. If we persist in seeing the Holocaust as an instance of utterly unintelligible evil, he writes, we could blind ourselves to its central mystery–how ordinary people carried it out. How we might carry it out again.

“I am a normal man with normal needs,” says Paul Doll, an imaginary SS death camp commandant in Martin Amis’s 2015 novel The Zone of Interest; “I am completely normal. That is what nobody seems to understand.” The novel’s action is set in 1942 and 1943, as it is becoming evident that Germany is losing the war. But even as the Wehrmacht‘s military conquests slow and then go into reverse after Stalingrad, the genocide in the death camps picks up pace. Doll has to clear newly arriving trains every day. “We cannot cope with the numbers,” he complains. It dawns on Doll that the death camps have become Hitler’s main effort. The war for Lebensraum is being lost. So the genocide must be sped up. Amis’s unflinching theme in The Zone of Interest is the examination of each character as someone who is, or once was, normal but is now under the reality-bending circumstances of Hitler’s doomed killing frenzy.

“Under National Socialism,” reflects Amis’s protagonist, “you looked into the mirror and saw yourself. You found yourself out. . . . We all discovered, or helplessly revealed, who we were. Who somebody really was. That was the zone of interest.” And in a way, this is the zone of interest for Snyder as well, to insist on seeing the actors in the Holocaust, major and minor, as normal people. They believed a Big Lie when it was credible, in the 1930s, and then became part of the Big Lie’s monstrous bloody reality even after it passed beyond belief in the 1940s.

In Ukraine we are witnessing a hinge moment in history, where just such a transition is happening in real time. Vladimir Putin’s idea of Russia as victimized, surrounded, and unfairly constrained has been fermenting into a mass Russian movement for decades, and it is now exploding into a justification for genocidal murder. Just as Hitler drew an organic link (where there was none) between a real strategic adversary–Soviet Communism–and a helpless, demonizable people–the Jews–Putin has pulled off the same diabolical maneuver. Germany was by natural rights a strong, forthright nation, Hitler said, deserving of whatever wealth, land, and power it could grab. That’s just Realpolitik in its purest form. But the Jews devised a global conspiracy of liberalism that kept Germany in check. It wasn’t fundamentally the Jews who were an obstacle to Germany’s greatness; it was the alliance they created. The alliance was too big to conquer, so Hitler went after its putative source, in Jewishness.

While some of the details differ, this view of geopolitics is far too close to Putin’s to be ignored. The Ukrainians must be subdued, he says, not because they themselves are a threat to Russia’s greatness; they are nothing but homosexuals, leftover Nazis, and drug addicts. But because these weaklings have tricked NATO and the EU into constraining Russia, they have committed a fatal sin against Russian greatness. Tragically, I think it is plausible that Putin will turn to mass killing as the only achievable war aim that is left to him once it becomes clear that he, like Hitler, is losing the war.

Notes on “There There” by Tommy Orange

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In my last post, I made a gesture of détente toward postmodernism, the philosophy that says we create our own reality, including things that seem to exist entirely on their own, such as rocks or numbers or people.

Why would I do such a thing? The idea that the world would be a mere void without our thoughts to substantiate its content seems plainly, irrefutably wrong. The world is just there, right?

I still don’t believe that the claims of postmodernism are literally true, and I still have an old-fashioned attachment to literal truth as the most important kind of truth.

But over the years I have come to believe that the allure of postmodernist claims ought to be taken seriously even if the claims themselves make little sense in their hyped-up, academic form. They sometimes have an important kind of figurative truth to them.

I began my encounter with postmodernism in the field of philosophy–the very realm where hyped-up, academic claims take center stage and fight it out with one another–but it is literature that has softened my objections to postmodernist ideas and given them a playground rather than a field of battle. Certain novels have persuaded me that there are levels of reality that we do in fact create and it is sometimes hard to distinguish those levels–socially constructed reality–from the already-there world.

But let me back up.

In the 1990s I belonged to a school of philosophers called analytic philosophers, who believe that the best arguments for or against a given position are expressed as numbered sequences of clear, precise sentences, or even better, symbolic logic. To us, really excellent proofs were more like math than conversation. Here’s an example of one:

(∀C) (((∃S)csg(C, S, “A”)) → ((∃T )csg(C, T, “B”)))

It became a sort of mean-spirited game to show how ridiculous postmodernism was by translating it into our preferred forms of precise, logical arguments and then spotlighting the consequent profusion of nonsense. (Example: I recall a professor of mine smirking at a line from Being and Time in which Heidegger says that when he enters a room, he “pervades” it. At what rate of motion, the professor wondered, would Heidegger’s pervasion have progressed? Could one outrun it? And so on.)

It was all great fun. But one does read other books than analytic philosophy, eventually. And the best books change you, or reveal parts of yourself you had misunderstood all your life, or didn’t even know were there. For me, the pivot happened through novels. Over the years I have found that many of the most searching novels address ideas and questions that draw on postmodernist concerns, and that I in fact share many of those concerns. Read White Noise by Don Delillo or The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk and see if they do not affect your sense of reality.

Not everything worth saying in life is translatable to a syllogism.

I have just finished the stunningly good There There by Tommy Orange, which is certainly not translatable into a syllogism. It is a novel about twelve present-day Native Americans who are converging on a powwow in Oakland, California. It is a multi-sided tale told through twelve individual voices. Although the first responsibility of the critic is to focus on the work of art itself, I cannot avoid saying at the outset just how good this book is, especially considering it is Orange’s first, and that he didn’t even start reading literature until he was an adult. His sensitivity to the craft of novel writing is simply astonishing. I hope he lives a long time and writes a lot of books.

Orange’s choice of a collection of narrators rather than a single protagonist is an acknowledgment of how all of our identities are increasingly embedded in virtual networks–of social media, virtual schooling, home-office work, e-commerce, and so forth. It also illustrates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s observation that individual humans are essentially situated in social settings from which our identities are derived. Over and against the Enlightenment ideal of hermetic individuality (God: “I am that I am.” Thoreau: “I will breathe after my own fashion.”), the postmodern self acknowledges how deeply it is interpenetrated by, and dependent on, others. We are other people, as I often remind myself.

One of Orange’s best-drawn characters is Edwin Black, an overweight, socially awkward aspiring writer whose extensive online research has made him something of a computer nerd as well. While searching for the identity of his long-lost father–a query that is definitive, concrete, and personally compelling–he finds something else, more elusive and disorienting: his own intellectual agency is merging with the algorithms and networks of the online world. Almost everyone has experienced something like the weird annexation of self by the internet that Edwin describes as “the open window my mind has become since the internet got inside it, made me a part of it.” Lest we think this kind of encounter is just a static intermingling of online “content” with one’s private thoughts, Black reminds us, it is a relationship that can exert force and direction on us, changing who we are: “Sometimes the internet can think with you, even for you, lead you in mysterious ways to information you need and would never have thought to think of or research on your own.”

We are not just other people; these days we are also other virtual networks.

Take this kind of reflection to its extreme, and you can see how it became the inspiration for the Matrix movies. If, as Jean Beaudrillard argues, our selves, the objects of our knowledge, and our very worlds are essentially mediated, we live with the menace of being unable to reliably distinguish our “true” experiences from our mediated ones, our core selves from what has been shaped by others. That’s The Matrix in a nutshell. But as Orange reminds us through Black’s reflections, it is at the thin end of this wedge, where we feel the internet–or any virtual network–making us a part of it that is most unsettling, because unlike science fiction movies it is really happening. You need not believe that The Matrix could be literally true to fear the encroachment of the mediated, virtual world onto the unmediated, “real” one. Most of us are not “really” at work, for example, until we log into the hive mand that runs, monitors, in fact is our organization. We are living in a Beaudrillardian twilight zone, and Orange is finely, expertly attuned to it. This sensitivity alone makes There There wonderful.

In a luminous, ironic prologue worthy of Kurt Vonnegut, Orange executes a deft act of misdirection to set the stage for There There, surprising the reader with the news that many 21st century Natives are, like Orange himself, urban, and call Oakland, California home. Orange writes:

Getting us to the cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. . . . We made art and we made babies and we made a way for our people to go back and forth between reservation and city. We did not move to cities to die.

He later says that Natives living in Oakland draw as much inspiration from their built-up, urban environment as they do from “any sacred mountain range.” Some of his characters speak West Coast gangster, weaving words and attitude from Tupac into their Native-inflected patois. Who would have thought? The city is in them, and vice versa.

One thing about cities, though, is that they are constantly changing. Can they really help us frame a solid identity if their personality is ever in flux? Augie March would say yes without question, based on his announcement at the beginning of Saul Bellow’s masterpiece, “I am an American–Chicago born.” But in real life, the essence of a city is unstable and unlocatable, a fact that Orange embraces in the very title of his novel. “There there” is snipped from Gertrude Stein’s famous remark on Oakland, her childhood home. Returning as an adult in search of her roots, Stein once observed there “was no there there” in her hometown.

(Stein would not be the only California native to find the geography of her past transmuted and slipping out of her reach. Joan Didion’s 2003 Where I Was From is a deeply felt 240-page rumination on the same subject.)

As a good novelist, Orange does not simply disclose his worldview to the reader. But through the dialogue of the characters and the convergence of the plot strands on the climax at the big Oakland Powwow, we come to discover how thoroughgoing a postmodernist Orange is. His suggestion that there is no “there” in Oakland despite his characters’ creation of meaning there, in that very place, despite the powwow’s gravitational pull, drawing them there, to that very place, reflects Beaudrillard’s idea that a referent–the thing that a word refers to–can evaporate into nothing through a “normal” sequence of shifts in the structure of representations. But a whole city can just disappear?

Maybe. Trace the referent of a place, a society, or an institution–anything–far enough back and you eventually fall through a trapdoor of indeterminacy. What is “home,” for instance? For Natives, Orange probes the idea that there is something stereotypically “original” about unspoiled nature as the Indian’s proper home. The grasslands, the desert, the forest is somehow where he is supposed to be. But why would this be such a fixed notion, Orange wonders:

Nothing is original, everything comes form something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed.

Orange is also attuned to Beaudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, or the process of overdetermining the meaning of a representation through mediation and mimesis. Orange lodges this idea throughout his story, in elements large and small. In a line that looks like a throwaway, he has one of his characters muse that she dislikes poinsettias “because of how even the real ones look fake.” They are too brilliantly red, she thinks. In a world where representation is always overdone (think of how fake food is manipulated to look like real food, in fact too good to eat, in advertisements) poinsettias look too much like poinsettias.

There There is filled with these Alice-in-Wonderland gems, scenes where characters’ fears, habits, desires, or actions destabilize the line between appearance and reality. Edwin Black tries to convince his mom that he is (finally) eating better by mediating his own virtuous performance. “‘See?’ I almost shout, holding up the apple for her to see. ‘I’m trying. Here’s a live update for you. I’m live streaming it to you right now, look, I’m trying to eat better. I just spit out some Pepsi in the sink. This is a glass of water.'”

“Virtually everything” 14-year-old Orvil Redfeather “learned about being Indian, he’d learned virtually. From watching hours and hours of Powwow footage, documentaries on YouTube, by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia, PowWows.com and Indian Country Today.” Orvil plans to translate these virtual representations into “real” Indian ritual when he dances at the Oakland Powwow. On the big day, he boards the bus, wearing his regalia; he muses on being an Indian dressed up as an Indian. Does the double layer of Indianness make him more or less Indian? And what should we make of Orvil’s fellow BART passengers, so bathed in a mediated world that they raise not one curious eye toward him in his getup?

Daniel Gonzales, a smalltime drug dealer, uses a 3-D printer to print a 3-D printer. (It will be used, a la Chekov, to print a gun, which will bring about the climax of There There.) He spends his time online and writing code. To Daniel, it would not come as a shock that there is no longer any there there in Oakland. “I mostly see Oakland from online now,” he says. “That’s where we’re all going to be mostly eventually. Online.” “There” is just a representation of a place, in some ways truer and more useful than an actual, hunk-of-earth place.

The pervasiveness of virtuality might even offer a kind of hope to us mortal humans. Opal Victoria Bear Shield takes comfort in something her mother said right before revealing she was dying of cancer. “She told me the world was made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories.” This passage comes about as close as possible to rendering Derrida’s tendentious claim that “there is nothing outside the text” in a beautiful, humane way. In a world like Victoria’s mother’s, where we are only present as parts of a text, we just might live forever. Is that so bad?