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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, March 21st, 2004


 

Rising Up and Rising Down Signed 1st Edition

by William T. Vollmann

With dirty hands

A review by Paul Quinn

Still only in his mid-forties, William T. Vollmann has already produced a vast corpus of novels, short stories, journalism and, most impressively, four instalments of an ongoing sequence of Seven Dreams, his "symbolic history" of the traumatic encounter between European incomers and indigenous Americans; this sequence itself, when complete, could prove one of the abiding achievements of contemporary American fiction. But all this, it turns out, is only the tip of the iceberg, for during the twenty or so years of his writing career, and most of his adult life, Vollmann has also been working on the extraordinary project now before us, Rising Up and Rising Down, a 3,352-page, seven-volume "essay" on violence, its varieties and justifications. It seems to have served as a sourcebook and rationale for much of what he has already published, but the fiction -- and certainly the journalism (much of which reappears here) -- could equally be said to lead to this summa: Vollmann's most overt, but typically unconventional, intervention in the unfashionable domain of ethics; his attempt to "do good", to be of practical help to us "moral actors" in a bloody, morally ambiguous world.

Faced with "uncategorizable" works, the critic's natural tendency is to reach for precedent, especially when the uncategorizable work in question is organized around an impulse to categorize. Vollmann's writing has always challenged generic distinctions: between history and fiction; between eyewitness and dream-vision; between poeticism and naturalism. For all the postmodern metafictional devices he employs, he displays something akin to a premodern or early-modern conception of writing as a process which transcends disciplines. To that extent, this is his "Anatomy of Violence", three times as long as Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, similarly stuffed with quotations, the rich pickings of a fellow "library cormorant". But whereas the study-bound Burton by his own account "never travelled but in map or card" and was "a mere spectator of other men's fortunes and adventures", Vollmann, in his role as journalist and "student of armed politics", has regularly velcroed on his trauma plate (his body armour helped save his life in the early 1990s when two friends died in a car that hit a mine outside Mostar) and ventured into the world's war zones and ghettos, its killing fields and besieged cities, to bear witness in his own inimitable manner. The first four volumes of this study, the theoretical sections, or Justifications, distil Vollmann's wide reading and sustained meditation on the subject; the fifth and sixth, the Studies in Consequences, are case studies, two large collections of personal experience and observation. The seventh volume, MC: The Moral Calculus, or "resource volume", is offered to us as a kind of thread through the ethical labyrinth.

Before the Justifications get properly under way, we are given "Three Meditations on Death". First, there is a descent into the underworld; in the Paris catacombs, we are guided past walls clustered with memento mori. (The tourists in Vollmann's party are irreverent and irrepressible rather than mortified by human vanity and transience, however; the guards at the exit matter-of-fact as they examine backpacks for filched souvenir skulls.) This reflective introduction displays the Gothic strain that has always been present in Vollmann's work, the morbidly lyrical flourishes on life, death and mutability that owe a debt to Edgar Allan Poe -- to whom he pays homage in "The Grave of Lost Stories" in his collection Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (1991) -- juxtaposed with laconic asides and drip-fed personal revelations that are sometimes shattering.

The first book Vollmann wrote (though its publication was delayed for ten years) was a memoir, An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992), an account of an intellectually precocious but politically naive "Young Man", heady with Lawrence of Arabia delusions, travelling to Afghanistan to join the struggle against the invading Soviet Army. In the course of that book, Vollmann, in passing, accounts for his close attention to detail thus: "When I was growing up, my little sister drowned because I hadn't paid attention". Reconstructing the event from interviews the writer has given down the years, it would appear that the prodigious nine-year-old Vollmann, able to escape into a book as if into another world, was deep in reverie while his six-year-old sister drowned. In the course of Rising Up and Rising Down's "Meditations", we return, again in passing, to this primary trauma and the throwaway effect is just as powerful. Vollmann is shadowing the chief medical examiner of San Francisco, Dr Boyd Stephens, one of a number of front-line heroes who illuminate these volumes with their undaunted example. Contemplating the tide of death and grief that fills the doctor's days, Vollmann recalls a woman who wrote to him twenty-six years after his sister's accident. "The woman wrote: 'I remember you, very thin, very pale, your shoulders hunched together, your hair all wet and streaming sideways. You said, "I can't find Julie"'." In all the thousands of pages that follow, detailing atrocity, murder and mourning, those four words are among the most haunting. Indeed, there is a temptation to extrapolate from them a psychobiographical approach to Vollmann's oeuvre: the apparently obsessive need to place himself in dangerous situations, to rescue damsels in distress (in one case study, he attempts to get a student, Mica, out of besieged Sarejevo; in another, he rescues a child prostitute from a Thai brothel and relocates her to a safe house), and, above all, the urge to make us moral actors rather than passive observers. The temptation to provide a personal explanation should be resisted, however, for Vollmann himself treats this and similar incidents with restraint. Moreover, like most things in this work it is used purposefully: his grief is just one shard in a mosaic of grief, and the spirit in which he arranges pieces of autobiography within his overall design is caught by the gloss he gives some words of condolence he had from a friend: "She merely did this thing that can be done for any bereaved person, which was to show me her own sadness, so that my sadness would be less lonely".

In the course of what follows there is little danger of sadness being isolated. Dr Stephens tells Vollmann "a Solomonic parable" about three mothers who show up at his morgue one night, each claiming a single corpse to be their long missing daughter. He reveals that desperate mothers would often claim a disfigured or decayed corpse as their child, so desperate were they for closure, although subsequent tests might show the body was not their loved one after all. On this grim night, Vollmann observes, "one mother was lucky. The dead girl was really her daughter".

As Vollmann watches the autopsies, marks the Y-shaped incisions (his extensive travels broadening his range of analogy: "the doctor was very good at what he did, like an old Eskimo whom I once saw cutting up a dying walrus. The scalpel made crisp sucking sounds"), Burton comes once more to mind, his anatomical metaphor -- a study divided into partitions, sections and subsections -- raised from the dead: "Can't we please proceed like Dr Stephen's employees, weighing, fingerprinting, cutting open all the sad and stinking dross of violence, trying to learn what causes what?". Vollmann is under no illusions about the scale of what he is up against. His Burtonian patchwork of quotations includes some longue duree despair from the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin: "What is more ancient and more universal than slavery? Cannibalism perhaps". Against this, there are shafts of transcendental optimism, like this from Thoreau: "I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized". Vollmann's epic of first contacts, the Seven Dreams sequence, casts doubt on civilization's capacity to improve. Here, we get a mordant footnote: "I myself believe that we have stopped eating one another only under temporary compulsion".

At times, this text with its terrible accumulation of historical violence resembles some Ballardian atrocity exhibition: see the Japanese warrior class testing their new blades on the first commoners they encounter at a crossroads; observe the Comte de Charloais shooting workmen off his roof just for the pleasure of hitting his mark; consider the example of the Ik, the mountain tribe observed by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, whose collective life has atrophied into a Hobbesian idea of the state of nature as state of war, in which husbands steal from wives, and mothers laugh as babies burn their hands in the hearth flames. Could this, Vollmann worries, rather than Rousseau's Tahiti, constitute mankind's natural state?

Faced with violence's variety and ubiquity, Vollmann proposes "a tentative ethics", even while apologizing for his non-academic status. This is somewhat disingenuous, for it is the maverick status of Vollmann that makes this work possible (few tenured academics would attempt it). His fiction has always aspired to the essay: it is discursive, often employing an elaborate apparatus of endnotes and cross reference, quotation and bibliography. His research and travels become part of the plot of the Seven Dreams novels in particular: in the most recent instalment, Argall (2001), for example, his journey to a run-down Gravesend and Pocahontas's last resting place is one of many personal epiphanies that break through the surface of his richly imagined Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. His account of how the material for the story was gathered overlays and interpenetrates the narrative to produce an idiosyncratic kind of Verfremdungseffekt that is, paradoxically, involving. There is an awareness of the mental and physical labour behind the work which does not destroy the mystique of the art, but draws the reader into its making with great intensity.

Rising Up and Rising Down is a novelist's version of scholarship, full of highly wrought acts of empathy and detailed description. Vollmann makes no apology for this; in a note on the literary language of his study he explains why a work which is organized on a theoretical basis indulges in so much "ornate description". He defends this both on the grounds of verisimilitude (we need to know the colours of the Burmese jungle at twilight, or the scorched smell of a shelled city, "precisely because local conditions have such an effect on a person's outlook") and of aesthetics ("because I figured that if my theorizing were wrong or unpalatable, the reader might at least have some moments of pleasure"). If "pleasure" seems frivolous in this context, it should be remembered that Vollmann is referring to the pleasure that always comes from precision and felicity, whatever the subject matter, and also to the fugitive pleasure we must take in a violent world. At one point in the case studies he describes himself lying outside Mostar in a mine-wrecked car, his two friends dead or dying in the front seats, expecting snipers to finish him off at any moment, focusing intently on the fluttering and preening of a small white bird on the guard rail of the dam they had failed to cross.

There is no shortage of theorizing, however, or, at least of organization. In the three Justifications volumes, Vollmann codifies the various "Defenses" that can be made to justify violence: "Defense of Honor", "Defense of Class", "Defense of Ground", and so on. He proceeds through induction, common sense and consideration of the actions of a number of modern, historical and mythic individuals who have behaved violently or refrained from violence --- ncluding Trotsky, Napoleon, Cortes, Christ, Lincoln, Stalin, Gandhi and "Virginia" of the Animal Liberation Front (a mixture of myth, history and the anecdotal, so alien to today's scholarship, gives Vollmann's text much of its eccentric energy) -- to arrive at a way of categorizing violence.

Each "Defense" works through lengthy examples of the moral dilemmas and convolutions faced by his cast of "moral actors", arriving finally at ethical, if unorthodox, conclusions. These conclusions are collated and extracted for the Moral Calculus volume which consists of a series of axioms or Wittgensteinian thought-experiments. Because history is messy and spills between categories, certain "moral actors" and situations turn up in more than one Volume. Cortes's capture of Montezuma and struggle for Mexico City, to take one thickly described example, turns up in both "Defense of Creed" and "Defense of Ground", in Justifications Volumes Two and Three.

In terms of Defense of Ground, justification can be made for the invading conquistadors. Vollmann's conclusion, enshrined in the Moral Calculus volume is that "defense of ground is justified by imminent self-defense, even during unjust aggression". When Cortes and his men are cornered by Montezuma's forces, they are justified in defending the ground they stand on; where Cortes is at fault is in assuming "that he can move his ground where he lists". Time and again in these volumes, self-sovereignty takes ethical precedence over dominion. "Imminent self-defense" is regularly invoked in different contexts; it is the sturdiest justification for violence, just as "The Golden Rule" (which undergoes significant variations throughout the work) is the most concentrated of the moral calculi: "Do as you would be done by".

In the "Defense of Creed" section, Cortes is shown in a different light, accused of abiding by a perverted moral calculus:

The Zealot's Golden Rule: Do unto others as you are doing for yourself.

Cortes exemplifies this fallacy: I am a Christian, so I'll force everyone to be Christians. "Do unto others" can be justified only when applied to acts which all affected parties agree will contribute to goodness as they define it, or when the dissenting party is a dependent of the moral actor . . . .

(VARIANT A) The Missionary's Golden Rule: Do unto others as you convince yourself they would be done by.

EXAMPLE: Cortes again: "Truth to tell, it is war and warriors that really persuade the Indians to give up their idols . . . and it is thus that of their own free will and consent they more quickly accept the Gospel".

(VARIANT B) The Marxist's Golden Rule: Do unto others as you convince yourself they would be done by, and do to the rest whatever your end requires.

EXAMPLE: The Bolsheviks "give" land to "the people" by forcibly enrolling them in collective farms while expelling and repressing rich peasants.

Denuded of context, the axioms in Volume Seven do scant justice to either the passionate, contentious argumentation, or the powerfully shaped narratives from which they are abstracted. But they help us to discern the ideological underpinnings of the study. Vollmann is a reformist, not a revolutionary, a fervent individualist who is especially suspicious of justifications of violence based on broader ideology, on creed or class, for example, rather than those based on threats to the sovereign self, or "the lonely atom" as that self is sometimes characterized here. He prefers the efficacy of small acts which are less prone to the vertigo of risings up and down: "People have improved conditions in sweatshops, temporarily, and in finite localities, but no one has ever reorganized the means of production with happy results, because it is difficult to know when to declare victory". This reverence for the small act or reform is deconstructed by some of the events recounted in the Studies in Consequences volumes, however, where the small act is often figured as noble but inadequate, quixotic: Vollmann's delivery of medicine to Iraq, under sanctions between Gulf Wars, is described as dropping a sugar cube into the ocean; his rescue of the young Thai prostitute from bondage is, again, a brief tilt against a system of exploitation that remains intact. Prostitution is one of the most controversial motifs in Vollmann's oeuvre. He is well known to be a journalist who does not make his excuses and leave. Curiously, in these pieces it is often the prostitutes, with their awareness of the metred nature of modern life, of the ubiquity of transaction, who demonstrate the systemic understanding of things that Vollmann tends to disavow, or to personalize by asking them for stories or kisses (the girls, all business, refuse). There is a heroic bathos about Vollmann's reformism which finds its formal echo in the voice he brings to his journalism, the very opposite of gonzo cool, not just in its gauche altruism but in its willingness to admit weakness and unworthiness, as when he confesses to feeling childishly hurt that Mica is suspicious and insufficiently grateful for his brave efforts to help her.

These books reveal a Vollmann who is in many ways a typical Second Amendment American, albeit one equally able to cite Guns & Ammo and the Poetic Edda ("From his weapons away no one should ever stir one step on the field; for no one knows when need might have on a sudden a man of his sword"). One of the more dubious moral actors here is the subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, whom Vollmann defends on the grounds of imminent self-defence, while questioning Goetz's excessive zeal when dealing with his screwdriver-wielding assailants. "I'd judge him thus: first four shots justifiable, fifth shot unjustifiable." Vollmann is a dirty-hands moralist, eschewing politically correct camouflage for utter candour. "I myself want to look into the evildoer's eyes, and I want to compel him to gaze into his own eyes, to see his image and to judge it; he owes his victims that." This call for empathy and self-scrutiny is vital for Vollmann, hence he dismisses the idea of confronting violence via social engineering as "the invisible hand (which) most graciously regulates them down the corridors of their rat-maze". Pressured moral calculation in a quickened world is preferred to passive indifference in a becalmed one. At one point, Vollmann refers to the simulation course many American police undergo in which, faced with fleetingly appearing and disappearing benign or dangerous targets, they are confronted with the choice of shooting or not shooting. This is a high velocity version of Vollmann's moral calculus, as example after example springs out at us. To do violence or not to do violence? You decide. These questions are not merely rhetorical: in the Studies in Consequences volumes Vollmann asks everyone, from drug barons to warlords to gangland enforcers, to justify their ethical positions -- and on a surprising number of occasions he elicits revealing responses.

Images of staring into an antagonist's eyes recur throughout the project. This gaze is at the root of both Vollmann's ethics and poetics; in its purest state he describes how a child's pupils widen while it is "straining to identify with what it sees, to bind itself to the world with perception". What Vollmann cannot bear is the idea that reconciliation between self and other might be impossible. He reserves special ignominy in the Justifications volumes for "Defense of Inevitability", and recoils from Bakunin's conclusion that there are circumstances where two worlds can never meet: the workers want equality and the bourgeoisie wants to maintain inequality, therefore violence is inevitable. At the more anecdotal level, there is a painful account of Vollmann chewing qat as the honoured guest in a room full of Muslims in the Yemen exactly a year after 9/11; the gathering united in politeness and ritual, but hopelessly divided by world view.

In another highly charged category, "Defense of Class", Vollmann provides a Tolstoyan vignette, "The Countess and the Clay-Eater". In pre-Revolutionary Russia a wealthy countess sees a wretched child by a roadside reduced to eating clay and gives him two kopeks. Their eyes meet. We are then given detailed, layered accounts of their subsequent lives up to and beyond the Revolution, the boy rising up the Revolutionary ranks, the countess and her family falling on hard times. Here, rather than in the Moral Calculus itself, we get a sense of the thorniness of ethical questions, sometimes even their apparent intractability: "She wasn't obligated to help. That selfsame fact from the standpoint of the boy who had to eat blue clay, justifies revolution". At the climax of this episode, the grown boy -- at the vanguard of shock-workers -- and the countess's husband clash and a now familiar trope re-emerges: "Two pair of eyes gaze upon each other, shining with hatred and resolution . . . . Does the clay-eater feel pity? Do the two kopeks which the countess once put in his hand soften him a little, or inflame him? Who is to blame? There can be but one definition for this confrontation: Tragedy".

But how is the rigidity, the inevitability, of tragedy to be resisted? William T. Vollmann's best answer is the form he has used to describe the tragedy, the way the full complexity of the countess and the clay-eater's positions are rendered by his portraiture and responsible imagining of their historical determinations and ethical stances. Uneasy with class or creed, he instead venerates empathy:

The Empath's Golden Rule: Do unto others, not only as you would be done by, but also as they would be done by. In the case of any variance, do the most generous thing.

Exemplified by the richly extended sympathy of this teeming narrative, this seems admirable; boiled down into the Moral Calculus, it seems a fragile thing to set against the violence he has catalogued so powerfully.

Paul Quinn is a freelance writer and programme maker.



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