Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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.