Saturday, August 23, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" (abridged): Book Review

These 730 pages compile but one-fourth of seven volumes in 2003 published by McSweeney's as "some thoughts on violence, freedom and urgent means" about the justifications for violence and inflicting death on others, usually human, but also upon other sentient beings. William T. Vollmann admits in a brief introduction to this 2004 Ecco abridgement that it "falls short of being short enough" considering the "simple if laborious inductive method employed" to ask "when is violent defense of X justified?" (xii-xiii) Speaking of justification, he claims right away: "I did it for the money." He figures "the possibility now exists that someone might read it." Such off-handed if frank statements typify Vollmann's conversational style. For me, this shows his strength, and his appeal.

Many criticize this erudite, garrulous, probing, restless style, and Vollmann's refusal to submit to editing. Once in a while, as with his promising explication of the "cash nexus" (cf. 203), I found myself frustrated as Vollmann tried to cram in too much in too little space (despite these dimensions) as when he conflated this (on page 274) with a denunciation of "dekulakization" and collectivization.

Sometimes, he favors aphorisms. "An authority is by nature noxious, a windbag, a parasite, a professional vulture." (34) This recalls Swift, Bierce, Orwell, or Twain. Or, "only a saint can practice nonviolence in isolation; the rest of us have to do it in gangs." (61) He asks profound questions of the social contract, which may elude glib solutions: "law and government of any kind--even if the dispossessed are self-professedly conspiring to overthrow it--implies consent!" (98) He muses whether selfishness persists as our "quotidian quality" rather than a utopian "tidal pool" isolated from both land and sea as its viable locale, protected as it were, where self-sacrifice may flourish. (274)

Emerging as "that transitional life-form, a highwayman with an ideology," Pancho Villa rises up. "Having crawled out of the primeval sea of manifest self-interest, he could now evolve successively into each of the following creatures: guerrilla, leader, general, statesman, underdog, martyr." (357-8) Vollmann avers: "No matter that self-interest nourished these incarnations, too; authority needs to act a rarified part in order to legitimize itself." If this intrigues you, this book rewards your and his labor.

The author often defends his writing as precisely the length he wishes it to be, and given few can now access copies of the original series (3,500 sets were printed, but no reprints seem probable), the extended attention "to categorize excuses for violence" in this condensed form merits and rewards concentration. Befitting his attempt to verify his belief how "every violent act refers back to some more or less rational explanation," this serious topic merits the depth Vollmann provides. Still, it may exhaust the patience his less fervent readers may bring to even a shorter, if as demanding, study. (xi)

Vollmann's audience, familiar with his massive fiction and non-fiction, and his blurring of these two genres in so many books before and after this, might not be so surprised; this took twenty-three years "counting editorial errands," he avers coyly, while the "abridgement took me half an hour." (xii) Part i elaborates categories and justifications, as exemplified by Trotsky and Lincoln, and John Brown in their actions, as challenged by Cortes, and as enriched by Napoleon's appeal to honor, authority, and self-defense. Some of this suffers from allusions to material that a reader may not have found earlier; this may be inevitable if most of the germane content has been excised, leaving us with nearly no editorial guidance about what has been lost. As partial compensation, Vollmann inserts the moral calculus from the original series. Part II surveys global case studies, some adapting his journalism, some introducing in-depth interviews with victims, participants, and perpetrators. It ends with the annotated table of contents for reference from the full edition. Despite tempting glimpses this précis embeds from its predecessor, it adds value in (relative) concision for a wider audience of inquirers.

This reminds me, in its verve and its embrace of a big idea, of a book that inspired Occupy nearly a decade later, anarchist anthropologist David Graeber's "Debt: the First 5000 Years." Vollmann shares, with a few principled dissidents before and after, a willingness to delve into academic sources and political categories without resorting to tenure-track cant or think-tank jargon. What such contributions may lack in fealty to scholarly convention, they make up in a mass appeal to the restless and frustrated, wanting bolder interpreters able to leap over categories. "Rising Up and Rising Down" provides a convenient compendium for Vollmann's time-tested themes of state-sponsored and insurgent brutality, his roaming into remote terrain to uncover those who perpetrate such activity, his compassion for those victimized by policies and bullets, and his determination to listen to witnesses. (3-8-14 to Amazon US)

No comments: