The Aesthetic of Excess 

William T. Vollmann on his 3,000-page tome and the vocabulary of violence

Thursday, Mar 18 2004
Photo by Noel Neuburger

LET ME BEGIN WITH A CONFESSION: I haven’t read all of Rising Up and Rising Down, William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume, 3,000-plus-page moral exegesis of violence. I’ve read deeply but not completely; I have flitted across its theoretical defenses, its case studies, its categories of ethical proportion, like a mosquito over a vast sea of words. This, of course, is probably as it should be; when I mention it to Vollmann over the phone, he laughs and tells me so. “Inevitably,” he admits from his home in Sacramento, “parts of Rising Up and Rising Down are not exciting to read. The Moral Calculus, for instance, always reminds me of reading a phone book.” (The Moral Calculus is the project’s linchpin, a volume that frames a kind of mathematical formula for when violence is merited and when it’s not.) “But it’s necessary to the purpose of the work.” Such a purpose, Vollmann adds, is to establish not just a theory, but a practical ethos of violence, one that eschews dogma in favor of a more nuanced sense of wrong and right. It’s a tricky concept, and the closest Vollmann comes to an explanation is to say that if the work has any value, both George Bush and Osama bin Laden might read it and reconsider their motivations, their justifications, their embrace of violence as an absolute.

The idea of Bush and bin Laden seeing eye-to-eye on anything, let alone a piece of writing, may seem like the most extreme implausibility, as inconceivable as either man rethinking his political positions where he stands. But then, the same could be said of Rising Up and Rising Down, which, in many ways, aspires to the unattainable — to establish a sine qua non of violence, a definitive study of a subject far too volatile to be definitively pinned down. Published by McSweeney’s, in a slipcased box set costing $120, the work projects its own authority even as it ponders what, exactly, that authority is. The first four volumes, subtitled Categories and Justifications, spell out an intellectual history of violence and a series of arguments for its defense. The next two, Studies in Consequences, feature an array of “case studies” drawn from Vollmann’s war reporting for magazines like The New Yorker and Spin. Last, there is The Moral Calculus, which seeks perspective by offering some diagnostic tools. When, Vollmann wants us to ask ourselves, is violence justified? And to what extent? That such questions are essentially unanswerable is among the pleasures of the project, the sense of participating in an open-ended debate. “I believe,” Vollmann says, “that it is possible to break acts of violence into a finite number of excuses, and to frame some kind of absolute moral calculus about half the time. But inevitably, some of these excuses come into conflict, which is where the argument can get complicated.”

As to how to reconcile this, it’s a task made more formidable by Vollmann’s labyrinthine approach. “I knew the number of pages,” recalls Eli Horowitz, managing editor at McSweeney’s, who worked with Vollmann on the manuscript. “But no one knew how many angles Bill was getting into, all the ways it was organized. Three thousand pages seems overwhelming enough, but then you have to account for all the charts, maps, diagrams, photos, the case studies, The Moral Calculus. Each aspect became a challenge of its own.” What Horowitz is saying is that Rising Up and Rising Down is impossibly ambitious, perhaps the most ambitious work by an American author since . . . well, try as I might to think of one, no comparable book comes to mind.

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Ambition, to be sure, has always been a Vollmann hallmark; you might say it’s his stock-in-trade. Yet for all its scope, its far-reaching sense of intention, Rising Up and Rising Down almost didn’t make it into print. Although Vollmann finished the project in the late 1990s (“By then,” he says, “it was long enough. I’d gotten to most categories of violence and had experiences that were really unpleasant, that gave me nightmares and made me sad”), no major house would take it on. First, he brought the manuscript to Viking, where much of his fiction has been published, but given its length, and the issue of commercial viability, the editorial board declined. (Full disclosure: Vollmann and I have the same editor at Viking.) Then he approached several academic presses, all of whom eventually passed. For a while, there was talk of an abridgment, but Vollmann rejected such an option, signing with agent Susan Golomb on the condition that she sell the work, which he’d begun to call “my ball and chain,” in its entirety. (Now that the complete project is available, Ecco Press will release a single-volume version in the fall.) Briefly, New York’s Context Books agreed to publish, a deal that collapsed in 2001, leaving Rising Up and Rising Down in limbo — until McSweeney’s got involved. “It started,” McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers says by e-mail, “when I read an excerpt in Grand Street maybe five years ago. So I wrote Vollmann a letter, offering to run any other portions of the book he might want to publish. He gave McSweeney’s The Old Man, and I started asking if he had a publisher for the whole work. He did at the time, but later on, at a reading in Berkeley, he said that had fallen through. So we worked out a plan to publish the book.”

  • William T. Vollmann on his 3,000-page tome and the vocabulary of violence

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