The Aesthetic of Excess

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.

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.”



In almost every way that matters, McSweeney’s and Rising Up and Rising Down represent the perfect match of publisher and work. Each stands willfully adjacent to the mainstream; each aspires to push the limits of what literature can do. Eggers, in fact, has labeled Rising Up and Rising Down the quintessential McSweeney’s project, both because of what it offers and the logistics of bringing it out. “McSweeney’s,” he explains, “like a lot of small publishers, can take on seemingly unpublishable projects because we have little overhead and we’re used to losing money. We also have a lot of volunteer help.” Relying almost entirely on interns, Eggers and Eli Horowitz took a guerrilla approach to the manuscript, farming out hundred-page chunks to researchers who descended on Bay Area libraries to check Vollmann’s voluminous citations, often hiding sources in the stacks so they could find them on succeeding days. Meanwhile, Horowitz dismantled each of Rising Up and Rising Down’s more than 70 chapters to insure that Vollmann’s logic held. Occasionally, the hydra-headed nature of the process led to problems, with pictures getting lost or blocks of text misplaced. “It was a stretch for all parties concerned,” Vollmann says wryly, “including me. Dave’s system — which is to have teams of unpaid kids — meant that all kinds of things were not done until the last minute because there are so many tentacles that you can’t keep track.” Ultimately, however, such a system was essential, as was Vollmann’s willingness to forgo his advance in favor of profit sharing on the back end. As Eggers notes, “I think it’s a book many publishers wanted to publish, and a lot of people recognize how important it and Vollmann is, but I think with the math larger companies have to adhere to, they’d have to charge about $450 for the set of books, as opposed to the $120 we were able to charge for it. That’s the big difference — our low overhead and the ability to be more flexible with the business plan . . . [B]ecause we don’t really have to factor in profits for shareholders, et cetera, we can experiment a little more.”

Eggers is talking about a new publishing model, a strategy for doing business that is flexible, fluid, unbound by the modalities of the past. On a different level, that’s what Vollmann is up to also, taking a subject like violence and getting us to look at it anew. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Rising Up and Rising Down is its staunchly anti-ideological ethic, the way Vollmann asks us to deconstruct our deepest preconceptions and what they mean. His discussion of Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, although largely admiring, concludes that the Indian leader was naive for his unyielding adherence to nonviolence in every circumstance, whereas his account of New York subway gunman Bernhard Goetz — who in 1984 shot four black teenagers he claimed had threatened him with sharpened screwdrivers — invokes The Babylonian Talmud (“If a man has come to kill you, anticipate him by killing him!”) to support Goetz’s right to defend himself. For Vollmann, the ultimate moral compass point is self-preservation; as he says, with only a trace of humor, “Nobody would blame a Nazi war criminal for trying to save his own skin.” In the most extreme situations, this extends even to suicide, which at times “offers the only way to freedom,” the ultimate act of self-defense. To illustrate the concept, Vollmann cites a number of examples, from the mass suicide of Jewish defenders at Masada to those of officials in “atom-bombed, surrendered Japan,” who chose “to die responsibly, as it were, at their posts.” What’s remarkable about these arguments is the extent to which they eschew emotion — which, Vollmann believes, only encourages unexamined doctrines and beliefs. Even his language is rigorously analytical: “Based on my presuppositions about the rights of the self,” he writes, “my moral calculus advocates that suicide is permissible whenever uncoerced.”

No matter where you stand on the ideological spectrum, it can be unsettling to see Bernhard Goetz juxtaposed with a figure like Gandhi, or, for that matter, suicide reconfigured as a form of self-defense. Such concepts are troublesome, uncomfortable and raise a lot of questions, constantly forcing us to reassess our engagement with the book. This, however, is part of the purpose, especially if you disagree with Vollmann (as I do in regard to Goetz): to challenge our assumptions, to make us reconsider what we think we know. Such a stance has long marked Vollmann as a writer; his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, written in his early 20s, is a 630-page allegory about a war between insects and humankind for world domination. In less than a decade following its 1987 publication, he cranked out nine additional books, of which none are as imposing as Seven Dreams, a projected cycle of seven novels — to this point, only The Ice-Shirt, Fathers and Crows, The Rifles and Argall have been published — that evoke a “Symbolic History” of North America, built around the corruption of traditional lifestyles by European explorers, beginning with the Norsemen who visited Greenland a thousand years ago. In recent years, Vollmann has slowed somewhat; including Rising Up and Rising Down, he’s only published three new works since 1996, although the shortest is 746 pages long. Still, a common criticism is that he’d be a better writer (read: more measured) if he published less, a true enough statement, but one that is entirely beside the point.


Vollmann, after all, has never been a measured writer; rather, his is an aesthetic of excess, if anything. He aspires to a kind of unified field theory of human existence in which history and fiction merge with memory, myth and reportage. Yes, his books sprawl, unapologetically, but they’re also breathtakingly risky, full of ideas and images no one else would dare address. For a certain kind of reader, this is his appeal, the sheer audaciousness of his imagination, his erudition, the connections that he brings to bear. It’s not just his writing, but the experiences that inform it. To research The Rifles — which describes, in part, the unsuccessful attempt by British explorer Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage — Vollmann spent two weeks alone at an abandoned weather station in the Arctic Circle, where he almost froze to death. In 1994, he nearly died outside Sarajevo, when a sniper shot up the car in which he was riding, killing his two traveling companions. To be fair, there’s an edge of provocation to many of his endeavors: his propensity to pal around with prostitutes and crackheads, for one thing, which has inspired much of his fiction, from The Rainbow Stories to Whores for Gloria to The Royal Family. But if this suggests an uncomfortable air of voyeurism — “in his clumsier moments,” Lily Burana once wrote, “his fascination with prostitutes and miscellaneous thuggy types seems repellent, the obtuse ramblings of a tragedy tourist” — more often, he brings a ruthlessly uninflected eye to the proceedings, evoking his subjects’ humanity and degradation all at once. “People would be better off,” Vollmann has said, “if they realized that their own particular world is not privileged. Everyone’s world is no more and no less important than anyone else’s. To have as many worlds as possible that are invested with interest or meaning is a way of making that point. I’ve gradually begun to see that I can use even my footnotes and glossaries and other sorts of materials to create some of this sense.”


Even by Vollmann’s own expansive standards, Rising Up and Rising Down is something of a great leap forward — or, more accurately, an extension, a connective fiber, a lens that refracts new light on his career. On the most basic level, that’s because the idea for it predates everything else Vollmann has written; he first began to feel around the edges of the project more than 20 years ago while still an undergraduate at Cornell. “When I was in college,” he explains, “I was interested in the anti-nuclear movement. There were extremely dire predictions about nuclear power and its effects, and I was haunted by the specter of environmental disaster.” In 1980, he took part in a protest at a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, an experience that changed his whole idea of engagement, if only for what he came to see as the futility of the act. “It was grandiose,” Vollmann recalls, “ridiculous. We tried to blockade the plant, but we ran up against the organized violence of the state of New Hampshire in the form of the National Guard. So the protest failed, but I began to think: If things were really this dire, could violence be justified? How would it be measured? If the plant could kill a hundred thousand people, was it okay to kill 90,000 to stop it? Was there some kind of proportion one might apply?”


This concept of proportion is essential to Rising Up and Rising Down, the bedrock on which the work is built. For Vollmann, however, the idea developed slowly, rising up and rising down itself. After Seabrook, he decided to write an environmental manifesto. “At the time,” he says, “my position was more extreme than Earth First! I believed that, in defense of Earth, it was acceptable to take human life.” Then came a trip to Afghanistan, where Vollmann traveled in the wake of the Soviet invasion, an experience recounted in An Afghanistan Picture Show. Much has been made of the similarities between An Afghanistan Picture Show and Rising Up and Rising Down; they are Vollmann’s only overt works of nonfiction, and both deal with extremes of human experience, what happens when people get pushed to the edge. But actually, they’re less of a piece with each other than representative of Vollmann’s entire oeuvre. There’s little doubt, after all, that his environmental activism led to the apocalyptic fantasia of You Bright and Risen Angels; indeed, from the Jesuits of Fathers and Crows, whose faith is steeped in blood and torture, to the 55 stories of The Atlas, a 1996 collection that covers similar territory to Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann has always relied on the stuff of history for the substance of his fiction, to the point where it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two. As such, it’s no real stretch for him to write, as he does here, about Clausewitz, Joan of Arc, or Montezuma, let alone John Brown, who, Vollmann argues, “deserved to hang” for orchestrating the unprovoked murders of five Kansans at Pottawatomie Creek — pro-slavery though they were. Brown, in fact, is nothing if not a prototypical Vollmann character: a visionary, obsessed, touched by destiny, spiraling along the moral edge. Recast him a little, and he could be a figure out of Seven Dreams.


If all this sounds a bit dense, a bit difficult, perhaps that’s unavoidable — this is a work of theory, after all. And yet, as Eli Horowitz points out, “The book is way more beautiful than it has any cause to be.” As for why that is, it has everything to do with Vollmann’s personality, his iconoclasm, his refusal to fit the categories of conventional culture on any terms other than his own. Although he’s fiercely libertarian, critics on the left are wary of him, if only for his fascination with prostitutes and guns. Readers on the right, by contrast, distrust his excesses, his interest in the darker corners of experience, his willingness to conflate what they see as irreconcilable influences, from Thomas Aquinas to the Marquis de Sade.

In Vollmann’s view, though, if we are to have any hope of understanding our circumstances, we must engage them as dispassionately as possible, with neither sentiment nor cant. That’s not to say such understanding can save us; as Vollmann has argued, “Younger people like to hope that maybe somehow they can change the world — and not just change it in the sense of moving it from one random state to another (which is what is always going to happen), but somehow to make the world better. But at a certain point you see more clearly that the world is obviously no better now than it ever was.” Still, if the world can’t be changed, it can be reckoned with, which is what Rising Up and Rising Down aspires to do.

RISING UP AND RISING DOWN | By WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN | McSweeney’s | 3,298 pages | $120, seven volumes, boxed, clothbound


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