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Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means Paperback – October 11, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This massive, unprecedented book, begun in the early '80s and mostly completed by 1998, is nothing less than "a critique of terrorist, defensive, military and police activity," along with an attempt to construct a moral calculus for the human use of violence. Focused on political violence--or force used to realign the ways in which power is distributed among and within groups and states--the book emerges out of several related questions that Vollmann (The Atlas, etc.) answers with historical and ideological analysis, phenomenological and physical description, reportage and quotation: when do people use violence for political ends, how do they justify it and at what scale do they undertake it given differing situations and ideas about them? Although Vollmann does not deal with the events of September 11 or their aftermath, the book could not be more timely, and, within certain limits, it is almost as successful as it is ambitious. The title refers to the rise and fall of states, empires, and militarized factions and groups. A "part-time journalist of armed politics," Vollmann is neither morbid ("I am not titillated by death") nor sentimental about means and ends. Yet he is also not quite a philosopher, historian (despite his Seven Dreams series of historical novels) or social scientist. The discussions of history and historical figures, which make up a great deal of the project, have a hard time competing with the contemporary interviews and photographs which are almost always gripping and immediate. As fans of his books on San Francisco skinheads, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and global prostitution will recognize, he is at his best when recording impressions of specific, unfamiliar situations and detailing the associations they trigger. His interviews (here including Taliban interior minister Abdul Razzak) are rendered with a dispassion that often matches that of The Executioner's Song. In his quest for the complete set of human motivations for violence, Vollmann travels to an astonishing range of places and sifts a monumental number of texts. The work begins in the Paris catacombs, lined with human remains ("my o's like death's heads, my i's and l's like ribs, my b's q's, p's and d's like ball-ended humeri broken in half"), and ends with an intense reportorial treatment of discrimination against the Buraku people in Japan--with the final volume "extracting" an actual moral calculus from the preceding six. In between, Vollmann tallies places, figures, organizations and writings including Aquinas; an Afghani woman named Anjillah; the Amazon Antiope; an Aryan Nations pamphlet; the group known as Black Organizing Power; the 19th-century U.S. Bureau of Land Management; Cicero; Columbine; the Democratic Republic of Congo; Gandhi; "General X" of the Khmer Rouge; Idrimi, king of the ancient Mideastern city of Alalakh; Lenin; Leonidas, king of Sparta; the northern magnetic pole; Montezuma; Robespierre; Saddam City; Zagreb--and many, many other figures and locales. In its length, this project equals Winston Churchill's somewhat similarly themed History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Conceptually, a better comparison is Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, though the present book is about three times as long, and violence has almost certainly directly killed many more people than melancholia. The photos work similarly to those in James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Proust's treatment of memory in In Search of Lost Time also makes sense as a comparison, but the people and places number far fewer there. Some will object that Vollmann's analyses and syntheses are not sufficiently systematic, but what keeps this book from full-on greatness is that it does not create a style or sensibility that is shocking in and of itself, and that finally holds its unwieldly contents together. Rather, at its best, its rigorous, novelistic, imaginative, sonorous prose treats a fundamental topic on a grand (and horrific) scale. And that is enough, since the book is designed to get ordinary people thinking about the role violence, even at a distance, plays in their lives, and what part even bystanders play in the world's calculus. Given the price of this slipcased edition, however, many will have to reserve it at the library.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Vollmann's magnum opus, an extended inquiry into our motivations for and justification of violence, originally took the form of a seven-volume set. Compared with Linnaeus for its taxonomy and Gibbons and Churchill for its historical sweep, depth of analysis, and literary excellence, it is a massive and daunting work, however revelatory. So Vollmann, an intrepid journalist, daring novelist, and all-out writer of conscience and imagination, abridged his epic study into a single volume without losing its essence or power. Why, he asks, has violence always been a part of human affairs? What forms of moral calculus have we used to sanctify and excuse it? As he scrutinizes everything from self-defense to suicide, slavery, torture, genocide, and war, Vollmann turns to an array of thinkers for guidance, including Plato, Robespierre, Lenin, Hitler, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. But he also seeks the wisdom of the living, conducting nervy interviews in the world's hot spots. As rich in feeling as in history and analysis, Vollmann's masterful synthesis illuminates the most tragic realities of the human condition. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (October 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060548193
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060548193
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #271,251 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

89 of 94 people found the following review helpful By Mark Mauer on January 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Something that I haven't seen in any of the reviews of Vollmann's book is this: "Am I going to want to read it?" After all, if you're spendng $120 or so on the thing, and you're interested in more that just looking at it on your bookshelf, it should be considered. Sure, Vollmann has written an important book by all accounts, but that doesn't mean I'm going to read it. Or even a quarter of it.
Well, good news: Rising Up Rising Down is very readable; moreso I think that his recent novel Argall, on which I remain stuck on around page 350. The book does get heavy of course in its theories and efforts to explore the connections it needs to make. But the chapters themselves are usually very short, and few examples in it last so long that you lose interest. A few more pages and he'll be talking about something else in a different country and different time. I raced through the first volume, and half of the second. At that point I got sidetracked with some other things, but I can't wait to get back into it.
In many cases you actually get nice short versions of difficult to understand historical events. For example, one hundred pages on what happened in the early Soviet Union when farms were turned into state owned collectives and the famine that resulted is actually much easir to read than a 500 page book on the topic, Frankly that's enough for me, and if I want to know more about it beyond that, Vollmann gives me a list of plenty of other books to check out on the topic as well.
I'll leave it to others to go into the strengths and shortcomings of this book. What I wanted to do here is just encourage people who are on the fence about buying this thing to not be discouraged by its length or topic or bewildering talk of Vollmann's "moral calculus." It is in fact a very interesting read, and the fact that you learn a lot at the same time hasn't hurt me a bit.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Review Guy on September 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The philosophy of war has always been unsatisfying. Abstract "moral calculus" -Vollman's label for the ethical analysis of violence - is clearly necessary, but the biological realities of violence always seem to render the sterile rationality of philosophers irrelevant. Determining when violence is and is not morally justified is such a difficult task that it is tempting to just dispose of the question, taking refuge in absolutist positions like pacifism or Kissingerian realism. As a result, worthwhile contributions to the practical ethics of war are few and far between.

This is the best attempt to reason through the moral problems of violence since Michael Walzer's "Just and Unjust Wars" and it improves on that flawed work in every way. Vollman's analysis is not limited to nation-states, he distinguishes between just and unjust regimes, he does not assume that there must be a binary moral value to every act of violence, and he knows when to conclude that a moral problem is insoluable.

Vollman passes judgment confidently when it is called for, but he has a healthy respect the lesser of two evils, the exigencies of war, and the pressures of decisionmaking in violent situations. He makes objective moral judgments, but they are clearly informed by his own subjective encounters with violence and death.

That said, this book has a lot of problems. First off, Vollman is clearly a thrill-seeker. When he talks about packing a handgun in Golden Gate Park or smoking crack cocaine, he reveals a very unusual attitude toward death. We should be suspicious of the moral handwringing of anyone who has deliberately seeks out violence.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Common Reader on May 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I have to admit that I felt daunted by the seven volumes of this book and bought the abridged edition. It is astounding! What I found most valuable is not the specific rules Vollmann lays out for deciding whether violence is justified or not, but the detailed and thoughtful examinations of specific historical events and people: the American Civil War, the Holocaust, the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia; Napoleon, Stalin, Gandhi, and, most importantly, ordinary people who were victims or perpetrators of violence. Vollmann's writing is precise and eloquent and carries you so seamlessly from one page to the next that you don't realize until it's too late that you've reached the end of this 700-page volume. (And then you feel compelled to get your hands on the unabridged edition.) This is an immensely useful and revelatory book.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Average Homeboy on December 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
My experience reading RU&RD was more conventional; I read the volumes straight through. I have 2 hours of commuting on the subway each day so I get a lot of reading done. I started in May and finished volume seven in August with one month off while I was on vacation. I never found it tedious or repetitive. If one topic did not particularly excite me he would be on to another in 5 or 10 pages.

The binding and slipcase is gorgeous. When my copy first arrived the slipcase had been damaged, but McSweeney's shipped me a new case free of charge- and I didn't even buy it from them.

The only thing I can add which has not been covered by other reviewers is the photography. Vollman includes a couple dozen photos in each volume- i believe all of which he shot himself. They include shots of a friend of his who had just been killed by a sniper, a woman in columbia pointing to a bloodstain where her daughter was slain, child soldiers in Burma. I found the photos helped reinforced the reality of the exotic and often novelistically rendered personal experiences he offers in the second half of the book. I really enjoyed them.

The other thing I find amazing is that Vollman is working on another seven volume book about the 'symbolic history of north america.' I would have thought this would be considered a lifes work.
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