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A Biography of Violence
on May 29, 2013
"Rising Up and Rising Down" is a colossally ambitious study of violence in many of its different manifestations. William Vollmann, author and violence connoisseur, takes the reader across the globe and history to study, digest, and dissect death and violence in many of its iterations and forms. This was one of those books that while you're reading it, you keep bringing it up to people around you. It's so strange, so bizarre, with such lofty expectations. And yet, for all it's ambition, "Rising Up and Rising Down" is quite flawed and the book continually gets in its own way.
The first thing you need to know is that William Vollmann is a talker. You probably already know this, since this 733 page book is chopped down from the original 3,300 (!) page original. The subtitle of this book is "Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means." Saying this is "some thoughts" on violence is like saying the USA dropped "some" napalm on Vietnam. Vollmann looks in-depth at a number of historical figures including Trotsky, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Hernan Cortes as he grapples with who was right and who was wrong - and then summarizes their behavior in a concise maxim. However, the conclusions Vollmann draws usually takes up one sentence in a 55 page chapter.
Secondly, a lot of the book is Vollmann looking at historical case studies and examining the choices of the participants and their rationale. I found this to be the most interesting part of the book, but I am a fan of history. I could see some readers feeling like they are back in a first semester college World Cultures course, but like I said, I enjoyed it. However, I do wish Vollmann discussed a few more historical cases, with each one getting less depth, but showing similarities in justifications across the board.
Unfortunately, the book careens off into a series of travel journalism which, I'm afraid, doesn't even have that much to do with violence. Tangentially it does, sure, but mostly why different cultural groups dislike each other. The essays involve Vollmann's trips to different dangerous area and talking to different people in the area. The extended trip to Jamaica, for example, explores the murderous rivalry between gangs in a Kingston neighborhood. The only thing that this section teaches us is that no one knows why the gang war started, that everybody thinks it was the other guys that are the bad guys, that most Jamaicans are fatalistically good natured, and that you really want the book to be done at this point. Really thought he would be spending more time talking to murderers. Only some parts on the section of the Yugoslavian Civil War are worth the read, and even in that section Vollmann seemed to be frustratingly literary.
I also have no idea how he chose the journalism sections that he did. For instance the Africa section is taken out of the abridged version completely and Southeast Asia is covered by one confusing section on a (kind of boring) provincial rebellion. This is even though it seems like Vollmann has spent a lot of time there and he once kidnapped a child prostitute from her pimp and put her up in a boarding school, which pretty much seems like the coolest thing ever. Vollmann also didn't include what appears to be an extended trip to Cambodia's killing fields, which is unfortunate since it dealt with the type of pre-mediated violence with flawed justifications on a huge scale that he discusses in the historical case study. It would have been infinitely more interesting than Vollman riding around Mogadishu with some Marines where nothing happens, or any other journalism section for that matter (Note: Vollman has included a table of contents of the unabridged version, and repeatedly mentions his travels to Cambodia throughout the book. He irritatingly name drops all of the dangerous places he has mentioned).
I fear, as I often do, that I will come off harshly, like a frustrated step-dad who can't connect except through shouts and yells. Vollmann's book is interesting. His goal, as stated in the introduction, was to be helpful. Which it could have been - but unfortunately the profound discoveries are as covered up in prose as an unlucky Swiss skiing village snowed under by an avalanche. If you are looking for a whole mess of discussion on violence, a cornucopia of reflection on killing, then pick this book up. You won't find a more eager guide to parse through the bloodshed. Imagine it like getting lost in the woods for a week. You won't know where you are going and the wilderness might seem endless, but you might see something pretty cool along the way. Or picture a graduate level "Historical Philosophy of Violence" class at Harvard where every student has been given amphetamines before class started.
Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr once said "...detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife." Unfortunately I will say that in the presence of an uplifted knife, William Vollmann will not be in my head. I'd probably be stabbed before I reached Vollman's first maxim.