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

4.2 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This edition of Vollman's treatise on political violence, 20 or so years in the making and completed before 9/11, abridges the 3,000-plus pages of the McSweeney's edition, an NBCC Award nominee last year. As he notes in a beautifully composed introduction, Vollman assumes political violence to be a human constant and thus addresses his attention to finding out when people use violence for political ends, how they justify it and on what scales they undertake it. Following 100 or so pages of expansive definitions, a nearly 300-page section titled "Justifications" culls an enormous number of texts and commentary, from nearly all recorded eras and locales, with all manner of excuses for killing. These Vollman brilliantly distills into "The Moral Calculus," a set of questions such as "When is violent military retribution justified?"—followed by concrete answers. The book's final quarter offers "Studies in Consequences," featuring Vollman's gonzo reportage from southeast Asia, Europe, "The Muslim World" and North America (represented here primarily by Jamaica). An appendix cites the longer edition's entire table of contents. This book's rigorous, novelistic, imaginative, sonorous prose treats a fundamental topic on a grand (and horrific) scale; there is nothing else in literature quite like it.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --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 (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #331,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"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.
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