January 2005

Sarah Statz


Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means by William T. Vollmann

Is violence ever justified?

It’s a short and deceptively easy question. In his attempt to answer it, William T. Vollmann has written a long and deceptively difficult book. The book in question, Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means originally appeared in 2003 as a 3,352-page, seven-volume set from McSweeney’s Books. The author more recently abridged that set into a 752-page brick of a book about which Publisher’s Weekly had to admit, “there is nothing else in literature quite like it.”

The book opens with “Three Meditations in Death,” in which the reader follows Vollmann into the catacombs of Paris, a morgue, and the killing fields of Cambodia. These beautifully written (if disturbingly tactile; Vollmann’s favorite descriptive phrase is “that vinegar-vomit smell”) descriptions are followed by his introduction to the work, a section of his categories of violence and their justifications, his self-described “moral calculus” (more on this later), and a few of the geographically disparate case studies that originally appeared in the seven-volume McSweeney’s edition.

The moral calculus, which appears in the middle of the text, is a 50-page outline of rules that the author offers as possible justifications for any particular violent act. Is the suicide bomber justified in his action if he is acting in defense of homeland? Is the owner of a handgun who shoots to kill justified in his defense of self? And so on and so forth. Vollmann does recognize that “we shouldn’t expect that this or any moral calculus will of itself permit every rational user to arrive at the same judgment of a given case,” and in the end, the major failing of the book is that it feels more like a late-night conversation among college friends of a philosophical bent than it does a treatise on the history and justifications for violence in all of its brutal forms. I can’t say in all honesty that I even read -- or understood, let’s face it -- every line of the moral calculus, although some part of me did have a desire to see it all spread out in one place, perhaps on a giant piece of paper, so that I could appreciate it in its entirety.

It’s hard to pick on a book that was twenty years in the making, and tries so hard to offer answers to the questions of why people commit violent acts (a short section of photographs in which people are shown with their weapons is introduced with the thought “Everyone deplores violence. So why do so many of these people seem so happy?”). Vollmann’s introduction is compellingly written, the historical examples of the moral calculi of past leaders and philosophers (Gandhi, Stalin, Plato, Caesar, Cicero, for just a few examples) objectively explained, the moral calculus well-organized, and the case studies interesting. The reader should not, however, expect a comprehensive history of violence, or a cohesive narrative of violent events and their justifications, but rather the thoughts of a writer trying to be logical about what seems to be our overwhelming desire and capacity to achieve our ends through violent means.

The book includes an annotated table of contents to the full seven-volume edition, but does not have an index, which is inexcusable in a book that cites so many diverse and important philosophical and historical concepts, and which, at more than 700 densely written pages, is not a book that you can breeze through in a week's time, never to revisit.

Is violence ever justified? Even if you disagree with his answers, William Vollmann has at least produced a work that starts to give the question the time and the consideration it deserves.

Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means by William T. Vollmann
ISBN: 0060548185
752 pages