Death Sentences

William T. Vollmann. Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. Ecco. 2004. Abridged version.

You already know a lot about William T. Vollmann if you know that the abridgment of his seven-volume book about when to kill people is still 733 pages long. He missed a couple of spots. It is not enough that Death farted; instead, “Death joked and drank and vulgarly farted.” It is not enough that guns have a use; instead, we read about “what Plato would call their ‘virtue’—their function, their raison d’être, the thing they do best.” A man “died and fell forward, his face swelling and purpling with lividity.” Yes, but what color was his prose?

My argument so far is the less than original one (most often disputed on religious or legalistic grounds—disputed, in short, according to stone-carved moral codes) that it is the right of the self to defend itself, or not defend itself, or even end itself, as it sees fit; that the self is, in short, the basic indissoluble element of autonomy; that whoever attacks another unprovoked imperils those rights, and, therefore, in the course of being repelled, may forfeit them on his own account, should circumstances require it.—“Good thing this won’t be read by social insects,” responds one reader. “Even so, it’s possible to think, ‘How American!’ or whatever.”

“In short” twice in the same sentence? That’s funny. It is difficult to regard with solemnity the “moral calculus” of a writer who cannot subtract.

Thank you for reading this book. My sincere intention in writing it was to be helpful. . . . I offer it to you, my unknown reader, in the hope that it may someday save a life or comfort a seeking mind. . . . I am proud of it, and I hope that it can benefit someone.

Never trust a man who insists that he is sincere. How does Vollmann intend to be helpful, to save a life, to benefit someone? “My own aim in beginning this book,” he writes, “was to create a simple and practical moral calculus which would make it clear when it was acceptable to kill, how many could be killed, and so forth.”

As it happens, I don’t need a murder-evaluation protocol at the moment, but I’m willing to listen. Can Vollmann tell me a little about how it works?

Should you find fault with the calculus, as you ought to (I do my best to find fault with everybody else’s; and my chapter on defense of animals remains especially unsatisfactory), I respectfully ask you not to leave a vacuum, but to construct your own. The translator of two old collections of Zen koans has noted that there is no “correct” answer to a koan, and, indeed, one student’s right answer may be wrong if uttered by another. Which does one put first, defense of gender, which might repudiate female circumcision, or defense of culture, which might demand it? . . . My moral calculus cannot tell you that. However, what it can do is to remind you that if you consider only one of those two categories of defense, your judgment will remain superficial, unfair, and therefore unrealistic. Can defense of gender meet defense of culture somewhere? I hope and believe so, provided that both sides respect each other by applying some approximation of the Golden Rule.

Behold: a simple, practical toolbox that does not open. What can the moral calculus tell us about, say, cutting off little girls’ private parts? Perhaps the defense of gender can meet the defense of culture somewhere—at least we may hope and believe so—provided both sides respect each other by applying some approximation of the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule!

Help us, Vollmann. Save our lives. Comfort our seeking minds.

How to Form a Moral Code.
1. Follow your own inner logic and feeling in order to postulate laws of conduct which seem to you good;
2. Follow those laws if they correspond to local norms, and reconsider them if they violate those norms; but
3. Above all, choose the right regardless of local authority or custom, and then act accordingly . . .
4. Follow the Golden Rule where possible. And give it the most generous interpretation.

Go to your room and think about it first, and then Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Much depends on the meanings of “inner logic,” “feeling,” “good,” “generous,” and “the right.”

Having an opinion is not murder. Frankness is not murder. Decision is not murder. Arriving at a conclusion is not murder. Definition is not murder. Even dogmatism is not murder. Murder is murder. That’s a tautology, but at least it isn’t a preening metaphor.

Now it’s time for another exciting episode of Press Release.

Announcer. The acclaimed novelist William T. Vollmann was born in Los Angeles in 1959. He attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University, from which he graduated summa cum laude in comparative literature. He is part of the generation of David Foster Wallace (b. 1962) and Jonathan Franzen (b. 1959), and is an heir to the encyclopedic big-book tradition of Pynchon and Gaddis. Like his predecessors and contemporaries, Vollmann is self-consciously erudite—

Willis. Change the channel.

Hayden. Shut up. I’m trying to get educated in here.

Announcer. —but unlike his contemporaries, Vollmann has left the house. In 1982, he went to see the war in Afghanistan, which informed An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World, a book “dedicated to all who try to help others, whether they succeed or fail.” That trip was the beginning of novelist Vollmann’s parallel career as a scholar of war zones. “Part II: Studies in Consequences” in Rising Up and Rising Down ranges over Malaysia, ex-Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Jamaica; the unabridged version also visits Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Madagascar, Iraq, Yemen, Colombia, and so on. Vollmann has sought out civil wars, poverty, and women held in sexual slavery, though he is not any kind of “realist” writer, instead applying the methods of Wallace and Pynchon to description of calamities across the world, many of which he has witnessed.

Willis. Don’t make me take the clicker away from you.

Hayden. That would be horrible. [Sticks remote down the front of his pants.]

Willis. Come on. Let’s watch Appearance Versus Reality.

Tonight on Appearance Versus Reality, we’ll match hyperbolic appreciations of Vollmann by Larry McCaffery (co-editor of Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader) to passages from the novels in question.

In one of the most ambitious and original debuts since Pynchon’s V., Vollmann develops a dense, sprawling, novelistic “cartoon” in which bugs and electricity become motifs used to explore the revolutionary impulses that have arisen in response to the evils of industrialism. . . . [F]illed with arcane information and surrealist literalizations of sexual longings and violence, this book’s wild flights of improvisational prose and intensity of vision signal the arrival of a major talent.

—Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Ed. McCaffery.

The reader must now picture Earl at the end of his training, off in Kentucky selling electricity for Mr. White . . . “Hey, Drummer!” said the sturdy farmboys. “Whatcha got to sell?”—Earl knew that what they wanted were Bowie knives and Colt pistols, but he figgered it was worth a try to sell ’em what he had.—“You boys ever hear of electricity?” he said.—“Lecktrickery?” grinned the fool boys . . . “Well, how about you?” says Earl to a ragged bully.—“I wanna gun,” the boy snarls. “Got any guns?”—“Wrong,” says Earl.—“I sez you got any guns?”—“No, sir,” says Earl . . . what I have to show you is better than guns, you’ll see—”—“Better than guns!” the bully interrupts in disbelief, spitting on Earl’s shoe. “No such thing as better than guns!” . . . “He don’t have no guns!” says the bully. “Beat the crap outta him!”

—You Bright and Risen Angels

The first of this novel’s many epigraphs is “Only the expert will realize that your exaggerations are really true.” I was born and raised in Kentucky. I lived there for twenty-seven years. Then I moved to Boston, where I learned to tolerate Deliverance-style jokes after realizing how many otherwise sophisticated men are afraid I’m going to knock over their canoes and rape them. The only true thing about this particular instance of “intensity of vision” is its hickface-as-blackface—the exaggerated American that Vollmann both feared and wished to become: to wit, guns, guns, and more guns, with whoring to follow hard upon.

One more, please. The back matter of Rising Up and Rising Down mentions “a series of novels entitled Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, about the collision between the native populations of North America and their colonizers and oppressors.” McCaffery writes of “projects that are virtually unprecedented in terms of their range of styles and thematic ambition: his Seven Dreams series and his monumental study of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. . . . The only novel series I am aware of that may rival Seven Dreams in this regard are Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to Music [sic] of Time.”

This sounds promising until you open the books and endure that spot in The Rifles, Volume Six of Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, where Mr. Franklin

pushed PLAY and dialed Track 5, his favorite, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” and though he could not hear it himself it didn’t matter; gleefully he watched the counter go from 000 to 001 (as Jane called: John, darling, won’t you ever be finished with your little Esquimau squaw? Or is squaw the proper word? Forgive me if I speak incorrectly . . . ) and so now the song would be commencing with that delicious drumbeat and he watched Reepah’s face and saw it come alive with joy and delight and he laughed to know that that majestic acidhead chord was burning her so pleasurably that she was grinning and her mouth gaped even more happily when the knowing singers went: In the Court of the Crimson King—Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! and Reepah was nodding and her lips were moving and to increase her pleasure he turned the volume knob from 2 to 3 and King Crimson went: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! and Reepah was laughing and singing aaah and now they must be singing about trampling the flowers and how the Pattern Juggler did something or other.

That sentence isn’t over, by the way. What this sort of anti-writing has to do with unprecedented thematic ambition, colonization, or oppression—or why it deserves mention alongside Anthony Powell—eludes me. It looks like Vollmann is just fucking around.

I believe that this book is worthy of standing in the shadow of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Few people read Gibbon these days, and doubtless few will make it through Rising Up and Rising Down. That doesn’t concern me much . . . it is my life’s work, and if it comes remotely close to realizing its aims, it should be classed in the canon of great books.

—“My Life’s Work” in Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader. Ed. Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson.

What is this abridgment? It consists of a preface; another preface; a reprint from McSweeney’s called “Three Meditations on Death”; an introduction; a 387-page book report on Lincoln, Stalin, Marx, Trotsky, Pol Pot, Napoleon, Hitler, and others; “The Moral Calculus,” Vollmann’s tool for not figuring out whether violence is justified; and about 200 pages of reportage sold previously to the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, and so on—or, as Vollmann would have it, “a series of case studies in violence and the perception of violence.”

At St. Elizabeth’s Primitive Baptist Church, I once heard a hymn that went like this: “You don’t know what the Lord has done for me. You don’t know, you weren’t there, you don’t know when and you don’t know where.” It’s true—I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But Vollmann was there, and he still can’t figure it out:

Were it possible to create a weapon which would function only in self-defense, most of us would be all for it. But what is self-defense?

What is self-defense? Ask whom you like, and you’ll get the answer you like.

Above all, kill only in self-defense. (Ah, but what is self-defense?)

And then there are the guns:

I was preparing to go on a long trip, and remembered that my pistols needed cleaning. . . . I thumbed the magazine release, swung back the slide to unchamber the last round, rotated the barrel bushing an eighth of a turn or so and took my gun apart. . . . The heaviness, the substantiality of those strange dark pieces, some cylindrical, some angular, some both—complex polygonal solids which fit inside one another in marvelous and obscure ways—and the smell of the nitro powder solvent, the rich blackness of dissolved lead on my fingers, the slickness of the six pieces after I’d oiled them; all these were overpowering sensory proofs, however delusional, that I could act; and the sureness with which I could disassemble my guns and then put them back together by memory (the Sig Sauer was the easiest; the DC Tec-9 Mini, whose fifty-shot capacity was offset by poor-quality cast and stamped parts, remained the hardest), the knowledge that when I’d finished, each barrel would be clean and every part, as far as I could tell by inspection, in working order (of course there must always be a “so far as I can tell” because certainty does not go down to the molecular level)—these facts lulled and relieved me.

What is “strange [and] dark” or “marvelous and obscure” about this nerdtacular gun-porn to a man who can reassemble his firearms from memory? Such “strange dark pieces” are not strange to him; they are familiar. Such ways are not “obscure”; they are clear.

The simple law of might accords respect to an armed individual, who may well come to respect himself accordingly. . . . The capacity to do violence extends the self: it does not only arm it, it also “hands” it, awarding it extra fingers of choice. The weapon becomes a limb, a friend.

About those guns: There are less romantic ways to think of them. I like the .22 rifle my father gave me for my twelfth birthday. I like his old .357 Magnum: the one we used to take to the range out near Bashford Manor, the one he kept under the driver’s seat. My grandfather died fifteen years ago and left me all his shotguns. When my grandmother had a couple of strokes in quick succession and started thinking that I was my father and that he was his brother Mike, we took away her .38, and that’s probably mine, too—I don’t know why my father would need another revolver. Those guns are in storage, mostly. I don’t want to talk about them. It’s not just bad manners to talk about guns: it’s bad luck.

We know something about a certain kind of American artist who likes to talk about his guns, who likes to show us photographs of himself with guns—Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Hunter S. Thompson—especially when he likes to be photographed putting a gun to his head.

If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog:

Vollmann writes:

I wanted to find a base point below which we couldn’t go—the “floor” of evil. I could then note that at least the fall would not be bottomless. I might hit it and die from the distance but at least I wouldn’t fall forever. It was a way of seeking control. . . .

One’s self is one’s own. The enemy of an unhappy self is that self. The self is within its rights to destroy itself. . . . The virtue of suicide is control. No one knows the future. If one feels control over one’s life in the present, why, then—one has control in the present, no matter what happens later. I reiterate: If the self has any rights at all, those must include the basic right to continue, to constitute itself over time, to will itself—hence the corresponding right to unwill itself.

Emphases mine, of course. Rising Up and Rising Down turns out to be a postponement. Vollmann, who pretends not to judge, has already reached a verdict; but he defers its execution, and we are better able to comprehend his garrulous sentimentality once we’ve understood what the penalty is to be. This is the sad secret of Rising Up and Rising Down: the death wish hidden in plain sight, the suicide he yammers to forestall. You can hardly blame him. Why are his books so short?

Thank you for calling The Historical Novel. Press one for the Holocaust. Press two for the Bolshevik revolution. Press three for September 11th. (Please hold. Due to unexpected call volume, et cetera.)

From Europe Central, winner of the 2005 National Book Award:

Between exploit and recompense lay only four days, which in most histories would comprise but an ellipsis between words, a quartet of periods, thus: . . . . —but which, if through close reading we magnify them into spheres, prove to contain in each case a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words—which [sic] at the close of this interval, Fanya Kaplan was carried beyond Tau, final letter of the magic alphabet.

Uncountable multitudes and magic alphabets—pink hearts, orange stars, yellow moons, green clovers, blue diamonds, and purple horseshoes. The nightmare of history is over. Now you can eat your breakfast cereal.

All the disaster novelist has to do is run his mouth. Disaster itself does the heavy lifting. Hitch your wagon to the Holocaust, then cue the strings; and who dares to mention, in that hallowed context, that your instruments are not in tune?

This is Vollmann’s game. He hitches his wagon to violence. He brings the news. The news is bad. The gory background is the gaudy plywood cutout standing on the beach: the ready-made circus strongman’s body waiting to bear Vollmann’s face on its thick neck.

But Vollmann’s bad news isn’t so bad. Violence is just another chance for him to write poetry about angels and blue light—especially when people are putting guns to their heads.

An acquaintance of mine who was very high-strung and often talked about his enemies suffered politico-academic reverses and blew his head off. . . . So the lightning went off inside his skull, charging that darkness with slate-blue light for an instant until everything became dark again; then again that surge, shocking and horrible light between darknesses, like the gaze of the Gorgon’s head—what color was it really? Not slate blue, not dead white, not blinding grey; it was always the same color but it was indescribable . . . and so one of those flashes, the last one, was the flash when the bullet breached the cranial vault and for that one quarter-second his dying brain lay exposed to the light of the world as it had never done from womb-time to skull-time to now, and never would after now from tomb-time to dust-time; that was the light of the terrible answer he’d learned, or taught himself.

Here’s Adolf Hitler in the same predicament:

He raised the Walther to his head, then hesitated, lowered it a trifle, and peered into the barrel to see what he might see within the mountain. First it was dark, then dark, and then far inside shone a pale blue light which must have come all the way from Russia; he thought he could spy the Grand Salles de Fêtes of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna at Tsarkoie-Sélo, the carpet as vast and multiply monogrammed as a collective farm’s sugarbeet field, cartouches of angels dimly hovering on the ceiling, then a casement window opened onto vistas of other castles.

—Europe Central

Only Vollmann could write this way about what it’s like to kill yourself—a chicken in every pot, blue light down the barrel of every gun.

When I left home, my mother collapsed on the porch and sobbed and shook. I listened for half an hour. Then I got into the truck and drove away. She was still curled up, screaming. I think I was supposed to interpret this behavior as a sign of her devotion—her sincerity—but I felt crowded out of my own leave-taking. I wanted to say goodbye to my father: no dice. Maybe I wanted to do a little crying myself. Who cares? Her sincerity, all seven volumes of it, had expanded until there was no room for anyone else to exist.

One reason criticism stings is that, after a certain level of basic technique has been established, we criticize the man and not the thing he made: not only his execution but his plan, and the character, values, and habits that gave rise to it. The gibbering McCaffery calls Vollmann’s corpus “deeply intellectual and analytical and . . . frequently rendered in sentences of delicate refinement and exquisite aesthetic control.” All right, bring me his letters; let me see his style. Style and substance are not separable. If writing has anything to do with precision, judgment, or selection, these books are not written. It’s no surprise that Vollmann’s big flowchart about deciding who can be eliminated doesn’t work. I wouldn’t let him run the office photocopier, much less hold the keys of hell and death.

Don’t forget the Golden Rule when you read the last lines of Vollmann’s first novel: “This book was written in urine . . . I piss on you all. This is my gift, you angels; love me.”

It would be easier to love you if you would stop urinating on me, Vollmann. I am not a fire hydrant.

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Two Stories
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Melodramatic Installations
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Three Stories
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You, dear reader, are also supposed to be a clone among clones. And really, who’d be the wiser?

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More by this Author

Issue 3 Reality Principle

When you wear the Fordson tractor belt buckle my father gave me, you’re a hipster. When I wear it, I’m a redneck.

March 22, 2012
Regrets at Fordham
December 6, 2010
Clocking Out
February 10, 2005

Wanna hear a Freud joke? I’d say. Then I’d take the gun out and put it on the desk.