Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" ...

... or some thoughts on the longest book I've ever read.

Share something about Rising Up and Rising Down that will make people want to read it:

If you watch TV you may have seen those beer commercials that feature a fictional character known as The Most Interesting Man in the World.  Well, I’m pretty sure that William T. Vollmann is a real life contender for the right to be called the most interesting man in the world.

In the pages of Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann shares many incredible adventures.  He pays a visit to the secret jungle hideout of Southeast Asia’s largest opium kingpin.  He dodges sniper fire during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and then walks away from a landmine explosion that kills two fellow journalists he’s traveling with.  He kidnaps a child prostitute and smuggles her to an anti-human-trafficking safe house in Thailand.  He hangs out with Yakuza bosses in Japan, zebu rustlers in Madagascar, and street gangs in California.  He dodges sniper fire (again) while embedded with US marines in Mogadishu.  He tracks down the head of a terrorist organization in Malaysia, conducts interviews with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and spends the first anniversary of September 11 in Yemen attempting to locate al-Qaeda operatives to interview.  He attends Voodoo and Santeria rituals in Louisiana and Florida and then travels to Idaho and Montana to meet with white supremacists, militia men, conspiracy theorists, and neo-Nazis.

If that doesn’t sound interesting, don’t bother picking up this book.

What is Rising Up and Rising Down about?

Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means is William Vollmann’s project that attempts to answer the question of when violence is justified.  It is a work of obsession that took him 17 years to complete.

The first four volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down are “theoretical.”  Here he considers various justifications for acts of violence and judges whether or not violence is justified.  When is violence acceptable in defense of war aims?  In defense of homeland?  In defense of honor?  In defense of authority or revolution?  When is violence acceptable in defense of class, race, gender, or creed?  How about for the purposes of punishment, deterrence, or retribution?  To attempt to answer these questions, Vollmann turns to philosophy as well as to the annals of history.  In these pages we find a parade of violent actors:  Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin and Trotsky, Hitler, Hernando Cortes, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown.  We meet members of activist groups such as the Guardian Angels, the Animal Liberation Front, and Earth First!  He synthesizes all these case studies into a philosophical “Moral Calculus” that differentiates between justifiable and unjustifiable violence.

The fifth and sixth volumes deal with the “consequences” of violence.  Here we find Vollmann traveling the globe as an intrepid journalist, interviewing people whose lives are caught up in violent circumstances.  He sends us dispatches from the United States, Jamaica, Colombia, the former Yugoslavia during its civil war, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Japan.

A final volume, entitled The Moral Calculus restates the Moral Calculus in its entirety, provides additional information in numerous “annexes”, and contains an extensive 44 page bibliography.

The size of this book is legendary, right?

Every review of Rising Up and Rising Down includes descriptions of its voluminous size.  Here is what you need to know about its size:

            Volumes:          7
Pages:              3,161
            Footnotes:        7,799
            Weight:            19 pounds
            Dimensions:      7” x 10” x 10 15/16”

Why did you read Rising Up and Rising Down?

As a Unitarian Universalist I grew up learning about figures from our history who were martyred or persecuted for their beliefs.  Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva.  Francis David died in a Transylvanian prison.  Joseph Priestley fled England after a mob torched his laboratory; only by accident did they not also take his life.  Then there were the UUs who were murdered while working for justice.  Norbert Capek died in Hitler’s concentration camps.  James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Selma.  In high school in 1994, I read an article in the UU World about James Barrett, a UU and a retired Air Force colonel, who was gunned down in Florida while volunteering as an escort at a women’s health clinic.  Starting at an early age I had this sense that living a faithful life as a Unitarian Universalist might mean putting myself in situations where I might become the target of violence.

At the same time that these victims were praised and the non-violence of King and Gandhi was idolized within the church, I found one particular moment in our history that was significantly different.  Our tradition celebrates Theodore Parker for his violence in resisting slavery.  Parker famously wrote his sermons while packing a pistol that he said he would use to defend the liberty of the fugitive slaves he harbored.  He armed fugitive slaves so that they might defend themselves.  He stirred up mobs to rescue captured slaves from their jail cells.  In addition, northern Unitarians were among the most generous supporters of John Brown’s failed attempt to violently overthrow slavery in the south.  Unitarian poets such as Louisa May Alcott and Lydia Maria Child wrote poems praising John Brown’s violent acts as divinely sanctioned.

Should a faithful UU aspire to James Reeb’s non-violence or to John Brown’s militant revolution?  Who personifies a faithful life?  Is one better than the other?  Is it simply a matter of individual choice?

I’ve twice preached sermons on the question of when violence may be justified.  In 2010 I decided to preach a sermon inspired by the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds.  I contrasted the film’s fictional portrayal of a violent revenge fantasy enacted against Hitler and the leaders of the Third Reich with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s actual attempt to assassinate Hitler.  In 2013 I preached about the violence in another Tarantino film, Django Unchained, comparing its message with the history of John Brown and Theodore Parker.

I’m not sure either sermon fully answered the question of when violence is justified, but it’s a question that continues to interest me and led me to read Rising Up and Rising Down.

What’s the other reason you read this book?

As you can imagine, not a lot of presses were clamoring to publish a work like Rising Up and Rising Down.  It wound up being published by McSweeney’s in 2003.  I am a huge fan of McSweeney’s and I’m currently working towards reading every book they’ve ever published.  With the completion of Rising Up and Rising Down, I’ve now read 150 of the 200 works McSweeney’s has published.

Do you agree with Vollmann?

While I can appreciate his attempt to formulate a consistent system for rationally evaluating whether violence is justified or not, it seems to me that violence is too chaotic and unpredictable a force to adhere to the tight logic of his calculus.  This point is made far better than I can make it in this review panning Rising Up and Rising Down in the New York Times.

The other issue I had with Vollmann is that he is a much bigger fan of the Second Amendment than I am.  He disagrees with calls for increased gun control after the mass school shooting Columbine; I could not disagree with him more strongly.  I found his portrayal of survivalists in Idaho disconcertingly sympathetic.

These objections notwithstanding, and even though there were long passages I had to slog my way through, my experience reading all seven volumes was fairly positive much of the time.  I find his around-the-world adventures chronicled in volumes five and six to be fascinating.  The section on violent defense of Earth was especially provocative.  Even when I didn’t find the subject at hand to be interesting, I could still marvel at the depth of Vollmann’s obsession.

Wasn’t Vollmann in the news recently?

Yes.  In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, William Vollmann writes about reading nearly 300 pages (heavily redacted) of his nearly 800 page FBI file and learning that he was suspected of being the Unabomber.  He discusses this with NPR here.