Vollmann, Volume I

I’ve just finished Volume I of William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume examination of violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down.” The first page’s first line: “Death is ordinary.” The book’s photographs begin early on, as does Vollmann’s fusing of the highly philosophical and historical (bringing in Plato, Ignatius, Robespierre, Caesar, Herodotus, Kant, Gandhi, you name it) and the highly personal (“I am sad when I think about my two colleagues in Bosnia who drove into a land mine trap. Their names were Will and Francis. I will write about them later”).

There is a powerful statement early on after Vollmann tells us of receiving a letter from a young Serbian girl whose boyfriend had been violently killed. The letter’s last postscript is: “No one has a chance to open my heart ever again.” The author writes:

“This is what violence does. This is what violence is. It is not enough that death reeks and stinks in the world, but now it takes on inimical human forms, prompting the self-defending survivors to strike and to hate, rightly and wrongly.”

There is a long section on weapons (the author’s an owner), specifically their aesthetics and morality. The question that Vollmann’s trying to answer throughout the volume is, When is violence justified? He outlines the “moral calculus” of Gandhi, Socrates, Christ, and other figures, then brings up a scenario – almost always real; undoubtedly troubling – and talks it out.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Vollmann’s lived an unusual life thus far, and one that makes him the person to write this book. At one point, he writes, “We all bleed; we all avoid pain.” I wrote in the margin, “Does he avoid pain?” Most of his adult life has been spent immersing himself in conflicts and wars, walking toward the tragic, the grisly, the violent. And his stories show it. “I remember a man I once met who robbed warehouses,” he states in one section. “After the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995, a girl wrote me…” he begins in another. And also: “A little manual I own which rather sketchily describes how to attack airfields, blow up trains, kill sentries and occupy cities says…” And even when he’s not following the drama, it finds him.

“I myself was confronted by some of those ambassadors once in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. They had knives. They informed me that they were going to use them. I happened to be carrying a Browning, in regretful defiance of local law, so my answer was satisfactory – to me, at least, hence perforce to them. They apologized and went away.”

Onto Volume II this weekend.