On the examining table: a history of violence

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

William T. Vollmann has driven his literary pickax into the American imagination. Prodigious, stunning and prolific in the sweep of his imagination and ambition, he has -- in little more than 15 years -- established an identifiable and compelling Vollmann universe.

From his first novel, "You Bright and Risen Angels," concerning the constant and intractable struggle between man and the insect world, Vollmann has rooted his fiction in both the imaginative and real worlds, producing vast collections of stories and novels. His most recent novel, "The Royal Family," is quite possibly the best novel ever written about the sordid cosmos of crack addiction, whoredom and shady dealings in San Francisco, a reality little seen either by the inhabitants of that city or by its myriad tourists. At more than 800 pages, the book calls to mind "Ulysses," with its wandering hero and its portrait of what it means to be a denizen of a modern city.

Vollmann has also been writing a series of novels under the title "Seven Dreams," in which he is creating the whole imagined yet real history of the European settlement of North America, starting with the Norse invasions and reaching into the present day. Four of these dense, relentlessly gripping panoramic novels have been published.

If this were not enough, Vollmann has also been engaged in journalism, for lack of a better word. In 1982, he traveled to Afghanistan to see the war being waged by the moujahedeen against the Russian occupation. The resulting book, "An Afghanistan Picture Show," was not published until 1992 and was little noticed because Americans by then seemed no longer interested in Afghanistan. Who, after all, could work up enthusiasm for the chronicle of a relatively sheltered young man coming to grips with his own naivete when confronted by a nasty, brutal war? History, of course, caught up with all of us in September 2001, and Afghanistan is no longer an obscure place -- though it is probably now just one more thing we try not to think about.

And that is why Vollmann's new project, "Rising Up and Rising Down," is of such stunning urgency. One hopes the sheer size and scope of it will make it hard to ignore. In this work, Vollmann follows his own idiosyncratic bent as he probes the history of violence in more than 3,000 pages, divided into six books and a volume of indexes, tables of contents and addenda (plus a bibliography and acknowledgments that go on for more than 60 pages).

Is life long enough to plunge into such a work? Is it worth my time? What's the point of it all, anyway?

Well, the easy answer would be (as the kids say), "Get over it." Think "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbon. Think "The Anatomy of Melancholy" by Robert Burton. Think "Curiosities of Literature" by Isaac Disraeli. Think of Shelby Foote's "The Civil War." Think of a book you will go back to time after time, a book that multiple readings will fail to exhaust. "Rising Up and Rising Down" concerns itself with violence and its justifications and is encyclopedic in intention and practice.

"My own aim in beginning this book," Vollmann 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 -- cold-blooded enough, you will say, but life cannot evade death. Have you ever shot a cow in the head, slit her throat, cut her hooves off, skinned her, gutted her and quartered her so that you and others can eat? Have you ever been the doctor who must decide which one of ten patients gets the life-support machine? Surely it is better to have a rational and consistent means of doing these things than to do them trying not to think of what one is doing. Suppose, then, that the calculus can prove that one ought never to kill. Well and good. We are surely better off for seeing it proved."

From the beginning of his career, Vollmann declared that he would be "refusing to drowse in the spurious closure of a third-person narrative." True to that announcement, there is no gradual warming up to the subject matter in "Rising Up and Rising Down": Readers are plunged instantly into three meditations on death.

The first is derived from a visit to the catacombs in Paris, where the bones of millions of the long dead are artfully arranged. Another stems from visits to the medical examiner's office in San Francisco, where an individual's death is literally cut open. "You have nothing to fear from the dead," the medical examiner says. "It's the living. It's when you ask a dead man's roommate what happened, and the dead man wakes up and coughs on you."

The final meditation draws on Vollmann's life as a journalist: Two of his companions were killed by snipers while the car he was in crossed from the Croatian to the Muslim side in the former Yugoslavia. Death sat next to him, and Vollmann found himself alive and in a gruesome situation: able to photograph the friend in his death agony. (The photograph comes late in the book when Vollmann takes up the role of the victim of violence.)

Presciently, obsessively, Vollmann works at defining this aspect of himself -- a creature who both violates and is violated. Then he moves to his central project: to examine the history of violence through careful observation of individual human beings -- Lincoln, Trotsky, Caesar, John Brown, Hitler, Mao, Stalin ... the list is endless.

Vollmann finds that these historical figures justify the violence committed in their names under three categories. The first is self-defense, which Vollmann subdivides into defense of honor, class, authority, race and culture, creed, war aims, homeland, ground, Earth, animals, gender, against traitors and revolution. The second is policy and choice: from raison d'etat to reasons of spleen, deterrence, retribution and revenge, punishment, loyalty, compulsion, fear, expediency, sadism, masochism and pleasure. The third category is more elusive: fate, moral yellowness and inevitability.

Vollmann contrasts Lincoln with Trotsky in a memorable chapter: He makes vivid two historical figures presiding over civil wars drenched in passionate blood and always aware and articulate about the temptations to resort to more and more extreme measures to win those wars. Never has Lincoln's moral grandeur been so conclusively defined through his refusal to accede to terror, whereas Trotsky's giving in to organized, calculated murder has a terrible contemporary significance.

The most controversial section of "Rising Up and Rising Down" is likely to be Vollmann's contrasting of the Ku Klux Klan's justifications for its racist war against the Northern victory in the Civil War and the nonviolent struggle led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to erase segregation from the Southern states. (But King knew, Vollmann explains, that only by provoking a violent reaction -- beatings, loosed dogs, water hosings -- could civil rights activists undermine the segregationists' position.)

The second half of Vollmann's project looks at those places and events he experienced and reported on at length during the 10 years he lived in Cambodia, Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand (where he helped rescue a teenage sex slave), the former Yugoslavia, Africa and the Middle East, after which he moved on to slightly more familiar territory, the deadly drug-fueled wars in Colombia, and the United States, where he has focused on (among other situations) the suicide epidemic among Apaches, activities of white supremacist youth gangs and of the Guardian Angels.

In a very misleading sense, such a summary makes Vollmann's work seem like a massive, perverse "Years in Review." Instead, one should pay attention to -- and trust -- his writing: "Rising up, rising down! History shambles on! What are we left with? A few half-shattered Greek stelae; Trotsky's eyeglasses; Gandhi's native spun-cloth; Cortes's gamepieces of solid gold (extorted from their original owner, Montezuma); a little heap of orange peels left on the table by the late Robespierre.... The dust blows out of fresh open graves, and the orange peels go grey, sink, wither, rot away. Sooner or later, every murder becomes quaint."

Such a response to our violent past is why "Rising Up and Rising Down" will be sent into the future. Such writing should be read and marveled over again and again. And this writing, in which knowing our past is a consolation, offers some hope for our future. *

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