Some Thoughts on Rising Up and Rising Down

After the tragic shootings in Newtown, I found myself at a loss: I really just couldn’t process the violence, and couldn’t comprehend any way to talk or think about it.  It got me thinking about the uniqueness of American-style violence and of our country’s relationship with guns.  I think it is too simplistic to say that people have been “brainwashed” by the NRA, or that they “misread” the Second Amendment, or that they selfishly value guns over lives.  Do I understand guns?  Not in the slightest.  They scare me.  But I felt that, in that moment, I needed to understand guns better to understand America better.  

I had been threatening to read William Vollmann’s “Rising Up and Rising Down,” for the past eight months or so, but had little free time for recreational reading (if reading a dense tome about violence can possibly be characterized as recreational).  But over my long Christmas vacation, I have given over a fair chunk of time to getting through some of the 705 pages of the abridged version (culled from a seven volume edition published by McSweeneys).  And while there are a few sections of the first portion of the book (Three Meditations on Death and Definitions for Lonely Atoms, namely) that were genuinely thought-provoking, I have to say that I came away from the book thoroughly disappointed.  

This is the first William Vollmann book that I have read.  Something about his prolixity and showy polymathy always rubbed me the wrong way when I casually picked up volumes of his at bookstores (usually The Atlas, the cover of which should win some kind of award for inspiring me to pick up and riffle through the book every single time I come across it).  [I will, for the time being, table a more fractious conversation about writers that evince for me a particular flavor of red-blooded-straight-white-male privilege.]  My worst fears were borne out in Rising Up and Rising Down.  I do not doubt the earnestness of his conviction, and desire to come to terms understanding violence and its reasons.  But he often seemed too interested in aping the style and organization of either a musty ethics treatise or a patronizing professor holding court in the faculty club than in actually processing the avalanche of historical notes and narratives and case studies and epigrams that he has collected.  And the recurring theme of false-modest apologies for the failings of the text to accomplish certain goals was particularly irksome, as they seemed intended to foreclose criticism while ostensibly opening the work up to critique. 

I did not end up finishing Rising Up and Rising Down, as the second half or so of the abridged version consists of field reports from far-flung areas of violence.  The fragmentary interviews and descriptions are, I suppose, meant to engage one with Vollmann’s “moral calculus,” which in turn attempts to parse violence and justification in the (turgid) format of an outlined and indexed treatise.  But the effect they lend is, more often than not, scattered and unfocused, and they often merely illustrate that William Vollmann feels quite pleased to have put himself into harm’s way to smell danger firsthand.

Perhaps, under different circumstances, I might have been more charitable with the book, overlooked its stylistic excesses, and worked to extract meaning from it. But as of this current go-round, I found it more frustrating than anything else.  

Military pay

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Mendelssohn

Songs Without Words II, Peter Nagy (Naxos 1990).

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"Unhappy country, what wings you have! …
Weep (it is frequent in human affairs), weep for the terrible magnificence of the means,
The ridiculous incompetence of the reasons, the
bloody and shabby
Pathos of the result."

Robinson Jeffers (quoted in Robert N. Bellah, Civil Religion in America, 96 Daedalus 1, 19 (Winter, 1967). 

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