Book Review: Rising Up and Rising Down

Rising Up and Rising Down, William T. Vollmann’s enormous catalog of human violence and the thin, nearly-plausible excuses we make for it, is indispensable reading for the radical activist. In its initial printing, it fills seven encyclopedic volumes, requiring an almost superhuman effort to read. Written over more than two decades spent in the teeth of the worst political and ethnic upheaval, Rising was often researched at very real risk to Vollmann’s life and seems to have drained all but the most bitter humor and levity from his prose. The “readable” trade paperback is a work that Vollmann himself says was done “for the money,” and “in hope that it might actually be read.” Indeed, after a reading of Rising Up and Rising Down in even this abridged format, the thought of wading in up to your neck with a seven volume collection seems almost suicidal.

Rising Up and Rising Down is not subtle with its metaphors. The front cover depicts a dove - the symbol of peace - tumbling down upon a darkened floor, wings haplessly outstretched, its neck forlornly breaking. The back cover, beneath the text, depicts a blurry hammer smashing something unseen. The first pages are in narrative form, ‘Three Meditations on Death,’ and give the reader precisely the proper mindset for absorbing the rest of the book. Vollmann wearily catalogues his stream-of-consciousness ruminations about mortality in three places - the Paris Catacombs, amidst bare skulls and yellowed bones dating back to the Roman era; a forensic morgue in the midst of the investigations that will (or will not) close the book on the questionable deaths of a few of violence’s victims; and the battlefield-streets of Bosnia, that defy the forensic search with their senseless slaughter.

But Rising Up and Rising Down is more than an analysis of violence. From the beginning, it reads like an attempt at self-exorcism. Despite the full publication’s enormity, Vollmann’s first real words to the reader are an apology, for everything from his inadequacy as a writer to his fallibility as a human being. His self-loathing is apparent in the way he regards his own work, despite its desperate grandeur. His apologies continue, even as he guides the reader into the case studies that form the bulk of the book. He accuses himself of dilettantism, of ignorance, of amateurism and meaningless speculation, even as the work belies his self-criticism with its depth and humanity. He hates himself for his perceived inadequacy at telling these stories, apparently forgetting that these stories are not often told at all.

Let me be quick to reassure you that this review, with its use of words like ‘desperate,’ ‘self-loathing,’ ‘apologies,’ and ‘nihilism,’ is intended as a firm recommendation of Rising Up and Rising Down to your attention. Violence is almost casual in much of our society - it is its own genre of film, it amuses us in our video games and is a staple attraction of our fiction, as well as being glorified by the seemingly constant wars that mark the era of post-colonial fallout. Too often, we are enjoined to celebrate only the positive emotions, the happiness, the joy, the laughter, the satisfaction, and we forget that there is validity and truth to be found in dire straits, and that the conceit that life can be entirely positive is only afforded to the privileged, often at the expense of the rest of the world. Vollmann, like a master documentarian, keeps the camera on the victim far longer than the action shot would require, showing us the aftermath: the machine-gunned street, the bodies of the mutilated, the byblows of our species’ thoughtless cruelty to one another.

I said that this work was indispensable to the radical activist, but it’s fair to wonder what most people would do with such a fantastically grim book. Vollmann’s own experience with the Bosnian civil and ethnic wars colored his opinion about the rights of people to fight for their lives, and the questions raised in that conflict have not changed. What right, even unto death, does a person have to kill another? We often take it for granted that self-defense or the defense of loved ones justifies all violent ends, but does the motive of your would-be killer matter to the ethics of it? If you are assaulted solely because of your skin tone, and anyone with your skin tone would suit your aggressor’s intents, are you justified in applying disproportionate force in response, knowing that it may save the lives of others in the future?

Entry-level ethics and philosophy courses grapple with these questions, but satisfactory answers are elusive and usually burdened with exceptions. The real world doesn't make space for us to stop and consider our own justifications in the midst of a street fight or an assault by roving violent militia. Vollmann offers a kind of post-hoc system, a “Moral Calculus,” in which the reader is invited to weigh the justifications and reasoning of his use of violence, determining for themselves whether they acted in the right. Here, too, Vollmann is quick to disparage his own work.

“Should you find fault with the calculus, as you ought to, I respectfully ask you not to leave a vacuum, but to construct your own.”

There is an undercurrent to Rising Up and Rising Down of pleading with the reader, of having committed this magnum opus to paper not in the hopes of resolving any of these questions, but of getting people to think about such things at all. As we watch the uprisings in the Middle East, the recent riots in China, the austerity protests throughout Europe and North America and even the forces of armed racism on the USA/Mexico border, it is helpful to have such a calculus ready to hand. No one is told to arrange their own prejudices and mechanically sort out the technical morality of a given act of violence. Rather, the hope seems to be that people will have a better way to arrange their thoughts, and perhaps some perspective on why events unfold as they do.

Radical activism’s connection to political violence is a volatile subject for most activist circles. There are compelling arguments on both sides, but violence is oftentimes a genie that can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. Revolutions are often called for by people who have lived in a protected class all their life, whose lives would be far less endangered by the business end of what they’re asking for, leaving vulnerable and marginalized groups to (once again) bear the worst of state violence. Vollmann’s Moral Calculus, and the deep, often horrific case-studies that accompany it, demand that we reckon with the realities of what we’re discussing, and have good answers for the hard questions we’ll find in the eyes of those who suffer ‘for the cause.’

The thoughtful reader might, after finishing Rising Up and Rising Down, hold it and regard it in the way one might hold and regard a handgun - a feeling of portentousness in their hand that outweighs the object itself. Not just a ‘treatise,’ it seems like the kind of great work that comes along too rarely, and unflinchingly looks both inward and outward, at humanity’s inability to control its own base impulses. At times it grovels and begs with the reader for things to be better, even if only a little. Other times, it seems to stand beside the mass graves and drive-by shootings of history and stare uncomprehendingly, wondering how it all came to this.

Rising Up and Rising Down is an important, difficult read. It rewards multiple returns, yielding new insights to the reader depending on the reader’s maturity and intellectual integrity. The greatest danger is Vollmann’s despair, but that’s also its greatest asset: Rising Up and Rising Down makes a perfect antidote to the romantic images of class warfare, to the videos of casually thrown Molotovs, to the nihilistic ‘I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not this’ rebellion that can accompany times of civil dissatisfaction. It never condemns nor praises violence, it simply contemplates it in a far deeper, more intellectual, and more emotionally vulnerable way than most readers will be prepared for. It is brutally honest about violence, and it expects us to be as well.

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The causes and solutions within the species does receive rather less attention than is deserved. There are a couple of places that offer Peace and Conflict studies, far few than those dedicated to researching the latter half of the equation. Like Volmann, such an inquiry requires more than the action shot demands.

It is from this point then that political theory can make its initial steps. It is important, of course, to engage in the horrific calculus required to determine just and unjust wars, and the tedious but necessary legalistic analysis of what exactly constitutes war crimes. But beyond this is there is also the need for analysis of consequences. This harrowing work is certainly far preferable, as Vollmann points out, than not engaging in it all.