Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means

Overview

A labor of seventeen years, Vollmann's first book of non-fiction since 1992's An Afghanistan Picture Show is a gravely urgent invitation to look back at the world's long, bloody path and find some threads of meaning, wisdom, and guidance to plot a moral course. From the street violence of prostitutes and junkies to the centuries-long battles between the Native Americans and European colonists,Vollmann's mesmerizing imagery and compelling logic is presented with authority born of astounding research and personal ...
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Overview

A labor of seventeen years, Vollmann's first book of non-fiction since 1992's An Afghanistan Picture Show is a gravely urgent invitation to look back at the world's long, bloody path and find some threads of meaning, wisdom, and guidance to plot a moral course. From the street violence of prostitutes and junkies to the centuries-long battles between the Native Americans and European colonists,Vollmann's mesmerizing imagery and compelling logic is presented with authority born of astounding research and personal experience.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
A strange book, then. It is rigorous, like Euclidean geometry, yet twisty, like a pretzel. ''An almost narcissistic didacticism'' seems a pretty fair assessment of Vollmann's rambling historical reflections on Cicero, John Brown and Leon Trotsky, among others. A massive apparatus of endnotes serves not just to document the essays but to link them up to one another. Two stout volumes of his magazine pieces record his experiences in theaters of war and other places where violence is always in the air. He has seen a friend killed; he has loitered in rough neighborhoods with people who use voodoo to keep the chaos at bay (or to try to make it work for them). — Scott McLemee
Publishers Weekly
Nothing less than a critique of terrorist, defensive, military and police activity, along with an attempt to construct a moral calculus for the human use of violence, the seven volumes of this work are designed to get ordinary people thinking about the role violence, even at a distance, plays in their lives.
Publishers Weekly
This edition of Vollman's treatise on political violence, 20 or so years in the making and completed before 9/11, abridges the 3,000-plus pages of the McSweeney's edition, an NBCC Award nominee last year. As he notes in a beautifully composed introduction, Vollman assumes political violence to be a human constant and thus addresses his attention to finding out when people use violence for political ends, how they justify it and on what scales they undertake it. Following 100 or so pages of expansive definitions, a nearly 300-page section titled "Justifications" culls an enormous number of texts and commentary, from nearly all recorded eras and locales, with all manner of excuses for killing. These Vollman brilliantly distills into "The Moral Calculus," a set of questions such as "When is violent military retribution justified?"-followed by concrete answers. The book's final quarter offers "Studies in Consequences," featuring Vollman's gonzo reportage from southeast Asia, Europe, "The Muslim World" and North America (represented here primarily by Jamaica). An appendix cites the longer edition's entire table of contents. This book's rigorous, novelistic, imaginative, sonorous prose treats a fundamental topic on a grand (and horrific) scale; there is nothing else in literature quite like it. Agent, Susan Golomb. 8-city author tour. (Nov. 5) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060548186
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/2/2004
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.63 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.

Biography

Fearless, ambitious, and wildly original, William T. Vollmann has been lionized as one of the most significant and influential voices in contemporary postmodernist literature. His dauntingly voluminous books, a hodgepodge of fiction and journalism, are marked by bold, often beautiful language. They also spring from personal experience: Volmann is famous for total immersion in his subjects. His research has taken him to the ends of the earth – to the North Pole, to war zones around the globe, and (perhaps most famously) to San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district to gain a better understanding of its notorious denizens..

Vollmann roared onto the literary scene in 1987 with You Bright and Risen Angels, a bold and quirky debut novel that chronicled in allegorical fashion the bitter battle between insects and the inventors of electricity. From that point on, his books became less surreal and more gritty. In 1992, he wrote his first "official" work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show , an impressionistic chronicle of his experiences among the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. Since then, the prolific author has produced an unstoppable juggernaut of prose, most notably installments in his towering fictional sequence Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and a labyrinthine seven-volume treatise on violence called Rising Up, Rising Down. Published by the iconoclastic publishing house McSweeney's in 2003, this magnum opus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

In 1999, The New Yorker named Vollmann one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40. In 2005, he was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, a 750-page series of linked stories set in Germany and Russia during World War II. His journalism continues to appear in such magazines as Esquire, Spin, Gear, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In addition, he has founded the Co-Tangent Press as a vehicle for publishing his own limited edition art books.

Good To Know

Vollmann wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while working as a computer programmer.

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    1. Also Known As:
      m the Blind, Captain Subzero
    2. Hometown:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 28, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Santa Monica, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Read an Excerpt

RISING UP AND RISING DOWN

SOME THOUGHTS ON VIOLENCE, FREEDOM AND URGENT MEANS
By WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN

McSWEENEY'S BOOKS

Copyright © 2003 William T. Vollmann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-932416-02-1


Chapter One

THREE MEDITATIONS ON DEATH

* * *

I. CATACOMB THOUGHTS

Death is ordinary. Behold it, subtract its patterns and lessons from those of the death that weapons bring, and maybe the residue will show what violence is. With this in mind, I walked the long tunnels of the Paris catacombs. Walls of earth and stone encompassed walls of mortality a femur's-length thick: long yellow and brown bones all stacked in parallels, their sockets pointing outward like melted bricks whose ends dragged down, like downturned bony smiles, like stale yellow snails of macaroni-joints of bones, heads of bones, promiscuously touching, darkness in the center of each, between those twin knucklespurs which had once helped another bone to pivot, thereby guiding and supporting flesh in its passionate and sometimes intelligent motion toward the death it inevitably found-femurs in rows, then, and humeri, bones upon bones, and every few rows there'd be a shelf of bone to shore death up, a line of humeri and femurs laid down laterally to achieve an almost pleasing masonry effect, indeed, done by masonry's maxims, as interpreted by Napoleon's engineers and brickmen of death, who at the nouveau-royal command had elaborated and organized death's jetsam according to a sanitary aesthetic. (Did the Emperor ever visit that place? He was not afraid of death-not even of causing it.) Then there were side-chambers walled with bones likewise crossed upon bone-beams; from these the occasional skull looked uselessly out; and every now and then some spiritual types had ornamented the facade with a cross made of femurs. There had been laid down in that place, I was told, the remains of about six million persons-our conventional total for the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust. The crime which the Nazis accomplished with immense effort in half a dozen years, nature had done here without effort or recourse, and was doing.

I had paid my money aboveground; I had come to look upon my future. But when after walking the long arid angles of prior underground alleys I first encountered my brothers and sisters, calcified appurtenances of human beings now otherwise gone to be dirt, and rat-flesh, and root-flesh, and green leaves soon to die again, I felt nothing but a mildly melancholy curiosity. One expects to die; one has seen skeletons and death's heads on Halloween masks, in anatomy halls, cartoons, warning signs, forensic photographs, photographs of old S.S. insignia, and meanwhile the skulls bulged and gleamed from walls like wet river-boulders, until curiosity became, as usual, numbness. But one did not come out of the ground then. Bonewalls curled around wells, drainage sockets in those tunnels; sometimes water dripped from the ceiling and struck the tourists' foreheads-water which had probably leached out of corpses. A choking, sickening dust irritated our eyes and throats, for in no way except in the abstract, and perhaps not even then, is the presence of the dead salutary to the living. Some skulls dated to 1792. Darkened, but still not decayed, they oppressed me with their continued existence. The engineers would have done better to let them transubstantiate. They might have been part of majestic trees by now, or delicious vegetables made over into young children's blood and growing bones. Instead they were as stale and stubborn as old arguments, molds for long dissolved souls, churlish hoardings of useless matter. Thus, I believed, the reason for my resentment. The real sore point was that, in Eliot's phrase, "I had not thought death had undone so many"; numbness was giving way to qualmishness, to a nauseated, claustrophobic realization of my biological entrapment. Yes, of course I'd known that I must die, and a number of times had had my nose rubbed in the fact; this was one of them, and in between those episodes my tongue glibly admitted what my heart secretly denied; for why should life ought to bear in its flesh the dissolving, poisonous faith of its own unescapable defeat? Atop bony driftwood, skulls slept, eyeholes downwards, like the shells of dead hermit-crabs amidst those wracked corpse-timbers. This was the necrophile's beach, but there was no ocean except the ocean of earth overhead from which those clammy drops oozed and dripped. Another cross of bone, and then the inscription-SILENCE, MORTAL BEINGS-VAIN GRANDEURS, SILENCE-words even more imperious in French than I have given them here, but no more necessary, for the calcified myriads said that better than all poets or commanders. In superstition the carcass is something to be feared, dreaded and hated; in fact it deserves no emotion whatsoever in and of itself, unless it happens to comprise a souvenir of somebody other than a stranger; but time spent in the company of death is time wasted. Life trickles away, like the water falling down into the catacombs, and in the end we will be silent as our ancestors are silent, so better to indulge our vain grandeurs while we can. Moment by moment, our time bleeds away. Shout, scream or run, it makes no difference, so why not forget what can't be avoided? On and on twisted death's alleys. Sometimes there was a smell, a cheesey, vinegary smell which I knew from having visited a field-morgue or two; there was no getting away from it, and the dust of death dried out my throat. I came to a sort of cavern piled up to my neck with heaps of bones not used in construction: pelvic bones and ribs (the vertebrae and other small bones must have all gone to discard or decay). These relics were almost translucent, like seashells, so thin had death nibbled them. That smell, that vinegar-vomit smell, burned my throat, but perhaps I was more sensitive to it than I should have been, for the other tourists did not appear to be disgusted; indeed, some were laughing, either out of bravado or because to them it was as unreal as a horror movie; they didn't believe that they'd feature in the next act, which must have been why one nasty fellow seemed to be considering whether or not to steal a bone-didn't he have bones enough inside his living meat? He must not have been the only one, for when we came to the end and ascended to street level we met a gainfully employed man behind a table which already had two skulls on it, seized from thieves that say; he checked our backpacks. I was happy when I got past him and saw sunlight-almost overjoyed, in fact, for since becoming a part-time journalist of armed politics I am not titillated by death. I try to understand it, to make friends with it, and I never learn anything except the lesson of my own powerlessness. Death stinks in my nostrils as it did that chilly sunny autumn afternoon in Paris when I wanted to be happy.

In the bakeries, the baguettes and pale, starchy mini-ficelles, the croissants and pains-aux-chocolats all reminded me of bones. Bone-colored cheese stank from other shops. All around me, the steel worms of the Metro bored through other catacombs, rushing still living bones from hole to hole. In one of the bookshops on the Rue de Seine I found a demonically bound volume of Poe whose endpapers were marbled like flames; the plates, of course, hand-colored by the artist, depicted gruesomely menacing skeletons whose finger-bones snatched and clawed. I spied a wedding at the Place Saint-Germain, whose church was tanned and smoked by time to the color of cheesey bones; I saw the white-clad bride-soon to become yellow bones. The pale narrow concrete sleepers of railroads, metallic or wooden fence-rails, the model of the spinal column in the window of an anatomical bookshop, then even sticks, tree-trunks, all lines inscribed or implied, the world itself in all its segments, rays and dismembered categories became hideously cadaverous. I saw and inhaled death. I tasted death on my teeth. I exhaled, and the feeble puffs of breath could not push my nausea away. Only time did that-a night and a day, to be exact-after which I forgot again until I was writing these very words that I must die. I believed but for a moment. Thus I became one with those skulls which no longer knew their death. Even writing this, picking my letters from the alphabet's boneyard, my o's like death's-heads, my is and l's like ribs, my b's, q's, p's and d's like ball-ended humeri broken in half, I believed only by fits. The smell came back into my nose, but I was in Vienna by then-whose catacombs, by the way, I decided not to visit-so I went out and smelled espresso heaped with fresh cream. The writing became, as writing ought to be, informed by choreographies and paradigms which mediated that smell into something more than its revolting emptiness. I take my meaning where I can find it; when I can't find it, I invent it. And when I do that, I deny meaninglessness, and when I do that I am lying to myself. Experience does not necessarily lie, but that smell is not an experience to the matter which emits it. Death cannot be experienced either by the dead or the living. The project of the Parisian workmen, to aestheticize, to arrange and thus somehow to transform the objects of which they themselves were composed, was a bizarre success, but it could have been done with stale loaves of bread. It affected bones; it could not affect death. It meant as little, it said as little, as this little story of mine. It spoke of them as I must speak of me. I can read their meaning. Death's meaning I cannot read. To me death is above all things a smell, a very bad smell, and that, like the skeletons which terrify children, is not death at all. If I had to smell it more often, if I had to work in the catacombs, I would think nothing of it. And a few years or decades from now, I will think nothing about everything.

II. AUTOPSY THOUGHTS

It shall be the duty of the coroner to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all violent, sudden or unusual deaths. California state code, sec. 274911

Aldous Huxley once wrote that "if most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion." That is why one brushes off the unpleasantly personal lesson of the catacombs. But we can extend the principle: Not only self-knowledge hurts. Consider the black girl whom an investigator pulled from a dumpster one night. Her mouth was bloody, which wasn't so strange; she could have been a homeless alcoholic with variceal bleeding. But, shining the flashlight into that buccal darkness, the investigator caught sight of a glint-neither blood nor spittle sparkling like metal, but metal itself-a broken-off blade. In her mouth, which could no longer speak, lay the truth of her death. The investigator couldn't give her her life back, but by this double unearthing-the knife from the corpse, the corpse from the stinking bin-he'd resurrected something else, an imperishable quantity which the murderer in his fear or fury or cold selfishness meant to entomb-namely, the fact of murder, the reality which would have been no less real had it never become known, but which, until it was known and proved, remained powerless to do good. -What good? Quite simply, determining the cause of death is the prerequisite for some kind of justice, although justice, like other sonorous concepts, can produce anything from healing to acceptance to compensation to revenge to hypocritical clichés. At the chief medical examiner's office they knew this good-knowing also that the job of turning evidence into justice lay not with them but with the twelve citizens in the jury box-what coroners and medical examiners do is necessary but not sufficient. Probably the black woman's family had figured that out, if there were any family, if they cared, if they weren't too stupefied with grief. The morgue would be but the first of their Stations of the Cross. (Afterward: the funeral parlor, the graveyard, perhaps the courtroom, and always the empty house.) Dealing with them was both the saddest and the most important part of the truth-seeker's job: as I said, knowledge hurts. Dr. Boyd Stephens, the chief medical examiner of San Francisco, would later say to me: "One of the things I hoped you'd see was a family coming in here grieving. And when it is a crime of violence, when someone has her son shot during a holdup, that makes it very hard; that's a tremendous emotional blow." I myself am very glad that I didn't see this. I have seen it enough. In the catacombs death felt senseless, and for the investigator who found the black woman, the moral of death remained equally empty, as it must whether the case is suicide, homicide, accident or what we resignedly call "natural causes." Twenty-six years after the event, a kind woman who had been there wrote me about the death of my little sister. I was nine years old, and my sister was six. The woman wrote: "I remember you, very thin, very pale, your shoulders hunched together, your hair all wet and streaming sideways. You said, 'I can't find Julie.'" She wrote to me many other things that she remembered. When I read her letter, I cried. Then she went on: "I am tempted to say that Julie's drowning was a 'senseless death' but that's not true. I learned the day she died that there are realms of life in which the measure of sense and nonsense don't apply. Julie's death exists on a plane where there is no crime and no punishment, no cause and effect, no action and reaction. It just happened." Fair enough. Call it morally or ethically senseless, at least. (I don't think I ever wrote back; I felt too sad.) Only when justice itself condemns someone to death, as when a murderer gets hanged or we bombard Hitler's Berlin or an attacker meets his victim's lethal self-defense, can we even admit the possibility that the perishing had a point. Principled suicides also mean something: Cato's self-disembowelment indicts the conquering Caesar who would have granted clemency, and whose patronizing power now falls helpless before a mere corpse. But most people (including many suicides, and most who die the deaths of malicious judicial injustice) die the death of accident, meaninglessly and ultimately anonymously discorporating like unknown skulls in catacombs-and likewise the black woman in the dumpster. No matter that her murderer had a reason-she died for nothing; and all the toxicology and blood-spatter analyses in the world, even if they lead to his conviction, cannot change that. The murderer's execution might mean something; his victim's killing almost certainly will not.

FROM THE WHITE HEARSE TO THE VIEWING ROOM

In fiscal year 1994-95, slightly more than eight thousand people died in San Francisco County.

Continues...


Excerpted from RISING UP AND RISING DOWN by WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN Copyright © 2003 by William T. Vollmann. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Three meditations on death : I. catacomb thoughts 1
Three meditations on death : II. autopsy thoughts 5
Three meditations on death : III. siege thoughts 14
Introduction : the days of the Niblungs 20
Pt. I Categories and justifications 51
Definitions for lonely atoms 53
Justifications : self-defense 145
Justifications : policy and choice 357
Justifications : fate 416
Evaluations 425
The moral calculus 438
Pt. II Studies in consequences 533
Southeast Asia 535
Europe 598
Africa 637
The Muslim world 640
North America 660
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First Chapter

Rising Up and Rising Down
Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means

Three Meditations on Death

Catacomb Thoughts

Death is ordinary. Behold it, subtract its patterns and lessons from those of the death that weapons bring, and maybe the residue will show what violence is. With this in mind, I walked the long tunnels of the Paris catacombs. Walls of earth and stone encompassed walls of mortality a femur's-length thick: long yellow and brown bones all stacked in parallels, their sockets pointing outward like melted bricks whose ends dragged down, like downturned bony smiles, like stale yellow snails of macaroni -- joints of bones, heads of bones, promiscuously touching, darkness in the center of each, between those twin knucklespurs which had once helped another bone to pivot, thereby guiding and supporting flesh in its passionate and sometimes intelligent motion toward the death it inevitably found -- femurs in rows, then, and humeri, bones upon bones, and every few rows there'd be a shelf of bone to shore death up, a line of humeri and femurs laid down laterally to achieve an almost pleasing masonry effect, indeed, done by masonry's maxims, as interpreted by Napoleon's engineers and brickmen of death, who at the nouveau-royal command had elaborated and organized death's jetsam according to a sanitary aesthetic. (Did the Emperor ever visit that place? He was not afraid of death -- not even of causing it.) Then there were side chambers walled with bones likewise crossed upon bone beams; from these the occasional skull looked uselessly out; and every now and then some spiritual types had ornamented the facade with a cross made of femurs. There had been laid down in that place, I was told, the remains of about six million persons -- our conventional total for the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust. The crime which the Nazis accomplished with immense effort in half a dozen years, nature had done here without effort or recourse, and was doing.

I had paid my money aboveground; I had come to look upon my future. But when after walking the long arid angles of prior underground alleys I first encountered my brothers and sisters, calcified appurtenances of human beings now otherwise gone to be dirt, and rat flesh, and root flesh, and green leaves soon to die again, I felt nothing but a mildly melancholy curiosity. One expects to die; one has seen skeletons and death's-heads on Halloween masks, in anatomy halls, cartoons, warning signs, forensic photographs, photographs of old S.S. insignia, and meanwhile the skulls bulged and gleamed from walls like wet river boulders, until curiosity became, as usual, numbness. But one did not come out of the ground then. Bonewalls curled around wells, drainage sockets in those tunnels; sometimes water dripped from the ceiling and struck the tourists' foreheads -- water which had probably leached out of corpses. A choking, sickening dust irritated our eyes and throats, for in no way except in the abstract, and perhaps not even then, is the presence of the dead salutary to the living. Some skulls dated to 1792. Darkened, but still not decayed, they oppressed me with their continued existence. The engineers would have done better to let them transubstantiate. They might have been part of majestic trees by now, or delicious vegetables made over into young children's blood and growing bones. Instead they were as stale and stubborn as old arguments, molds for long-dissolved souls, churlish hoardings of useless matter. Thus, I believed, the reason for my resentment. The real sore point was that, in Eliot's phrase, "I had not thought death had undone so many"; numbness was giving way to qualmishness, to a nauseated, claustrophobic realization of my biological entrapment. Yes, of course I'd known that I must die, and a number of times had had my nose rubbed in the fact; this was one of them, and in between those episodes my tongue glibly admitted what my heart secretly denied; for why should life have to bear in its flesh the dissolving, poisonous faith of its own unescapable defeat? Atop bony driftwood, skulls slept, eyeholes downward, like the shells of dead hermit crabs amidst those wracked corpse timbers. This was the necrophile's beach, but there was no ocean except the ocean of earth overhead from which those clammy drops oozed and dripped. Another cross of bone, and then the inscription -- SILENCE, MORTAL BEINGS -- VAIN GRANDEURS, SILENCE -- words even more imperious in French than I have given them here, but no more necessary, for the calcified myriads said that better than all poets or commanders. In superstition the carcass is something to be feared, dreaded and hated; in fact it deserves no emotion whatsoever in and of itself, unless it happens to constitute a souvenir of somebody other than a stranger; but time spent in the company of death is time wasted. Life trickles away, like the water falling down into the catacombs, and in the end we will be silent as our ancestors are silent, so better to indulge our vain grandeurs while we can. Moment by moment, our time bleeds away. Shout, scream or run, it makes no difference, so why not forget what can't be avoided? On and on twisted death's alleys. Sometimes there was a smell, a cheesy, vinegary smell which I knew from having visited a field morgue or two; there was no getting away from it, and the dust of death dried out my throat. I came to a sort of cavern piled up to my neck with heaps of bones not used in construction: pelvic bones and ribs (the vertebrae and other small bones must have all gone to discard or decay). These relics were almost translucent, like seashells, so thin had death nibbled them. That smell, that vinegarvomit smell, burned my throat, but perhaps I was more sensitive to it than I should have been, for the other tourists did not appear to be disgusted; indeed, some were laughing, either out of bravado or because to them it was as unreal as a horror movie ...

Rising Up and Rising Down
Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means
. Copyright © by William Vollmann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2004

    Top of The New Canon List

    This should be required reading in 3rd and 4th year high schools in the U.S. It's one of the most beautifully written novels published in the last hundred years, and addresses a topic central to all humanity, no matter the society. Vollman should be given a Nobel prize for literature for his work on this opus, which encompasses a vast scope of human literature and socio-political history. I have to keep a pad of notes with me at all times while reading this, either to reference esoteric classical writings, or to research historical events not described in full. Vollman is a true genius (as is apparent in his other works as well) and hopefully will take a [well-deserved]place in the canon of Western authors.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 29, 2011

    A scholarly work which was hard for this reader to finish...

    This book is the abridged version of a work that was originally 7 volumes long. To Vollman's credit his analysis of violence is encyclopedic, but often difficult to get through. I recommend the work of Yale Professor of Psychiatry Robert J. Lifton for some very profound esplorations of violence and human frailty.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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