Death Sentences

William T. Vollmann. Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. Ecco. 2004. Abridged version.

You already know a lot about William T. Vollmann if you know that the abridgment of his seven-volume book about when to kill people is still 733 pages long. He missed a couple of spots. It is not enough that Death farted; instead, “Death joked and drank and vulgarly farted.” It is not enough that guns have a use; instead, we read about “what Plato would call their ‘virtue’—their function, their raison d’être, the thing they do best.” A man “died and fell forward, his face swelling and purpling with lividity.” Yes, but what color was his prose?

My argument so far is the less than original one (most often disputed on religious or legalistic grounds—disputed, in short, according to stone-carved moral codes) that it is the right of the self to defend itself, or not defend itself, or even end itself, as it sees fit; that the self is, in short, the basic indissoluble element of autonomy; that whoever attacks another unprovoked imperils those rights, and, therefore, in the course of being repelled, may forfeit them on his own account, should circumstances require it.—“Good thing this won’t be read by social insects,” responds one reader. “Even so, it’s possible to think, ‘How American!’ or whatever.”

“In short” twice in the same sentence? That’s funny. It is difficult to regard with solemnity the “moral calculus” of a writer who cannot subtract.

Thank you for reading this book. My sincere intention in writing it was to be helpful. . . .
I offer it to you, my unknown reader, in the hope that it may someday save a life or comfort a seeking mind. . . . I am proud of it, and I hope that it can benefit someone.

Never trust a man who insists that he is sincere. How does Vollmann intend to be helpful, to save a life, to benefit someone? “My own aim in beginning this book,” he 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.”

As it happens, I don’t need a murder-evaluation protocol at the moment, but I’m willing to listen. Can Vollmann tell me a little about how it works?

Should you find fault with the calculus, as you ought to (I do my best to find fault with everybody else’s; and my chapter on defense of animals remains especially unsatisfactory), I respectfully ask you not to leave a vacuum, but to construct your own. The translator of two old collections of Zen koans has noted that there is no “correct” answer to a koan, and, indeed, one student’s right answer may be wrong if uttered by another. Which does one put first, defense of gender, which might repudiate female circumcision, or defense of culture, which might demand it? . . . My moral calculus cannot tell you that. However, what it can do is to remind you that if you consider only one of those two categories of defense, your judgment will remain superficial, unfair, and therefore unrealistic. Can defense of gender meet defense of culture somewhere? I hope and believe so, provided that both sides respect each other by applying some approximation of the Golden Rule.

Behold: a simple, practical toolbox that does not open. What can the moral calculus tell us about, say, cutting off little girls’ private parts? Perhaps the defense of gender can meet the defense of culture somewhere—at least we may hope and believe so—provided both sides respect each other by applying some approximation of the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule!

Help us, Vollmann. Save our lives. Comfort our seeking minds.

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