I’m finally, belatedly, making inroads with the abridged version of William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, his history and analysis of violence, which he refers to not as a work of history, or cultural analysis, nor even as a book but rather “a long essay” even though what he means by “long” is 3,000 pages. When I was a student at Florida International University they had all seven volumes and I made a big dent in the first one, which I remember presented, among other things, a survey of ancient and modern torture weapons, one of which stands tall in my memory but I won’t even mention it. Nor do I need to–it was omitted from the abridged version that I’m currently reading, a volume whose values appear to be readability, voice, and charm (which it achieves in oodles!) rather than the thoroughness to which Vollmann initially aspired.
It’s a wonderful book, I’m really enjoying it, gleaning lots of insights from it–but it’s frustrating too because, whenever I read a challenging and laboriously researched book like this, I have an ugly desire to “get something” from it, meaning either something I can regurgitate into a work of my own, whether an essay or a blog post (howdy) or a podcast script or whatever, or, more perniciously, I wanna pluck out some piece of wisdom or trivia that I can kinda flash at a party or something. Make myself seem smarter than I am.
I hate acknowledging this because it goes against the sacred idea that the reason we should accumulate knowledge is for the simple pleasure of doing so. In my case, it seems that the chief joy in learning things is that I can exploit the knowledge in my work.
Well last night, after I’d read a good hundred pages or so, I went to the bar and told my bartender-friend, Jackie, that I was reading it…but then I didn’t really know what to say about it. I’d underlined like a dozen different passages but for some reason…none of it was coming back to me.
It seemed the only thing I could remember of the book was the mood of it, the sound of Vollmann’s voice, the feeling of reading his prose and being in the flesh-and-blood company of an interesting and earnest human being (it really is a vivid authorial presence).
Obviously, that’s the lasting impression of a very good book.
But I felt a little bankrupt when I wasn’t able to just regurgitate some witticism or insight. That I couldn’t wear this book’s information as jewelry.
Anyhow. Here’s a good piece of trivia for you from the book in question:
At one point, in talking about the circumstances in which suicide is justified (Vollmann seems to think it’s pretty much always justified), he gives us a list of twelve terms on which seppuku, the famous form of suicide in Japan where someone disembowels themselves with a gruiling slit across the belly, is “justified” (not sure if that’s the right term but let’s go with it).
Or maybe you’d call them the “terms” of seppuku.
The sixth point on the list suggests that if you end your life by way of seppuku and then, in your suicide note, you say that you were driven to do it because a certain person was driving you up a wall–that person would face punishment. Vollmann doesn’t say whether it’s prison or some sort of ritual shaming, but it does seem resoundingly human that authorities would show up to such a grisly scene, appreciate how tormented the victim must have been in order to end their life this way, and decide that, yeah, whoever drove them this nuts oughta be locked up. It was also considered particularly honorable if, after committing seppuku, you gathered up your own intestines in your hand and threw them at whoever it was you wanted to scorn with your death.
Thought that was interesting.
Or maybe it’s not interesting at all, just upsetting, and I’m lucky I didn’t remember it at the bar and burden Jackie with it.