Monday, July 13, 2009

WHY I'M READING WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN

Sometimes I have the feeling that no one I know reads this blog, which is rather reassuring because it frees me from having to struggle with my image: old, tubby, rosy, and -- most of all -- female. People cannot get away from the idea that such an appearance signals harmless, loving, not really very bright, endlessly forgiving English teachers. This blog will not accept any photos of me (probably my fault because I don’t really care enough to figure out the problem) and I don’t spend any time trying to fancy up the rest of it with gizmos and widjits. It’s just plain writing.

Which is exhilarating, because I can get away with almost anything (maybe not slander, though others do) and that, coupled with being able to read anything, means something like seminary all over again. Except no worried professor can be trying to give me a grade. I had interpreted the ministry as a credential that let a person go anywhere without being classified as “one of them,” whether they were Nobel laureates or street drunks, but I discovered that ministry is a role and that people will fight to keep you in it. If you get too far off the script they like, you’ll be punished and/or ejected. At least if you’re going to stay in a “denomination” (a named institution) with an income.

Being old can mean either that one is freed from such constraints so long as income and need balance, or that one is finally content to stay inside the guidelines and consider the “other” only as one passes through on a tour bus or a cruise ship. I take the first choice. If you’ve been following this, you’ll realize that that’s how I got to the Blackfeet reservation, that’s why I came back, that’s why I wrote a book with the notorious Barrus and why I’m reading William T. Vollmann’s books.

As long as we’re talking about appearance, I note that Vollmann, esp in his early photos with big glasses and bangs, looks sad but charming: a boy. In the later ones where he’s heavier, pocked and stubbled with buzzed hair, he begins to look scary. But more congruent with his writing which is very tough and scary.

I had wanted to read the series of books about Native Americans and maybe I still will, but the Vollmann book that I could find on Interlibrary Loan started out with a description of catacombs, the Paris ones which are relatively recent if we’re talking about catacombs as ossuaries, bone repositories. Barrus and my book is entitled, “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” -- meaning to imply the many ghosts he lives with because of the AIDS pandemic -- and since I’m the academic-type researcher, I thought I should read “Rising Up and Rising Down.” I’m about three-fourths through and sometimes consider stopping, since it’s a really big book. And crammed with agony.

But I don’t think I will stop. What Vollmann is doing is a kind of schematic of evil/violence/destruction and so on. Most of us go along thinking, “Oh, I know evil when I see it,” as though it were pornography or good art. But Vollmann wants to know why. What makes it evil? What are the causes? Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Nero, Cortez -- he uses the literature in sort of the same way as Annie Dillard writing about her Pilgrim Creek -- to create theory and typology and frame the questions in a little tighter.

Vollmann is mostly self-educated though he is the son of a professor, born when the family was struggling through the starvation grad school years and therefore feeling an affinity with poor people. (He has his undergrad degree, but dropped out of grad school.) He seems to be an only child. Clearly he feels that inconsolability that has marked religious consciousness since Buddha and Jesus and has not been afraid to walk into the company of whores, thieves and criminals. Not to reform them, but to try to see out their eyes. Nor is he afraid of extreme environments, but he isn’t romantically dreamy about it -- he always takes good precautions. He likes guns and understands them. He is anything but a knee-jerk liberal who “loves” Indians but doesn’t know any and would certainly not ask one over for dinner. (Well, unless they were a Harvard grad.)

Vollmann is subtle and complex enough that it’s not a good idea to over-interpret him, so I’ll recommend some of the interviews. The best one IMHO is:
http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/interviews/show/22, but I liked others as well and there are probably more out there.

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2005_11_006908.php
http://www.altx.com/int2/william.t.vollmann.html

Later ones are bound to be better in terms of more focused, but worse in terms of more inscrutable. If one has read the writers he has, it’s bound to help. I know “about” them but have not read them. In fact, their world (drugs, violence, cruelty, evil) is as foreign to me as any hill tribe in Afghanistan, which is part of their attraction to a lot of self-disparaging “middle-class white” males and their nonexistence in the view of most women.

For me, one of the most attractive aspects of Vollmann (which is part of the reason I like these interviews) is his high reflexivity: that is, he’s constantly reexamining his assumptions, his methods, his perception, his writing skill but not in terms of of narcisssim, rather in terms of getting to the goal of understanding.

When one does this sort of relentless examination, one has the problem of revealing others, esp. others in one’s family. But my parents are dead, so I will say frankly that my father always kept a secret hoard of books about forbidden topics, like Vollmann’s. I found them early and read them all. My mother’s favorite book as a young woman, she mentioned several times, was “Tales of Genji” which is one of Vollman’s favs as well. (He’s fond of female prostitutes, but like everyone else, doesn’t mention male whores.) My parents lived exemplary lives of service to others and cautious virtue at home. But down in there someplace was the interest in the “other.” They say that people act out the secret desires of their parent generation. So it’s probably a good thing that my cousins don’t usually read this blog.

4 comments:

Michael Hemmingson said...

http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4025-2

http://www.amazon.com/Expelled-Eden-William-Vollmann-Reader/dp/1560254416/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247526527&sr=1-1

Whisky Prajer said...

The other attractive aspect to WTV interviews is their relative brevity. I'm somewhat in awe of the man. The quality of his writing can vary a bit from book to book, but in the main it is nearly unassailable.

Dave said...

Then there are the old friend who have never "met" you, other than on line. You never know who's reading.
"Searching for God in the Sixties" should be out by Christmas. Stay tuned!

prairie mary said...

Is that you, Dr. Dave? Will you follow up with something like "Going to the Devil in the Nineties?"

I'll watch for the book! So glad to hear it's coming!

Prairie Mary