Sunday, February 18, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Little Haiti

Having reached volume 6 of William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" I find myself awfully tired. Vollmann's work usually swoops up and down between dizzying ecstacy and horrible depression, but when he's writing about violence, death, torture, and war...well, after 3000 pages it gets a bit tedious. I've started feeling like the jaded people he so often mentions in his stories about war-torn countries: these people settle into a "war attitude" where they no longer care about atrocities. They accept their inability to walk around at night or go to certain neighbourhoods as though it were perfectly normal. When writing about Colombia, Vollmann says these people have basically been flayed alive, but then stepped back into their skin again: they hide the atrocities and say everything is alright, even though it isn't, they've lost all their skin but they still LOOK okay.

So while I can't say that "Rising Up and Rising Down" has been metaphorically flaying me, I CAN certainly say it's exhausting me, and it doesn't help that Vollmann's search for meaning in violence has come down to a simple, unworkable conclusion: violence is personalized even in war, nobody can tell anybody how mass violence should proceed because all of the people involved feel violence so personally, and everybody is different and unique.

But anyway, he ends volume six with a section on "Perception and Irrationality." The case study "Nightmares, Prayers, and Ecstasies" is about voodoo and faith healing in the American south, and during a "joy ceremony" I'm finally reading one of those ecstatic, beautifully written moments that Vollmann has been unable to treat me with until now.

Watching a woman possessed by a voodoo spirit during a stifling, hours-long ceremony in Miami, he meditates on spirits and how they can be both sweet and cruel:
That was how it was with the spirits, which I had perhaps thought of as gentle watchful distant beings like Southern girls in Lafayette, standing on their white-washed porches in the evening time, leaning against railings whose pillars resembled a woman's braids artfully reproduced in white-stained wood--Southern girls who stood and leaned and faintly smiled as they watched the world go by from their houses; or spirits like the fat ghetto girls in New Orleans who sat smoking and drinking beer and talking on the extension phone out there on their stoops whose steps were as grimed and stained and crusted as lichened boulders or slaughterhouse tiles; they sat with heat oozing from their steep dark staircases and through their open doorways and between their meaty shoulderblades as they looked outward, watching nothing pass, waiting for nothing and maybe enjoying their lives Sometimes they shifted bottles or beer cans between their legs or even stood up, grabbed a hip and danced for a sticky moment, their stage a cement wall or a brick wall or the square buttock of an air conditioner which the tenant couldn't afford to run. --Some spirits were like that. Others were wild and rash and cruel. There were more of them than stars; there were millions and billions of them; who could know them all? I wanted to know some, at least...


Anonymous said...

Sounds like someone was possessed, for a paragraph or so, with the spirit--or style--of William Faulkner. Appropriate, effective, evocative.


Anonymous said...

He does have a bit of Faulkner in him, at the best of times...good comparison.