“The Stench of Corpses” is a self-review by William T. Vollmann of the poorly-received and rarely read book Argall, one of his “Seven Dreams” series (still incomplete). The piece originally ran in the October 7, 2001 edition of The Los Angeles Times, but I read it in Expelled from Eden, a Vollmann reader that I am very much enjoying. There’s an immediate post-9/11 vibe running through Vollmann’s scathing review of Vollmann, culminating in his declaration that Argall is “positively un-American.”
“The Stench of Corpses”
A hundred years after William T. Vollmann was killed in a gun cleaning accident, I, William the Blind, received a commission to review the long novel “Argall,” which marks the midpoint of his uncompleted “Seven Dreams” series. According to Dombey’s “Easily Digested Biographies of Minor Authors,” which I just happen to have right here inside my reading pod, it was always Vollmann’s hope that the “Seven Dreams,” which were second in ambition only to his still-unpublished essay on violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” would “somehow, uh, mean something to people a hundred years from now.”
This desire is best understood as a form of wish compensation. Vollmann lived what can only be called a pathetic life. Isolated within and stubbornly estranged from millennial American society, he consoled himself with a sophomorically romantic belief that art, if protected in time capsules, can outlast Dark Ages. Let’s temporarily ignore the fact that Vollmann’s so-called art was never worth preserving, being infested by individualism, moral relativism and sexual depravity. More to the point, since stars, elephants and gods suffer death, how could even the greatest art be “immortal”? As we all know, the Liu-Mallinger Act of 2027, which made cranial stimulation devices compulsory for all inhabitants of the Global Trans-Industrial Zone, reduced the printed word to irrelevancy at last.
The wearisome wordiness of Shakespeare, the absurdly ambiguous parables of Hawthorne and the poison of the French Decadents were all replaced by pictures whose content could be guaranteed. And so the “Seven Dreams” molder unread in their vanity-plated time capsule. In Sen. Mallinger’s deservedly famous words, “When I say, ‘ball’ I want to know that everybody’s seeing the same red, white and blue ball.”
“Argall,” whose story emblematizes a personified and of course feminine Virginia, is no better or worse than any of the other “Seven Dreams.” That is why nobody reads “Argall.” No one looks for “Argall.” No one can find “Argall.” Good riddance, say I. To quote from “Argall” itself (the reference is to a fellow who’s searching for Pocahontas’ skeleton), “had the critic found her, what would he have done? Coffined her, borne her back seaward to some brown Virginian marsh crowned by grey and yellow weeds? Locked her into his cabinet of curiosities? All he discovered was a menagerie of human and animal remnants. What power could have swallowed her so thoroughly, but ooze?”
Enough. Holding our noses, let’s try to take this menagerie of remnants on its own terms.
This book’s first sin, as you might have already gathered from the foregoing, consists in its so-called Elizabethan language, whose archaisms, variant spellings and preposterous figures of speech substantially impede the reader in any attempt to envision the ball in any uniform fashion. Here is a sentence plucked at random from the mess: “He search’d for an issue of fair water, there to make another well, for he misdoubted him not that the river they drunk from was somehow tainted with disease, yet could discover no convenient place to make his diggings.” Much time and trouble would have been saved, had this so-called novelist written what he meant: “In order to get more healthful water, he intended to dig a well, but couldn’t.” The arch apostrophe, the ignorant substitution of “drunk” for “drank,” the ink-wasting double negation, well, really all this makes me crave to spew.
Second, and worse, Vollmann insists on retelling the revered legend of Pocahontas in the ignoblest possible terms. The majestic Indian princess gets reduced to a childish victim, the resourceful Capt. John Smith to a double-hearted, ultimately impotent adventurer and everybody else comes off much worse. Vollmann conceived “Seven Dreams” as what he called a “symbolic history of our continent over the last thousand years”–a hubristic enough project, to be sure, in which the various benefits which European civilization brought are systematically ignored and the atrocities highlighted. This perversity becomes wearisome.
From the first volume, in which the iron weapons of the Norsemen are depicted as the reification of evil, it’s clear that this idiot literally has axes to grind. You may be sure when you read “Argall” that hardheadedness, military necessity, just retaliation, taxation in kind, free trade and collective survival will never be given their due. For instance, we continually have to see Capt. Smith “extorting” corn from Pocahontas’ people, the Powhatan Indians, who’d already refused to barter even for English hatchets of the highest possible quality.
Measured responses by the English to murders committed by Indians are constantly misrepresented as atrocities. (One can only be glad that Vollmann disappeared from the national scene before having any chance to dribble his venom over our eminently just nuclear retaliation against Afghanistan in March 2002.) In the end, we begin almost to feel that this author believes that this America of which we’re so proud was never worth hacking out of the wilderness, let alone preserving and fighting for. In a tone of bored bemusement he tells us that “from 1606 ’till 1625, out of 7,000 Colonists sent to pickaxe away [Virginia’s] maidenhead, 6,000 perished!” And yet he seems less sorry for them than for Pocahontas, who by his own admission died married and within hailing distance of an exotic foreign capital (London). Apparently (if Vollmann can be trusted here), she even got to see King James.
This subversion of any utilitarian calculus (the greatest good for the greatest number) is worth investigating, for it helps the astute reader to understand precisely what’s wrong with sentimental books such as “Argall.” In one typical passage, the last I’ll afflict you with, Pocahontas, now christened Rebecca, visits the wholesome new metropolis of Hampton, which lies on the site of a former Indian town:
“English children are building Forts & Towers in the floury sand. A sea-otter swims close, raising his head to goggle with huge, sad eyes. The children commence hooting at him and presently throw stones. But he will not depart. Rebecca wonders if he might be the SPIRIT of 1 of her dead kinsmen. Is he looking at her, or … ? After a time they give o’er their cruelty & ignore him. They’re dragging monstrous kelp-weeds out of the sea, with which they would enchain in each other in their play. And always that sea-otter lurks sadly there.”
This use (I should say misuse) of the pathetic fallacy taints the scene with spurious mournfulness, when actually there is nothing to mourn about this innocent children’s game (note that the otter hasn’t even been hurt).
Vollmann wants us to regret the inevitable, to privilege the melancholy of the few over the honest subsistence of the many, to slur just conquest–and he goes about it insidiously, never coming right out to say that it was wrong for the English to dispossess the indigenous inhabitants of that spot in retaliation for their terrorism against Jamestown–good God! If that was wrong, what would Vollmann have said about our obliteration of Iraq in 2003, or the absolutely essential police measures taken in Palestine in 2004?
Not to put too fine a point on it, Vollmann’s book doesn’t just stink (I think it’s the stench of corpses), it’s positively un-American.