To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human (William T. Vollmann)

And now, a note for those of you who consider this a vulgarly supernatural tale: It may well be that ambitious people of any stripe find themselves compelled to schematize the subjects of their solicitude into, say, Jews to be liquidated, or Jews to be saved. There might not be might not be time to learn the name of every Esther or Isaac who falls within Operation Reinhard’s purview. And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. The gaze of those dark, sharp-edged eye-sockets seems implacable, and the many teeth, which haunted Edgar Allan Poe, snarl much too nakedly, bereft of those festive pink ribbons of flesh we call “lips,” whose convolutions and involutions can express mirth, friendliness, even tenderness. A human skull’s smile is as menacing as a crocodile’s. Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. Under such circumstances, how can that expression be reassuring?

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

5 thoughts on “To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human (William T. Vollmann)”

  1. Vollmann gets it. I’m not sure how he writes so much w/ ever soaring quality. But, if there is a “writer’s writer” living in America right now, Vollmann I’m sure would be one of them. Those passages at the beginning of the second part in “Europe Central,” the Kabbalah ones, are like a blade pulled out of a fire.


    1. I’ve been obsessed the past few days with this idea of craft in Vollmann—like if you compare him with a writer like, say, Lipsyte, who is sentence-driven—I mean, Vollmann more than holds up. And I think Lipsyte’s great, it’s just that there isn’t even a contest, y’know? But—and this is where the obsession comes in—but how does he even have time to craft the prose? Does he craft the prose? There’s all that research, reading, viewing of documents, etc.—I think a person could take a lifetime to even prepare to write Europe Central. I know folks like to knock on him for this, and it’s an easy knock, I think—like, hey, look how ungenerous he is, look how he neglects the reader’s dear time, attention—but it’s really the opposite. Because he’s so committed to his subject, his story, his truth…


      1. I agree. There’s a great line from “The Wonder Boys” film where Hannah Green states of James Leer’s writing that (off the top of my head), ‘He thinks enough of the reader to forget them.’ I wonder about some of those same points, though: How does he do it? It’s absurd, ridiculous, yet sublime and spiritual, concise but almost as if he just copied it from a history book. All of that, to me at least, makes his writing great.


  2. I have the impression that Vollmann cares deeply about the beauty of his prose, and is disturbed when other talented writers’ prose falls short. Have you read his review in the Sunday NYT Book Review of Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All The Light We Cannot See? More than a thriller but less than literature. V.’s reviews can be pretty scathing (see the one of Anthony “Jarhead” Swofford’s novel.) There are few living American writers who can match V.’s writing on the level of consistent sentence construction.

    I am eagerly awaiting Last Stories and Other Stories and, next year, I hope, The Dying Grass.


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