Writers Can Do Anything

By Joe Fassler

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

William T. Vollmann surely takes artistic freedom as seriously as any living writer. His books—sometimes to the dismay of his publishers—routinely compare length-wise with the King James Bible and Infinite Jest. His three most recent books include a series of trangender self-portraits, an investigative report on nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan, and this month, a whopping collection of what he calls “ghost stories.” Through it all, he deploys writing styles that range as widely as the broad topics he covers—war, economic inequality, fetishists, prostitution.

Vollmann, in other words, always writes the book he wants to write.

In our interview for this series, Vollmann discussed a short, paradoxical aphorism from the 11th-century cult figure, Hassan-i Shabbah, a mystic and religious leader who retained power using a stable of trained killers. In his unpacking of the maxim’s many paradoxical layers, Vollmann explored how freedom—in art, governance, and life—must be protected, and yet must have its limits.

Last Stories and Other Stories is a sprawling, enchanting casket of curiosities. Over 600 pages long, and copiously epigraphed, these stories range from novella-length to just a single paragraph. In their elegant, elegiac meditations on death and the afterlife, we cross broad terrain, including geishas in ancient Japan, vampires in preindustrial Bohemia, and bombings in modern-day Sarajevo.

Vollmann’s previous book of fiction, Europe Central (2005), won the National Book Award for Fiction. He spoke to me from his writer’s studio in Sacramento, where he lives.


William T. Vollmann: Hassan the Assassin, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, was a legendary figure from 11th and 12th century Persia. He lived in a mountain fortress with a gang of young men he’d hired to be assassins, guys who were prepared to kill and die for him. He’d reward them for their work by drugging them with hashish—the words assassin and hashish actually have the same Arabic root—and they’d wake up in a cave filled with wine and beautiful women. He had brought them to paradise, he’d tell them. If they did his bidding, they would end up there forever.

Hassan the Assassin lived by a proverb that’s long been an object of contemplation for me:

Nothing is true; all is permissible.

I haven’t followed this line as any kind of guiding principle. These aren’t necessarily words to live by. But it’s a deeply resonant maxim, one that contains within it many layers of meaning, and there’s a great deal to be learned by looking at its two parts and turning them around. As a credo, it can be inspirational—or alarming—on many different levels.

If we apply “nothing is true; all is permissible” in its most immediate, literal meaning, it appears to be a horrible, dangerous idea—though perhaps perfect for an assassin. Saying “Nothing is true” is the same as saying “Everything is true,” as far as I’m concerned. Because if nothing is true, don’t all claims to truth have equal weight? If all is true, any form of human behavior becomes valid. Who can say it’s wrong to kill another person for money—or merely for hashish? All is permissible. You might read these lines as an insistence on the relativity of ethics, and they could even be applied to excuse a kind of moral nihilism.

At the same time, I see a kind of freedom in these words. In my book The Rainbow Stories, I spent time writing about communities in San Francisco where there’s a lot of BDSM stuff. The people in that world love to pretend all kinds of fantastic or preposterous or sometimes very frightening-sounding things—but none of it’s true, and so all of it’s permissible. Viewed one way, the Assassin’s maxim could be used to excuse terrible, harmful behavior—but it also could be instructive for role-players, gamers, and others who want to live out their fantasies on their own terms. It’s a reminder that the fictional aspect of the fantasy makes it permissible.

In fact, when we’re working in solely in the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb becomes a very uplifting idea. For me, as an artist, it’s been a great help. While I’m working on a book, it’s a reminder that I don’t have to worry about making a mistake, about writing “poorly,” or about taking on a difficult or ambitious project. I try to remain open, reminding myself that all is permissible as I work. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook later—ultimately, I have to live with any work I publish and make public. But it’s a very freeing feeling during the composition process, when I try to keep in mind that nothing is off-limits.

Sometimes, this is very difficult. There have been times when I’m writing about things that are personally embarrassing.  Like any human being, sometimes I can’t help but wonder—what are the people I know going to think about this? So I have to remind myself that all is permissible. Art has to be a free space. Language has to be a free space. And I just shouldn’t worry about that kind of thing while I’m working. I might pay the consequences later, but that’s not my problem while I’m doing the writing.

I feel the same way about the publishing marketplace. I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.

Though this is becoming more difficult. As large publishers turn into monopolies, and the MBAs who are running them—maybe editors used to run them before—are steadily tightening the screws, they feel more and more that they get to call the shots. The last couple books I’ve written have had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. This had never happened before, but I couldn’t get them stricken from the contracts. So did the only thing I could: I just ignored them. This could mean that my book will be rejected, and I’ll have to pay my advance back, and a very unfortunate situation might develop. But I can’t let that outcome dictate what I want to do.

At the end of the day, when I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing. This may mean, at any time, that I won’t be publishable anymore. There’s all kinds of pressure on people to do this and that, and not this and the other thing—but I think I would feel ashamed, and despondent, if I let others dictate the terms of my work. If I let others tell me that nothing I wrote was true, and every demand of theirs was permissible.

This Assassin’s maxim was especially useful to me as I wrote the latest of my Seven Dreams series, called The Dying Grass, about the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was a very challenging project because I decided to invent what’s essentially a new form. You don’t read this book like other books: instead, as you read from left to right, the page works like a stage. The left-hand part of the page works like the forefront of the stage, and the right edge of the paper is the backdrop. And so, there might be conversations on the left hand on the page—and what people are actually thinking might occur in the center, and perhaps landscape descriptions appear in the back, or occasionally when they really strike somebody, they appear in the front. This approach gives the page a kind of dimensionality, multiple layers of foreground and background.

An example: In one scene, my protagonist, General Howard, and his aide-de-camp walk through a battlefield—and there are all kinds of wounded, lying there, calling for help. There’s a cacophony of voices, spread across the page. One wounded confederate solider in particular is crying for help, way on the right hand side of the page, lost among all these other voices. But gradually, this voice moves farther and father to the left—and suddenly, it’s in the same column as the main characters’ dialogue. So the reader can see right away they’re engaging with this guy.

It took years to figure this out and make it work. It’s just a very weird-looking thing. But it turns out to be very easy to read. There’s so much white space, that it’s almost like reading a play or a movie script or something like that. Much less dense than my books usually are. But I had to overcome my own resistance and fear when I started it. I thought it would be too difficult. I worried I’d put a couple of hundred pages into it, and no one would be able to make sense of it. Then I’ll have lost years, I told myself. But I ended up being proud of it, and very fulfilled by the experience. It was a wonderful experiment. And it helped me to remind myself that nothing is true, that reading in strict left-to-right rows of text is not necessarily the only true way, and all is permissible in art.

Of course, the same freedoms extend to science. It’s in part because nothing is true scientifically: No scientific observation can be proven true forever and ever, and great, widely accepted theories fall and will continue to. It’s crucial for the health of science that any thought experiment is permissible, that we’re always allowed to question even the most entrenched ideas. To the extent that science is like art, you want it to be a free space. No scientist should be told what to think, or what not to think. We’re all hoping that as a result of this freedom, scientists will get closer and closer to amazing new discoveries about the nature of reality.

But the difference is that art is mostly powerless to hurt people. When you extend “all is permissible” into the real world, it can become dangerous. It can encourage a certain lack of conscience—the unnerving side of the scientific method, which underlies so much of our culture today. Science doesn’t ask what is right—it just asks what is true. And a wonderful discovery that a scientist makes could lead to something that destroys life on earth.

Does evil exist in an artistic context? In other words, should some things not be permissible in art? I would say no. There have been people who think that it does. Plato thought certain kinds of music should be banned from the Republic because they were too effeminate, or voluptuous, or whatever, and would weaken the body politic. I prefer to think that all should be allowed in art. And that, in a way, comes down to my political belief about the right of the self. The First Amendment: What a great idea! Why not universalize that, and say we all have the right to express ourselves. Even if we hate what other people are saying—all the more reason to cherish the freedom that we are giving ourselves by giving those other people the right to make bad art, or to be Nazis marching down the streets of Skokie—whatever it is.

When looked at this way, “nothing is true” is a great, democratizing idea: If there is no objective truth, no person or entity should have the right to impose ideas on anyone else. In this sense, “nothing is true” leads naturally to the conclusion that “all is permissible”—if all ideas have an equal right to exist, people should not be given more or less freedom on the basis of their ideas.

But once we leave the world of art and ideas, and start talking about actions and behavior, it seems important to say that only some things are true. Extended to the realm of politics, the Assassin’s proverb quickly takes on troubling significance. I think of George W. Bush with the Iraq War: no weapons of mass destruction, no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, nation building was another fraud, none of the proposed justifications were true. It was all bullshit. And how many thousands have we killed? So, we can say, he acted as if nothing was true, but all was permissible—including torture. That’s the definition of an unjust war. If political leaders are applying “Nothing is true; all is permissible,” we can be sure they’re going to be doing evil things. It’s the same thing as saying the ends justify the means.

You see this with environmental issues as well. About a year ago I started working on a nonfiction book about coal versus nuclear power. Not so much about which is better or worse—they’re probably both awful—but what ordinary people think about them. I’ve found that so many Americans, especially in the coal counties of West Virginia, really don’t believe in global warming. But I suspect that a lot of the political leaders who say that they don't believe in it, actually might think that it’s possible. They’re acting like nothing is true, and all is permissible. To take this stance, and behave as though all forms of rhetoric are justified in the pursuit of power, is harmful and irresponsible.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered are the ones who insist only some things are true, but also feel that all things are permissible. I remember one time I was interviewing a Russian special forces guy in Belgrade during the Bosnian War. He really liked to kill people. He wanted me to join him. He told me that if I would just give him my passport right then, he would burn it, and then I would be completely dependent on him. He’d make me into a new man. He’d give me food and cigarettes. I wouldn’t get much sleep. He’s teach me how to jump out of airplanes, and rape muslim women and slit people’s throats, and I would become a real man like him. At some point, when he was making this very enticing offer, he took a bayonet and put it to my throat, pressing it almost hard enough to cut into my skin. My interpreter was quite afraid that the guy was going to cut my throat. And I was afraid, too. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it either, except try to be calm and accepting of whatever was going to happen. Every war journalist, I suppose, has moments like that. But that was definitely a moment that it seemed that he felt nothing I believed was true, and he felt that all was permissible, including killing me. He felt his point of view was truer than mine, and he had the latitude to do whatever he wanted about it.

He was creating, in his mind, this new order. He’d been with the Russian special forces in Afghanistan, and he conceded that they shouldn’t have been there. That was their place, and the Russians should have stayed out. And now the Muslims needed to be quiet, as he put in, in Serbia and in Bosnia because that wasn’t their place. He was a big believer in ethnic cleansing. I believe anyone has the right to any opinion, no matter how deranged. The problem is, it went beyond that. This stuff, which was just a sick fantasy, was something that he and a lot of other violent people were busy making into something true. Every day, they were going out there and removing the Muslims, so that it would not be a Muslim place anymore.

If only some things are true—then it holds that only some things are permissible, because there can be right and wrong. Once you’re willing to say that only some things are true, but all is permissible in the attainment of that truth, you are on very dangerous ground. 

When I worked out my moral calculus in Rising Up and Rising Down, I began with the assumption that maybe is not too controversial: The self has certain rights. The self has the right to defend itself—violently, if need be, or not. And it has the right to defend others, or not; violently, or not. To the extent that we infringe on those rights, unless there are other compelling considerations, considerations of proportionality or discrimination, I would say we are committing evil.

So it seems to me the only just political credo would be: “Some things are true, and some things are permissible.” Anyone who says anything different, and has political power or a gun, needs to be watched carefully.

But if a writer says that only some things are true—saying only these aesthetic rules are true, and these things are never permissible, for all time—then I’m inclined to say, screw you.

I think that for an artist, certainly, it’s good to remember that nothing is true for all time—and therefore, that all is permissible. You shouldn’t get struck in any one truth. Every idea, every identity is doomed to die, just as we are. I think that’s one reason I try so many different approaches in my books—I don’t want to limit myself to one approach, one artistic self. 

And why shouldn’t ideas continually change, when there’s so much we can never know—will never know? Death, for instance, will always escape us. I just finished writing a book of ghost stories, though I don’t really believe in ghosts. I can’t say there’s not an afterlife—nothing is true, after all, and there might be—and though I’m not holding my breath, I have to admit we can’t really know what death is! That’s why we’re always engaging with it, trying to understand death by animating and personifing it, by giving it some sort of life and face. And death, of course, is nothingness—so we’re always doomed to fail. And yet, it’s this effort itself that forms our only possible relationship to death. I like to think that creating these quite absurd characters—ghouls and ghosts, dead people, scenarios in the grave—was actually my way of trying to imagine something that helps me prepare myself for death. And maybe readers will feel something of the same.

With death, we know for sure that nothing we imagine is true—and so it might be that nothing is permissible, nothing will be permissible after we die, very likely. In the meantime, all is permissible in trying to understand death, because whatever we understand won’t be true anyway—so it doesn’t matter. We can only project ourselves onto it.

A detail from the cover of Vollmann's The Book of Dolores (Random House) 

So this saying of Hassan the Assassin’s holds many things at once: it is nihilistic, it is democratic, it is brutal, it is fair. For me, in the end, it’s a reminder of the shifting terrain of self-knowledge—how nothing is true for long in our hearts, how anything can change in us, and how often one transforms in one’s attempts to know oneself. I am continually surprised in my autobiographical writing at how much my understanding of myself has changed. I recently put out a book of transgender self-portraits, and when I put on a wig and photographed myself, or drew watercolor pictures of myself as a woman, I thought: Who is this person? It’s not really me—this person, this woman, doesn’t exist. In another hour I’m going to take off the wig and the breast forms and wash off the lipstick. Yet I’m staring at this person in the mirror who is alive and looking back at me, and I don’t know this person at all. It’s very eerie. I couldn’t really have believed the strangeness of it if I hadn’t done it. Who was that person, looking back? It’s a reminder that everything we think about ourselves can change, our very notions of ourselves can change, and even the notions we’re surest of still change and die, they always will, like us. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/writers-can-do-anything/374481/