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SOURCE: "Susan Sontag's Cavalier Cavaliere," in The Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 1992, p. 11.
[In the following review of The Volcano Lover, Rubin writes that Sontag provides a fresh approach to the story of Admiral Horatio Nelson and his lover Emma Hamilton.]
A diplomat by vocation, a collector by avocation, the eponymous "volcano lover" of Susan Sontag's meditative, unconventional, historical romance [The Volcano Lover] is a typical man of the Enlightenment. As the British envoy from 1764 to 1800 to the court of Naples (capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), Sir William Hamilton—or, as Sontag dubs him, "the Cavaliere,"—divides his time between attending upon the outrageously uncouth Bourbon king and attending to his own special passions: collecting antique vases and other objets d'art and exploring the famous, still-active volcano of Mt. Vesuvius.
The Cavaliere is urbane, aristocratic, and possessed of a keenly inquiring mind. He has cultivated an attitude of detached superiority that allows him to take pleasure in life's diversity and vicissitudes. Interested in everything, but disturbed by almost nothing, he is the quintessential expatriate: "Where those stunned by the horror of the famine and the brutality and incompetence of the government's response saw unending inertia, lethargy, and a hardened lava of ignorance, the Cavaliere saw a flow. The expatriate's dancing city is often the local reformer's or revolutionary's immobilized one, ill-governed, committed to injustice. Different distance, different cities."
Volcanoes, too, look better from a safe distance. But the Cavaliere's boundless curiosity drives him to venture up the mountain again and again to peer into the smoldering crater. It is almost as if his familiarity with the volcano, combined with his aristocratic detachment, has left him feeling immune to its dangers.
"To love volcanoes," the narrator elsewhere observes, "was to put the revolution in its place." The Cavaliere's sense of disengagement, his ability to take the long view, helps him to view with equanimity the massive social upheaval that will shake Europe during his tenure as envoy.
The Cavaliere's wife, Catherine, a devoted, musically gifted woman, does not share his enthusiasm—either for volcanoes or for the vulgar, corrupt Neapolitan court. Yet her gentle and loving presence has been very important to him, so much so that when she dies, still in her early 40s, he loses his zest for life. But then, his life is changed again when a beautiful, vibrant, young woman—the former mistress of his nephew—arrives in Naples to stay with him. Although she is of humble background, a blacksmith's daughter, she is bright, affectionate, quick to learn, and gifted with a rare ability to enter into other people's feelings. She becomes the Cavaliere's mistress and later—to his family's consternation—his wife. Her married name is one that will become famous and notorious: Emma Hamilton.
The love affair of Emma Hamilton and the great British Admiral Horatio Nelson was a scandal in its time and has been a source of material for novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers ever since—from well-known retellings like Terence Rattigan's play "A Bequest to the Nation" and the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh film of "That Hamilton Woman" to the kind of informal parodies that made the subject of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton a staple of after-dinner charades and tableaux vivants. It has been viewed as a grand love story; it has also been viewed as an outbreak of foolish passion that led a great hero (and otherwise honorable married man) to lose his judgment over a blowsy, no-longer-beautiful, reputedly vulgar, married woman.
In attempting a fresh look at this story in The Volcano Lover: A Romance, Sontag is resourceful. Her first defense against triteness is to shift the bulk of attention to the neglected figure of Emma's husband, William—"the Cavaliere." In addition to putting a somewhat overshadowed figure into the limelight, this enables the author to portray Emma's charms—and Nelson's charisma—as seen through the eyes of a seasoned diplomat, who feels love and admiration both for his wife and their distinguished friend. Sontag also combats the reader's sense of over-familiarity by almost never referring to the characters by their all-too-well-known names: thus, Hamilton becomes "the Cavaliere" or "the collector," Emma, "the Cavaliere's wife," and Nelson, "the hero." In the same vein, Goethe, who makes a cameo appearance visiting Naples in the course of his famous "Italian journey," is identified simply as "the poet."
Narrating most of the story in her own voice, with plenty of opportunities for essayistic asides, Sontag surveys the salient features of the age. "The collector" and "the poet" are seen as epitomizing the contrast between the old-fashioned Enlightenment desire to add to the sum of knowledge and the "modern" (or Romantic) lust to understand the secrets of nature and human nature in order to be able to transform the world and oneself. Nelson, "the hero," emerges as a figure like his great foe Napoleon: concentrated, dynamic, and single-minded. He is also sincerely devoted to the idea of attaining glory through military bravery. He wants to be admired and "understood."
Some of Sontag's generalizations are surprisingly shopworn, as when she observes that the difference between an age that idealized its heroes and our own preference for seeing them "warts and all" is the result of our democratic dislike of "feeling inferior."
Perhaps Sontag's most impressive achievement is the way she places events in context: from the intimate drama of a love affair to the world-shaking crises of human—and natural—history. Before she is through, we have heard from everyone from the Cavaliere's first wife to Emma's doting mother, not to mention an unwittingly self-incriminating self-defense by Emma. Sontag gives the last word to Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel, one of the band of brave, gifted, and truly cultivated Neapolitan patriots condemned to death by Nelson—who is in league with the vengeful Bourbon monarchy—for their part in the short-lived Neapolitan Republic.
What are we to think of a "civilized" Cavaliere who allows some of his own friends and fellow-naturalists to perish? And what of the warm-hearted, ever-sympathetic Emma, who cannot be bothered to think of anyone beyond her immediate circle? Sontag's penetrating, insightful portrayal of these people and their times is a devastating illustration of how seemingly minor moral blindness can lead to major moral catastrophes.
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Susan Sontag 1933–
American essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, dramatist, and film director.
The following entry presents an overview of Sontag's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 10, 13, and 31.
Sontag is one of the most influential contemporary American critics. Considered a popular icon for her role in the development of modern culture and intellectual thought, Sontag addresses issues of interpretation and has exposed Americans to the works of modern European intellectuals.
Sontag was born January 16, 1933, in New York City, but spent her youth in Tucson and Los Angeles. She graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and entered the University of California, Berkeley, transferring after one year to the University of Chicago, from which she received a B.A. in philosophy in 1951. While at the University of Chicago, Sontag met Philip Rieff, a social psychologist; the couple married in 1950 and had a son, David, two years later, but divorced in 1959. Sontag pursued graduate studies at Harvard from 1951 to 1957, earning master's degrees in English (1954) and philosophy (1955). She continued her graduate studies at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and the University of Paris. After several years of teaching at various universities, Sontag began writing full-time; her first collection of critical essays was published in 1966. In the early 1970s Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer, which contributed to her writing of Illness as Metaphor (1978.)
In her first collection of critical essays, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), Sontag eschewed standard methods of critical analysis that rely on content and various levels of meaning, asserting instead that the function of criticism is to show "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than show what it means." Included in this collection is the famous essay "Notes on Camp" in which Sontag defends "camp" as a serious art form. Styles of Radical Will (1969) contains the essay "The Pornographic Imagination" in which Sontag argues that pornography is a valid literary genre. Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) both deal with the way in which western society interprets and creates cultural myths about disease. Sontag has also written several works of fiction, including The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and a collection of short stories entitled I, etcetera (1978). Most noted among her fiction is The Volcano Lover (1992), an unusual account of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson told from the point of view of Hamilton's husband, Sir William Hamilton. This novel provides a sweeping look at society and culture in Naples from 1764 to 1780, with which the author contrasts contemporary culture. Sontag has also written a play, Alice in Bed (1993), about the life of Alice James, the sister of Henry and William James.
Sontag's work has generated much criticism. While some reviewers have praised her for providing a new interpretation of modern culture and for exposing Americans to modern European writers and intellectuals, others contend that Sontag's arguments are not supported adequately and that she diverges too much from her central themes. Bruce Bower writes, "It sometimes seems as if Sontag's chief priority as an essayist is not to clarify, persuade, or illuminate, but to demonstrate to the world that she is the highest of the highbrows, an intellectual, a breed apart from the lesser scribblers." Some critics have made similar assessments of her fiction. Richard Jenkyns states that Sontag has put too much of her own voice in The Volcano Lover: "Her characters are squeezed out to make room for her own insistent voice." Most critics, however, are united in their praise of Sontag's descriptive narrative and her depiction of historical trends and settings.
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SOURCE: "A Moral Tale," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 14, August 13, 1992, pp. 3, 4, 6.
[Below, Annan offers a positive review of The Volcano Lover.]
The Volcano Lover is the story of Nelson and Emma and William Hamilton. Susan Sontag calls it "a romance" and is intrepid enough to describe the first kiss between Nelson and Emma, "the fat lady and the short man with one arm." A frisson of ecstasy comes across; the scene works. And so does the pathos of the whole familiar saga. All the same, I should not call Sontag's book a romance so much as a moral tale, with reflections on many different topics coming out of it like balloons from a cartoon strip. The range of topics is extraordinary: travel, melancholy, painting portraits, telling jokes, the neoclassical versus the modern ideal in art, changes in conceptions of greatness, changes in attitudes to women, environmental pollution, the nature of performance, irony, revolution, mobs, liberal intellectuals and how they don't understand the masses, and collecting.
Sir William Hamilton is the "Volcano Lover." He was a collector of art, antiquities, and natural specimens and wrote a book on volcanology. He bought the late Roman Portland vase and resold it to the Duchess of Portland who allowed it to be copied by the Wedgwood factory; which prompts a reflection on mass production. And that is not all, by any means, even with the many reflections erupting from Vesuvius itself. A volcano is almost too perfect a metaphor for almost too many things. Not that this one is an abstract idea; there are many—perhaps just a few too many—virtuoso takes of it heaving, churning, thundering, oozing, and belching sulphurous fumes.
The reflections, in their turn, are punctuated by maxims: "Living abroad facilitates treating life as a spectacle—it is one of the reasons that people of means move abroad"; "the zero point of pleasure [is] where pleasure consists in being able to put unpleasant thoughts out of one's mind." One thinks of La Rochefoucauld, and because Sontag generally refers to her three principal characters as "the hero," "the beauty," and "the Cavaliere," one also thinks of La Bruyère. And this seems appropriate, because her psychology is not the psychology of Freud and after, but of an earlier, more severe age. She is not interested, in how people get to be the way they are, but in their motives.
There are many versions of the Nelson/Emma story. In the most traditional one, Nelson is a hero caught in the toils of a vulgar, boozy trollop, and Sir William is a bloodless elderly cuckold. Recent writers (Tom Pocock, for instance, in his popular biography of Nelson published five years ago) acknowledge Hamilton's dignity and decency, and Emma's affectionate and enthusiastic nature. The most romantic version is Alexander Korda's film That Hamilton Woman. It was made in 1941 as a piece of patriotic propaganda, stars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and is a regular performer on midnight TV. Napoleon is the off-screen Hitler look-alike: Nelson, of course, a super-hero, Sir William sometimes inhuman and sometimes quite humane; Emma not only irresistible, but selfless and self-sacrificing. And thin: even in the opening flash-forward to her last days in Calais, when she had become a helpless mountain of flesh. Leigh remains a genteel wraith. To Sontag, Emma's fatness is what comes closest to making her—but doesn't quite—into a feminist martyr: "for nothing was she judged more harshly than her failure at what is deemed a woman's greatest most feminine accomplishment; the maintenance and proper care of a no longer youthful body…. Though it was still several decades before the Romantics inaugurated the modern cult of thinness … she was not to be pardoned for becoming fat."
The version of history that Sontag seems to favor is to be found in an extraordinary book called Naples in 1799 and published in London in 1903. It is by Constance Giglioli ("née Stocker," it says on the title page), and is a passionate indictment of the behavior of the Bourbons, the Hamiltons, and Nelson toward the defeated Neapolitan republicans. Even some of Sontag's descriptions of tortures and executions seem closely based on Giglioli or on her sources. Still, Sontag is very taken with Emma to begin with (and before she got fat): with her stunning looks, her spontaneity, her sympathy and compassion, her courage, her quick intelligence, her eagerness to improve herself, her unpretentiousness, her gift for languages (in Naples she soon made herself fluent in French and Italian), her musical talent. Sontag's Emma sings ravishingly; Pocock's merely sings loud. Sontag even takes-seriously Emma's famous "attitudes"—the poses she struck at parties in imitation of scenes from classical history and mythology. In her book, they are not the half-absurd, half-erotic, and probably a bit embarrassing posturings most people imagine, but inspired performances offering their audience unique aesthetic insights. She calls in Goethe as a witness. But Goethe will have to wait until later.
Sir William gets the first quarter of the book to himself and it is clear that Sontag likes him a lot too. He is handsome, affectionate though not passionate, civilized, well-behaved, and his strategy for living his life is admirable. "He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another, by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms." Besides, he comes truly to love Emma. As she grows less careful about behaving like a lady, more drunk, noisy, and vulgar, he does nothing to restrain her. He has stopped "minding: he loved her." As for Nelson, "the thirty-five-year-old captain was undoubtedly a star—like the Cavaliere's wife"; and like Olivier and Leigh. Later in the book Emma will describe stardom as experienced from the inside: "Wherever I went, I felt chosen. I do not know from where I drew such confidence. I could not have been that extraordinary, and yet I was." In order to drum up sympathy for Nelson—her own included—Sontag has much to say about his gruesome mutilations and the unimaginable courage with which he bore them. But she does not truly admire him:
The hero wants to be understood—which for him means being praised and sympathized with and encouraged. And the hero is romantic: that is, his vanity matched by an inordinate capacity for humility when his affections were engaged. He felt so honored by the Cavaliere's friendship, by the friendship and then the love (he dared call it love) of his wife. If I am loved by people of this quality, then I know I am worth while.
There is surely a hint of contempt here and the word "romantic" is not a complimentary one: in fact, if it weren't about so many other things as well, Sontag might have called her book Against Romanticism.
She dwells on the great admiration and affection between all three of her principal characters both before and after Nelson and Emma become lovers, and right up until Sir William's death. He admired Nelson because he was a hero; and Nelson admired him because he was civilized, learned, and grand. It was a good ménage à trois. What disgraced the trio was not adultery and its condonement, but their behavior in 1799 toward the defeated Neapolitan republic after the British Navy under Nelson put the Bourbons back on their throne. Not only Republicans, but even mere suspected sympathizers, some of them from leading Neapolitan families, were publicly hanged or beheaded, and often tortured first—and that in spite of a treaty promising them a free passage into exile. Nelson could not distinguish between justice (as he saw it) and punishment. Self-righteously, he ordered the brutal and unjust executions. Emma exulted in them and Sir William did nothing to stop them. Sir William finished his life in reduced circumstances, Emma in poverty and disgrace, and Nelson, as Sontag tells the story, very nearly in disgrace as well. What could be more of a morality tale?
She makes much of contemporary disapproval of Nelson: first because of his ridiculously public affair with the by now very fat and noisy Emma, which caused him to disobey Vice-Admiral Lord Keith's orders to move his ships from the Bay of Naples; and secondly because of his gratuitous vindictiveness toward the defeated Republicans. People accused Emma of egging him on, and the Queen of Naples (Marie Antoinette's sister) of influencing Emma, who had become her best friend. (Here Sontag has it both ways. She deplores the behavior of the two women, while complaining that it's always the women who get the blame.) The battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar reestablished Nelson's heroic stature with the public, though not with Sontag. "Eternal shame on the hero!" He has become a villain. Even his death, according to Emma's mother, was not so very admirable: "Why go about the boat in his admiral's frock coat and his stars so a French sharpshooter could find him easy and kill him, if he wanted to stay alive to come back to her. Men are so foolish. Women may be vain, but when a man is vain it is beyond believing, for a man is willing to die for his vanity."
Emma's mother, who called herself Mrs. Cadogan, is speaking from beyond the grave. The Volcano Lover ends with four posthumous monologues, spoken by four women. They are Sir William Hamilton's first wife, Catherine; Emma's adoring mother; Emma herself; and Eleanora Fonseca di Pimental, a liberal aristocrat and poet who edited a Republican paper in Naples and was hanged for it. The first three loved greatly: Catherine loved Sir William and lived only to please him, Emma's mother never left her side, and Emma wanted her there. She saw her daughter through her early vicissitudes as an unmarried mother and London call girl, and when the young man she loved wanted to get rid of her and posted her to Naples as a mistress for his widowed uncle, Sir William Hamilton, Mrs. Cadogan went with her. She was an uneducated country woman with a rackety past: unlike her beautiful child, she made no attempt to improve herself. So she lived in her daughter's shadow, sitting at the back of the audience when Emma sang or performed her attitudes. People thought she was a paid companion or a poor relation, and from that position she dispensed admiration and comfort until she died. A good and selfless life.
The four posthumous monologues are all written with great feeling and without the irony that puts a cool sheen on much of the book. Eleanora Fonseca is the odd woman out: love does not come into her story. She is an intellectual, and a proto-feminist who despises women who live by love. Emma, she says, "was an enthusiast, and would have enlisted herself with the same ardor in the cause of whomever she loved. I can easily imagine Emma Hamilton, had her nationality been different, as a republican heroine, who might have ended most courageously at the foot of the gallows. That is the nullity of women like her." Still, Eleanora is not quite satisfied with her own performance either: "Sometimes I had to forget I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book." This is seconde vague feminism, thoughtful, self-aware, and self-ironizing in its use of Mozart's opera title Cosí fan tutte. The quote is a reprise; the first time round it is applied with sharper feminist sarcasm to explain the huge success of Emma's "attitudes": "It seems the ultimate feminine gift, to be able to pass effortlessly, instantly, from one emotion to another. How men wanted women to be, and what they scorned in women. One minute this. The next minute that. Of course. Thus do all women."
Emma's attitudes generally: represented tragic heroines—Niobe, Medea, Iphigenia, Dido—on the point of undergoing their various ordeals: i.e., just before their sufferings become unbearable to witness. This is where Goethe comes in. Emma's performances conformed to the classical ideal he was formulating (under the influence of Winkelmann's Laocoön, which is also discussed) at the time he turned up in Naples on his Italian Journey. So when Emma brings up his early ur-Romantic best seller Werther, she doesn't get very far with him. Her attitudes, on the other hand, are his thing exactly: "The significant moment!…. That is what great art must render. The moment that is most humane, most typical, most affecting. My compliments…." Goethe's famous slogan "the significant moment" gets a grisly reprise later on when Sontag is describing the republicans on their way to the scaffold. "They, too, saw themselves as future citizens of the world of history painting, of the didactic art of the significant moment…. What people admired then was an art (whose model was the classical one) that minimized the pain of pain. It showed people able to maintain decorum and composure, even in monumental suffering."
"We admire, in the name of truthfulness, an art that exhibits the maximum amount of trauma, violence, physical indignity. (The question is: do we feel it?) For us, the significant moment is the one that disturbs us most." Sontag herself belongs to the modern school: her book is full of unbearable moments, from Nelson having his arm amputated without an anesthetic (and there are frequent mentions of his stump afterwards) to Eleanora Fonseca being jumped on to break her neck as she hangs alive from the gallows. Sontag does her utmost to make us "feel it."
The most painful episode is the murder by slow torture of an elderly duke and his mad brother at the hands of the royalist Neapolitan mob. The scene is watched with glee by Baron Scarpia, who has wandered in from Puccini's Tosca. Sontag demonstrates her freedom as a writer of romance by moving out of history into opera. It is not much extra trouble to change the scene from Rome to Naples: "So this is the man before whom all Naples trembled," says Sontag's Tosca, altering just one word of the most famous line from Illica's libretto. But the vital link between the Nelson-Hamilton saga and Tosca is to be found not in the opera but in the play by Sardou upon which it is based. In the opera, the painter Cavaradossi gives his picnic lunch to the republican fugitive Angelotti and helps him escape from the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle where Act I is set. In Act II Scarpia has Cavaradossi captured to get him to reveal Angelotti's new hiding place; Angelotti himself never appears again. Sardou gives him more of a part and the opportunity to explain why he is being hounded by the police: on a visit to London as a very young man, he says, he picked up a prostitute in Vauxhall Gardens. Many years later he sees her again at a dinner given by the British ambassador in Naples: she has become the ambassador's wife, and is gloating noisily over British reprisals against the defeated Neapolitan republicans. Angelotti is so enraged that he tells the assembled company about his first meeting with Lady Hamilton. In revenge, she sets Scarpia on him. Sontag uses the story of Tosca and her lover to prove that "emotional women who don't have power, real power, usually end up by being victims." The prima donna and the painter live only for their art and each other; and that is not enough.
Scarpia is a monster, but Sontag has an extra reason for loathing him: she is an elitist and he a jumped-up vulgarian, uneducated and only recently ennobled. Her Scarpia hates the aristocracy and the intelligentsia from whose ranks the Neapolitan republicans were drawn. The mob is on Scarpia's side. They resent the rich and cultured but love the king. The distance between their wretched state and the glamour of the court is a kind of drama to them, and they enjoy it. They also enjoy the drama of aristo-bashing. But their sadism is not as refined as Scarpia's: "The crowd is no less gratified if the person being tormented is already unconscious. It is the action of bodies on bodies, not bodies on minds, which the crowd enjoys."
Scarpia is pure opera and pure evil, a gift to Sontag. In a world governed by a post-Freudian view of life he couldn't exist. He'd be depraved on account of he was deprived, or had suffered a childhood trauma. The post-Freudian view has forgiveness built into it. The classical view with its insistence on noble behavior needs something else to temper its severity. What it needs is mercy.
Mercy is what takes us beyond nature, beyond our natures, which are always stocked with cruel feelings. Mercy, which is not forgiveness, means not doing what nature, and self-interest, tells us we have a right to do. And perhaps we do have the right, as well as the power. How sublime not to, anyway. Nothing is more admirable than mercy.
This passage illustrates the unique combination of high moral tone and throw-away chic in Sontag's writing. And it sounds as though it might be the key to her book.
But which, if any, of the four posthumous voices at the end belongs to its heroine? Not Emma's, who even after death deceives herself about her part in the executions—or at any rate about her failure to prevent, in particular, the execution of her former doctor, Cirillo. She is harsh to her daughter by Nelson, and refuses even on her deathbed to tell the girl who her father was: "Why should I have consoled her when there was no one to console me?" Eleanora Fonseca dies with a curse on the Hamiltons and Nelson: "I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all." There is no forgiveness here, let alone mercy. So that leaves Catherine Hamilton and Mrs. Cadogan, meek women who subordinated themselves to those they loved. Certainly not feminist heroines.
In her prologue Sontag makes it clear that she is not to be pinned down. She describes herself hovering at the entrance to a New York flea market: "Why enter? Only to play. A game of recognitions. To know what, and to know how much it was, how much it ought to be, how much it will be. But perhaps not to bid, haggle, not to acquire. Just to look. Just to wander. I'm feeling lighthearted. I don't have anything in mind." History, literature, art, and opera are her flea market, and she shops around in it.
For instance, having got Goethe to the Hamiltons' party in order to reflect on Classical and Romantic canons of art, she begins, in her seventeenth-century French mode, to outline and compare the characters of the thinker poet and the collector dilettante (Sir William). The latter wants to admire and acquire, the former to gain insight, to be transformed by the impact of new sights and objects. Sir William bores Goethe with his "simpleminded" epicureanism; and Goethe bores Sir William and unsettles his guests because "He can't help … bringing along his higher idea, his better standards. He, the stony guest, reminds the revelers of the existence of another, more serious way of experiencing. And this, of course, will interfere with their pleasures." So now she has wandered off to the stall selling bits from Don Juan, and Goethe is cast as the Commendatore: "He shakes your hand. It's chilling. You settle back. The music is louder. What a relief. You like your life. You're not going to change. He is pretentious, overbearing, humorless, aggressive, condescending. A monster of egotism. Alas, he's also the real thing." The Don Juan myth has been an irresistible metaphor to writers over the ages. It seems just possible that Sontag catches a glimpse of her own doppelgänger in the stony guest. But in any case the myth doesn't quite work here: not just because at the time of his Italian journey Goethe had not yet petrified into the alarming Olympian figure he was to become, but simply because it's too farfetched.
Being far-fetched is the defect of Sontag's merits. She stops at the consideration of nothing (except religion, which is briefly recommended by Scarpia as a means of keeping order; as a private experience or motive for behavior, it never gets a mention, which seems odd). Her book is unconventional—almost a new genre. So she is taking risks. The most obvious risk, with all those cultural quotes, is to be thought pretentious. The bigger risk is to be full of moral fervor, passionate and preachy. The risks pay off because she moves so fast and has such a light and casual touch with language; and also because she keeps her promise to write a romance and combines her unconventional concept and structure with bouts of character drawing and storytelling so conventionally skillful and engaging that any romantic novelist might be jealous.
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The Benefactor (novel) 1963
Against Interpretation and Other Essays (essays) 1966
Death Kit (novel) 1967
∗Duet for Cannibals (screenplay) 1969
Styles of Radical Will (essays) 1969
Trip to Hanoi (essay) 1969
∗Brother Carl: A Filmscript (screenplay) 1971
∗Promised Lands (screenplay) 1974
On Photography (nonfiction) 1977
I, etcetera (short stories) 1978
Illness as Metaphor (nonfiction) 1978
Under the Sign of Saturn (essays) 1980
A Susan Sontag Reader (collection) 1982
∗Unguided Tour (screenplay) 1983
AIDS and Its Metaphors (nonfiction) 1989
The Way We Live Now (novel) 1991
The Volcano Lover: A Romance (novel) 1992
Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (drama) 1993
∗Sontag also directed these films.
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SOURCE: "Cuckholded by Nelson," in Economist, Vol. 324, No. 7772, August 15, 1992, p. 77.
[In the review below, the critic argues that, in The Volcano Lover, Sontag "employs the techniques of an essayist and a social historian better than those of a story-teller in her version of the lives of William Hamilton, his wives Catherine and Emma, and Lord Nelson."]
Set mostly in Naples in the last 30 years of the 18th century, Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover follows the career of the British ambassador to the court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. At the beginning of the narrative, this figure, dubbed "Il Cavaliere" by "polite Naples", is already well known for his passion for collecting: paintings, books, scientific instruments and, from his earlier days in Naples, classical artefacts discovered by the continuing excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
More unusually, he also "collects" Vesuvius, the still active volcano that in AD79 buried the two Roman cities. He visits it night and day, he commissions paintings of it, he gathers rocks and lava samples and writes of his findings to the Royal Society; he becomes known back in England as "the volcano lover" (hence the book's title). The ambassador's private life is also described: his first marriage to the asthmatic and retiring Catherine, who is good on the harpsichord, and, after her death, his second marriage to the humbly born former mistress of his nephew.
His second wife is 37 years his junior but, though the marriage is frowned upon by society, it works reasonably well for both parties for a decade. Then an English naval officer, soon to become a national hero in the struggle against Napoleon, visits Naples and he and the ambassador's wife fall in love. As anybody with a smattering of history knows, it ended in tears.
For 30 years Ms Sontag has been a critic; unsurprisingly, she employs the techniques of an essayist and a social historian better than those of a story-teller in her version of the lives of William Hamilton, his wives Catherine and Emma, and Lord Nelson. At the end of an often slow-moving novel the reader may have little sense of the four principals as individuals, but he will be well acquainted with the look and feel of the place and the period as experienced by a particular national and social set.
The novel is ingenious at finding ways to plop the modern reader into the 18th century. Mozart's career, and the tragic plot of Puccini's opera "Tosca", are set side by side with the Cavaliere's story. The Neapolitan king's hunting forays are described in all their disgusting detail. And whether or not the incident occurred exactly as she portrays it, Ms Sontag's recreation of the assault by a Neapolitan mob on a local "collector" brilliantly illustrates what can happen when an abyss is fixed between sophisticated rich and ignorant poor.
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Gingrass, Lynn. "Marked by Contrariness." American Book Review 15, No. 3 (August-September 1993): 28.
Reviews The Volcano Lover and claims that the novel is admirable despite its disparate elements.
Olster, Stacey. "Remakes, Outtakes, and Updates in Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover." Modern Fiction Studies 41, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 117-39.
Discusses modernism and post-modernism in Sontag's novel.
Poague, Leland, ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag. University Press of Mississippi, 1995, 270 p.
Collection of more than twenty interviews with Sontag.
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SOURCE: "Love and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius," in Washington Post Book World, August 16, 1992, pp. 1-2.
[Below, Byatt praises The Volcano Lover as intelligent and provocative.]
It is difficult to imagine anything more resolutely anti-romantic than Susan Sontag's "Romance," The Volcano Lover. It is set in late 18th-century Naples, in the shadow of Vesuvius. Its main characters are the Cavaliere, an English diplomat, his beautiful second wife, and the Hero, a visiting admiral who becomes the lover of the wife. They are, of course, Sir William Hamilton; Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, perhaps always slightly absurd as romantic figures, but here so remorselessly cut down to size that Sontag's icy irony becomes a kind of passion that in turn generates a strange affection for her struggling manikins.
The world of the novel is constructed of glittering descriptions of people, events and things, all considered with the same detached, energetic curiosity. The court of the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, and his wife, sister of Marie Antoinette, is loathsome and lively. The king likes bloody killing, infantile jokes and entertaining whilst defecating. The queen is brighter, but rattled into cruelty by the French Revolution. The Cavaliere is imperturbable and ineffective. His two passions, before the arrival of Emma, at that stage his nephew's mistress, are collecting, and observing the volcano, another form of collecting. Other notables make brief appearances: Goethe; the Gothic novelist and collector William Beckford, in pursuit of beautiful boys, but ready to appreciate the unconsidered musical talent of the first Lady Hamilton; the young Mozart. When the French Revolution comes, there is a brief rising in Naples, and the doomed establishment of an enlightened Republic, based on Reason, and brutally suppressed by the English admiral. This episode introduces the nearest thing to a heroine found in the novel—the revolutionary Fonseca de Pimentel, who believes in Justice and does not understand human unreason and cruelty. She is executed by hanging.
This Romance is written in the stench and shadow of Death. The fear of death, its inevitability, the fact that the reader knows from start to finish that the actors are all long dead and judged, makes the narrative into a kind of gruesome puppetplay, and also gives it a kind of tragic dignity, beyond the absurd. An early set piece is the king's construction of an artificial mountain, laden with food, for his starving people. The mountain is 40 feet high, and live animals are tethered to it, to be torn apart and bloodily eaten by the crowd that is loosed on it, prefiguring the brutal acts of both sides in the later political upheaval and its suppression.
This mountain is part of the subtle and savage use of the image of the volcano of the title. This represents Love, in one way, with its cliched images of hot red clefts and smoldering fires. The finicky and detachedly observant Cavaliere tries to turn it into an object to be collected, makes careful tours of observation, records facts of its behavior and history. Susan Sontag herself likes to describe its eruptions in terms of "mushrooming" clouds, our own pervasive image for cataclysm. But it is also a symbol for the fascination of violence and defiance, and thus associated at a distance with revolution, too. She writes:
"Maybe it is not the destructiveness of the volcano that pleases most, though everyone loves a conflagration, but its defiance of the law of gravity…. What pleases first at the sight of the plant world is its vertical upward direction. That is why we love trees. Perhaps we attend to a volcano for its elevation, like ballet. How high the molten rocks soar, how far above the mushrooming cloud…."
This image is at the beginning of the book, which closes with a downward drag just as emphatic, Fonseca de Pimentel's prevision of her own hanging, (accurate, we are told) where the hangman jumps onto the hanging body to make sure it is weighted down.
The image of the collector, too, has been used by other novelists to describe the peculiarly modern interest in narrating and recuperating the past. I think of Brian Moore's The Great Victorian Collection, or the excellent use made of the Great Exhibition by J.G. Farrell in The Siege of Krishnapur. Sontag's narrative voice compares her own activity to the Cavaliere's collecting and list-making. Hamilton sold the Portland Vase to the Duchess of Portland and lost a priceless collection of vases at sea, trying to send them to England to save them from the revolution. Sontag's narrator in her prologue wanders into a flea market in Manhattan in the spring of 1992, "checking on what's in the world. What's left. What's discarded. What's no longer cherished…. But something I would want. Want to rescue…." And moves straight into the sale of Hamilton's "Correggio" Venus in 1772. The past is bric-a-brac that might speak to individual desires or predispositions.
And what finally counts in this book, what makes it piquant on a first reading, and I suspect, stronger and more complex on every re-reading, is Sontag's own atmosphere of interest, her own peculiar mixture of fire and ice. She has an interesting meditation, late in the novel, on the difference between 18th-century art and our own. She describes the "fixed" agony of classical images of the strangling of Laocoon by serpents, or the flaying of Marsyas, and says (not quite lightly in my view):
"Whatever art shows it is not going to get any worse." And, "What people admired then was an art that minimized the pain of pain. It showed people able to maintain decorum and composure, even in monumental suffering.
"We admire, in the name of truthfulness, an art that exhibits the maximum amount of trauma, violence, physical indignity. (The question is: do we feel it?) For us, the significant moment is one that disturbs us most."
Sontag's art here reconciles the virtues of the two modes, and makes something new of them. At the opening of the story the Cavaliere is reading Candide, a text those cool fury Sontag has used elsewhere for her own purposes. She has learned from 18th-century satire, and yet when she chooses to be modern, and exhibit trauma, she makes sure we go through it, she makes sure, precisely, that we do feel. She sees all her people through their deaths, clinically and passionately, and makes us imagine what we would rather not imagine. The Volcano Lover is a slippery, intelligent, provocative and gripping book, and a very good one.
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SOURCE: "That Hamilton Woman," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 16, 1992, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review of The Volcano Lover, Eder states that although Sontag digresses and provides commentary, she tells her story well.]
Susan Sontag at play. That is not remarkable in itself. Double-domes make their stabs at levity: George Will writing about baseball; Chief Justice William Rehnquist capering solemnly—I saw him—in an amateur production of "Patience"; John Kenneth Galbraith trying his hand at an academic novel.
What sets The Volcano Lover apart from such heavy-footed exercises is not just that it is light-footed but also that, as play, it is both great fun and serious fun. Writing what I suppose could be called a historical novel about the celebrated and sloppy triangle of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Lady Emma Hamilton and her celery-stalk husband, Sir William Hamilton, Sontag condescends not at all.
The cross-country impetus of her thinking is as nervy as ever. But it is transmogrified. It is ideas as a game—real ideas and real game—as sentient and agile as a choreography of Michael Jordan's sneakers.
Sontag tells a story and tells it extremely well, with speculative digressions and comment that serve, as in "Tristram Shandy," to open the picaresque mental landscape through which the collecting is essentially a masculine activity. It stems from a man's innate and oddly isolating assurance that he has a place in the world and, conversely, that the world belongs to him. Women, paradoxically, are too close to the world and too responsive to it to command such gassy assurance. Similarly—the connection is arcane but inveigling—it is only men who can tell a joke properly.
Emma the volcano can be collected no more than Vesuvius can. When young Nelson sails in, to protect Naples from Napoleon and to prop up the dissolute Bourbon king and his ferocious Ilapahurg wife, the grand passion ignites. It sustains itself through Nelson's triumphant comings and goings, and through a brief ménaged trois residence in England. (Having lost ownership of his prize collectible, Sir William stays on as a kind of curator; there is a splendid image of him and Nelson fussing together over the household accounts.) After the husband's death and Nelson's own death at Trafalgar, Emma perishes in destitution despite the hero's dying plea to his countrymen—grateful, but only just—to look after her and their child.
Nelson is an imp of fame; willful, avid, innocent and cruel. He is not quite real. Reality is a burden that rather hampers history's great achievers, and Sontag's Nelson is all the more effective in his will-o'-the-wisp character of a sanguinary Peter Pan. I sense a wry suggestion in Sontag's sunny feminism, which manages to be both stirring and mocking, that male reality can also be a burden to the passions of a Real Woman.
Certainly Emma is a Real Woman. A ravishing milkmaid beauty when she narrative marches. When the digressions are a trifle long-winded, it almost seems like human respect; a witty person may be long-winded but this can be an amiable trait, like corpulence; you don't just shut it off.
She also respects her story. It is a vehicle to say things about women and their mismanaged fires—the volcano of the title, which nicely arranges to be Mt. Vesuvius as well. It speaks about men and their vulnerable outrages, about the English character, about the frailty of revolutions and the deadly power of counterrevolutions, about the inhuman aspects of art and power, and the richly decomposing stew of history that is Naples, where the book is set.
But it is an invigorating story in its own right. Sir William Hamilton, distantly connected to the king, finds himself Minister to the Court of Naples at the time of the French Revolution. (He had hoped for Madrid, but his connection was too puny.) He is a chilly egotist whose ruling passion is collecting art, antiquities and scientific specimens; notably, fresh lava scooped up at personal risk from the perpetually rumbling Vesuvius.
A depth in Sir William responds to the volcano's own churning depths, but his ingrained response to being moved is to collect. Thus, when his seemingly complaisant wife dies, and his nephew sends over a discarded mistress to get her out of the way, Sir William is smitten to the point of making a scandalously unsuitable marriage.
Emma is a former artist's model who worked—just how, is left to the imagination—for a doctor specializing in the cure of impotence. She is vulgar, ravishing and a vital force; she ravishes Sir William. Imprisoned in his overbred nature, he can only treat her as an object d'art.
Among Sontag's many bravura interjections is the argument that comes out from England, she stops Neapolitan passers-by in their tracks. She brings her cheerfully Hogarthian mother with her and the latter's dryly disenchanted account in one of the book's several epilogues is shrewd and terribly moving.
Emma's vitality is unquenchable, and so is her redoubtable determination to fly upward like the sparks. Her vulgarity is one of her most appealing qualities, the polar opposite of camp. She is a great success at the Neapolitan court, where spontaneity seems exotic. Her looks soon go, and she grows fat; but she never doubts her right to a grand passion. Fortunately, neither does Nelson. He finds her magnificent, and that may be his most endearing quality.
It is Hamilton, though, who is the most remarkably rendered of the characters. Never has a frozen sensibility been so suggestive. Before he meets Emma, he acquires a pet monkey. The monkey loves him but Sir William wants a jester, not a child, Sontag writes. He spurns the monkey's snuggle and teaches it tricks instead. Obediently, it performs. The Englishman has turned a loving thing into a collected thing. With Emma, of course, he fails. She never does manage more than affection with him; at the end, it is he who is collected.
The portrait is devastating, yet lightened with humor and understanding. There is a wonderful confrontation between Sir William and Goethe, who admires the Minister's collection as a means to understand the principles of nature. For his pragmatic host, it exists for its own sake. In a shrewd evocation of her very male and very English protagonist, so lordly and so impotent, Sontag writes:
"His is the hyperactivity of the heroic depressive. He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms."
There are other suggestive figures, among them Hamilton's first wife, whom we come to recognize as a dormant version of Emma's spurting volcano. There is the decadent greed of Naples' Bourbon king who eats and fornicates prodigiously, kills great quantities of game, butchers it himself, and sells the meat to his soldiers.
There is a fascinating portrayal of the short-lived Vesuvian Republic, set up by intellectuals and aristocratic idealists after the example of the French Revolution; and with Napoleon's fickle protection, its repression is brutally managed by the king and queen from their refuge in Sicily, implacably enforced by Nelson in England's interest and haplessly abetted by the Hamiltons. It is a wonderful reflection on the relative, strengths of idealism, bloody reaction and a Great Power's chilly reasons of state. With one of the executed revolutionaries the poet Eleonora de Fonseca, Sontag makes a brief proxy appearance, much as Hitchcock used to do but with more charm.
We require stories. We can do without them for a while. We can read stories about the impossibility of telling stories, or stories that caution us against imagining that there is anything to them but our own arbitrary readings. But eventually, we require them.
It is a problem for a contemporary writer who wants to do more than retail personal sensibility, regional color or besieged childhoods. Stories imply a pattern to life; perhaps our lives have none.
History, on the other hand indubitably does have a pattern, even if it is imposed contemporaneously and handed down. A number of writers have tried to use historical pattern to provide a story upon which to explore their insights and sensibilities. Sontag satirizes the process at the start of the book. She writes of a figure—we recognize her in her jeans and white silk blouse—meandering through a flea market and picking something out almost at random.
The story she has picked out she writes with entire fidelity and with all of a novelist's art. Her contemporary interjections—digressions, questions, exclamations—in no way dilute or deflect the narrative. They do not weaken its three dimensions; they add a fourth which, without removing it from its time brings it into ours.
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SOURCE: "Lava Soap," in Time, Vol. 140, No. 7, August 17, 1992, pp. 66-7.
[In the following review of The Volcano Lover, Sheppard argues that Sontag uses the novel as a vehicle for discussions of feminism and class.]
Long before the U.S. lost its trade balance, it was lopsided with intellectual goods from Europe. Marx, Freud, Sartre and Lévi-Strauss were required cribbing. Books translated from the French and German were best sellers and their authors culture heroes. So were their interpreters. As a critic and novelist, Susan Sontag handled European ideas and forms with brilliance and style. The camera loved her dark good looks, and she became an American knockoff of the Continental intellectual as gravely seductive celebrity. The brain, she said on at least one occasion, is an erogenous zone.
The Volcano Lover, her fifth work of fiction, is a mild cerebral aphrodisiac. It is the sort of book that Sontag would probably call determinedly middlebrow. Her publisher, eager to start a buzz, compares it to "the postmodern potboilers of Umberto Eco and A.S. Byatt."
The subject is the scandalous romance of the late 18th century's hottest couple: Lord Nelson, Britain's greatest naval hero, and Lady Emma Hamilton, the empire's most luscious pinup—and wife of diplomat Sir William Hamilton.
The story has usually been told from the straightforward missionary—not to say colonial—position. The Alexander Korda version. That Hamilton Woman, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver, was Winston Churchill's favorite movie.
Sontag creamily shifts perspective. The hero and his mistress are egoists gone on fame and oblivious to the welfare of the masses. Off the poop deck, Nelson is an unimposing shrimp. Without her billowing satins, Emma the society swan is grossly overstuffed. Most of the action takes place in Naples, where nearby Mount Vesuvius huffs and puffs. It is a natural wonder, but also an unavoidable symbol of molten passion and the republican revolution that erupts in France and spreads south.
Royalty and privilege are threatened. So too is a genteel culture represented by Sir William, British envoy to the decadent Neapolitan court. A collector of antiquities and an amateur scientist, he occasions Sontag's heavier musings. Unfortunately, he is too underpowered to be the principal vehicle in a historical tour de force. Making a cameo appearance, Goethe dismisses him as "a simple-minded epicurean."
Eventually Sontag also sours on Sir William's detachment and bloodless pleasures. In fact, all three members of this famous love triangle are abruptly damned in an operatic epilogue about male-dominated class structures and the challenges of feminism. The message is unexceptionable but jarring. Perhaps Sontag, like Vesuvius, simply blew her top. More likely, the outburst was calculated to amplify an otherwise low-key narrative and convince readers that the author is not only postmodern but also politically correct.
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SOURCE: "The Valkyrie of Lava," in The National Review, Vol. 44, No. 17, August 31, 1992, pp. 63-5.
[In the review below, Simon questions whether The Volcano Lover is a romance and argues that Sontag focuses too much on her opinions and not enough on her characters.]
Two of the most arresting things about Susan Sontag's new book, The Volcano Lover: A Romance, are the title and the subtitle. Why "romance," when to all intents and purposes it looks like a novel? In an interview, Miss Sontag declared that, "to find the courage to write this book," she needed "a label that allowed me to go over the top," as if novelists since Proust, Kafka, and Joyce had done anything less than that. Also, she said, "the novel becomes such a self-conscious enterprise for people who read a lot." Does that mean that habitual novel readers lose their ability to read un-self-consciously? Or that, when they turn authors, they cannot write an un-self-conscious novel?
None of this makes sense, especially if you look closely at her chosen genre, from medieval tales to Harlequin romances. Actually, in telling the story of Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to the court of Naples, his wife, Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson, Miss Sontag has written nothing like a romance, which, by definition, is something uncomplex. Did she, then, try to disarm criticism by mock-ingenuously pretending to offer it a love story and bodice ripper?
In truth, Miss Sontag undertook to write an anti-romance, and went about it studiously and systematically. Though her point of view is until near the very end that of the omniscient narrator, she carefully positions herself much closer to the noble cuckold she graciously keeps referring to as "the Cavaliere" than to the victorious admiral and world-famous beauty who complete the triangle. And not only does she pick the least dashing player to exalt, she also deglamorizes the other two. Her Emma is, for the most part, not the supermodel to famed painters, dazzling performer of Attitudes (as she called her impersonations of heroines from mythology and art), but the prematurely aging, overweight, gone-to-seed adulteress, whose vulgarity is no longer mitigated by world-class beauty, and who remains lovely only to her uxorious husband and purblind lover. As for Nelson, he is vainglorious, tyrannical, and short of stature, as well as short one eye, one arm, and quite a few teeth.
Furthermore, Emma is always only "the Cavaliere's wife," and Nelson "the hero," which, lower-cased, sounds both mundane and slightly ironic. To be sure, history is on Miss Sontag's side: the cuckold was civilized and fastidious; whereas Horatio and Emma, by the time they became lovers, made unlikely figures of romance. So the subtitle must be a subterfuge to lure those who fear Miss Sontag's vaunted intellect or, worse yet, haven't heard of Susan Sontag at all.
But what about the title, The Volcano Lover? It refers to Sir William's documented interest in Vesuvius in particular, and volcanoes in general. For besides being a tireless and influential art collector, he was fascinated by science and by the fierceness, unpredictability, danger of those firespewers throughout history. Clearly, Miss Sontag intends the volcano to symbolize—what? Passion, sex, revolution, destruction, beauty and its risks, artistic creation, the spasmodicity and evanescence of life itself. To this end, she peppers her prose with words and tropes that spell out or suggest the volcanic, the eruptive and disruptive, the thrill of fireworks and devastation of lava. Both are dispensed by that great symbol, which, to cap it all, is both male (erection, emission) and female (crater, hole).
Be it said in her favor, Miss Sontag has mastered (mistressed?) the historical background. Her Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Habsburgs and Bourbons, Nelson and Napoleon (the latter merely a shadow), revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, vignettes of daily life in southern Italy's sette-cento and England's early nineteenth century, ring fresh and true. When she chooses to get inside her characters, she does so easefully and evocatively. Yet the surest way of getting into them and getting them down—dialogue—is rarely used. She keeps talk to the second-barest minimum; and further de-emphasizes it by dispensing with quotation marks. Thus printed, dialogue tends to merge into narrative, description, digression.
Ah, digression! There is little in her story that does not engender digressions. We are not allowed to forget the author for more than a page or two before she has elbowed her way back in—expatiating, explaining, editorializing, and philosophizing. These digressions may be playfully contemplative. When the revolution forces the court to leave Naples for Palermo, we get an excursus on "the south of the south." "Every culture has its southerners—people who work as little as they can, preferring to dance, drink, sing, brawl, kill their unfaithful spouses," she begins, and before you know it, "Hanoi has Saigon, São Paulo has Rio, Delhi has Calcutta, Rome has Naples, and Naples [to shorten a long sentence] Palermo." Or they may be philosophical-elitist: "We like to stress the commonness of heroes. Essences seem undemocratic. We feel oppressed by the call to greatness. We regard an interest in glory or perfection as a sign of mental unhealthiness, and have decided that high achievers, who are called overachievers, owe their surplus of ambition to a defect of mothering (either too little or too much)" etc.
More unsettling are divagations thrown in for sheer bravura. Thus the scene of Marie Antoinette's beheading, dragged in, as it were, by the hair; thus the fictitious Scarpia made police chief of Naples, and the story of Tosca retold with additional, quite gratuitous, embellishments. In a similarly operatic vein, Goethe's stay with the Hamiltons is mythicized (unsuccessfully) into the coming of Mozart's Commendatore. Miss Sontag is an opera lover; even that lengthy visit (ten pages!) to Bomarzo may have been prompted by Ginastera's opera; it certainly isn't intrinsic to her story.
Celebrities make their appearances: Goethe; William Beckford, the misanthropic author of Vathek; the famous painters for whom Emma sat. Miss Sontag manipulates them tendentiously. Though she mentions Goethe's general coolness toward Emma, she doesn't quote his calling her a "dull creature," an "inexpressive speaker," and a "disagreeable singer." Sir William, on the other hand, she builds up beyond her sources. He appeals to her by being the nearest thing to an artist and critic: a connoisseur and collector. Indeed, most of the fine pages of the book—and there are some very fine ones—concern collecting, which is to say the nature and value of art as it impinges on life.
One could cite many examples. The collector as heroic toiler—when, having spent all his money on his collection, he must sell it and start all over again. The collector as tragic hero "with a divided consciousness. No one is more naturally allied with the, forces … that preserve and conserve. But every collector is also an accomplice of the ideal of destruction. For the very excessiveness of the collecting passion makes a collector also a self-despiser" etc. The collector as great lover: "Like sexual feelings, when they … are actually lived out in all their vehemence and addictiveness … the feeling for art (or beauty) can, after a while, only be experienced as excess, as something that strains to surpass itself, to be annihilated. To really love something is to wish to die for it. Or to live only in it, which is the same thing." Finally, the collector as humanitarian; Sir William muses on his deathbed: "While there are more exalted destinies … to discover what is beautiful and share that with others is also a worthy employment for a life."
True, but, as so often, Miss Sontag contradicts herself. If her collector wants to die into his passion, or keep starting from scratch, how come that "Every collector feels menaced by all the imponderables that can bring disaster"? And if "like the impostor, [he] has no existence unless he goes public…. Unless he puts his passions on display," how can he be the hard-bitten loner? "Most unnatural to be a co-collector. One wants to possess (and be possessed) alone." And how can he resemble the lover? "The soul of the lover is the opposite of the collector's. The defect or blemish is part of the charm."
The collector is a true admirer—of art, volcanoes, women's beauty. Yet, we learn, "A man who has to admire in order to desire is likely to have led a modest sexual life." Contradictions are everywhere, but there is also the neat epigrammatic conclusion, as in "What a deft antidote to anxiety or grief one's own erudition can be."
Impressive as the stylistic pyrotechnics become—such as telling a bit of the story in Q&A format, or switching to narration in the second-person singular (though Michel Butor beat Miss Sontag to that one), or frequently playing with the hypnotic refrain of "here" and "there"—from all that over-reaching (not overachieving) the result is surfeit. Especially as Miss Sontag can fall off her high horse into the bathos of, "She seemed to admire him so much, and he enjoyed that."
The delirious use of anachronism, anachorism, prolepsis, hortatory analogy is likewise wearying. We tire of these foreshadowings, flashbacks, parallels, asides; we are blinded by such pennant-waving erudition, particularly when gross errors undercut our faith in the author's omniscience. Thus the word is sherbet, not sher-bert; the god (as opposed to the tyrant) is Dionysus, not Dionysius; the subjunctive is wrong in "the Cavaliere asked if she were tired"; a hotel room, unlike a person, can't be raffish; destruction of a city, fancifully put, would be urbicide, not urbanicide; the nominative is called for in "the cousin whom the Cavaliere had told her was very eccentric"; you don't interpose something with something else, you intersperse it; you are racked, not wracked, by spasms; you avoid tautologies such as "one cannot help but see"; and avoid even more stringently such danglers as "With his grey face and long beard and the peasant clothes he wore to disguise himself, the Cavaliere hardly recognized the 47-year-old Neapolitan admiral"; and so on.
But the costliest mistake is the very concept of "the volcano lover." It should infuse and animate the work, make it come into relevant focus. When Empedocles, according to legend, jumped into Etna, the image reverberated—see Hölderlin, Meredith, Matthew Arnold. But when the Cavaliere concludes his dying monologue with "Far from punishing me for my devotion, [Vesuvius] brought me only pleasure," nothing falls into place with a satisfying click. The governing symbol misfires, remains dormant.
And it's no use when Miss Sontag—as a feminist pleading for one of her characters, a hanged woman journalist—talks of women having to delude themselves: "Thus do all women, including the author of this book." What? Miss Sontag forced to lie to herself? Miss Sontag, the winner of prizes, a martyr? She who has long been the media's favorite firebrand, the dauntless valkyrie spouting her private brand of lava? The mother of all eruptors, our very own Crater Mater? Say it isn't so!
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SOURCE: "That Sontag Woman," in The New Criterion, Vol. 11, No. 1, September, 1992, pp. 30-7.
[In the essay below, Bawer discusses cultural elitism in Sontag's works, focusing on her novel The Volcano Lover.]
In these times when charges of cultural elitism are routinely hurled by East Village poets at their formalist rivals, by au courant English professors at champions of the literary canon, and by the vice president of the United States at Hollywood producers, it seems particularly appropriate to ponder the career of Susan Sontag, who has for decades been the very apotheosis of a certain kind of cultural elitist. To be sure, the cultural elitist—if by those words one simply means a lover and defender of high culture—is at present perhaps the most precious and imperiled species in the artistic and intellectual bestiary. But Susan Sontag is the sort of cultural elitist for whom the term often seems primarily to designate not selfless devotion to certain valued things that exist apart from oneself but, rather, membership in a select class of people, an aristocracy of the mind. It sometimes seems as if Sontag's chief priority as an essayist is not to clarify, persuade, or illuminate, but to demonstrate to the world that she is the highest of the highbrows, an intellectual's intellectual, a breed apart from lesser scribblers.
How does she do this? Mostly by writing essays chockablock with provocative-sounding assertions about a subject—some of them genuinely perceptive but many of them dubious, pretentious, self-evident, and/or irreconcilable—and supporting few of them at length, but instead leaping briskly from one to another. What's more, she gratuitously sprinkles these essays with quotations from European intellectuals, references to obscure filmmakers, etc.—the purpose being not only to introduce relevant ideas but, even more important, to say "This is the company in which my mind moves," and to imply that if you're in her intellectual league you'll recognize the reference or the quotation. She has said herself, by way of accounting for her essays' discontinuity, that she doesn't have the patience to develop an argument from a to b to c. Another explanation might be that she is by nature less an originator or assimilator of ideas than a collector of them, a hero-worshiper; to read many a Sontag essay is to find undigested and discrepant fragments of her intellectual gods poking out all over the place—a bit of Roland Barthes here, a chunk of Walter Benjamin there.
Yet her critical method has proven, over the years, to have several strategic advantages for Sontag: (1) it keeps many readers constantly off-balance and thus intimidated at the thought that Sontag, bounding around inside a topic like a toddler in a playroom, is at home with all the esoteric material that she has managed to include; (2) it makes Sontag look as though her intellect is bursting with so many ideas that she can't spare much time for any given one of them; and (3) it moves so quickly past each of her contentions that the reader isn't encouraged to mull any of them over, to ask: "Is this true? Does that make sense? Is this consistent with that?" To read her alongside someone like Guy Davenport, whose essays bear a superficial resemblance to hers in many respects (e.g., the formal discontinuity, the frequent highbrow name-dropping and quoting, the attraction to demanding and obscure literary works and to extreme political and sexual phenomena), is to appreciate more than ever Davenport's captivating and elegant prose, his eagerness to comprehend and clarify, his lack of interest in obscuring or making an impression. While Sontag is all over the place, strip-mining the intellectual landscape, Davenport is sinking a shaft. Reigning over the New York intellectual scene, plugged into every trend, Sontag is a writer very much of the moment, whose essays read like self-conscious footnotes to the history of the time in which they were written; Davenport is a writer for the ages. Her temperament is essentially romantic, postmodern; his is classical, modern.
"Taste is context," she insisted in a 1974 essay, "Fascinating Fascism." The remark is elucidated by a passage in her new novel, The Volcano Lover, in which the narrator, describing Josiah Wedgwood's late eighteenth-century mass production of copies of the Portland Vase, asks: "Who can really love the Portland Vase now?"—the point being that manufacturing thousands of replicas of a beautiful object destroys its beauty, not because such copies are aesthetically inferior, but because an essential ingredient of the object's appeal is its exclusiveness, its status as a unique object esteemed by a coterie of connoisseurs. Implicit here is that the essence of the Church of High Culture abides not in the inherent qualities of the objects of worship but in the inherent qualities of the worshipers. This view of things, I would submit, lies at the heart of Sontag's brand of elitism; and the notion, following logically upon such a view, that anything that happens to interest highbrow minds, even as a diversion, should necessarily be taken seriously as art or idea, goes a long way toward explaining Sontag's attempts to certify pornography and Camp as legitimate objects of serious critical inquiry.
It is difficult to find in Sontag's fiction any indication that she has ever given a moment's thought to what life might be like for someone other than an artist or intellectual. Her 1963 novel The Benefactor (whose solemnly cerebral tone and stark Continental mise en scène recall Camus and Canetti, among others) centers on a young Paris intellectual, and draws a hilarious contrast between his earnest, sophomoric hyper-intellectuality and his complete lack of common sense, human sympathy, and emotional self-knowledge. (The novel's major problem is that one cannot be sure that Sontag actually meant for the book to be funny.) Her other novel, the labored, humorless Death Kit (1967), is so entirely derivative of the New Novel of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet that even to speak of it as taking place in the world (as opposed to the author's mind) is rather to miss the point. In the self-consciously avant-garde bits and pieces collected in I, etcetera (1978), the only characters who aren't intellectual types are the cleaning ladies and other peripheral underlings. And the effective story "The Way We Live Now" (which appeared last year as a book) concerns a circle of highbrows with names like Tanya, Orson, Quentin, and Yvonne, whose lives are touched by the AIDS epidemic; when the narrator mentions on the first page that "Stephen … was back from the conference in Helsinki," it's clear who the "we" of Sontag's title are—and who they aren't.
A seminal document in the history of Sontag's cultural elitism, of course, is her notorious 1968 essay Trip to Hanoi, in which she managed to be taken in by North Vietnamese propaganda crude enough to make an eighth grader wince. How did this happen? As the essay makes clear, part of the explanation is that Sontag's interest in Ho Chi Minh's revolution had less to do with her concern for the masses than with her enthusiasm for new experiences, her vulnerability to flattery, her love of glamour, and her desire to be where the action was. Apropos of her Hanoi visit, she observes that "[a]n event that makes new feelings conscious is always the most important experience a person can have": in other words, what ultimately mattered most to her about the Vietnam conflict was not its potential consequences for the people of Indochina or America or the world but its effect upon her own psychic development. "The aesthete's radicalism," she writes in a 1981 essay on Roland Barthes, "is the radicalism of a privileged, even a replete, consciousness—but a genuine radicalism nonetheless…. The aesthete's radicalism: to be multiple, to make multiple identifications; to assume fully the privilege of the personal." Indeed, a reader of Trip to Hanoi cannot help feeling that for Sontag, circa 1968, the ordeals and emotions of American servicemen, South Vietnamese civilians, and others with whom she could not readily identify had no more reality or urgency than her theories about them; to express it a bit differently, she emulates Barthes in viewing the world around her as if it were a text. (As Alfred Kazin once put it, Sontag "sees the world as a series of propositions about the world.")
Sontag has been castigated for proclaiming that "the white race is the cancer of human history," but given her nearly slavish reverence for European life and culture, one can only imagine that, on some level, this proclamation is to be understood as a disguised compliment; perhaps it was informed by a notion that culture and "cancer" are two sides of the same coin—that you can't produce great works of art or architecture or scholarship without also spawning imperial ambitions and aggressiveness. Could it be that she was so easily taken in by North Vietnamese propaganda because she simply didn't think a people with such modest cultural and intellectual attainments could be capable of lies and atrocities that would dwarf those of the American government?
If I have dwelt at some length on the subject of Sontag's particular brand of cultural elitism, it is because it plays an important role in The Volcano Lover. At the center of this historical novel—or, to use Sontag's word, this "romance"—is Sir William Hamilton, the English ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800, who is known to posterity as the husband of Horatio Nelson's mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton. The book chronicles the last years of Hamilton's first marriage, to a plain, devoted pianist named Catherine, and the whole of his marriage to Emma, during which the chief dramatic interest is provided by her involvement with Nelson and the English-aided struggle against French-backed republican rebels for control of the Kingdom of Naples, whose rulers, King Ferdinand II and Queen Maria Carolina, are close friends of the Hamiltons.
At first blush, the story of Nelson and the Hamiltons hardly seems like the sort of thing you'd expect to find retold in a Susan Sontag novel. After all, this is vintage romance-novel territory; it was even the subject of a movie with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh—and not an obscure French film of the sort that cinéaste Sontag adores, but a stiff costume drama, released in America under the title That Hamilton Woman, that one can imagine her gagging over (though in earlier days, come to think of it, she might have celebrated it as Camp). The costume-drama stereotypes implicit in the material are deliberately underscored by Sontag's habit of referring to Nelson as "the hero," to Hamilton as "the Cavaliere," to Emma as "the Cavaliere's wife," and to the Neapolitan sovereigns as "the king" and "the queen." (Nelson's name is never mentioned, nor are those of the royal couple; Hamilton isn't named until the last two pages.) But Sontag's purpose in using these fanciful labels is ironic; for her characters are like nothing out of a romance novel or a prestige picture by Alexander Korda. Only the suave, cultivated Cavaliere—who gets his thrills by hiking to the summit of Vesuvius and his aesthetic pleasures from the objects d'art of which he is a famous collector—comes close.
This is a very discursive novel, full of narratorial opinions about one thing and another, notably about collecting (a pet topic of Walter Benjamin's). In tone and perspective the narrator's remarks on the subject are entirely reminiscent of Sontag's essays; as in her essays, moreover, the remarks add up not to an argument but to a sort of inventory of provocative-sounding observations that are, by turns, dubious, pretentious, self-evident, and irreconcilable. Page 70: "There are so many objects. There is no such thing as a monogamous collector. Sight is a promiscuous sense. The avid gaze always wants more." Page 106: "Collectors and curators of collections often admit without too much prodding to misanthropic feelings. They confirm that, yes, they have cared more for inanimate things than for people."
Gradually it becomes clear that these seemingly random observations about collecting point to what Sontag apparently perceives as the connoisseur's ultimate dilemma: namely, that to love and collect beautiful things can place one in a problematic relationship with most of human-kind. Napoleon, we are reminded, was a collector, stealing art from all over the Continent. Page 72: "Every collector is potentially (if not actually) a thief." For the Cavaliere's rich, eccentric nephew William, collecting is a way of excluding the world; for the Cavaliere, it is a means of connection to it. Page 245: "[T]he Cavaliere, like all great collectors, wished to say with objects: look at all the beauty and interest there is in the world." But the pieces in a Sicilian prince's grotesque collection, which the Cavaliere examines after he and Emma and the royal party have been forced by republican revolutionaries to flee Naples for Palermo, are different. "They said: the world is mad. Ordinary life is ridiculous, if you take some distance from it. Anything can turn into anything else, anything can be dangerous, anything can collapse, give way." Collecting, we are meant to understand, is of particularly urgent sociopolitical significance in an age of revolution:
Collectors have a divided consciousness. No one is more naturally allied with the forces in a society that preserve and conserve. But every collector is also an accomplice of the ideal of destruction. For the very excessiveness of the collecting passion makes a collector also a self-despiser. Every collector-passion contains within it the fantasy of its own self-abolition. Worn down by the disparity between the collector's need to idealize and all that is base, purely materialistic, in the soul of a lover of beautiful objects and trophies of the glorious past, he may long to be purged by a consuming fire.
Which apparently helps to account for the Cavaliere's fascination with Vesuvius. He is, we are told, a "connoisseur of disaster" who is "ill-prepared … for the real thing" (i.e., revolution). He is also fascinated by Emma, who enters his life when his nephew Charles, whose mistress she was, tires of her company. Wondrously sensitive and empathic, this humbly born young woman becomes to the aging Cavaliere something of an artwork, a cherished part of his collection, famous for her beauty and for the tableaux vivants of classical scenes that she offers up regularly to dinner guests. Yet she is also big, loud, and vulgar, and has a checkered past; by the time Nelson enters her life, moreover, she is getting a bit long in the tooth and is "thickened by drink." Nelson, for his part, is even less of a stereotypical romance-novel protagonist than she is, Napoleon's nemesis, "the hero to the rulers of Naples," is "maimed, toothless, worn, underweight," and considerably shorter than Emma. ("It was," Sontag writes, "a time for concentrated men of preposterous ambition and small stature who needed no more than four hours of sleep a night.")
On the whole, Sontag's prose here is less than fastidious—by turns slack and frantic, deft and clumsy. Emma is "engulfed in the ecstasy of being alive"; the Cavaliere, visiting Paestum, "avowed himself irritated by the stumpy, conically shaped Doric columns." Confused, overwrought metaphors abound: "He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another, by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms." There are even grammatical errors: "If she could have, if he would have permitted it, she would have gladly gone, booted and bundled up in furs, on the boar hunt with the Cavaliere." Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun is introduced to the reader as "one of the few professional painters who was [!] a woman." A description of a flea-market crowd as "Vulpine, larking"—a seeming contradiction—suggests that even on the rare occasion when Sontag endeavors to set a picture before the reader, she doesn't really see it herself. But then this is a novel whose chief purpose is manifestly not to capture the sights and sounds of eighteenth-century Naples but to serve as a framework for the author's cerebrations; it is an act of will rather than of visionary compulsion, a work crowded with ideas rather than with life.
To be sure, there are many forceful passages here, including graphic descriptions of battle casualties, mob rioting and its consequences, and the punishments meted out to republican revolutionaries. Sontag is good, too, at rendering the Cavaliere's state of mind: when Emma tells a lie at dinner, the rapid succession of emotions with which he reacts to it is convincing and sensitively evoked. Skillful as Sontag can be at delineating her characters' psychology, however, she only rarely attempts to convey a sense of them through dramatic action; instead of showing, she tells. Thus we don't feel as if we know them in the way a friend would, even if at times we feel as if we have a pretty good idea of what it is like to be them.
This novel is set, Sontag's narrator tells us, in a time "when all ethical obligations were first put up for scrutiny, the beginning of the time we call modern … the beginning of the age of revolutions." For Sontag, the Cavaliere's collecting becomes the quintessential symbol of pre-revolutionary civilization ("To collect is, by definition, to collect the past—while to make a revolution is to condemn what is now called the past"), and the Cavaliere a prototypical pre-modern figure: "Everything should be understood, and anything can be transformed—that is the modern view…. The Cavaliere was not trying to understand more than he already did. The collector's impulse does not encourage the lust to understand or to transform. Collecting is a form of union. The collector is acknowledging. He is adding. He is learning. He is noting." It is only appropriate that when Goethe, the poet of the new sensibility, meets the Cavaliere, he condemns him in his thoughts as "a simpleminded epicurean … a man incapable of delving deeply into what interested him."
It seems significant that Sontag calls The Volcano Lover not a novel but a romance—a word that Hawthorne used to describe works of fiction that, as he wrote in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, depart from the novel's "very minute fidelity … to the probable and ordinary course of man's experience." In writing a romance, Hawthorne explained, the author "may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture"; what made The House of the Seven Gables a romance was "the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us." All this seems germane to Sontag's purposes in The Volcano Lover. There may be several reasons why she has chosen to call her book a romance: first, it's set in the Romantic Era; second, she may want to set it apart from her first two novels, to signal that this time around she isn't operating under the influence of the French nouveau roman or trying to win a prize for most avant-garde novel of the year; third, like Hawthorne, she offers a decidedly colored version of the past, with some things emphasized and others downplayed; fourth, the book is about a romance, or rather several romances: Hamilton's romance with Emma, with his collection, and with his volcano; Emma's with Nelson; and (yes) Sontag's own long-standing romances with those two incompatible phenomena that figure significantly in these pages—high culture and populist revolution.
Presumably it is Sontag's desire to "connect a bygone time with the present" that accounts for the abundance of contemporary allusions in The Volcano Lover. The narrator uses words like "overachiever" and "dumbed down"; she refers to the "rain-in-Spain" lessons given Emma by the Cavaliere, notes the "strobe-like succession" of Emma's tableaux vivants, and labels one passage a "flash-forward." There are references to Nagasaki, Isadora Duncan, Las Vegas, and a collector in Florida who stores his acquisitions in a castle in Genoa; and we're told that suicide would be more widespread if it were made easy by the digging of a hole "at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Where the Frick Collection is. (Or a prole-ier address?)" As a rule, these deliberate anachronisms strike one as self-conscious, intrusive, and aesthetically ill-advised. Even more unattractive and bewildering are the frequent shifts between past and present tense, which sometimes occur twice within a single sentence.
One way in which Sontag contrasts the period of her novel with our own day is by discussing attitudes toward heroism, then and now. When painting heroic figures, she notes, Napoleonic-era artists sought to "preserve the larger truth of a subject from the claims of a literal, that is, inferior truth." Apostles had to be noble-looking; Alexander the Great must be tall. By contrast, we of the twentieth century.
like to stress the commonness of heroes. Essences seem undemocratic. We feel oppressed by the call to greatness. We regard an interest in glory or perfection as a sign of mental unhealthiness, and have decided that high achievers, who are called overachievers, owe their surplus of ambition to a defect in mothering (either too little or too much). We want to admire but think we have a right not to be intimidated. We dislike feeling inferior to an ideal. So, away with ideals, with essences! The only ideals allowed are healthy ones—those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing.
These observations are valid and well worth making. Yet if Sontag mocks the modern distaste for heroes, she also scorns Nelson's heroism. After he drives the French-backed revolutionaries out of Naples, crushing their short-lived republic, his merciless punishment of the rebels—and, in particular, his insistence upon the execution of eminent poets, scholars, and scientists—makes the word "hero" sound increasingly ironic. He is, the narrator notes, "not chivalrous, high-minded, but vindictive, self-righteous…. Eternal shame upon the hero!" In their support of Nelson's violations of international law, the Cavaliere proves to be "not benevolent, detached, but spiritless, passive," and Emma "not merely exuberant and vulgar, but cunning, cruel, bloodthirsty. All three giving themselves over to a terrible crime."
These narratorial verdicts on the protagonists are not an isolated instance. An anecdote illustrating the queen's vindictiveness concludes: "Nothing is more hateful than revenge." A few pages later there is a lecture on mercy: "Mercy is what takes us beyond nature, beyond our natures, which are always stocked with cruel feelings…. Nothing is more admirable than mercy." At the close of the novel—after several brief sections consisting of the deathbed musings of the Cavaliere and of posthumous reflections by Emma, Emma's mother, and the Cavaliere's first wife, Catherine (whose romantic friendship with his rich nephew, William, presages the Emma-Nelson affair)—we are offered the posthumous testament of Eleanora Fonseca di Pimental, a poetry-writing noblewoman who was executed for her pro-revolutionary activities. Fonseca, whose status as a female literary figure and activist makes it hard not to identify her with Sontag, devotes her final pages—which are the final pages of the book—to a fierce condemnation of Nelson, of the Neapolitan royals, of Sir William Hamilton ("an upperclass dilettante…. Did he ever have an original thought, or subject himself to the discipline of writing a poem, or discover or invent something useful to humanity, or burn with zeal for anything except his own pleasures and the privileges annexed to his station?"), and of Emma, who she pronounces an "enthusiast" with "no genuine convictions…. I can easily imagine Emma Hamilton, had her nationality been different, as a republican heroine, who might have ended most courageously at the foot of some gallows. That is the nullity of women like her." Implicitly contrasted with Emma is Fonseca herself:
I was earnest, I was ecstatic, I did not understand cynicism, I wanted things to be better for more than a few. I was willing to give up my privileges. I was not nostalgic about the past. I believed in the future. I sang my song and my throat was cut. I saw beauty and my eyes were put out. Perhaps I was naïve…. Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.
What are we to make of these blunt verdicts by the narrator and by a character who doesn't even appear until the last few pages and connects herself explicitly with Sontag? Could these last pages be intended as Sontag's own apologia pro vita sua? If earlier in the novel her sympathies appear to be very much with the Cavaliere, here she manifestly wants us to identify this woman with her, which would seem to demand that we further identify the chaos of the Napoleonic wars with the tumult of the Vietnam era, revolutionary France with the Soviet Union, the Neapolitan republic with North Vietnam, and the British Empire with the United States. This is not the only place in The Volcano Lover in which Sontag suggests such parallels. Her reference, elsewhere in the novel, to the English military in Naples as "agents of a world empire … in a far-off southern satrapy rich in traditions of corruption and indolence, where they are trying to inculcate martial virtues and the necessity of resisting the opposing superpower," is an obvious jab at America's involvement in Vietnam. (Whatever one may think of the conduct of the war, to suggest in 1992 that Vietnam was a U.S. "satrapy" and the war a manifestation of American imperial ambitions is disgraceful; though Sontag did get around to condemning Communism a few years back, she would still seem to have trouble accepting that the imperial ambitions underlying the war in Vietnam were those not of America but of the Soviet Union.)
Likewise, Sontag would appear to be trying to put the best possible face on her own Vietnam-era naïveté and idealism when she has her narrator say that the Neapolitan revolution "doesn't have a chance. Indeed, it is the classic design, confected in that decade, reused many times since, for a revolution that doesn't have a chance. And will go down in history as naïve. Well-intentioned. Idealistic. Premature. The sort of revolution that gives, to some, a good name to revolution." At the end, it's hard not to read Fonseca's attack on the Hamiltons as a surrogate attack by Sontag on the artists, intellectuals, and other privileged folk who failed to mount the 1960s barricades alongside her—and as a suggestion that she is as noble as Fonseca because she gave a damn, that the only difference between her and the intellectual types who weren't taken in by the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Castro was that her colleagues were less bighearted than she was, and that her only flaw was an excess of benevolence with which the world has yet to catch up. "You can always count," the narrator complains, "on the naïveté and gullibility of the benevolent. They go along, marching ahead, thinking they have people behind them, and then they turn around and … nobody there. The mob has peeled off, looking for food or wine or sex or a nap or a good brawl. The mob is unwilling to be high-minded." Could this possibly mean that when Sontag reflects upon her behavior during the Vietnam War she believes that if the American public failed to be sold on socialist revolution, it was because they weren't as capable as she is of devotion to a moral ideal?
If so, Sontag deserves some kind of award for chutzpah. For even the remotest suggestion of a parallel between her and Fonseca is outrageous. Fonseca cares about the commonfolk; Sontag, whose dramatis personae doesn't include one full-bodied member of the proletariat, continues to exhibit only the most pro forma interest in and concern for the lower orders. Fonseca willingly sacrifices her comfort and security to support a republican government; Sontag, sacrificing nothing, traveled to North Vietnam and Cuba as a guest of totalitarian dictators and praised their murderous, repressive regimes while condemning American democracy. Fonseca ends up on the gallows; Sontag ended up with a MacArthur grant. Of course; one could argue that Sontag, by painting a largely sympathetic portrait of the Cavaliere, Emma, and "the hero" and then having a character attack them, means to represent her own internal conflict between, on the one hand, her own connoisseurship, her sense of identification with a creative, attractive woman, and her tendency toward hero-worship, and, on the other, her sense of obligation to feel solidarity with the masses. She has, after all, written that "[l]ike all great aesthetes, Barthes was an expert at having it both ways"; perhaps she, who surely considers herself a great aesthete, wants to have it both ways too: to assert at once the rectitude and pointlessness of populist revolution and the joy and moral equivocality of connoisseurship, creativity, and heroism, and thereby to draw our attention to the problematic nexus between ethics and aesthetics, virtue and valor, morality and epicurism. To put it differently, one could argue that Sontag embraces both the Cavaliere and Fonseca, the pre-Revolutionary and the modern, the conserver and the destroyer, the involved and the detached, the lover of beautiful things and the lover of people—that she contradicts herself, in short, because she contains multitudes.
Or perhaps we're meant to understand that Sontag is playing some kind of postmodern game here—a game with the idea of narratorial assertion, old-fashioned moralizing, authorial intrusion. This is, after all, the woman who wrote in "On Style" that a critic should not treat a work of art "as a statement being made in the form of a work of art." And: "A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world." And: "A work of art, so far as it is a work of art, cannot—whatever the artist's personal intention—advocate anything at all." By incorporating in The Volcano Lover several references to the unreliability of art and the use of literature as a means of escape, Sontag would seem to be cautioning us not to read her autobiographically.
Yet even as she does this, she would also seem to be compelling us to relate the novel's closing pages to her own personal history. Perhaps the fundamental problem here is that the controlling sensibility of this book ultimately seems less that of Sontag the artist than that of Sontag the author of "commentary on the world." Instead of gently coaxing local truths out of her characters, Sontag too often thrusts upon them ready-made, generalized notions about connoisseurship, heroism, etc.; instead of seeking to comprehend the mystery of motivation—how a poor English girl ends up supporting a tyrannical monarchy and a noble-woman ends up a populist rebel—Sontag too often uses her story as an excuse to toss off axioms and air prejudices. Now, had Fonseca been a well-rounded character who figured throughout much of the novel, and about whom we knew enough to be able to believe in her devotion to rebellion and care about her fate—and had we seen enough, moreover, of Neapolitan peasant life to appreciate the reasons for that devotion—her posthumous tirade might have worked, and Sontag might have managed to engender a potent, credible, and dramatically effective tension between this woman's Weltanschauung and that of the Cavaliere and company. As it is, alas, Sontag's closing pages simply come off as one more instance of the lamentable self-centeredness—and, yes, the peculiarly constructed cultural elitism—with which her readers have become all too familiar.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2986
SOURCE: "Eruptions," in New Republic, Vol. 207, Nos. 11-12, September 7-14, 1992, pp. 46-9.
[Below, Jenkyns offers a negative assessment of The Volcano Lover.]
Sir William Hamilton, the principal character of Susan Sontag's new novel [The Volcano Lover], was what the eighteenth century called a virtuoso, a cultivated aristocrat with an amateur interest in art and science. As British ambassador to the court of Naples from 1764 to 1800, he became what passed for a vulcanologist, making more than twenty ascents of Vesuvius, and collected antiquities, especially Greek vases. His enduring fame, however, is as one of history's most notorious cuckolds.
Hamilton's second wife, Emma, of the humblest origins, was celebrated first as the great beauty of her day, then for her "Attitudes" tableaux, in which she posed in the roles of the heroines of classical myth. ("People are mad about her wonderful expression," Horace Walpole observed, "which I do not conceive, so few antique statues having any expression at all, nor being designed to have it.") But finally, and most lastingly, she was celebrated as Lord Nelson's mistress. Nor was Nelson the only spectacular visitor to Naples: Goethe passed through, and described his encounter with Emma in his Italian Journey, and a more exotic bird of passage was William Beckford, soon to be notorious for Vathek, a lurid tale of Oriental cruelty and sensuality, and later for creating a fabulous palace at Fonthill in Wiltshire, with a gothic tower nearly 300 feet high. It is quite a cast; and it is something of an achievement for Sontag to have made these people so dull.
The Volcano Lover is being launched with more than the usual fanfare of promotional trumpets, but the din cannot disguise that it is a big disappointment. What went wrong? A part of the answer, perhaps, is that Sontag seems to have had no clear notion of what sort of book this was to be. Maybe the idea was to produce a "baggy monster," to borrow Henry James's description of the Victorian novel, a treasure house sparkling with precious and fascinating objects. In a recent interview Sontag is quoted as saying that "it's a historical novel, but it's written from a modern point of view and it's a book that speaks in many voices…. The point is, I don't want just to write only a historical novel, but I do want it to be historical." Of course, many voices can make a rich and harmonious polyphony—or they can be babel. The fluctuation of tone in The Volcano Lover usually suggests not depth or complexity, but uncertainty and a lack of control. Perhaps the problem originated in Sontag's feeling that it would not be good enough to write only a historical novel. In any event, for most of the time her novel is more historical in its way than most historical novels. We are given a great deal of factual information. The tone is almost professional. What Sontag says of Hamilton could be applied to herself: "He wanted to make sure that their amusement was as saturated with knowledge as his own. Wherever he was, the Cavaliere was prone to cast himself in the role of guide or mentor."
Sometimes the little lectures are absurdly prosy:
Then as now an ascent had several stages. The road, in our own century turned into a motorway, did not exist then. But there was already a trail on which one came about two-thirds of the way, as far as the natural trough between the central cone and Mount Somma.
And at moments the lecturer turns into the schoolmarm, with a priggish shaking of the head over Hamilton's political incorrectness, and a superiority too easily won. When Madame Vigée-Lebrun paints Emma, "Probably, he [Hamilton] did not give any thought to the fact that this would be the first portrait of her by one of the few professional painters who was a woman." Tsk, tsk.
Often the book reads more like a chronicle or a biography than a novel, and in fact Sontag has a considerable talent for descriptive narrative. Scenes such as the arrival of Nelson or the riot of the mob in the Neapolitan counter-revolution are excellently done. But there is no consistency of style or approach. Odd bits of the author's own stream of consciousness intrude for no discernable reason, and the characters reflect sometimes in an eighteenth-century manner, sometimes in a modern one. Thus, when Hamilton visits a fortuneteller, we have a naturalistic scene of Italian low life, when suddenly the fortuneteller is given magical powers and foresees tarmac, the disappearance of horse-drawn traffic, mass tourism, the century of the common man, and "even the American professor will be interested in me."
It is a serious weakness that Sontag shows little ability, with one minor but welcome exception, for creating character. She has one or two sporadic ideas about Hamilton—that he is an aristocratic cold fish, that he is an obsessive collector—but these are not developed or made to fit together into a coherent picture. And so there is a hole at the heart of the novel. Until a page from the end Hamilton is never named, but referred to as "the Cavaliere," even when we are seeing him through the eyes of his wife or his family. Emma, we are told, "was not born to that kind of snobbery which prides itself on an indirect expression," and it is a pity that Sontag could not learn from her. The tiresome mannerism of periphrasis, one of the many affectations with which the book is littered, is symptomatic: Sontag seems less interested in her characters than in striking attitudes toward them.
Emma must be a problem for a novelist, because her quality seems to be irrecoverable. One gets little sense of her beauty or her charm from the vapid portraits of her. Sontag depicts her as a sort of hearty barmaid, and perhaps that will do, more or less. But again there is infirmity of purpose. Sontag blunders in quoting from Emma's authentic letters. "Oh Charles on that day you always smiled on me & staid at home & was kind to me & now I am so far away…. But I will not no I will not rage. If I was with you I wood murder you and myself boath." Suddenly Emma has become touchingly alive—and how painfully we feel the contrast when Sontag returns to the flatness of her own invention: "It is impossible to describe how much I miss you, Charles, wrote the girl. Impossible to describe how angry I am."
If Emma's magnetism is lost to us, the problem with Nelson is the reverse: we know too much about him. His fierce suppression of the revolution in Naples may well have been the darkest episode in his career. You may, if you choose, be repelled by him, but he undeniably had what now we call charisma and was then described simply as the Nelson touch. Not since Alexander the Great was there a commander in whom iron will was so bound up with the romance of personality; and on top of that, he was the greatest naval genius in history. What will not do, then, is to depict this astonishing figure as a pathetic little man, which is how Sontag depicts him. When Nelson enters Naples in triumph, the best that she can imagine is him wishing that his wife and father were there to see him. We may not know how it felt to be Nelson, but it surely cannot have been that. And she comments repeatedly on the grotesqueness of the lovemaking between Nelson and Emma, a small man with one arm and a large woman running to fat. This is merely vulgar, a failure of human understanding.
Great novelists can elevate the everyday—Austen can make a scene between a dull young man and a straight-laced young woman seem endlessly absorbing—but Sontag does the reverse. Given extraordinary people, she makes them commonplace. Goethe meets Lady Hamilton, and all he can manage is cocktail-party conversation. With Beckford, however, Sontag does better, inventing a platonic tendresse between him and Hamilton's first wife. This amitié amoureuse between a middle-aged woman and an insecure young homosexual is conventional enough, and it hardly does justice to a character of bizarre flamboyance, but at least it has some life to it.
A good deal of Sontag's prose is bad in a creative writing way. Consider this sentence, about Beckford's arrival in Naples: "A restless, abbreviated version of the Grand Tour (he left England only two months earlier) had brought him to its southernmost station with record speed, casting him on the shore of the Cavaliere's hospitality just in time for the hot wind, one of the great winds of southern Europe (mistral, Föhn, sirocco, tramontana) that are used, like the days leading up to menstruation, to explain restlessness, neurasthenia, emotional fragility: a collective PMS that comes on seasonally."
Or consider the ship Colossus "plodding nervily" across the Mediterranean. What motion is less like a ship's than plodding? And "nervily" is pseudopicturesque and means nothing. The ship is then seen "clinging to the western ledge of Europe," a poor description of a passage up the flatlands of the French Atlantic coast, before running into "a merciless, protean storm." The first of these adjectives is lazily sentimental, the second shows that Sontag may not know what "protean" means. Throughout the book, with a grim sense of the inevitable, we discover that Vesuvius is to be loaded with a mass of labored symbolism—molten passions seething beneath the apparently hard surface, that sort of thing—and the less said of this the better. And there is plenty of cultural self-advertisement, too. Sontag lets us know that she knows about Heian Japan, say, or about opera—though any reader who can pick up the allusions does not need to be taken through the plot of Don Giovanni or—for seven pages!—of Tosca. (Scarpia is also introduced into the narrative of the novel itself, appearing as a fee-fi-fo-fum sadist who makes Puccini's own figure seem understated.)
Above all, the book is thick with authorial comment and portentous aphorism. At its worst, this is tastelessly facetious. Thus, on Pompeii and Herculaneum: "Like a more recent double urbanicide, one murdered city is much more famous worldwide than the other. (As one wag put it, Nagasaki had a bad press agent.)" Or there is word play so feeble that one marvels at the lack of self-criticism: "The sleep of reason engenders mothers." (No, it does not make much better sense in context.) More often banality is endlessly elaborated as though it were a dazzling new perception. So the obvious thought that when you are haggling you should not seem too keen is spun out into a whole slack paragraph:
That tremor when you spot it. But you don't say anything. You don't want to make the present owner aware of its value to you; you don't want to drive the price up, or make him decide not to sell at all. So you keep cool, you examine something else, you move on or you go out, saying you'll be back. You perform a whole theater of being a little interested, but not immoderately; intrigued, yes, even tempted; but not seduced, bewitched. Not ready to pay even more than is being asked, because you must have it.
And so on and on.
Too often the Great Thoughts are simply wrong or silly. The collector's strategy, we are informed, "is one of passionate self-effacement. Don't look at me, says the collector. I'm nothing. Look at what I have. Isn't it, aren't they, beautiful." One has only to think of Getty or Thyssen or what S.N. Behrman called Duveen's "brisk trade in immortality" to see that this is nonsense. The lover, says Sontag, is the opposite of the collector: "The lover's relation to objects annihilates all but the world of the lovers. This world. My world. My beauty, my glory, my fame." Again, this is deficient in emotional truth. Love has sometimes been called an égoïsme à deux, but Sontag makes it into an égoïsme tout court. Is being in love really a self-congratulatory narcissism of this kind?
Sontag's understanding of grief and bereavement is similarly skewed. Suppose, she says, that someone you love has died on the other side of the world. The fact that this person may have been dead for some months "makes a mockery of the finality of death. Death is reduced to news. And news is always a little unreal—which is why we can bear to take in so much of it." Think about it: your beloved is dead, far away; therefore you feel that death is mocked, not final. What person of decent feeling has ever reacted like that? In such passages especially, Sontag is much too busy being smart.
The last part of the novel turns in a new direction. Sontag abandons naturalism, and four women in succession address us from beyond the grave. This is a fully self-conscious scheme to shift the book into a different mode; and the offering of a new perspective, in a way involved, in a way detached, is attractive, though it might have been more successful if the preceding naturalistic tone had been maintained more steadily. In one instance the late shift works especially well. The second of these women is a character who has played little part in the story so far, Emma's mother, Mrs. Cadogan. She is Sontag's most successful creation. Sontag brings vividly to life the garrulous old lady, disillusioned but warmhearted; with a rough peasant wisdom. Mrs. Cadogan is an unpretending character, and for once Sontag can forget to be pretentious. Yet even here she lacks consistency of purpose: Emma's mother is made to use the rural eighteenth-century vernacular (a good piece of impersonation), but when Emma herself returns to the stage as the third of these voices from the dead, she speaks in the tone of a twentieth-century sensibility.
The last of these women is Eleonora Pimentel, poet and journalist, who was hanged for her part in the Neapolitan revolution. There are lots of executions and tortures in The Volcano Lover, too many, and rashly Sontag lets Eleonora offer us one more of these, telling us what it is like to be hanged in public: "Then it was my turn—and, yes, it was exactly as I had imagined it." Oh, like that, was it? This means, of course, only that Sontag has not been able to imagine it. Near the end, moreover, Eleonora turns to some pious feminist sentiments: "Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book." The idea that this revolutionary heroine, dying horribly for the sake of liberty, should spend some of her last words to us on the hardship of being Susan Sontag provides the book, in its final paragraph, with its most ripely comic moment.
Great novelists may be intolerable in their private lives, but in their work they show a certain reticence. Tolstoy was a raging egoist, but in his fiction he deferred to the autonomy of his creations. Sontag may be the soul of modesty in herself, but her literary persona is much too self-important. Her characters are squeezed out to make room for her own insistent voice. The novelist needs to know where he or she is, what ground he or she is standing upon, but this Sontag does not quite know. A failure of imaginative engagement with her story is suggested, for example, by the frequent slippage of tenses. One small example (italics added): "Catherine does not think he will ever become devout (and he did not)." Such things jar in the reading, not because they feel grammatically odd, but because the writer does not seem to have her feet planted firmly in either of her centuries.
It is interesting to compare The Volcano Lover with the triumph a few years ago of A.S. Byatt's Possession—both books have the subtitle "A Romance" and both measure a past era, in Byatt's case the Victorian age, against the values of today—and to wonder why the one novel should succeed so much better than the other. One answer is that Byatt plunges exuberantly into her chosen period with love and admiration, while Sontag rises superior to hers. Byatt is ready to learn; Sontag sets out to teach. She has Eleonora Pimentel conclude that the Hamiltons were worthless people, greatly pleased with themselves but devoid of originality, generosity, or convictions. "They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all." These are the last words of the book. Perhaps we should not assume that Eleonora's sweeping contempt is the author's own, but it does seem uncomfortably close. To be sure, a satirist may write a novel about worthless people (though it should not be necessary to explain that they are worthless), but Sontag has not written a satire.
Sontag reveals her attitude of lordly insouciance, in fact, right at the beginning of her book. There is more heavy symbolism. She depicts herself as lingering at the edge of a flea market, condescending to the vulgar populace ("Sloppy crowds. Vulpine, larking.") and wondering whether she will bother to enter:
Why enter? Only to play. A game of recognitions. To know that, and to know how much it was, how much it ought to be, how much it will be. But perhaps not to bid, haggle, not to acquire. Just to look. Just to wander. I'm feeling lighthearted. I don't have anything in mind.
Nothing in mind—well, maybe not nothing, but the admission seems still too true.
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SOURCE: "The Antique Collector's Guide," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, p. 24.
[In the review below, Keates finds The Volcano Lover brilliant at its core but lacking in consistency and discipline.]
The historical events, characters and contexts explored by this remarkable book [The Volcano Lover] constitute the richest of rewards to any novelist. There is something instantly enviable in the prospect of being able to embark on a story which, in addition to its exotic setting beneath the minatory shadow of Vesuvius, will embrace Lord Nelson, Lady Hamilton, Goethe, Beckford, and that copper-bottomed harpy, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, as well as throwing in, with a certain cheeky self-assurance, the figures of Angelotti, Scarpia and Floria Tosca from Sardou via Puccini. Who, after all, would not wish to have taken some part, as actor or witness, in these lives, against the background of so sublimely irrational a moment in the annals of modern Europe?
Confronted with such profusion, spread promiscuously like a buffet supper, Susan Sontag is both epicure and glutton. Contemporary fiction often seems short of any sense that novelists genuinely enjoy their own creations, relishing those acts of revival, animation and mimicry in which they indulge and sharing this pardonable vanity with the reader. The conviction of The Volcano Lover is that of an author who has had a good time.
In more than one sense, she is profoundly identified with her subjects. Indeed it is hard to think of a recent novel, more especially a historical novel, which so emphatically reflects this symbiosis between writer and theme. Her central figure, Sir William Hamilton (referred to throughout, for whatever reason, as "the Cavaliere") is a collector, at ease amid a scatter of terracottas, intaglios, cameos and vases, the swiftly hidden loot of excavations, adding, as a grace-note to the ensemble, the ultimate collectable in the form of Emma Hart, the scouse coryphée whose whole life has awaited fulfilment as a gallery of living statuary, the antique brought to life in a sequence of shawl-draped attitudes.
"Beauty surrounded me. I surrounded myself with beauty. Each new enthusiasm a new crater of an old volcano." By the same token, Sontag herself becomes, in the archaic sense of each term, a virtuoso and a dilettante, seizing hold of whatever happens to catch her fancy in the cultural vitrines of the late Enlightenment and proto-Romanticism. The things that ought to take place in a novel of this kind—war, revolution, feasting, love affairs and death-beds—are interspersed with episodes more blatantly linked with the author's personal concerns. A visit, for example, by Nelson and the Hamiltons to a Sicilian villa adorned with grotesque statuary affords an opportunity for Sir William to read in these leering marble freaks a satirical commentary on the nature and purpose of collecting, and allows the author to incorporate her own marmoreal eighteenth-century generalizations within the narrative flow.
If Sontag is her own William Hamilton, the book more dangerously becomes its own volcano, complete with lava streams and fumaroles, probably less by intention than as a result of sheer unrestrained inventiveness. Up to a point, we can be happy that it never assumes any sort of consistency, reading like the unedited materials of a novel whose final polishing has for whatever reason been abandoned. As with most active volcanoes, however, we spend much time irritably wondering which of its considerable range of tricks it will choose to spring next.
Many of these relate to the author's determined, often positively obsessive interventionism. She favours the mode initiated by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman and given added sophistication by writers like Patrick Süsskind in Perfume, whereby the writer acts as interpreter, offering the occasional gloss on the quirks and foibles of the age evoked and keeping the reader carefully alienated by means of a post-modern tricksiness with tenses and spasmodic references to events still to happen or to concepts yet unhatched.
The effect of this is an unwelcome leadenness, a text stifled by its own volubility, pestered by little bursts of inopportune rhetorical musing and embarrassed by the nakedly thrilling or entertaining potential of the various incidents it describes. Or rather doesn't describe, since at its most maddeningly way ward, the narrative, at such moments as the butchery of the Neapolitan Jacobins by Cardinal Ruffo's Sanfedisti, possesses the indoorness, the armchairness, of historiography rather than fiction.
Formally, the novel has only the linear cohesion of chronological sequence on which to rely for structure. Otherwise what urge us forward are the solemn, candid beauty of Sontag's prose and the casual enchantments of her detailing, from the paintings of Thomas Jones to the wreck of the vase-laden Colossus. We must make what we can of the closing monologues by four women whose lives interlocked with Hamilton's, including Emma's mother, Mrs Cadogan, and the Neapolitan revolutionary Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. The dignity and authenticity of their utterances are worth waiting for, but, juxtaposed with so much else in The Volcano Lover that appears either undisciplined or else too fastidious, they merely enhance the air of smothered brilliance in this literary Herculaneum, this noble ruin of a novel.
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SOURCE: "Romance as Metaphor," in The Nation, Vol. 255, No. 10, October 5, 1992, pp. 365-68.
[In the following review, Johnson describes Sontag as a skilled storyteller and The Volcano Lover as an insightful novel.]
"Collecting," muses Susan Sontag in her latest novel, "is a succession of desires…. To collect is to rescue things, valuable things, from neglect, from oblivion, or simply from the ignoble destiny of being in someone else's collection rather than one's own."
In The Volcano Lover, Sontag has rescued a story locked in many a biographer's prized collection: the tangled fortunes of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, whose notorious liaison scandalized eighteenth-century Naples. In a sense, though, Sontag's observations about collecting apply more slyly to herself as a writer. In her revisionist retelling of the Hamilton sage, she's found the ideal forum to display her own succession of desires. For The Volcano Lover is no less than a Grand Tour of ideas that have animated Sontag's fiction and nonfiction these past three decades: the primacy of aesthetics, the totalitarian impulse to sacrifice intellectuals, the moral role of art in history. Sontag's passion for ideas channels itself into the arenas of passion—political, amorous, aesthetic—all played out on a vast cultural stage, the ill-fated republican struggle for Naples.
A historical romance by Susan Sontag? Is this the ultimate literary oxymoron? A tempting parody by our premier intellectual voice, whose essays on Canetti, Barthes, Benjamin and Bresson are classics in avant-garde criticism? Surely if two words define Sontag, they are "Against Interpretation," not "A Romance," the subtitle of her new novel. If we know anything about the author of On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, it is Sontag's capacity to surprise, to challenge our received opinions. With The Volcano Lover, it is the writer herself who has most skillfully resisted interpretation.
Sontag's foray into historical romance parallels that of another sophisticated theorist, A.S. Byatt, whose 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel Possession rocketed her to best-sellerdom. Fittingly, Byatt's literary scholar protagonists are entangled in the area often associated with Sontag: the thicket of critical theory. Sontag's quarry, as Elizabeth Hardwick has noted, is "the wide, elusive, variegated sensibility of modernism." If, most recently, she's explored it with elegiac precision in AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) and its fictional counterpart, The Way We Live Now (1991), her most successful statement is the novel at hand. The Volcano Lover is a literary conceit: an eighteenth-century story within which Sontag illuminates the inexorable pull of the past on modern life.
The germ for the novel has long resided in one of her strongest stories, "Unguided Tour." Collected in I, etcetera (1978) (and also the subject of her fourth film), it's a spare conversational duet between lovers wandering the ruins of Italy and their own relationship. Travel as consumption: objects, scenery, monuments. Travel as repetition: language, memory, history. Taking her cue from one of the lovers, Sontag sets herself a dare as an author: "Say to yourself fifty times a day: I am not a connoisseur, I am not a romantic wanderer, I am not a pilgrim." That single line gives The Volcano Lover its theme and its literary license.
Style, as Sontag notes in "Against Interpretation," "is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist's will." How remarkable and radical a departure this new fiction is from those willfully opaque puzzle novels The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967). In The Volcano Lover, Sontag finally achieves the "transparence" she cites as the hallmark of all true art. Gone are the artful elisions of Barthes. In their place are the thunder and props of narrative, the very narrative she's banished in previous fiction. And how skilled a story-teller she is. Like Byatt, who ingeniously mimics the moral spaciousness of the nineteenth-century novel to reflect on our own century, so Sontag has found her ideal counterpart in the eighteenth century's elegantly aphoristic novel of ideas.
What more fitting setting than Naples, "capital of natural disaster," to serve as the backdrop for "the telluric forces" of the late eighteenth century? Rocked by revolutionary upheaval, it is the age of royalists and republicans; art and artifice; romanticism and rationalism. An age that crackles with change: Franklin's experiments with electricity; Marat's incendiary Jacobinism; Europe's gleam of the guillotine blade. Yet it's Vesuvius, volcano as entertainment and apocalypse, that provides Sontag with the ideal metaphor for the century's explosive energies. Shimmering on the Bay of Naples is the "emblem of all the forms of wholesale death: the deluge, the great conflagration … but also of survival, of human persistence." Seeking "their ration of apocalypse," visitors from Goethe to Archduke Joseph scale Vesuvius to stare into the active abyss. Naples, nestled beneath the shadow of death, "had been added to the Grand Tour."
Congregating under these skies are gentlemen tourists, sexual exiles, volcano pilgrims, an opera house replete with a "continual ravishment of castrati," and a King of the Two Sicilies who doesn't speak Italian. In this third-largest city in Europe, courtly love takes on new meaning. Sexual excess, domestic spying and sport as bloodbath amuse the Bourbon monarch and his wife, sister of Marie Antoinette. Attending them is the "envoy of decorum and reason," Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples. Scholar, courtier, aesthete, "Il Cavaliere" is a familiar Sontag saturnine personality. (Betraying "the hyperactivity of the heroic depressive," he "ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms.") Thanks to his wife, an asthmatic, harpsichord-playing heiress, he collects treasures. Etruscan vases, cameos, intaglios, shards of lava from nearby Pompeii are sold to the British Museum.
Long mistaking his "capacity for detachment … with his temperament," the Cavaliere civilizes his passions into inanimate objects. At home after his wife's death, though, he meets the 19-year-old, auburn-haired mistress of his nephew Charles. A favorite of the painter Romney, Emma has a less decorous past as a model, including a semiclad stint for a doctor curing couples of impotence. Charles, in need of his own heiress, offers Emma to his widowed uncle, some thirty years her senior. He studies the artifact of his desire. The "small receding chin, the blush of eczema on her elbows … the stretchmarks of pregnancy" are all overlooked. For the true collector, "an object is not sullied…. What counts is that it has reached its destination, been locked into the circle of possessions of the one who most deserved to own it." Emma is shipped to Naples.
Nowhere is Sontag's ironic eye more merciless than in viewing the sexual politics of instruction. Dispatching a battery of tutors to his household, the Cavaliere admires Emma's nimble intelligence as she quickly masters French, Italian, botany and music. Like his pet monkey, Jack, she displays a keen talent for pleasing, one of the many strategies of charm Sontag inveighs against as the social destiny of women. Yet in playing Galatea to his Pygmalion, Emma upends the myth: From her niche in his "gallery of living statues," she steals the limelight. Donning white tunic costumes, she assumes a succession of theatrical poses—Niobe, Medea, Dido, Ariadne. These "Attitudes" soon make her a court favorite, indispensable confidante to the queen. The volcano lover marries his demimondaine. He collects, she performs. Together, their lives affect "poses that excited the greatest admiration."
The collector's public need to admire and be admired is what fatefully links the Hamiltons and Lord Nelson. When the commander of the British fleet arrives for the naval blockade of Naples, the trio find themselves "united in feeling themselves actors in a great historical drama; saving England, and Europe, from French conquest and from republicanism." Three's not a crowd; it's a collection. An "ideal enabler," the Cavaliere lends the hero of the Battle of the Nile his friendship and, ultimately, his wife. As the Cavaliere hoards his treasures, Nelson his honors and Emma her pleasures, each becomes locked in the curio cabinet of the other's vanity and affections. Vesuvius erupts. Jacobins conspire in Naples. The court watches Emma perform her antique Attitudes.
Sontag's considerable achievement in The Volcano Lover is that she's managed to create real characters, not Ideas in eighteenth-century button-and-muslin dress. As admirable, she's made history itself a living character. The first half of the novel is leisurely devoted to the Cavaliere and Emma. The second is a fast-paced, compulsively readable roll call of history: the fall of the Bastille, the Terror of 1794, the 1799 Bourbon exile negotiated by the Hamiltons and Nelson. The trio's fate is intertwined with the Continent's historical destiny. As French troops storm Naples, Nelson commandeers the British fleet, squiring the royal exiles to Sicily. The "Kingdom of cinders" is set ablaze, not by the volcano but by the wholesale slaughter of artists, intellectuals and political sympathizers. Offshore, adrift from history, the trio fiddle while Naples burns.
It was the time, we are told, when "all ethical obligations were first put up for scrutiny, the beginning of the time we call modern." While Sontag rues the spirited naïveté of the enlightened republicans, The Volcano Lover scorns the tyrannies of mob rule, even if that mob is only three lovers. Sontag locates the political in the telling specifics of character. The Cavaliere waits out the French menace by reading his favorite author, Voltaire. With Gallic disinterest, he evacuates his priceless collection with the skill of Napoleon. When his cargo of antiquities is sunk, the only box salvaged is a coffined admiral en route to England for burial. This ironic event, of course, foreshadows Nelson's recall to England, chastised for being private yacht captain to the royal exiles.
In Naples, the restored Bourbon queen erects a Greek temple in gratitude. Entombed inside are smiling wax effigies of the trio. In the highest tradition of historical romance, Sontag has breathed life into these waxworks. Her skill as a novelist is in evoking both our sympathy and our horror at her protagonists' monstrous self-absorption. Each is culpable. Identity, she implies, is never co-authored. For this, Sontag deprives them of their names (throughout, Hamilton is referred to as "the Cavaliere"; Emma, "the Cavaliere's wife"; Nelson, "the hero"). Public scorn singles Emma out as scapegoat. Like Eleanora de Fonseca, unsung heroine of the republic, and even the queen herself, Sontag sees each as punished for having stepped outside the spheres of feminine influence. (Perhaps most treasonous for a woman, Emma gets fat and loses her famous beauty.)
Yet history is effaced to anecdote—Hamilton remembered as the complicit cuckold; Nelson as the vengeful tyrant, wreaking final terror on Naples; Emma as court favorite dying destitute in France after Nelson's death at Trafalgar—and Sontag underlines this with an idea from On Photography: how the mass proliferation of objects helps fragment existence and erode meaning. In suggesting the collector's and lover's acquisitive relationship to the world, she exploits fine narrative details: Emma wearing Nelson's name sewn into her hem; the Cavaliere, first owner of the priceless Portland vase, allowing Josiah Wedgwood to mass-reproduce it; Nelson lending his profile for "candelabra, vases, medallions, brooches."
Sontag's meditations on objects extend to those of erotic desire. Is the love affair a work of art? An original? Or do the repetitions of body and spirit mass-produce emotions, therefore rendering them subject to cliché? "The soul of the lover," she writes, "is the opposite of the collector's. The defect or blemish is part of the charm." Literally. Among the novel's more memorable scenes is Emma kissing the stump of Nelson's right arm; him lovingly viewing her bloated body with his only good eye. In a Sicilian garden of grotesqueries, Nelson plays Mars to Emma's Venus. Alone in a nearby chapel, the Cavaliere is grateful for being in the orbit of their friendship. While the novel is a rich conjugation of connoisseurship—art, women, politics, relationships—at its core is the lesson of "Against Interpretation": the ultimate uniqueness of an object, feeling or person.
With the Cavaliere as the novel's sympathetic lens, The Volcano Lover also plays with the shifting nature of perceptions, the constant, perhaps inevitable, disjunction between experience and memory. Sontag opines: "You project onto the volcano the amount of rage, of complicity with destructiveness, of anxiety about your ability to feel already in your head." Inner peace, like the volcano itself, cannot be collected. Like Pliny the Elder, to whom he compares himself, the Cavaliere is obsessed by the image of Vesuvius erupting in 79 A.D.: "the fearsome noise, the cloud in the shape of an umbrella pine, the death of the sun, the mountain burst open … the rat-grey ash." It is this image that haunts him as he observes the final eruption of the self, his own death.
In grappling with what constitutes the heroic ("And strange, too, seeing the hero in reverse. From another view, the view of history"), Sontag probes its contradictory images in painting. Romney loves Emma's cockney gusto; Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun loathes it. Reynolds prefers the scholarly Cavaliere as idea of hero to the bony angularity of Nelson. And so she probes how each age, classical and modern, needs to see itself through art. In the eighteenth century, "it showed people able to maintain decorum and composure, even in monumental suffering." Yet today, "the significant moment is the one that disturbs us most."
To that end, Sontag uses a cool cinematic lens to show—and make us feel—moments of ultimate suffering. Chief among those is the gallows scene in which Eleanora de Fonseca is jumped upon, her neck broken, as she hangs alive. Suffering is often best shown in the novel's cameo roles: Baron Scarpia, the black-cloaked police spy of Tosca ("To the wicked, a person understood is a person manipulated"); the Neapolitan duke who is savagely tortured, his collection of Titians and rare books burned by a mob suspecting him of Jacobinism.
One finishes The Volcano Lover certain of its inevitability. It seems a novel Susan Sontag was destined to write, a shift from the moral intelligence of the essayist to the intelligent heart of the novelist. To her admirers, the novel will only confirm her originality, and perhaps win over a whole new set of readers. For The Volcano Lover is not just a thinking woman's (or man's) historical romance but a sly, luminously insightful, provocative novel.
Like Henry James in that other novel on collecting, The Portrait of a Lady, Sontag works the connections between travel, place and desire. In that same sundrenched landscape of southern Italy in which he set Isabel Archer reflecting on art, marriage, women and fate, James asked:
Where, in all this … was the element of "horror"…. What obsession that was not charming could find a place in that splendid light, out of which the long summer squeezes every secret and shadow? I'm afraid I'm driven to plead that these evils were exactly in one's imagination, a predestined victim always of the cruel, the fatal historic sense. To make so much distinction, how much history had been needed! So that the whole air still throbbed and ached with it, as with an accumulation of ghosts.
In The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag illuminates that fatal historic sense, its secrets, its shadows, through the ghosts she's brought back to life.
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SOURCE: "The Critic as Novelist," in Commentary, Vol. 94, No. 5, November, 1992, pp. 62-4.
[In the following review, Toynton argues that The Volcano Lover leaves readers with Sontag's opinions but not with an understanding of the characters.]
Susan Sontag arrived at her present intellectual eminence with the publication of her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation (1966), a consideration of such chic cultural phenomena as happenings, the nouveau roman, French movies, and camp. In the title essay of that book, she argued for a radical new approach to art, one in which the emphasis would be on form rather than content. Interpretation, she declared, was "reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling" (note the list of adjectives, a characteristic mannerism); the important thing was to "recover our senses … to see more, to hear more, to feel more."
At the time, this essay, like the book as a whole, was seen as a liberating force, a romantic rallying cry for the avant-garde to emancipate art from the shackles of fusty meaning. But for all its surface glitter, there was something peculiarly sterile in the kind of romanticism Sontag espoused. In its way, it was a debased reworking of the esthétique préçieuse of Walter Pater, that guru of the English Decadence, and like Pater's exhortation to "burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame," it proved to be something of a dead end.
Yet in her criticism over the years, Sontag has remained largely faithful to that early creed, in the sense that she does not perceive her function as one of uncovering meaning; her essays do not plunge into the depths so much as skate imperiously over the surface. The work of interpreting, with its connotation of a journey toward revelation, obliges the critic to pursue a line of reasoning, construct an argument; this Sontag has never done. She proceeds, in her criticism, not by argument but by assertion, delivering a series of judgments and pronouncements to which the reader is expected to submit without question. For all her defense of various types of freedom, hers is a curiously dictatorial voice.
Now, however, [in The Volcano Lover] Sontag has written a novel that would appear to be a grand departure from all her earlier work—her stylized experimental fiction as well as her acclaimed nonfiction. Not only does she call it a romance, but she was at some pains to make clear, in an adulatory article about her in the New York Times Magazine, that writing this book was an act of pure love—no sort of intellectual exercise whatsoever. Certainly, those reviewers who have enthused over the novel in the pages of Vanity Fair and elsewhere have expressed delight at the incongruity of her subject: the famously scandalous, early-19th-century romance between Lady Emma Hamilton, flamboyant young wife of the elderly British envoy to the Court of the Two Sicilies, and Lord Horatio Nelson, England's greatest naval hero. We are meant to understand that there is something particularly endearing about such a rigorously postmodern intellectual expending her talents on this old-fashioned historical subject.
And the story is indeed a colorful one, rich in comedy as well as pathos. Emma, the exuberant daughter of a village blacksmith, was originally sent to Sir William Hamilton in Naples as a bribe, or so it was said: a profligate nephew of Sir William's, unable to pay his debts to his uncle, shipped off his pretty young mistress instead. When she arrived in Naples, accompanied by her illiterate mother, Sir William—a widower thirty-six years her senior, a fastidious aesthete and art collector, as well as the volcano lover of Sontag's title (he made over twenty ascents of Mount Vesuvius while in Italy)—set about having her tutored in gentlewomanly subjects like music and Italian and art. She would dance and sing for his guests, dress up in elaborate costumes and strike "attitudes" based on mythological figures; a shameless flatterer, a bit of a drunk, she was endlessly gossiped about by the visiting English, while the normally reticent William openly adored her.
Twelve years after Emma's arrival, Nelson showed up in Naples, ill and exhausted, having just lost his arm and suffered a head wound in battle; Lady Emma and her mother nursed him back to health, and he began going about everywhere with the Hamiltons, the three of them singing one another's praises. It was the only time that Nelson neglected his duties, or his wife at home. According to the hand-wringing English version of the story (at least until the revisionist movie of 1941, That Hamilton Woman, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh), Emma was a sorceress who bewitched the great man, and was to blame both for his idleness and for the uncharacteristic ferocity with which he put down a republican uprising in Naples. (The normally kindly Nelson issued summary orders for the execution of the aristocratic republicans.)
The Hamiltons and Nelson then returned to England together; after Nelson's final break with his wife, the three even shared a house, from which Emma's and Nelson's daughter was spirited away hours after her birth, in order to spare Sir William's feelings. The lovers presided jointly over Sir William's deathbed, and then lived together openly in the rare intervals when Nelson was not off at sea battling Napoleon's navy. On the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar, he wrote a will pleading with his king and countrymen to look after his dear Emma and their daughter in the event of his death—a request they conspicuously ignored, while erecting countless monuments to his memory.
This is the story Susan Sontag tells—a romance, indeed. But the technique she employs in the novel is curiously similar to that of her criticism: despite the inherent drama of the narrative, the book proceeds less as a series of events and encounters than as a string of verdicts and summations, observations and pronouncements. And again, there is no attempt to plumb the depths, to reveal the characters' inner lives.
Indeed, the characters remain amalgams of superficial mental traits, occasions for aphorism: "A star, unlike an actress, always wants to be recognized." "A hero is one who knows how to leave, to break ties." But unlike Montaigne's epigrams, or even Oscar Wilde's, Sontag's have no ring of truth; they are maxims in search of a meaning. (Would it not sound just as convincing to say, "A hero is one who never breaks ties, who always returns home"?) This is minimalist fiction presented in maximalist fashion, elaborating endlessly on its themes without ever heading for the interior.
In dealing with Sir William, for example—and the first third of the book is largely taken up with describing "the Cavaliere's" daily life before the arrival of Emma in Naples—we get dozens of passages like this:
The collector's impulse does not encourage the lust to understand or transform. Collecting is a form of union. The collector is acknowledging. He is adding. He is learning. He is noting.
For all the rhetorical flourishes, the wisdom-dispensing tone, this is just portentous hot air. (Indeed, it sounds less like Proust than like Joan Didion on a bad day. "Boca Grande is. Boca Grande was. Boca Grande shall be." Etc.) And nowhere do we get a depiction of Hamilton's immediate sensations as he makes an acquisition—the one thing that might have brought us to empathize with this figure at least briefly, to feel something toward him other than supercilious detachment.
But if Sontag never allows Sir William to breathe, she is infinitely kinder to him than to Nelson—always referred to in the book as "the Hero." So in fact he was known in England, where even today pubs all over his native Norfolk still carry signs of him bearing that legend. Sontag, however, uses the epithet in a purely sarcastic sense. Of all the judgments rendered in this novel, none is more righteous or more final than the condemnation of Nelson's conduct during the Neapolitan revolt—if there is one thing bound to provoke Sontag's leftist ire, it is the suppression of a republican uprising. Yet her portrayal seems tinged with a certain personal spite as well.
Perhaps Sontag is affronted by the sheer roast-beef Englishness of Nelson (she is a great lover of all things French), or perhaps the virtues he possessed—fierce courage, a high degree of independence—are simply outside her sphere of interest. There are no elegant discriminations to be made about physical bravery; one can only feel a certain humility before it, and that Sontag is incapable of—just as she is incapable of showing us what might have gone on in the mind of someone like Nelson when he was standing on deck with cannonballs whizzing around him; or climbing into a ship unaided, his shattered arm dangling at his side, after stopping his small boat to pick up wounded crew members floating in the water.
Emma fares much better here. Not only does Sontag seem to approve of her more than she does of the others—presenting her as a generous spirit rather than the slut of English morality tales, and as a victim of various injustices perpetrated on females in a male society—but, toward the end of the book, she even gives us a glimpse into Emma's consciousness, unmediated by the narrator's insistently knowing voice. In a brief, moving scene, as Emma is dancing in a drunken frenzy before Sir William's horrified guests, Sontag suddenly gives her a voice of her own—wild with sorrow and defiance, ardent in just the way Emma ought to be. For almost the first time, the novel comes alive. Later still, Emma's ignorant, doting mother takes over briefly to tell the story in her own words, and once again we actually feel the presence of a live human being.
But in the end, apart from some vivid images of street scenes in Naples, of a rampaging mob, of Sir William's pathetic pet monkey, and of Emma dancing, the strongest impression one takes away from this book is of the suffocatingly humorless presence of Susan Sontag.
She has become by now a virtual icon of Mind, the ultimate "glamorous intellectual," as Vanity Fair puts it. Yet her chief strength may lie in nothing much more than the ability to assume a voice of authority at all times. In the case of The Volcano Lover, what this produces is a solemn rather than a serious novel, in which portentous observations are made in the tone of someone offering a glimpse of the Holy Grail.
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SOURCE: "Elitism," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 23, December 3, 1992, p. 18.
[In the following review, Colley ponders Sontag's reasons for writing The Volcano Lover.]
Why did Susan Sontag write [The Volcano Lover]? Essayist and cultural critic, interpreter of Aids, cancer, the cinema, Fascism and pornography, recipient of Jonathan Miller's burdensome accolade 'probably the most intelligent woman in America', why should she want to attempt a historical novel? It's been a success of course. There have been the entries into the best-seller lists, the interviews and profiles in the right magazines, the respectful and often rapturous reviews. Only the occasional still small voice has risked pointing out—what is almost certainly true—that the bulk of those who have purchased this book have wanted the latest high-cultural artefact for their glass-topped tables, not ideas or literature. It is easy to read. It is even entertaining. But why did she write it?
It concerns, apparently, one of the two best-known British ménages à trois of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the relationship between the Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton, the one-time prostitute who became his mistress and eventual second wife, Emma Lyon, and the naval hero and victim of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson. The other famous trio of this time, William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire, his wife Georgiana and Lady Elizabeth Foster, concealed their goings-on and their miscellaneous progeny in the grand seclusion of Chats worth and Devonshire House. Less socially-exalted, the Hamiltons and Nelson were at once more notorious and far more vulnerable.
All three were outsiders of a kind. Hamilton was only the fourth son of a Scottish nobleman, and his posting at the Court of the repulsive King Ferdinand of Naples and his clever, fecund Queen, Maria Carolina, placed him very much in the outer circle of British diplomacy. Emma was a blacksmith's daughter who never lost her Lancashire accent. She went to London, as so many did, and saved herself from the streets by intelligence, beauty, a capacity to attract successive wealthy protectors, and a willingness to discard her love-children, both an early mistake and—perhaps—one of a set of twins she had by Nelson. And the sailor-hero, what of him? Again, he was a marginal figure, the son of a minor Norfolk clergyman, with relations who were shopkeepers, as well as a few with noble blood and lofty positions in the state. All three had to work hard at inventing themselves anew when ambition and accident brought them to prominence; all three—as Sontag seldom fails to point out—were capable of vulgarity, all three were ardent collectors, of objects, people, victories, medals, praise, anything that might increase their value in the eyes of others.
Just what the business of collecting means is a subject that Sontag has discussed before, and her frequent discursions on it in this book are sharp and predictably intelligent. Sir William Hamilton, the Cavaliere as he is called here, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a bibliophile, a connoisseur of ruins, and a dealer in paintings and Greek vases (including the recently-mended Portland Vase). He was also volcanomad, one version of the volcano lover of Sontag's title. For him, she suggests, collecting art objects, like the bits and view of Vesuvius he risked his life for, were defences against official neglect, local squalor, the limits of his first wife, an 'amiable, not-too-plain, harpsichord-playing heiress', and his own essential emptiness of involvement: 'The Cavaliere was not looking. He was looking away.' Then, with bereavement, came his chance to emulate Pygmalion, and collect something new. His nephew, Charles Greville, handed over his luscious and unaware mistress, Emma, on the tacit agreement that Hamilton would not re-marry and cut him out of his will.
Greville and an earlier protector had already pruned Emma of some of her original rusticity, teaching her how to pour tea and how to ride a horse. Now, Hamilton added Italian, French, singing, art appreciation, even a sprinkling of the Classics. And he had her perform her famous 'attitudes'. First in a specially constructed frame; then with the addition of some diaphanous shawls, she learnt how to freeze herself into different Classical postures. She was Dido, or Ariadne, or Medea, or any other heroine from Hamilton's books and vases, not just Pygmalion's statue come to life, but a creature who could revert to a tasteful immobility whenever it pleased her keeper and his guests. Just what Emma herself thought of all this is a question that has perplexed her recent biographers. Used to monitoring and catering to the whims of men as the only way to survive, she was rarely self-reflective on paper, so we can only guess what went on in her mind. Sontag presents her as a woman of enthusiastic plasticity, torn from her roots and avidly collecting love and the lifestyles of her lovers as a means of giving herself shape and purpose. The only rebellions that Emma permitted herself, in this version, were alcoholism, extra-vagance, and putting on weight.
Yet I suspect that in reality she was a much harder woman than this, if no less masochistic. She succeeded, after all, in getting Hamilton to marry her in 1791, when he was 60 and she 26 years old. Seven years later, she demoted him to a kindly-treated cuckold. And she took Nelson away from his wife, Fanny, apparently without any qualms at all. 'Mrs Tom Tit' was Emma's name for her pleasant, bird-like rival. Though there could be no real rivalry … Nelson had lost his mother when he was nine, an arm, an eye, most of his teeth, and much of his health subsequently. He was an indisputable, incandescent and frequently immature hero who was desperate to collect battle honours, gongs, promotions, influential friends, approval and love. In 1798, the Hamiltons welcomed him to Naples after the splendours and hardships of the Battle of the Nile. And soon Emma had adopted another attitude, playing Cleopatra to his Antony, Dido to his Aeneas, a by now rather pneumatic enchantress distracting the warrior from his duty. 'My Lord Thunder', she called him, with just a touch of mockery. The lava in Mount Etna, he wrote, was no warmer than his passion. So Nelson, too, is the volcano lover of the title.
Sontag claims that her characters are the doubles of the 'real' historical figures, fictional creations 'on whose behalf I have taken what liberties' seemed appropriate to their natures. Yet she follows recent biographies of Nelson and Emma Hamilton very closely indeed, and only lets her imagination flow in the slightly embarrassing sex-scenes, and in her acute characterisation of Hamilton himself about whom rather less is known. In general, though, Sontag does her homework thoroughly: and this may well point to one very basic reason why she has selected the apparently bizarre literary form of a historical novel. As Balzac put it, characters in ordinary novels have to be roused to life by their inventors. But historical characters have already lived, and are consequently easier to flesh out in words. Sontag has turned to the historical novel because she needs this crutch, because she is not—despite all of her enormous gifts, and perhaps because of them—a natural novelist. She cannot write dialogue. Her powers of storytelling are limited. Her characters soliloquise in Sontag's own voice.
This indeed is primarily why one should read The Volcano Lover, not for its rehearsal of an already well-documented relationship between two men and a woman, but for the snippets it contains of Sontag herself. There are the brilliant plays on words, which only occasionally go wrong ('The sleep of reason engenders mothers'). There are the acid comments on human relationships and deceptions, the predictable division of roles among couples, the weight of male egos and the extent of female compliance in them: 'Talking with him,' Hamilton's first wife muses sadly, 'was like talking with someone on a horse.' Most of all, there are the signposts to the state of Sontag's mind and politics.
Historical novels tend to get written by those in search of an escape from the pressures of the present, or by those who want to use a version of the past to comment on the present. Initially, Sontag seems an escapist. The novel opens with a shudder at contemporary popular consumerism, a New York street market cluttered with 'Navajo rugs … World War II bomber jackets … model cars', then jumps back to Sir William's rather more austere bargaining in Classical knick-knacks in the London of 1772. When the story reaches Naples, there is the same revulsion at modern squalor. An unlikely fortune-teller imagines a future Mount Etna covered in souvenir shops 'scarves or plates with pictures of the mountain…. The future is a hole.' Whatever the devastation of the French Revolutionary era, we are told, 'people then did not know what ruin could be!' Sontag leaves us in no doubt of her distaste for much of the present, and in particular of her revulsion at its masses.
On the other hand, she dislikes most of her quasi-historical characters almost as much. She is skilful at introducing each member of the famous trio to us in turn in a sympathetic light, then, after a while, exposing ruthlessly their various failings and cruelties. Hamilton dwindles from his first appearance as a reserved and rational scholar-diplomat and kind if distant husband into a selfish dilettante who refuses to feel. Emma, by contrast, is at the beginning the woman of feeling who clambers gamely over every social obstacle. By the end of the book, though, she seems an empty space, awash with sentiment, but with few scruples. As for Nelson, Sontag barely troubles to conceal her contempt. Of course he is a hero and desperately courageous. But, then, the 1790s were a time for 'concentrated men of preposterous ambition and small stature'.
Sontag could scarcely have come to any other conclusion since events at Naples and off its shores between 1798 and 1800 formed indisputably the nadir of Nelson's career. The old, unreconstructed history books attributed his actions at this time to the malign influence of his seductress Emma Hamilton: newer accounts refer to the effects of his recent concussion at the Battle of the Nile, combined with intermittent malaria, plus the shock of unprecedented sexual bliss. Either way, the record is black. Nelson first helped the King and Queen of Naples to escape from local republicans. He then used the might of his fleet to blockade the short-lived Neapolitan Republic, and presided distantly but effectively over the show-trials and summary executions of its leaders and supporters. 'Eternal shame on the hero!' declares Sontag, and labels him the Bourbon executioner, an instrument of British imperialism.
One suspects that few aficionados of either naval or imperial history will be much drawn to this book, but the record should still be set straight. The British establishment, in fact, disapproved mightily of Nelson's antics off Naples, not so much because of the inhumanity, as because naval officers were not expected to involve themselves in the politics of foreign states. As for Nelson, he seems to have acted as he did because he was ill, because—like Emma—he had a parvenu's romantic attachment to monarchy, and because he believed that a Neapolitan republic organised on the new French principles of government might give Napoleon control of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the Italians were not just foreign, they were Papist to boot, the lot of them not worth the life of a single British seaman, as one of his crew remarked. But, in truth, it is not Nelson's motives that interest Sontag, but his victims, and in particular a woman called Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.
She was Portuguese by birth, an intellectual prodigy who wrote poetry, plays, economic treatises and mathematical equations. Separated from her husband, she lived on the bounty of the Neapolitan Court, a fashionable representative of its local Enlightenment. Then came the French Revolution and her conversion to republicanism. During the five brief months in which a new regime was able to cling to power in Naples, she presided over its principal newspaper, arguing for liberty, toleration, reform, and an end to the old superstitions. She too, loved the volcano, and like so many others, was hanged for her pains, one executioner pulling at her feet, another cavorting on her shoulders. Sontag makes her the subject of her entire last chapter, and has claimed that writing it made her weep.
It is not, in fact, all that good or moving a chapter, but it does serve to confirm that Sontag wrote this book partly as an exercise in autobiography, and partly to vindicate certain ideas about what is important now. Hers is a historical novel slanted to the conflicts of the present, far more than it is nostalgic about the past. In particular, it is an argument for élitism. At one level, she demands that we defer to genius, even if it takes the form of Nelson's genius for killing the enemy stylishly and in large numbers: 'We like to stress the commonness of heroes…. We want to admire but think we have a right not to be intimidated…. The only ideals allowed are healthy ones—those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing. 'She will have none of this tepid democracy that drags distinction down. And makes the same point still more energetically (because now it is intellectual genius that is involved) when she has Goethe act the crashing bore at one of the Hamiltons' cultural evenings:
How superior he had felt to these people. And how superior he was…. He is pretentious, overbearing, humourless, aggressive, condescending. A monster of egotism. Alas, he's also the real thing.
The masses will not acknowledge this of course. Like the Neapolitan peasants, they hang Eleonora Pimentel and her sort, the intelligent liberals who offer them reform, and opt instead for the tinsel, superstition and tyranny of King Ferdinand. 'The mob is unwilling to be high-minded,' she writes. 'Smite, stomp, throttle, clobber, stone, impale, hang, burn, dismember, drown': that's what the mob do. It's an uncompromising position, but very much in line with some of Sontag's expressed views in the past. She is reputedly often supercilious, an unabashed intellectual who takes herself seriously and has no taste at all for what the British tend to view as the virtue of ironic self-deprecation. This is one reason her books are little read here. But even in the States, she is often now attacked for her cosmopolitanism and neglect of popular culture—by Camille Paglia, for instance, who lays into her regularly with the pure and simple aim of rising on her ashes. So perhaps in [The Volcano Lover] Sontag is getting her own back. For what could be more piquant than for an author to insert statements of the most unbridled élitism and intellectualism into a book that appears on the surface to be the most populist that she has ever written, a mere historical novel?
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SOURCE: "A Festering Rage," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, p. 8.
[In the following review, Urbanski writes that the subject matter of Alice in Bed is challenging and interesting but the play suffers from numerous limitations.]
How do you write a play about emptiness, about a woman whose "career choice" was to be an invalid? Who retreated from life to her bed with recurrent, undefined—perhaps imaginary—illnesses? Who read a lot, had a few friends and kept a journal, but never held a job or took a lover? This is the difficult subject Susan Sontag has chosen to dramatize in Alice in Bed, her new play about Alice James, who lived from 1848 to 1892.
If known at all today, James is remembered for being the sister of the famous novelist Henry James and the renowned psychologist William James. In literary circles, she first attracted attention for the strange diary she kept the last three years of her life. First published in 1934, the journal is admired today for its austere and acerbic social commentary, but it first caused a stir for her expression of "enormous relief" upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer at the age of 42.
James' startling reaction to the news of her premature demise surely attracted Sontag's attention, perhaps in part due to her own diagnosis of breast cancer at around the same age. Although in Illness as Metaphor, Sontag considered tuberculosis as the disease for 19th-Century romantics, she suggests that James's retreat into her "mental prison" of illness was the Victorian lady's archetypal response to anger and grief.
Much of the success of the theatrical production of Alice in Bed—which has been produced in Germany and Austria but not yet in the United States—would depend on the shock value of seeing the crippled character pinned under 10 mattresses and in watching a supposed victim manipulate her able-bodied nurses, relatives and even a burglar. The play sizzles as the young thief, puzzled by the insouciance of his chatty victim as he ransacks her drawers implores: "Why don't you scream?"
After the stark, post-modernist manner of Samuel Beckett, Sontag creates muted dialogue, showing Alice pitting her passive aggression against her nurses, brothers and father. In one scene, she introduces historical personages Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson having tea with Alice while stage directions indicate that she is shrinking like Alice in "Wonderland."
Feminist activist Fuller is the perfect foil to the invalid, but instead of showing Fuller as the accomplished and charismatic woman that she was, Sontag perpetuates an outdated stereotype by depicting her as intimidating and insensitive. Though this transgression might seem surprising coming from the feminist Sontag, such slipshod characterization is doubtless due to the two-week period she devoted to writing the play rather than any literary malice of forethought. To her credit, Sontag does better by Emily Dickinson, whose characterization lacks the trivial treatment given the poet by William Luce in his popular play, "Belle of Amherst."
The essayist in Sontag often overwhelms the dramatist as throughout Alice in Bed she substitutes intellectual concept for pure dramatization. She falters in a scene showing James' fantasy life in Italy: "[I]n my mind I can go as far as I want, I can do what I can't do, what I shouldn't do, in my mind." In this monologue, Sontag's Alice lacks the emotive power of Tennessee Williams's heartsick heroines who declaim their losses, not by repeating words, but by high poetry.
It would have been much easier for Sontag to create a modern Medea who could rave against the man who had betrayed her and enact a terrifying revenge, than to create a protagonist paralyzed by internal conflict. Given the difficulties of dramatizing that special weakness of women in this century and the last—psychological self-immolation—Sontag was brave to attempt so challenging a subject.
Despite its limitations, readers and theatergoers will surely be exposed to a rare but little-explored reality, from the female experience: a festering rage that causes depression, and perhaps illness—ultimately the "life force" turned on itself.
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SOURCE: "The Critic as Performance Artist: Susan Sontag's Writing and Gay Cultures," in Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, edited by David Bergman, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, pp. 173-84.
[In the following essay, Frank explores the relationship between camp and gay culture in Sontag's writing.]
—I think the main question people have is, creature, what is it you want?
—Fred, what we want, I think, what everyone wants, is what you and your viewers have—civilization.
—But what sort of civilization are you speaking of, creature?
—The niceties, the fine points, diplomacy, standards, tradition—that's what we're reaching toward. We may stumble along the way but, civilization, yes, the Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag, yes, civilization. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries—that's what we aspire to. We want to be civilized.
[In Gremlins 2: The New Batch (dir. Joe Dante, 1990), one of the creatures drinks brain hormone and is interviewed as the spokesperson for the species. His voice is done by Tony Randall.]
D.A. Miller begins his review of Susan Sontag's AIDS and Its Metaphors with a telling citation of Sontag, who, in an interview, expressed her disappointment at the book's reception by scientists and AIDS experts. She would have preferred it to have been recognized as a "literary performance [having] more to do with Emerson than with Randy Shilts" (emphasis added). Miller explains what he calls "the phobic quality of Sontag's writing" in her book on AIDS by characterizing it, rightly, as a consequence of the status she gives to her writing. Sontag's book concentrates on the metaphors of AIDS at the expense of people with AIDS. She is interested in demystifying the metaphors used to discuss AIDS even as she claims that her writing is, itself, immune—if not from metaphor, then from the disease. Sontag's writing is "phobic," Miller argues, because writing obviously is not subject to disease. Sontag's attitude betrays panic in the privilege it proclaims for the purity of writing. But the status that Sontag claims for her writing, that it is a "literary performance," is not new to the AIDS book.
Sontag has claimed performative status for her writing from the beginning of her career. In the note to the paperback edition of Against Interpretation, published in 1967, Sontag presents herself as a novelist rather than a critic, thereby highlighting her "literary performance[s]": "The articles and reviews collected here make up a good part of the criticism I wrote between 1962 and 1965, a sharply defined period in my life. In early 1962 I finished my first novel, The Benefactor. In late 1965 I began a second novel. The energy, and the anxiety, that spilled over into the criticism had a beginning and an end." Defining her critical achievements as an interlude between novelistic endeavors, Sontag states that the value her essays may possess lies in "the extent to which they are more than just case studies in [her] own evolving sensibility" (Against Interpretation). However, this claim is about her "evolving sensibilities." Insofar as she implies that the value of her essays increases because she is a novelist, Sontag is being disingenuous. Moreover, the essays generally have been regarded more highly than the novels, which may lead us to reject her attempt to evaluate her essays. Nevertheless, we need to investigate her underlying assumption: that there is a relation between her sensibility and her goals as a critic. This relation pervades her critical writings; to elucidate it is also to describe how her writing constitutes a performance.
Perhaps the most memorable intersection of Sontag's sensibility and her "literary performance" occurs in the "Notes on Camp" where she describes her critical goal: "to name a sensibility, to draw its contours and recount its history" (Against Interpretation 276). In the five paragraphs that introduce the "Notes on Camp," Sontag reflects on the task she has assumed and sketches a justification of the form her writing takes: "To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility" (Against Interpretation 277). Her introductory remarks end in a dedicatory flourish that establishes both her aspirations and her high standards. "It's embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp. These notes are for Oscar Wilde" (Against Interpretation 277). Inferior or not, Sontag acknowledges that in the service of analyzing it, she has herself become a producer of camp. In fact, the essay ends as it begins, with Sontag recognizing that to describe the conditions for appreciating camp is to produce camp. In the fifty-eighth and final note, Sontag summarizes her accomplishments. She identifies "the ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful…. Of course, one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I've tried to sketch in these notes" (Against Interpretation 292). It is telling, however, that her acknowledgment of her production or performance of camp is ambivalent. Although her essay attempts to identify the analysis of camp with its performance, this production carries with it no guarantee of aesthetic excellence. As we will see, trying to supply the missing guarantee drives Sontag's critical career in the directions it takes.
In her study of Sontag, Elizabeth Bruss makes a crucial observation about the shape of Sontag's career: she notices that the early concern with "sensibility" is displaced in On Photography and Illness as Metaphor by more impersonal terms like "photographic seeing" and "Ideology" (Beautiful Theories). But how do we get from one to the other? Elizabeth Hardwick suggests that the shift in Sontag's career from "sensibility" to "ideology" is measured in the shift from "spiritual" to "fascist." Her apparently neutral summary of Sontag's familiar claims characterizes the range of Sontag's interests: from the "spiritual style" of the films of Robert Bresson, which is "cool, impersonal and reserved," to the "fascist style" of Leni Riefenstahl, which is "dramatic, grandiose, orderly, communal and tribal." Hardwick's point is that Sontag's interest in style proposes this symmetry between "spiritual" and "fascist": both are styles of filmmaking; both are modified by a series of evocative adjectives. In fact, in a later essay, "Fascinating Fascism" (1975), Sontag returns to the question of camp; in the context of discussing Riefenstahl, she repudiates it.
In this essay, I argue that the linchpin in Sontag's shift from sensibility to ideology is camp. In note #37 of "Notes on Camp," Sontag describes three sensibilities: "The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary 'avant-garde' art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic" (Against Interpretation 287). In 1975, Sontag renounces the high valuation of the "wholly aesthetic," condemning it as dangerously porous because it can be injected with politically abhorrent meanings. But her repudiation is less a contradiction of her earlier position than it might appear. In fact, the two attitudes are consistent. Sontag's shift from "sensibility" to "ideology" is structured by her understanding that criticism is a "literary performance." She expresses her idea of performance paradigmatically in "Notes on Camp," where it has an explicit relation to gay subcultures. Sontag's desire to give her writing the status of a "literary performance" remains constant throughout her career and this critical stance derives from a (disavowed) relation to gay subcultures; in both the instances that she embraces camp and those in which she repudiates it, she assumes that there is a special relation between gayness or gay culture and performativity.
Sontag's dedication of "Notes on Camp" to Oscar Wilde and her interspersing of some of Wilde's epigrams among her own numbered entries, a gesture Elizabeth Hardwick characterizes as an audacious "incorporation" of Wilde (A Sontag Reader), suggest that a comparison between Sontag's and Wilde's understanding of the role of the critic would elucidate Sontag's complicated attitude toward criticism as a "literary performance."
In "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde explodes the false dichotomy between a "critical" faculty and a "creative" one when he proposes that criticism is autobiography. As Wilde's speaker, Gilbert puts it, "the highest criticism really is the record of one's own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilised form of autobiography" ("The Critic as Artist" 68). Wilde's understanding of criticism seems to offer a model for Sontag. Indeed, Sontag's statement, "A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about" (Against Interpretation 275), is reminiscent of Gilbert's more forceful assertion, "It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it" ("The Critic as Artist" 60). But Sontag appropriates Wilde selectively.
If she seems to adopt Wilde's blithe sublation of the opposition between objective observation and subjective investment or participation, Sontag also retreats from a full embrace of the autobiographical, offering in its place coy gestures that intensify her personality. She adopts Gilbert's critical watchword: "It is only by intensifying his personality that the critic can interpret the personality and works of others" ("The Critic as Artist" 78). She thereby replaces Wilde's understanding of critical practice by a notion of "literary performance."
The paradoxical terms by which Sontag characterizes her position as a critic in her introduction to "Notes on Camp" illustrate her misappropriations of Wilde. On the one hand, she represents herself as an intrepid investigator, embarking on a difficult, and therefore rewarding, task: "A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed…. Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques" (Against Interpretation 275). On the other hand, she is significantly less detached than her anthropological tone might suggest. Commenting on the dearth of discussions about camp, she declares. "To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it" (Against Interpretation 275). How can the discussion of a sensibility constitute a betrayal? The affect of the term, "betray[al]," illustrates, but does not explicate, Sontag's investment in camp.
Sontag quickly transforms her contradictory position into the famous announcement of her critical qualifications:
I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intentions, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion. (Against Interpretation 276)
Initially, her claim to critical expertise seems to overcome the opposition between the critic as objective observer and the critic as participant in terms that are similar to Wilde's. However, the contrast Sontag draws between analyzing and exhibiting a sensibility reinscribes the polarity and privileges analytical detachment. Furthermore, initially, it seems that her contradictory reactions to camp—being both attracted and repelled—enable her as a critic. But a closer look reveals that while her attraction to camp may give her the knowledge to talk about it, it is her revulsion that qualifies her as a critic.
Even more paradoxically, Sontag's critical position expresses her ambivalence about performance. She wants to limit the performance of sensibility even though her own writing is the performance of her sensibility. She suggests that the acceptability of performance is a matter of degree: if an unspecified degree of involvement in a sensibility is necessary, "wholehearted sharing" disables analysis. Significantly, the terms she chooses to limit performance are moral: "no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intentions, exhibit it" (emphasis added). Too much participation in a sensibility turns one into an inadvertent exhibitionist. Both betrayal and exhibition are overloaded terms whose moral resonances measure the distance between Sontag and Wilde.
Rejecting the autobiographical mode as exhibitionism, Sontag does not identify the characteristics that allow her to know camp. Instead, she produces her revulsion as a badge of the average, which offers the reader grounds for identifying with her. Her statement, "To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it" (Against Interpretation 275), constitutes readerly curiosity as voyeurism, but both our voyeurism and her betrayal are transvalued by averageness. Sontag supplies information about camp that is both ostensibly not otherwise available and appropriately "modified by revulsion"; this supply yields the moral gain of self-edification: "If the betrayal can be defended, it will be for the edification it provides, or the dignity of the conflict it resolves. For myself, I plead the goal of self-edification" (Against Interpretation 276). "Our" identification with her revulsion allows us to be edified by proxy.
Sontag's motives for evading the autobiographical are now perhaps clearer: the autobiographical mode would stymie the moral transvaluation of betrayal and voyeurism into edification because it would explain Sontag's investment in camp in other terms. Evasion grounds Sontag's critical position as a moralist. The hip knowingness that her writing exudes results from an intensification of personality, but her retreat from the autobiographical means that the sources of this knowledge are mystified even as she purports to analyze them.
By criticizing Sontag's desire to produce "literary performances," I am not advocating antitheatricalism; I am noting a paradoxically antitheatrical slant in Sontag's endorsement of the theatrical. After all, it is Sontag's understanding of performance that allows her to write her groundbreaking essay on camp. Furthermore, by holding Wilde's definition of criticism as autobiography over Sontag's head, I do not mean to suggest that what is missing from Sontag's writing is information of a private nature. When Wilde has Gilbert say that criticism is autobiography, I do not take him to mean "private" or "personal." The fact that Gilbert is a character dramatized by Wilde in "The Critic as Artist" both invites and complicates taking him as an autobiographical figure. Nevertheless, Wilde's wholehearted embrace of the theatrical means that his practice of criticism as autobiography works in the following way: when Wilde talks about himself, he can talk through himself (or through Gilbert's talking about himself) about issues of aesthetic valuation and meaning. What I would require of Sontag, then, is not a confession about her investments in camp, but rather a fuller embrace of critical practice instead of performance, that is to say, a fuller embrace of autobiography. By ostensibly suppressing herself in order to talk about "other things," by acting on an antitheatrical valuation of "detachment" or "impersonality," all she manages to do, paradoxically, is to draw attention to her desires to be a "literary performer."
In taking camp as the paradigm of performance, Sontag transforms Wilde's depiction of the critic as artist into the critic as performance artist. The position of the critic as a performance artist allows Sontag to equate the analysis of camp with the production of it at the same time that it also provides her with a covert position of morality from which she can supply the otherwise absent guarantee that her productions will be of aesthetic quality. In "Fascinating Fascism," Sontag turns to the political register in order to enforce that guarantee by explicitly moral means.
Whatever we may want to make of the claim from "Notes on Camp" that "Camp taste, is above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment" (Against Interpretation 291), we need to see the continuities with the pronouncement Sontag makes in "Fascinating Fascism": "Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetics is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp" (A Sontag Reader). "Most people," she seems to be saying, currently can't recognize fascism because they (mis)take it for camp.
Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irresistible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. (A Sontag Reader).
What has changed so substantially between 1964 and 1975 to raise such an alarm? In note #2 of "Notes on Camp," Sontag had claimed that "it goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical" (Against Interpretation 277). In 1975, however, Sontag seeks to recuperate the political valences of what, in 1964, she depicted as resolutely "apolitical." The paragraph from "Fascinating Fascism" that I just cited continues: "The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of the minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed" (A Sontag Reader). Could the critical change between 1964 and 1975 be the politicization, after Stonewall, of what had seemed to Sontag to be a purely aesthetic phenomenon, namely, camp? If so, then perhaps Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's recent description of Allan Bloom's defense of the canon is relevant: in defending "that curious space that is both internal and marginal to the culture"—the bohemian elite—Bloom offers "an unapologetic protection of the sanctity of the closet."
The modern, normalizing, minoritizing equal rights movement for people of varying sexual identities is a grave falling-off, in Bloom's view, from the more precarious cultural privilege of a past in which "there was a respectable place for marginality, bohemia. But it had to justify its unorthodox practice by intellectual and artistic achievement."
Like Bloom, Sontag wants to protect a bohemian elite, but her desire to do so operates only as long as the aesthetic and apolitical "quality" of its artistic productions can be guaranteed. In "Notes on Camp," camp was "at least apolitical" (Against Interpretation 277); in "Fascinating Fascism," Sontag brings a full-blown moral vocabulary masquerading as politics to ensure that if gay culture won't stay apolitical, it is guaranteed to be marginalized, or worse.
Interestingly, Sontag's "political" solution is already apparent in "Notes on Camp." In entry #51, Sontag makes explicit the relation between gay culture and camp:
The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a particular affinity for liberal and reformist causes. So, not all homosexuals have camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard—and the most articulate audience—of Camp. (Against Interpretation 290, emphasis added)
In parenthesis, Sontag explains the analogy between the peculiarity of homosexual taste and the particularity of Jewish morality.
(The analogy is not frivolously chosen. Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.) (Against Interpretation 290)
In entry #52, Sontag asserts that the social marginalization of both homosexuals and Jews is what makes them more creative; both groups are motivated by their search for legitimation and acceptance by society: "The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness" (Against Interpretation 290). After Stonewall, it would no longer have been possible for Sontag to characterize homosexuals' sociopolitical interest as primarily to sponsor playfulness nor to propose "integration" as their goal. It could no longer be said of a gay movement agitating for legal and political recognition that it advocated a purely aesthetic sense.
But Sontag is not the only one, who, in 1975, sought to recuperate the political valences of the things she had described in purely aesthetic terms in 1964. Like Bloom, Sontag's use of political terms to protect the bohemian elites should be seen in the context of a general reaction to the 1960s. It is instructive to consider Sontag's always slightly avant-garde development alongside the shift in the literary academy from the sixties to the eighties from formalist to political criticism of all stripes. We now know that it probably was never possible to call any phenomenon "purely aesthetic." What then becomes salient is the inadequacy of the political terms Sontag chooses.
In "Fascinating Fascism," Sontag seeks to identify the features of a fascist aesthetic. On the one hand, she presents the fascist aesthetic as no different than a sensibility, but on the other hand, she relies on the term "fascism" to produce the moral outrage that will differentiate sensibility from ideology. Sontag turns from sensibility to ideology on ostensibly moral grounds. Under-writing the morality, unfortunately, is homophobia. Whereas in "Notes on Camp," camp reveals "a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: [that] the most refined form of sexual attractiveness consists in going against the grain of one's sex…." (Against Interpretation), in "Fascinating Fascism," "once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about" (A Sontag Reader). Here is the same antitheatrical bent that constitutes Sontag's ambivalence toward performance in "Notes on Camp"; the terms are simply more explicit.
In "Fascinating Fascism," after discussing the rehabilitation of Reifenstahl, which she calls "First Exhibit," Sontag turns to "Second Exhibit," a book of photos called SS Regalia that she uses as the point of departure to decry the erotic uses to which Nazi paraphernalia have been put. In the closing line, Sontag offers the most memorable instance of the essay's hysterical rhetoric: "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death" (A Sontag Reader). Each clause repeats the structure of the previous one, but instead of providing clarification, each equation merely increases the vehemence of tone. The scene she unfolds before the reader can only become spectacular, however, after Sontag has affiliated sadomasochism with homosexuality. Notice the progression in this paragraph:
In pornographic literature, films and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meathooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on? (A Sontag Reader)
How did we get from meathooks and motorcycles to gay turn-ons? Through Nazi paraphernalia, of course! Moreover, the insinuating logic of the list of locations in which we might find erotic gear—"sex shops, baths, leather bars, brothels"—makes it clear that the "people dragging [it] out" are gay men. Sontag equates gay male sexuality with sadomasochism, and, more damagingly, sadomasochism with an imputed "fascism" that is equivalent to Nazism.
Sontag's attempt to repoliticize what she had placed in the domain of the purely aesthetic founders on two substitutions: the confusion of moral for political categories (notable especially in her use of the term "fascist"), and the substitution of her own literary or critical performance for the phenomenon she discusses, and ultimately, for a critical practice.
Like D.A. Miller, Elizabeth Hardwick recognizes the ways in which Sontag's writing promotes the assimilation of her subject matter to her own sensibility. Unlike Miller, however, Hardwick has nothing but praise for this tendency: "The camp sensibility is not a text to be held in the hand. The only text is finally this essay [of Sontag's] … [with] its incorporation of the exemplar of the camp mode—the epigrams of Oscar Wilde." At its most extreme, Sontag's writing involves the replacement of camp as a phenomenon by Susan Sontag herself. As Miller points out in the review I cited at the beginning, although Sontag at first affiliates camp with gay performance, she almost immediately repudiates the connection, severing camp from homosexuality, and putting "the claim to camp's origination … up for grabs. Someone else could invent Camp, and who better than the author of this manifestly inventive and authoritative essay?"
Sontag's statement that the value of her essays lies in the extent to which they are more than case studies in her own evolving sensibilities to the contrary, we need to recognize that her description of the modern sensibility is no more and no less than a description of her own development.
Somewhere, of course, everyone knows that more than beauty is at stake in art like Reifenstahl's…. Backing up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of Camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and Camp taste. (A Sontag Reader)
This characterization recapitulates the moves Sontag has made from "Notes on Camp" to "Fascinating Fascism." It is Sontag herself who blurs the boundary between Reifenstahl's Nazi propaganda and the leather paraphernalia of sadomasochism. The main claim of "Fascinating Fascism," that camp lacks the moral seriousness necessary to prevent the resurgence of fascism, only makes sense, if it does at all, in the context of Sontag's earlier claims about camp. And from this point of view, we can see that Sontag's descriptions of camp have more relevance to her own career than to any other phenomena.
"Sensibility," the key term in her writings of the sixties, is the conceptual grid through which Sontag poses the problem that most sustains her interest to this day: how to connect "culture" to tradition and history. From the perspective offered on "Notes on Camp," first by "Fascinating Fascism," and later, by AIDS and Its Metaphors, we can see that by sensibility, Sontag means gay performance—one that first needs to be rehabilitated by her imitation of it in "Notes on Camp," and then requires the ideological correction by moral inoculation she attempts to give it in "Fascinating Fascism."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3547
SOURCE: "Only the Possible: An Interview with Susan Sontag," in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1993, pp. 31-6.
[In the following interview, Sontag discusses her production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo.]
[Munk]: What did you hope to achieve, coming here?
[Sontag]: My original motivation was to work with professionals living here and produce for this audience. Had I made a film this would not have been possible. I could have used local people for lighting, etc., but the final work would be for an international audience—Sarajevans would get to see it if I gave them a print, but it wouldn't be for them, as it couldn't be by them. I don't know what they know: that's why the choice of theater seemed obvious. I can't just be here as a visitor or as an onlooker, I'm not gathering information to write an essay or a book. So I had the idea of theater—for want of a better word, an ethical idea. And then once I had decided to work in the theater, it was obvious to me that this was the play to do.
Did it ever occur to you that you'd be the only notable intellectual from the West to come to Sarajevo?
Yes. It was already obvious to me as a fact. What amazed me was that nobody else was coming and that it didn't occur to anybody else. So I hoped as a side effect—it certainly wasn't a principle intention—my coming here to work would make it clear that this was possible.
Possible, or desirable?
It's only the possible that I can show. Many people in the outside world asked, how do you get there?, because it isn't very real what or how serious a siege is, or what the bureaucratic routes are to enter the city. I could get journalist credentials, any writer can get journalist credentials. So I would say, get a press card. And they looked at me with astonishment. It's not a problem to get here.
The real failure is of imagination, abetted by ignorance of history. When people are astonished that there's theater in Sarajevo, I remind them that there was theater in Berlin, in 1945, under a much worse bombardment. People are so ill-informed. One person will say he's going to send me something express mail to Sarajevo, as if there's mail service, and another will ask whether I see a lot of bodies in the street, as if no one rescued the injured or took the dead away for burial.
Why did you decide to do just the first act of Godot, and to have three Gogos and Didis?
It's an absolutely unorthodox but, I think, valid reading because of the play's unique construction. The second act is formally—though not substantively—identical with the first act. Vladimir and Estragon are there, Pozzo and Lucky arrive, Pozzo and Lucky leave, Vladimir and Estragon are alone again, the messenger comes with the same message, and they are alone again. This is repeated. There are two endings, two departures, so they are tremendously deflated. Since it's the only play in world literature that's constructed this way, it's the only play you could do this with. I would not take the last two acts off Hamlet and say that by doing the first three I'd done Hamlet. But I think there is an argument to be made that you can do the whole of Waiting for Godot by doing only the words of the first act. You can—what's the right image?—you can pump it up, you can expand it, you can vary it so that you have a total experience.
I don't consider this a truncated production, I consider it first of all a production conceived for Sarajevo. You have to remember that I began the production process five weeks ago [July 1993], with the build-up of hope for another intervention, and that was going on for three of the five weeks we rehearsed. It seemed to me that it was more passionate, and crueler in a way, to have only the text of the first act but to expand it, so that you have three pairs of Vladimirs and Estragons. They do three variations on the theme of the couple, formally in terms of gender identity and gender behavior, and emotionally because they are very, very different, so I'm putting much more into the first act.
I wouldn't be surprised, you know—I have no evidence for this—if Beckett originally conceived the play as one act. I wouldn't be surprised to find that he started out thinking this was going to be only one day, and somewhere toward the end of writing the first act he thought, oh, I'll have the second day or the day after. The second act is, of course, much darker than the first. I regretted sacrificing Vladimir's speech at the end of the second act, and I thought of putting Iso back up on stage to give it—"the air is full of our cries"—but I thought, I really have done it, I've done it by tripling the Vladimirs/Estragons.
The staging also does something interesting to the play, with Pozzo and Lucky never moving down from the upper level although the Vladimirs and Estragons come on and off. Pozzo and Lucky, though they're only played by one actor each, become something like Lear and the Fool or a 70-year-old Clytemnestra and her, you know, apprentice character, and the Vladimirs and Estragons become at moments a Chorus, in the Greek sense, because except at the beginning and the end, da capo, they don't all say the same lines, the text is simply passed from one group to another. There was a lot of thought, as you can imagine, given to which segments of the text went to which couple and where to break, where to cut.
How did you decide what to give to whom?
I had an enlarged copy of the Grove Press edition, and I wrote the Bosnian above each line so I could learn what they were saying in relation to the English and vice versa. I also had a Bosnian script, and wrote the English above it. I watched them for a couple of days and I went chronologically. You could see my script, but even that wouldn't really tell you much. It was a musical thing, completely intuitive, depending on my sense of the balance. Though I tended to move serially from one couple to another, the moment in which I shifted was the one I sensed gave energy. It was like a piano score. At the very beginning and end, when each couple said the dialogue, I began with pair one, then two, then three, and ended in the reverse order, three-two-one.
Every two days I'd give the three couples more divisions, I didn't know up to the end who said what, because I was feeling their capacities and their emotional impact, imagining myself as spectator. I didn't come to the first rehearsal and say, on page three, the seventh line down, this goes to the two women, and then on page five, the fourth line from the top it goes to the other woman—I did it day by day, out of the rehearsal process. But it wasn't just done in relation to the actors, it was done in relation to the meaning of the text. There are certain things only men can say, most obvious being "oh an erection" and jumping up on the stage. But most of the other time it was those characters as they developed in relation to the text.
We worked up to Pozzo and Lucky—that's something like the first 20-25 minutes of the play—in the first two weeks, while I spent a few hours in the morning with Atko on Lucky's speech. I told him, in every version I'd seen of the play—I've only seen it in English, French, and German—I didn't understand the speech, I didn't hear the speech, it's said like nonsense, I want you to say it as if it makes perfect sense. I divided it into five parts, and I subdivided the parts and we talked about everything from stones to apotheia. And I said you must say this with great sincerity, not too fast, and we worked and we worked and worked on that speech. That was quite separate.
When the Vladimirs and Estragons watch Lucky dancing, they are his audience, but we are their audience….
And they turn their backs to us, exactly! Then it's divided into an A part, with Pozzo alone giving, as only Ines can do it, her signs of distress, the six being very attentive and silent, and a B part where they join in but at a lower vocal register—there was a tendency for a while in rehearsals for them to start outshouting each other though she always outshouts them—then there's this C, where they become silent again but she's going up, up, up, and then D, where they start to express their discomfort and distress and knock Lucky over, and Velibor crawls between his legs so that he can fall on Velibor's back. That actor weighs only 50 kilos and he has a hard time with the suitcase, which is empty but heavy.
And how did he manage his extraordinary dance?
Iso is trained in ballet and I tried for a long time to work out a ballet thing that started with him doing the five positions, then doing some elementary steps, and ending with—he was going to do 32 feuilletées like the Black Swan and Ines would count them and the others would start counting them, the way the audience always does at Swan Lake. But it didn't work. The stage is just a makeshift platform rather badly constructed without an absolutely flat floor. I've spent a lot of time with dancers, so I'm sympathetic to dancers' anxieties, and he could have really injured himself. I thought of bringing him down to the lower level of the stage but that didn't accord with the visual conception, so all that remains is those few turns at the end.
What was the actors' part in the interpretation? There were so many little things immediate to this situation—the Marlboros out of the hat, etc.—where did they come from?
It was absolutely a traditional rehearsal process, we read the script through about seven times around a table, discussed my idea of what the words meant and the intention of the play. All were very silent except Ines, and read their lines in an absolute monotone the way actors usually do because they don't want to give you anything, they want you to pull it out of them. But Ines was acting up a storm from day one—she's the grand dame of Sarajevo theater, a real star here, I picked her for those qualities. I didn't worry that she'd be over the top because Pozzo is over the top.
Occasionally the actors had little bits of business to suggest. Milijana, the junior of the two-women pair, teaches physical movement at the Academy and one day I saw her in the corner doing a headstand, and I thought, oh I have to put that in. Simply in their behavior they were suggesting things to me all the time. The only real idea that came from an actor was that Vladimir Number One would be a pickpocket, and I thought it was brilliant. What is Pozzo's distress? It's always about losing objects. And these objects do disappear one by one. He suggested it—fabulous! Then he developed it. Ends up taking a pair of pink underpants from Nada's pocket. Was there enough light to catch this the first time you saw it?
Yes. You had the solar lamps, for the opening.
Did you have trouble today?
No, but I already knew it was there.
We needed more candles. We expected to have electric light today and weren't fully prepared. The light failed on the tree on the left immediately. Anyway, you can do that sort of thing only if you have multiple Vladimirs and Estragons, with one set I wouldn't have done it but with three Vladimirs, why couldn't one of them be a pickpocket?
In a conventionally cast production, it would have been hopelessly over-topical.
Literal, local readings tend to take over in this situation. Do you think that's good thing?
I think people like to see a play which reflects their situation. For example, I could have had a child play the messenger, but I knew I wanted to use an adult because I wanted the others to be able to express rage. You can't be aggressive or manhandle a small child, so you end up with quite another meaning when this messenger is a sturdy handsome young man in shorts. I wanted to get their anger at him, people are so angry here.
This is not like any other staging of Beckett—I didn't want to do it in a Beckett style, whatever a Beckett style would be. I wanted to treat it as a passionate play, in which the actors would say their lines passionately. First of all that's what they're good at, this is the Eastern European style, and second it seems to me appropriate, there's no reason to do this play in any sense minimalistically, it would absolutely be wrong for here.
I saw Beckett's staging of Godot in Berlin, and read the notes that he took and the diary of his assistant. I was actually quite shocked by his production. To my surprise—I knew he thought this but I didn't realize as a director he would do it—its sources in silent film comedy dominated the reading of the characters. There were all sorts of Charlie-Chaplin-like routines, and it was clearly rooted in silent film comedy acts and characterizations, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton and Chaplin—archetypes—it was very funny, it was very fast, as if someone had taken literally Chekhov's declaration that Three Sisters was a comedy. I found it in short much too amusing.
Yours is the least amusing Godot I've ever seen.
Yes, this is the anti-Beckett-as-director Godot. I don't presume to judge Beckett as a director but he is someone who has only directed his own work. Clearly this is how he saw the play and he got exactly what he wanted from the German actors but it's not the way I saw Godot. I wanted to direct it for all the emotions the play inspires in me, which are very passionate.
Won't the Beckett purists be furious?
I don't know how anyone can be furious. I didn't receive a penny, I paid all my own expenses, I volunteered a month and a half of my life, the actors are working for nothing as is every person on the staff, the tickets are free, and it's Sarajevo. How can they object? This is a very extreme case of a not-for-profit production. I should think they'd be proud. I venture to say that there are more people in this besieged, mutilated city who have heard of Waiting for Godot than there are in Paris and London and New York. I'm stopped by children in the street who say to me in Bosnian, "Waiting for Godot!"—it's become a legend in this city. It's to the glory of this play that it should be played here.
Could you conceive of a similar Godot production in any other city right now?
No. Absolutely, it was done for here. I'd like to come back and do The Three Sisters, I think a lot of plays would work here.
Besides Three Sisters, what?
Trojan Women. Want more? I'm just going to depress you. Feydeau doesn't apply.
When I was in Zagreb a week ago a leading intellectual who shall remain nameless said to me, whatever possessed her to do Godot? People need to be entertained!
Only people who don't live here say that, and some of the journalists in the Holiday Inn. "Won't they find it depressing?" And I said, on the contrary, people are enthralled by something that mirrors life. If you were—it's a different art form, but let's say if you were in Theriesienstadt and you had permission to form a little ensemble and you wanted to play Beethoven quartets, would people say do a Strauss operetta? No, people want something that affirms the depth of their feelings. I didn't have any hesitation, I didn't have a thought that it would be redundant. That was suggested to me only by journalists. I'm confident that not one single person in Sarajevo feels that. I know the mood of the city.
What's so interesting about your production is that it has a political function, and a morale-building function, and a community-building function, all without being agitprop….
I've also done gender-blind casting in a country where the feminist agenda is barely visible—without ever making the point, but also without ever encountering any opposition. No one ever said, why is Pozzo played by a woman? That is absolutely innovative here. And I didn't want Pozzo to be played by a woman—I found one actor and one actor only who could play Pozzo and that actor happened to be a woman.
I read meaning beyond gender-blind casting into what you did with the three Vladimir-Estragon pairs, however. I thought, there's straight couple and two gay couples, one male and one female.
I didn't think it was necessary or interesting for the same-sex couples to be gay. I did try, however, to get the mixed couple to behave a little more like a heterosexual couple who might have been involved with each other, like a married pair. I'd tell them, you like each other, you're a married couple, you can touch each other, and the man would say, yeah, but it's an unhappy marriage. We'd have these crazy conversations, these very primitive conversations you have with actors. I'd say, yeah, but you still make love, and he'd say, we haven't made love for years, and I'd say, but you want to make love, so you can touch each other with a certain familiarity as people do who were once physically intimate. I got Irena to put her foot on his thigh, it was a struggle. But I didn't try very hard, because I don't think sexual input would add anything to the play. It's not that I'm shying away from it, it's just that basically these are bereft people who have banded together.
Why did you label the male couple Number One?
It was a kind of joke. A costume choice, and a joke. The actors used to say, I'm Estragon Number One, right? The real reason is, because they're the best.
That's why the two men are in the center?
You bet. If the mixed couple were the best actors I would have put them in the center. But I found myself, despite my original intentions, reaffirming something in Beckett's text by making the two men the main couple.
In October, after Sontag had made a return visit to Sarajevo, we spoke briefly on the phone: How did the performance look when you saw it again after being gone a month?
A big success—they're doing it four to five times a week, occasionally two performances a day. The actors are faster now and it's more energetic. In theater, the director is sent away and power goes to the actors—the opposite of film, where the actors are sent away and everything is done in the editing room.
If you do your Godot outside Sarajevo will you include the second act?
Yes. The primary reason not to do it was always that the performance would be too long. Nothing in that situation should be longer than an hour and a half, it's too much to ask. But doing the second act with only one Vladimir and one Estragon would fit the circumstances beautifully: the image of the shrunken world, Pozzo and Lucky reduced. The shape would be more narrative. I can imagine a narrower stage, the whole thing darker, just one spotlight, or one lit place in the center.
Do you think theater in Sarajevo is any use?
Don't ask the question of usefulness. I believe in right actions. Theater is what they do and I admire them for doing it, for always finding the feeling and expressing it.
Do you think the arts' community's efforts to maintain a transethnic culture have any chance of success?
Multicultural society will not survive. It is too much to ask the people of Bosnia to stick to this ideal when they are under attack by groups composed of single ethnicities, Serb or Croat. The people we like and admire won't turn into something else, they will leave and be replaced.
What did you do during your most recent visit?
I taught some classes at the Drama Academy. We also auditioned 20 17- and 18-year-olds for the entering class, ending up with five. You know, the rest of the University is shut down, but they're going on.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526
SOURCE: "Suffering in Silence," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 151, No. 14, October 2, 1994, p. 29.
[In the review below, Tonkin suggests how themes in Sontag's career contributed to her writing Alice in Bed.]
Last year, Susan Sontag defied Serbian gunnery and media mockery to direct Waiting For Godot in Sarajevo. This wasn't just a show of solidarity with a people under siege whose rescuers had failed to turn up. Right at the start of her 30-year career as writer and critic, Sontag argued that the "strenuous modesty" of Beckett and his ilk was more than a fugitive trend. She insisted that their austerity—"the pursuit of silence"—caught the temper of the times as chattier art never could.
Vietnam, fascism, Bosnia, Aids: Sontag has fought the public monsters of our age with conspicuous gallantry. Yet through all her work, in essays and in fiction, persists the figure of a suffering and often silent body. This reduced self lingers on in pain, in despair, or in the spiritual deadlock of Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. In 1992, readers seized on The Volcano Lover, her frolicsome romance of Nelson and the Hamiltons, as welcome proof that the sibyl of Manhattan had lightened up at last. Perhaps; but that novel's most poignant creation was surely Lady Catherine, Sir William Hamilton's valetudinarian first wife, whose "repressed rage" leaves her "ailing for decades".
Alice In Bed, a dramatic fantasy written in 1990, resuscitates another "career invalid". Alice James, the learned sister of novelist Henry and philosopher William, sank into illness as a refuge from—or revenge on—her "brilliant talkative family". After 24 years of vague ailments, cancer killed her at 43. Did she fall, or was she pushed? Sontag stresses that her exemplary Victorian plight embodies the "grief and anger" of thwarted women.
But Sontag erases one crucial fact about the real Alice. For 20 years, her emotional lifeline was a companion called Katherine Loring. Why? It could be that the idea of Alice abed—a mute reproach to power and lies—has plagued Sontag too long for mere history to dilute it. In her author's note to the play, she admits that "I have been preparing to write Alice In Bed all my life". Return to her 1967 novel Death Kit, and you find a tormented soul whose guilt over a random killing renders him "entirely bedridden and debilitated".
Styles Of Radical Will—her critical pieces from the same period—includes not only her minimalist manifesto but also a famous essay on "The Pornographic Imagination". Sontag views erotic frenzy as one route to the "loss of self". Madness, mysticism, orgasm, even revolutionary zeal: all can lead from breakdown to breakthrough. Very New York; very sixties.
Sontag grew and changed, of course. Her brave texts on cancer (which she overcame) and then Aids reaffirmed the sheer arbitrariness of disease. Yet even this dauntless good sense failed to exorcise the silent sufferer. The brisk Margaret Fuller, high-achieving New England feminist, tells Alice to "let those hard griefs slither away like curds turned out of their dish".
Sontag's life has been like Fuller's, not like Alice James's. But those "hard griefs" refuse to slide away. The Couch Potato still shadows Action Woman.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2271
SOURCE: "Premature Postmodern," Nation, Vol. 261, No. 12, October 16, 1995, pp. 432-34, 436.
[Below, MacFarquhar reviews Liam Kennedy's Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, a study of Sontag's writings and their historical context.]
There are certain poignant little facts sprinkled around us by that novelist in the sky that convey with especial vividness the gulf between past and present. One of these facts is that in the sixties some people considered Susan Sontag to be lacking in seriousness. Listen to Irving Howe writing in Commentary in 1968:
We are confronting, then, a new phase in our culture, which in motive and spring represents a wish to shake off the bleeding heritage of modernism and reinstate one of those periods of the collective naif which seem endemic to American experience…. The new American sensibility does something no other culture could have aspired to: it makes nihilism seem casual, good-natured, even innocent…. Alienation has been transformed from a serious and revolutionary concept into a motif of mass culture, and the content of modernism into the decor of kitsch…. [This new sensibility] is reinforced with critical exegesis by Susan Sontag, a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother's patches.
In 1968, at 35, Sontag was both a popular icon and one of the country's most respected critics. She wrote for Partisan Review and Esquire, for Mademoiselle and The New York Review of Books. She had published her first novel, The Benefactor, in 1963, her second, Death Kit, in 1967 and her first essay collection, Against Interpretation, in 1966. Reading it now, you can sense how exciting it must have been to pick up Against Interpretation in 1966, when it was unexpected: those luscious sentences, those enticing paragraphs and that curious, appreciative, calm, intelligent, innocent voice, without a trace of knowingness or sarcasm, that skipped so easily between flirtatious epigrams and earnest reasoning.
At the time, compared with Stalin-era types like Howe, Sontag was indeed a girl of the Zeitgeist. She had railed against traditional, Howe-style literary interpretation and condemned it as "reactionary," "cowardly" and "stifling." She had resuscitated Antonin Artaud by favoring spectacle over psychologizing in art, and proclaimed the "new sensibility" to be exemplified by visual arts like cinema, dance and painting—not novels. Rejecting Clement Greenberg's and Dwight Macdonald's efforts to put a cordon sanitaire around the avant-garde, she had attached quotation marks to "high" and "low" culture and declared the distinction practically meaningless ("The feeling … given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes"). She had infamously declared the white race to be "the cancer of human history" and concluded that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx and the Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world."
It was clear even then that Sontag did not reject everything Howe's generation had stood for, but she gave it all a new, impertinent, sixties twist. She agreed with Lionel Trilling, for instance, that art could and should have a moral effect on consciousness, but she thought that that effect could be derived from the most disengaged, aesthetic kinds of experience. She looked for self-transcendence, yes, but she found it in pornography (though only of the most high-brow sort).
She still believed in the unity of political and cultural radicalism, that signature of Howe's generation, but was too fond of her anti-interpretive ideas to conceive of an easy connection. She loved pop culture, but for high-culture reasons: Every bit as formalist as Greenberg, she argued that the business of contemporary art should be the "analysis of and extension of sensations," for which purpose a Supremes song might indeed be as useful as a Rauschenberg painting. All of this made for a peculiar, ambivalent style: She was a rigorous sensualist, an optimistic modernist, an earnest advocate of irony, a serious champion of playfulness. She had a sophisticated understanding of the comic but no sense of humor.
As far as Howe was concerned, this ambivalence—what he saw as Sontag's pseudo-modernist trappings—made her all the more insidious. Modernism, he had concluded gloomily in another late-sixties essay, "will not die [but] live on … through vulgar reincarnation and parodic mimesis…. Not the hostility of those who came before but the patronage of those who come later—that is the torment of modernism." Sontag was one of those who came later. Howe was ludicrously wrong, of course, to suspect Sontag of lacking seriousness, or even of valuing the modernist legacy any less than he did. But he may have understood better than she where her theories were leading.
Reading Sontag now, her essays seem less to be refining ways of thinking about modernism, as she thought they were, than presaging postmodern developments. Howe predicted the mutation of modernism into postmodernism, but reading Sontag you can actually see it happening. In "Notes on 'Camp,'" you can see her vacillate between her proto-postmodern attraction to camp—its unapologetic aestheticism, its generous playfulness, its style—and her instinctive, modernist revulsion from its frivolous amorality ("I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it"). In "On Style" you can see her championing formalism, surfaces and materiality against the notion of "content," but still for the old-fashioned moral reason of educating the senses: "For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act … the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) … are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life."
In a 1980 essay on Elias Canetti, Sontag distinguished between "ear culture" and "eye culture"—Hebrew versus Greek, as she put it, moral versus aesthetic. "The ear," she wrote, "is the attentive sense, humbler, more passive, more immediate, less discriminating than the eye [which] … affirms the pleasures and the wisdom of … surfaces." In the sixties, it was eye culture that captured Sontag's attention. Howe worried, more than she did, that ear culture was in danger of disappearing altogether.
By the late seventies and early eighties, though, Sontag's perspective had shifted. By the time she began writing the essays that would constitute On Photography (1977), she had become much warier of the dehumanizing, morally neutralizing quality of the sensuous-formalist ways of thinking that she had relished before. Thinking about photography, she became suspicious of its tendency to depersonalize, to flatten value systems, to encourage satisfaction with the status quo, to fracture the wholeness of the world. In 1974 she wrote:
Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.
By 1979 Sontag had decided that Howe's worst nightmare had indeed come true. "There is really quite a close fit between avant-garde art and the values of the consumer society which needs products, constant turnover, diversity, outrage and so on," she admitted in an interview. "The consumer society is so sophisticated and so complex that it has broken down the lines between high and mass taste, between the conventional sensibility and the subversive sensibility."
The context has changed. And at this point, although most of Sontag's essays seem as brilliant and relevant as they ever did, others seem hopelessly quaint. The camp sensibility that in 1964 she considered so esoteric, so private that "to talk about [it was] therefore to betray it" has of course become thoroughly mainstream—indeed irritatingly omni-present. In the wake of deconstruction, Sontag's old formalist theories seem antiquated. It's telling, though, that that wild excess of hers she later regretted—calling the white race "the cancer of human history"—today sounds more banal than anything else, coming from a white person.
In Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, Liam Kennedy sets out to describe Sontag's work and the context within which it appeared. It's Kennedy's first book; he's a lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in England. Most of the book is summary—unfortunately, since Sontag does an excellent job of explaining herself. As an exegesis, though, it's nicely done, and Kennedy traces Sontag's main themes deftly along tortuous paths through both essays and fiction. Her metasubject, Kennedy quotes Sontag as saying, is "what it means to be modern." And then there are her various demi-metasubjects: Sontag exploring extreme states of consciousness, Sontag thinking about artistic isolation, Sontag pondering the ethics of connoisseurship, etc.
Unfortunately, Kennedy writes as though Sontag were dead. He compares her work only to that of her predecessors, with the result that you have little sense, upon finishing the book, of what effect (if any) she is having on younger writers. Her generalism, her polemical essay style, her Europhilia and her political engagement Kennedy links, naturally, to the New York intellectuals: to the generalism of Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman and Harold Rosenberg, and to the engagé literary criticism of Trilling, Philip Rahv and Mary McCarthy. The let's-think-about-me mode she employs in Trip to Hanoi and elsewhere he connects to the Mailer-style new journalism of the sixties. Periodically he discusses her in relation to the dead-or-not-dead debate over the public intellectual.
Since Sontag herself spends so much time detailing her relationship to her antecedents, I regret not hearing more about the aspects of her oeuvre she doesn't talk about. With a publication history as eclectic as hers, her omissions are as telling as her subjects. Why, for instance, after vacuuming up more or less everything written in French in the fifties, from Camus to Barthes to Cioran, did she not write about anyone from the generation that followed? These questions are left hanging.
"My aim," Kennedy states at the outset, "is not to incorporate Sontag into academic frames of thinking." Insofar as that means he's resolved not to use jargon, fair enough, but a dogmatic exclusion of academic reference points seems silly, though certainly Sontagian. One would think it would follow from Kennedy's (and everyone's) conclusion that the public-intellectual tradition has mostly withered away that academic debates are precisely the most interesting ones to include her in these days. Especially the literary-theoretical ones of the seventies and eighties that took up the thread of French thought where Sontag appears to have dropped it.
This is a particularly frustrating omission since Sontag has always been more or less ignored by academia. Kennedy's explanation for this is only somewhat plausible: He claims academics are threatened by her refusal to specialize. Angela McRobbie, a British cultural studies theorist, is more pointed: "In many circles she is viewed with suspicion as at best an elitist, Eurocentric aesthete." McRobbie's view seems to have been borne out by the reception of Sontag's 1989 book, AIDS and Its Metaphors. Intruding as she was on a particular academic turf, Sontag suddenly received lots of professorial attention, much of it negative. D.A. Miller wrote a particularly hostile review in which he accused her of homophobia. Much of what he was reacting to, though, was her perhaps willful ignorance of academic politics: her use of the word "homosexual," for instance, and her aggressive assertion of her right to talk about AIDS with the prefatory sentence, "Rereading Illness as Metaphor now, I thought…."
Kennedy offers only a few critiques. Boringly, he faults her for restricting her discussion of pornography to the literary variety, thus "bracket[ing] off many of the socio-moral questions central to the pornography debate." Boringly, he reproves her for the cultural elitism that is at the heart of her enterprise. At a very late stage in the book he suddenly comes out as an antimodernist and begins to take Sontag to task for her "perverse, private effort to keep the dead alive." Still, he does defend her against accusations that she has turned to the right, correctly ascribing some of these to a facile equation of her retro universalist rhetoric with neoconservatism.
Shortcomings aside, the mere fact that Kennedy's book exists is interesting. Sontag, as Partisan Review editor William Phillips observed in 1969, has always "suffered from bad criticism and good publicity"; she's underrated by the right people and overrated by the wrong people. As a result she is frequently gossiped about but rarely discussed in writing. The only other book-length study of her work—Sohnya Sayres's Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (1990)–is out of print. She's in neither of two recent essay anthologies—Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay and The Oxford Book of Essays.
I would like to read a book that situated Sontag in the present as well as the past, and that analyzed her from the point of view of sensibility—as a writer and appreciator, rather than primarily as a theorist (though of course the two are inextricable). This approach might go some way toward explaining, for one, why her essays are so much better than her novels—why her writing seems too sweet without the salt of information. And it would be an appropriately Sontagian approach, since so much of her writing consists of, as she has put it, "case studies of [her own] evolving sensibility." After all, as she wrote admiringly of fellow-generalist Roland Barthes on his death in 1980, "It was not a question of knowledge … but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention."