A Moral Tale

Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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