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, 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 a romantic: that is, his vanity is 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 worthwhile.

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 anaesthetic (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 wellbeing. 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 far-fetched.

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.

This Issue

August 13, 1992