Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover: Collector, Aesthete, Moralist

“My library is an archive of longings” (1980), Susan Sontag noted in one of the journal entries collected in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. That figure of attachment, that harness, reins in the conflicting forces that drove and constrained Sontag, self-described as both a “besotted aesthete” and an “obsessed moralist.” In The Volcano Lover: A Romance (1992), we encounter indulgence in the pleasures of the body cut short by the moral conviction of her razor sharp mind–although that cut comes late in the narrative. She described the process of writing the novel: “For three years, I worked twelve hours a day in a delirium of pleasure.” And again: “The whole novel was a discovery of furious permissions I granted myself.” Throughout the writing of The Volcano Lover, Sontag was in the early years of intimate involvement with the photographer Annie Leibovitz (for whom, of course, she posed for dozens of photographs like the one below from 1993). The novelist asks as the book opens, “Why enter?” and she replies, “Desire leads me. I go in.” She goes in like a clever thief, in John Banville’s phrase, “to commit fiction.”


What Sontag wrote about Roland Barthes is no less true of her: “All his work is an immensely complex enterprise of self description.” She thought of her criticism as the “theory of my own sensibility.” In varied measure, Sontag identifies with each of The Volcano Lover’s primary characters: with the Cavaliere as a consummate collector (One could never know enough, see enough); with the Cavaliere’s first wife as a repressed and rage-wracked woman who feels annihilated; with the Cavaliere’s second wife as a performing subject, a model who always needs her fix of rapture; and finally with Eleonora Pimentel as a revolutionary. Sontag loves and loathes each of them in varied measure. This series of identifications traces out the narrative arc of the novel from sensual gratification to the far side of moral authority. While a 23-year-old Sontag could ask “To philosophize, or to be a culture-conserver?” and answer “I had never thought of being anything but the latter”; for the fifty-nine-year-old author of The Volcano Lover, the imperative had shifted, at least by the novel’s end, toward philosophizing.


The novel opens in 1992 in Manhattan with Sontag, herself a collector–of books, of quotations, of ideas, of shells and pebbles (Annie Leibovitz’ Susan’s Shell Collection, 1990, above)–trying to decide whether or not to enter a flea market with its haphazard, indiscriminate offering of cast-off stuff. She’s scavenging for, in her words, something I would want. Want to rescue. Something that speaks to me. To my longings. She asserts her insistent authorial presence. Her voice jolts the reader now and again throughout the book with anachronistic flashes (a computer, Nagasaki, a motorcycle, PMS, the Frick Collection…). She notes that she is wearing jeans and a silk blouse–function, luxe. Susan Stewart writes in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1992) that a “flea market [is] dependent upon the leisure tastes and discarded fashions of the host culture: the market economy.” From the start, then, collecting is established as being already too much, gratuitous. And yet there are ways that the activity does something other than adhere to the imperatives of commodity culture. Each acquisition cultivates identity by means of metonymic extension. Exemplary of this strategy is Roland Barthes’ passage “J’aime, je n’aime pas”* from his reticent biography Barthes by Barthes (1975), writing Sontag valued profoundly. She describes lists in general as sublimated collection[s], and was a consummate list-maker herself. While it is true that a list is sublimated insofar as its elements detach from the materiality of fetishized objects, such desires remain lodged in the body. It defines a unique body in all its peculiarities (Barthes’ pimento and flat pillows and white peaches and all kinds of writing pens).


From its contemporary frame edge, the novel flashes back to 1772 to arrive at an art auction in London. The Cavaliere–the emblematic name Sontag lends the historical personage, Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803)—is bemoaning the fact that his beloved Correggio painting, Venus Disarming Cupid, has failed to sell. He wonders how he will continue to love it after this fall from monetary grace. How will he continue to love his Venus, covered by a diaphanous veil that only serves to emphasize her unabashed nudity? His Venus holding a fiery bow out of reach of the scrambling, greedy Cupid while a lascivious satyr leers on? The painting’s themes of a ravenous gaze and of frustrated love foreshadow what falls under the title’s second half: A Romance. Although the Cavaliere will never know it, he’s already been taken for a fool. The painting will turn out to be worth very little, having been misattributed to Correggio all along.


Why does Sontag, after a brief prelude in the present, set her novel in the decades just following 1772? In the Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott (conducted in 1979, published in its complete form in 2013) she asserted: “I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots—specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period—and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure.” Happiness, individuality, radical social change, pleasure–these are the ideals that clamber for space on the pages of The Volcano Lover. Historically, then, the novel crosses the defining decades of upheaval, witnessing the bloody transition from rule by monarchy to rule by the people, at the threshold of modernity. At one point the main character in the novel is visited by the painter Thomas Jones and tells him that he is unable to understand the painter’s small, quiet near-monochromes on the verge of abstraction (detail from Rooftops in Naples from 1782 above). The painter replies that his subjects are moments of slippage, when anything seems possible and not everything makes sense.

After this double stage-setting (flea market/art auction), the narrative line rises operatically with the roll of tympani, with the ominous basso profundo rumble of Mount Vesuvius. At a safe distance it is the ultimate spectacle, yet not so safe for the villagers imperiled at the volcano’s base. It is the central, ever-visible metaphor for uncontrollable forces–of love, of violence, of burgeoning revolution—always threatening to erupt, to wreak ruin. Just audible are other shadowy, sotto voce murmurs—of the American Revolution, of rivalries and treacherous alliances with France. These energies are precisely those which cannot be collected, organized, or tamed by intellect. The colossus is not beautiful, but devastatingly sublime, inspiring a lust to see destructiveness.


The creative trigger for Sontag’s novel was, in fact, a hand-painted engraving of the volcano with rolling curls of smoke and streams of flame that she found in an antiquarian’s shop near the British Museum in the early 1980s. It was one of the plates that Sir Hamilton (the Cavaliere) commissioned from Pietro Fabris for his Campi Phlegraei: Observations of the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies in 1776, causing him some financial strain. In the plate above, the red-coated Hamilton stands in the foreground with a companion. The artist at work is seated to the left on a ring of hardened lava. [The images included here of samples of volcanic rock are also by Fabris].

NPG 680; Sir William Hamilton by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Cavaliere is the volcano lover of the book’s title, having climbed Vesuvius on nearly 60 perilous excursions. In Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait (1777), Sir Hamilton—British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, Fellow of the Royal Academy, Knight of the Order of Bath, collector—strikes the pose of an enlightened and worldly intellectual, holding Baron D’Harcanville’s folio illustrating the Greek vases he collected (one at his left elbow), now in the British Museum. The window behind him, with plush velvet curtain theatrically pulled back, opens onto a view of Vesuvius, at a safe distance away. He is melancholic in temperament, alert, interested in everything–in some ways, not unlike Sontag.


In the opening section of The Volcano Lover, the Cavaliere lives in the company of his first wife (based on Catherine Barlow). She is a self-effacing woman of frail constitution taken for granted by a man who married her for her money, money that would enable him to collect paintings and vases—the true objects of his affection. David Allan’s painting of Sir and Lady Hamilton (1770) stands as the only known portrait of Hamilton’s demure first wife, while the depictions of his second wife are innumerable. Sir William turns away from the work of correspondence, one letter dispatched by the rushed figure in the background. The man of the world is shifting his attention to domestic satisfactions: Catherine playing the harpsichord, a faithful dog. A scaled down copy of the misattributed Correggio hangs on the wall to the left and ubiquitous Vesuvius is visible to the right.

Near the beginning of The Volcano Lover, the two travel together from London (too damp for the Cavaliere’s wife’s delicate health) to Naples, the kingdom of cinders, that smells of the sea and coffee and honeysuckle and excrement. As they depart, the Cavaliere is reading; he has that other, always adjacent interior, a book. The book is Voltaire’s Candide. Later in the narrative, people die for owning a copy of this book that dares to imagine another, better possible world. A beggar avoiding the Cavaliere’s speeding coach falls under the wheel of a barrel-maker’s cart. And then comes one of the most telling lines in the novel: The Cavaliere wasn’t looking. He was looking away.

The Cavaliere serves as courtier to the ridiculous, incompetent, and Rabelaisian King of Naples, Ferdinand I, who wallows in decadence. He is a ringmaster of a grotesque carnival, building artificial mountains of food for desperate hordes to devour applauded by the overfed from the balconies. He relishes the gory slaughter of obscene numbers of animals made easy prey by the royal beaters. No detached collector, the king is a debauched sensualist. He liked everything that is formless, abundant. Odors focus, distract. Odors cling, follow. They extend, diffuse. A world of odors is ungovernable—one does not dominate an odor, it dominates you…His sensuality was the only intelligence he possessed. Smells stand for the ungovernable, as the sulfuric vapors of an angry volcano do. Here Sontag attributes knowledge of the senses to one of the most reviled characters in the book. While Ferdinand is led by the nose his rule slips from his fingers.

In Korda’s Hollywood film, That Hamilton Woman! (1941), the second Lady Hamilton lets her paramour, Admiral Horatio Nelson, in on the secret that “the real King of Naples is the Queen.” The feckless king is, indeed, dominated by a woman, the Austrian-born Queen Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette. The Queen had real power, and a woman in power, feared as virile, is often accused of being a slut. When her sister quite literally loses her head, it’s largely Maria Carolina’s fury that causes Naples to side with the English against the Republicans–and later the bloodier Jacobins–during the French Revolution.

The passage that introduces the king of colossal and preposterous appetites closes: An odor. A taste. A touch. Impossible to describe. Words fail as they enter the realm of the so-called baser senses. The hierarchy of the senses has tended to be drawn, from top to bottom: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. Sigmund Freud traced the shift from the instinctual worldview of the animal, down on the ground sniffing, to that of the standing human being claiming dominion with sight. The Volcano Lover lets show something of the internal conflict that characterized much of Sontag’s writing–at least at this stage in her work–between senses and intellect and the ways that they might be tied up with gender. She displaces this onto the Cavaliere who rationalizes the manner in which he tells stories about King Ferdinand: Since he has only words to tell, then he can explain (the dumbed-down education of the King, the benighted superstitions of the nobles), he can condescend, he can ironize. He can have an opinion (he cannot describe without taking a stand about what he is describing) and that opinion will already have shown itself superior to the facts of the senses, bleached them, muffled their din, deodorized them.

In the truly queer and jarring passage that follows—seemingly without narrative rationale at first–Sontag indulges the pleasures and pains of the body, in however constrained a fashion. The wind shifts from the stinking king to a lifeless object (female) in the process of becoming a subject. A hint of Sontag’s feminism—a label she resisted–hangs in the air. The Cavaliere recounts a Pygmalion fable he found in a book by one of those impious French writers he fancied. [The specific source is, in fact, a thought experiment performed on a statue (male) regarding the relationship between sense perception and cognition in the philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac’s Treatise on the Senses (1754)]. In brief synopsis of the Cavaliere’s story, a man happens upon a statue of the classical goddess of the hunt, Diana, in a garden. He decides to bring her to life (with possibly dubious intent), proposing to open her sensorium, based on the premise that consciousness is gained through the senses. He grants her only the sense of smell. This is a man teaching, emancipating—deciding what’s best for—a woman, and therefore moving circumspectly, not inclined to go all the way, quite comfortable with the idea of creating a limited being—the better to be, to stay, beautiful. [Condillac actually gave his statue access to all of the senses in succession]. Danger is inherent in unleashing this power. Diana is a virgin goddess, sexually inaccessible. When Actaeon caught her bathing naked, she turned him into a stag and then set his own hunting dogs against him. She is patroness of women, plebeians, and slaves.

Sontag lists a rich array of odors that the “emancipated” statue encounters, gathering them into a sublimated collection. Diana smells the sycamores and poplar trees, resinous, acrid, she can smell the tiny shit of worms, she smells the polish on soldiers’ boots, and roasted chestnuts, and bacon burning, she can smell the wisteria and heliotrope and lemon trees, she can smell the rank odor of deer and wild boar fleeing the royal hounds and the three thousand beaters in the King’s employ, the effusions of a couple copulating in the nearby bushes, the sweet smell of the freshly cut lawn, the smoke from the chimneys of the palace, from far away the fat King on the privy, she can even smell the rain-lashed erosion of the marble of which she is made, the odor of death (though she knows nothing of death). There are odors she does not smell, because she is in a garden—or because she is in the past. She is spared city smells, like those of the slops and swill thrown from windows onto the street during the night. And the little cars with two-stroke engines and the bricks of soft brown coal (the smell of Eastern Europe in the second half of our century), the chemical plants and oil refineries outside Newark, cigarette smoke … But why say spared? She would relish these odors, too. Indeed, it comes from a great distance, she smells the future. The perfume—one scent after another–begins to open up inner time and space. She wants more and more smells; she wants to hold them in her body. She would tremble with pleasure if she could, but she has not been granted the power of movement. The passage ends, curiously, with the Cavaliere’s thought: if only she knew how to become a collector. He is too self involved to realize that he’s misread the fable. A collector is precisely what she is becoming–with desires, frustrations, memories, aspirations… A world of odors is ungovernable.

It is never quite clear whether it is the Cavaliere alone who distrusts the “feminine” recourse to the senses or if Sontag is partially complicit in this. At one odd moment in the story a certain Miss Knight appears at the Hamiltons’ dinner table out of nowhere, rattled by the distance between one thing and another. She tells the group that she occasionally sees an island in the bay that most others do not. One man at the table repeatedly challenges the credibility of her claim. The Cavaliere chimes in with an account of the basis of mirages and other optical abnormalities. She is dismissed as illogical. Miss Knight insists, I do not know if I am logical…But I will not deny the evidence of my senses. Then she is set adrift in feminine feelings of the self-silencing kind. Is this small incident, elusive as that island, a fleeting glimmer of Sontag’s feminism?


The Cavaliere states, I collect, therefore I am—the assumption being that a woman cannot collect, therefore she is not. As Jean Baudrillard writes in The System of Objects (1968), the objects of a collection are “divested of function and made relative to a subject.” In the course of the novel the Cavaliere makes the point, more than once, that women are almost never collectors (with the exception of a single dowager). Women are objects made relative to male subjects. It is also noted in passing, to underscore the Cavaliere’s sophistication, that his fellow collectors are often homosexual men—though at a personal cost. He gives the example of the great classicist and father of the discipline of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was murdered for a pocketful of medals by young male hustler he’d taken back to his hotel room in Trieste. Desires can occasionally spin off course toward the obsessive, perverse, and rapturous, beyond the Cavaliere’s preference for felicitous experiences.

More than 15,000 words of The Volcano Lover, a substantial essay’s worth, relate in some way to the art of collecting. The book is encyclopedic in its own right and, rhetorically, Sontag often uses the device of parataxis. The list is kalways driven forward by the logic of seriality–another and another and another and… Objects and images proliferate. A collection is never enough, but is always already too much. A collection holds its temporary contentments, but, in the Cavaliere’s words, the joys are never unalloyed with anxiety. Because there is always more. You must have it because it is one step toward an ideal completing of your collection. But this ideal completion for which every collector hungers is a delusive goal. Incompleteness the collector’s spur. A complete collection is a dead collection. The museum is often compared to a mausoleum. And yet, paradoxically, the idea that one obscure object of desire remains to be pursued is the trick by which the collector convinces himself that it is possible to evade a mortal end.

Sontag writes that collecting expresses a free-floating desire that attaches and re-attaches itself—it is a succession of desires. The true collector is in the grip not of what is collected but of collecting—so not of content, but of a style of being. As connoisseur of his own pleasures, the collector looks closely, has a discerning eye for beauty, makes discriminating comparisons. A collection defines a collector—becomes his metonymic extension–expressing particular passions, individual quirks, specific sensitivities. The collector assembles, organizes and controls a personal microcosm bracketed off from the world. A collector safeguards treasures—valuable or not. He rescues them from oblivion. By its very nature, collecting is a conservative endeavor (and as such informs the Cavaliere’s stance against the revolutionary forces of history that would dash the old precious things to pieces). The collection falls outside of its time. So the collector may be looking, in one sense, but is always also looking away.

Charles, the Cavaliere’s nephew, is a collector, too, but to his uncle’s disappointment rough lumps of tufa with pieces of lava or marine shells embedded in them, the fragments of a volcano bomb, or the bright yellow and orange salts he was shown only made him think with passion of his crystallized rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds—these could be called beautiful. He washed his hands often. And he resolutely refused to climb the mountain. Collections are solitary pursuits–no one else loves another’s collection enough. In the novel at least, a collector is, among many other things a natural bachelor. One wants to possess (and be possessed) alone. Collecting is solitary, yet competitive sport. A collector plays the game of dissembling interest in order to make the best deal. He is sometimes a looter, a thief carrying off illicit booty from Herculaneum and Pompeii to his stash underground.

The collector makes culture of nature, brings it inside. To the Cavaliere, gathering up bits of Vesuvius was, given its scientific rationale, the purest form of collecting shorn of the prospect of profit. The other objects of his cache–the vases and paintings–tether him into an economic system. He betrays nervous concerns about money. That unsavory element creeps in. Of course he is eventually going to sell the best of what he buys—and he does. A gratifying symmetry, that collecting most things requires money but then the things collected themselves turn into more money. Though money was the faintly disreputable, necessary byproduct of his passion, collecting was still a virile occupation: not merely recognizing but bestowing value on things, by including them in one’s collection.


The most precious object to pass through Sir William Hamilton’s (the Cavaliere’s) hands is the Portland Vase, that well-wrought urn. Sontag describes it in this way—no hermeneutics here, just an erotics of art: He never tired of gazing at it, of holding it aloft so as to see the true color of the ground, a midnight blue indistinguishable from black except when pierced by light, and brushing the tips of his fingers over the low-relief figures incised in the creamy white glass. Alas, this was not an object he could afford to be in love with. The art object is in this way is not unlike the woman who would become his second wife, Emma Hart.

This vase, the iconography of which has long been under heated dispute, was first believed to be an Etruscan relic, then determined to be Roman cameo glass from the end of the 1st Century BC or beginning of the 2nd Century CE. It was owned by Sir William Hamilton for the better part of a year (between 1778 and 1780). He then performed an elaborate series of feints and dodges before striking a deal with the dowager Duchess of Portland. He sold it at a considerable profit. The Cavaliere notes that her collection–with its mismatch of mammoth bones and coral branches and seashells and Old Master paintings–was odd, mainly so because it was that of a woman.


Upon the death of the Duchess, the vase was inherited by her son, the 3rd Duke of Portland. The Duke leased it to Josiah Wedgwood, who after many painstaking and unsuccessful attempts at replication, put his first fine effort on view in an exhibition that was so popular that tickets to the initial private showing had to be limited to a mere 1,900. The Cavaliere lamented that Wedgwood’s firm began turning out by the tens of thousands in the next century. Olive-green, yellow, pale pink, lilac, lavender-blue, grey, black, and brown Portland vases; Portland vases in many sizes, including small, medium, and large. Everyone could have, should have a Portland vase…Who can really love the Portland Vase now? The most valuable possession is always identical with itself. Its aura cracked. The original found its place in the stronghold of the British Museum. But nothing is safe.


In 1845 a young vandal, William Mulcahy, nearly pulverized the vase. As one story goes, he couldn’t bear to see an indifferent thing so tenderly cared for while he lived in an abject state of poverty and loneliness. Because of a small mis-wording in the legal definition of the crime he committed, he was charged with the destruction of the vitrine which held the vase, rather than of the vase itself. His fine was paid by an anonymous donor, rumored to be the object’s owner. The 189 pieces were meticulously glued back together, although 37 fragments remained upon completion. The glue yellowed. Another more successful attempt (only 3 tiny splinters left) was made as recently as 1989. The joins are virtually invisible. It is loved a bit less. But, as the Cavaliere admits in a rare moment of self reflection, our grief [is] a mite indecent.

Later in the book, the Cavaliere visits the collection of a prince housed in a flesh-colored villa east of Palermo. The pink palace is filled with sculpted hybrid monstrosities and furnished with objects made with chunks of coarse crockery conjoined with shards of fine porcelain. The chair cushions hide spikes. He nearly becomes ill at the sight of the obscene juxtaposing of vulgarity and refinement. The experience shakes the Cavaliere’s faith in the security of a collector’s microcosmic world by suggesting that anything can turn into anything else, anything can be dangerous, anything can collapse, give way. The prince’s perversities take collecting to its terminal stage—or at least to what we’ve come to recognize, through Sontag, as kitsch.

Shortly thereafter, the Cavaliere hears that his own collection of rare vases has not survived a perilous sea crossing to England. Only one treasure chest was saved by the sailors, not one of his, but one containing the brined body of a British admiral on his way home for a proper burial. Damn his body, thinks the Cavaliere. He mourns the relics. They are still there, decaying, imperceptibly, encrusted by sea creatures, shifting aimlessly under the tides…inaccessible. With the Revolution his world is going to pieces. He hears of the brutal attack on an acquaintance’s collection. The aristocrat is forced to watch it burn before he is murdered at the hands of an angry mob.

Walton Ford Pancha Tantra

But long before his world comes apart, the Cavaliere collects a pet or two. As Baudrillard writes: “the poignant devotion to such creatures points to a failure to establish normal human relationships and to the installation of a narcissistic territory–the home–wherein the subjectivity can fulfill itself without hindrance.” The first creature to appear in a crate is the black monkey, Jack, from the Malabar Coast in southwestern India. He’s a sad little refugee, a stand-in for so many exoticized others. Up to a certain point in the novel, the Cavaliere seems affable enough. Then he is cruel to his monkey: Salt in his milk. A cuff to the head. The beast has to be broken, made to behave, cultured. Jack disappears for a few days in a final protest, to be found anxiously chewing at the corner of a folio of prints by Piranesi. From that point on, Jack takes on the Cavaliere’s gestures–examining an object intently, turning it around in his diminutive hand. As Baudrillard’s argument goes, a pet cannot be at odds with its master, but should constitute a smooth extension of him, providing “neurotic equilibrium.” An autonomous, perfectly ordered world gives the collector a false sense of invulnerability. In three moments, the Cavaliere’s collection fails him: when Jack dies and is mourned like a human being, then when his first wife dies, and finally when he loses his second wife to Admiral Nelson.

Walton Ford said of the portrait he painted of Jack (2005): “I’m not painting a monkey in nature…I painted Jack on his deathbed, this figure of 18th-century decadence, like he’s a dandy dying of syphilis. There’s a Greek sculpture of a naked boy on the table next to him, there’s a snuffed candle—a symbol of a life cut short—all this romantic imagery around him…and then Vesuvius is erupting in the background. I paint him as he was created by William Hamilton.” Ford’s likely pictorial model was the miniature attributed to Govardhan (c. 1618) by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, a portrait of his friend, Inayat Khan, dying of alcohol and opium addiction.


Walton Ford might well have been reading The Volcano Lover while conceiving of his Jack. The monkey put his paw on the Cavaliere’s wig and uttered a small cry. Ford described the creature he painted as if “he’s had his hair done, so extravagant, like Liberace if he was a monkey.”


In the era in which the novel is set, art undergoes a shift from the fluffy, pastel-hued artifice of Rococo to the sober politics of Neo-Classicism on its way toward gritty brown Realism. In 1992, when The Volcano Lover was written the American economy had plunged into recession, the aftermath of the Reagan/Thatcher financial boom. If every historical novel is, in some measure, about its contemporary moment, then Jeff Koons’s neo-Rococo porcelain confection, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), might provide a clue as to how this might be so. The two recline on a bed of flowers, gilded together, conjoined in their poses and costumed identically. Bubbles, like Jack, makes eye contact with the viewer while Jackson, famous and lonely, averts his gaze.


Any number of images from 1992 might serve as a point of contrast, but Kiki Smith’s stark Tale no longer spins sugar as Koons’ work does. It addresses—bodies forth–harsher, abject reality. A yellowed beeswax body in a posture of struggle and shame drags a tail of shit. A cynical piece in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Art World Bust” written by Deborah Solomon in 1993 (the year after The Volcano Lover was published) traces the “sharp turn to the left” from the market-driven frivolity of the 1980s art world to the sober, political “martyr art” of the 1990s, the art of the “nouveau poor.” Solomon writes unsympathetically: “However removed Rodney King may be from the realm of esthetics, what’s incontestable is that his victim status speaks directly to the debased spirit of the 90’s art world.”

15 george-romney-lady-hamilton-as-a-bacchante-1784.jpg

The stupendously beautiful Emma Hart arrives crated, as Jack did, in the form of a painting by George Romney, imagined as a rosy, fresh-faced priestess of Bacchus (1784). Shortly thereafter she arrives in person, accompanied by her ever-invisible mother, Mrs. Cadogan. The woman who was to become the Cavaliere’s wife had been cast off by the his nephew Charles (he washes his hands often), in exchange for a sum of his uncle’s money to pay off his debts. Love entered into the Cavaliere’s life at that moment, but not without the will to possess. In 1791 Hamilton married Emma Hart; she was 26-years-old to his 60.


Hart posed for more than 60 of Romney’s paintings. Her pale face is depicted tenderly in his sketch portrait of her (c. 1782-1784) with free and sinuous brushwork. The brooding beauty’s chestnut hair curls in ribbons. The somber cast is softened with delicate rose-petal pink and lit up with flashes of scarlet. The painter considered her as nothing less than a collaborator.


While writing about her, Sontag might well have had in mind a melodrama befitting Emma, Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman!, originally titled The Enchantress (1941). It starred Laurence Olivier as Admiral Nelson and Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton. Leigh’s screen appearance was closely modeled on Romney’s paintings of Emma.

Although Korda made the film in Hollywood, it pitched toward British war propaganda with Napoleon standing in for Hitler. It was intended to spur the United States toward military engagement. [Full film here]. The fact that it was Winston Churchill’s favorite film (rumor has it that he viewed it nearly 100 times) might suggest its high seriousness, but the title’s exclamation point gives it a tiny nudge in the direction of camp.


In 1792, Emma posed for Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, again as a priestess of Bacchus, the god of wine and sex and mad desires. Vesuvius gathers fury in the background. The painter, in high demand by French (primarily female) aristocrats, kept her head by fleeing France while her most famous patron, Marie Antoinette, lost hers. Though its subject is far less flatteringly depicted in Vigée-Lebrun’s painting than in Romney’s, the painter’s work was in fashion. The Cavaliere was always quick to sell the portraits of his wife, at a considerable profit. In one of his letters to the second Lady Hamilton, Admiral Nelson raised a frantic protest: “I see clearly My Dearest friend you are on Sale, I am almost mad to think of the Iniquity of wanting to associate you with a Sett of Whores, Bawds unprincipled Lyars, can this be the Great Sir William Hamilton I blush for him.”


Emma Hart arrived at Sir Hamilton’s door with a tarnished pedigree. At fourteen Amy (her given name) performed in the tableaux vivants staged by the dodgy sex therapist Dr. Graham in his Palace of Health and Hymen. His “Celestial Bed” was purportedly intended for infertile married couples and was offered at the exorbitant fee of 100 pounds. Hart played “The Nymph of Health” in this context, far from salubrious. She is depicted in that role above by Richard Cosway (c. 1775). She became a demimondaine thereafter. It is worth recalling that Ovid’s telling of the Pygmalion myth begins with the sculptor’s misogynistic disgust with the shameless, whorish Propoetides, irreverent to Venus, who turns them to stone. They are the pariahs against which Pygmalion imagines his ideal snow-white, ivory-sculpted bride. Galatea, like Emma, is born of a fall from grace.


The future Lady Hamilton was an expert at striking a pose, developing a repertoire of over 200 of them representing the iconic moments of ancient myth and literature. Horace Walpole quipped in 1791 that “Sir William has actually married his gallery of statues.” In that same year, Francesco Novelli captured 10 of the dramatic stances in the etching above. The Cavaliere brought his second wife forth–not like the garden-bound Diana bestowed with the sense of smell, nor quite like Pygmalion’s perfect bride Galatea, nor like Henry Higgins’ Eliza Doolittle–but as a vivacious creature stilled, inhabiting the shifting guises of silent sculptures. While the Cavaliere reverses the fantasy of animating the inanimate, the imposition of male power remains intact at the threshold between reality and representation. Or so it seems.  Emma was more self-possessed than he might have imagined. She posed as herself posing.

The Cavaliere crafts her as his protégé—the same word he used to describe Jack. Add this beauty to his collection? No. He would polish a little. Emma performed at first in a velvet-lined box, then in a golden frame, then needed nothing but a stage, a veil, and an audience of rapt dinner guests. The Hamiltons hosted the likes of Goethe, who took inspiration from Emma for his character Luciane in Elective Affinities (1809): “The figures corresponded so well to their originals, the colours were so happily chosen, the lighting so artistic, you thought you had been transported to another world, the only disturbing factor being a sort of anxiety produced by the presence of real figures instead of painted ones.” Emma is recognizable, too, in the principle character of Madame de Staël’s Corinne ou l’Italie (1809) with “a kind of passionate joy, a sensibility of the imagination, [that] electrified all the spectators of the magic dance, and transported them to that state of ideal existence in which we dream of happiness that does not exist in this world.” Lady Hamilton’s performances came to be known famously as her “Attitudes.” [A fascinating lecture on the subject by John Wilton-Ely can be found here]. Against this proto-performance art, Sontag protests a telling mite too much: This is not dance. You are not a proto-Isadora Duncan in freeze-frame. 


Given that Jean Cocteau, genius of theatrical artifice, comes up in Sontag’s essays on style, on camp, and on the films of Robert Bresson; it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that Sontag had the speaking statue from his Blood of Poet (1930) on her mind, as well. Cocteau’s main character is another doomed Pygmalion, a poet played by Enrique Riveros. The statue, classically white and armless, is Lee Miller (an accomplished photographer in her own right, but perhaps best known as Man Ray’s muse, model, then heartbreaker. Object to Be Destroyed is the title of his surrealist sculpture, a metronome with an image of Miller’s eye beating time). In the opening scene, the painter-poet at his easel sketches a face. When the mouth begins to move he rubs it away only to have it appear, uncannily invested with power of speech, as a wound in the palm of his hand. In horror he aggressively transfers it to the statue that has mysteriously appeared in his studio. Approaching from behind, he gags and grants it voice at once. The voiceover cautions: “It is already dangerous to rub up against the furniture; is it not crazy to wake up statues so suddenly from their age-long sleep?” He smashes the sculpture in vain. In the end it (she) is his undoing.

And so comes the undoing of the Cavaliere. He is never able to domesticate his second wife in the way he did his Malabar monkey. She makes an embarrassed cuckold of him when “the Hero,” Admiral Horatio Nelson, enters the stage. He is badly injured, having lost an eye and an arm in the Battle of the Nile. The Cavaliere’s wife dotes on the Hero and pampers him back to health. In the space of novel, the “romance” of the title arrives belatedly, breathless and rushed. The two moon in public. The Hero fathers his mistress’ bastard child (Horatia). Again the Cavaliere, tolerantly avuncular, is not looking, but looking away. The unlikely ménage à trois becomes the fodder of gossips and caricaturists.

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In James Gillray’s A Cognoscenti contemplating ye Beauties of ye Antique (1801), Sir William plays the dolt examining a perverse assortment of objects through the wrong side of his glasses. Before him is Emma cast as a classical bust of the courtesan Laïs, missing its nose and mouth. Between it and Hamilton is a despairing Cupid with broken arrows. The sculpture that has lost its head, an arm extending a bunch of grapes, borrows the pose of one of Emma’s “Attitudes,” as does the sculpture on the floor behind Hamilton. In the row of pictures on the wall above, Emma is recognizable in the portrait of Cleopatra (bare-breasted and armed with a bottle of gin) adjacent to Nelson as Mark Antony. Their two hands reach towards each other at the framing edges. The paintings are joined by the horns of a sculpted bull. Above Hamilton’s head, Vesuvius is in a state of full-blown eruption (not without ribald connotations in this instance). To the right hangs a portrait of Lord Hamilton, back turned, as the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was betrayed by his young wife Messalina. The picture is poked by the ass ears of a demonic grinning beast.


In a hand-colored etching attributed to H. Humphrey (1802), a puffed up and highly decorated meringue of a man, Admiral Nelson, becomes an object in Sir Hamilton’s collection in the shape of an elaborate green vase.


In yet another caricature by Gillray (1801), the voluptuous Emma is Dido in Despair, cruelly portrayed as fat and sprawling among other elements of Hamilton’s collection. The cause of her distress is that her Admiral (Aeneas) has gone off to fight, his fleet sailing away in the view out the window, never to return.

Admiral Nelson died famously (heroically) in the Battle of Trafalgar, shot by a French gunman high in a ship’s rigging, an easy target because he was too proud to strip his uniform of his shiny array of medals. Lady Emma Hamilton didn’t escape a sad fate, either, but landed in debtor’s prison, dying abandoned and indigent of liver failure at only 49. The Cavalier faired no better. He died a lonely man. The last line of Baudrillard’s essay on collecting reads “he who does collect can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity.”

Of all her characters Sontag seems the least sympathetic to the most bodacious among them, the Cavaliere’s second wife, whose desire to please and be pleased supersedes any strongly held moral posture. Her sanguine spirit is sensually embodied, securely harnessed to her flesh. Emma’s vivacity sets up a vivid contrast to the purposeful sobriety of the revolutionary Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. Pimentel dismissed Lady Hamilton as “a nullity.” Early in her career Sontag wrote of her wish “to make sex cognitive.” The result is what the critic Daniel Mendelsohn trenchantly described as “eros…from the neck up.” The concluding sacrifice of the body in service of the intellect suggests that Sontag, even at 59, hadn’t quite come to terms with the vulnerability that the desires of her queer body caused her.  [Thanks go to Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg for the comic below].

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In a journal entry from 1980 Sontag wrote, “The pathos of intellectual avidity, the collector (mind as every thing), melancholy & history, arbitrating the moral claim versus aestheticism, and so forth. The intellectual as an impossible project.” The Volcano Lover is one product of Sontag’s attempt at arbitration. Even if she was self-indulgent enough to eat cake for three-quarters of the novel, relishing the confections of the Rococo in her lavender-tinged prose, ultimately it’s Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel with whom Sontag identifies most fervently. Sontag as “besotted aesthete” shifts her attitude to become the “obsessed moralist.”

At the speed with which a head is severed from the body by a guillotine, the novel’s coda arrives abruptly and destabilizes everything that has come before. The female characters, who have held their tongues throughout the book, are given a few final pages to speak in turn: the Cavaliere’s first wife (Catherine Hamilton), the Cavaliere’s second wife’s mother (Mrs. Cadogan), the Cavaliere’s second wife (Emma Hamilton), and finally Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. The repressed return with vengeance. The fact that the novel’s epigraph was taken from Mozart’s opera titled Così fan tutte, which translates “thus do all women,” takes on unforeseen significance.

Eleonora Fonseca-Pimentel salutes her executed colleagues

Pimentel is depicted above by Tancredi Scarpelli in an illustration for the schoolbook Storia d‘Italia by Paolo Guidici (1929-1932). The damned and damning heroine, who might have fallen beneath notice, is given the powerful and jarring last word. She was born of Portuguese nobility, but chose to fight on the side of the revolutionaries. She played a critical role as a journalist among the Neapolitan Jacobins working to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy, the debauched king Ferdinand and his domineering wife (for whom, ironically, the young Pimentel had penned a nuptial hymn). The order to hang her was executed by Admiral Nelson. It may have come from Queen Maria Carolina as revenge for the pamphlets Pimentel wrote alleging that the queen, who bore no fewer than fourteen children, was a Lesbian (and the author drops a few hints that Emma may have led her down that path). Pimentel’s request to be beheaded rather than hung was refused. Sontag left out a few details in Pimentel’s noble soliloquy, details that make the story of her womanhood more complex. Pimentel tried to avoid her death sentence by claiming to be pregnant. She had been married to a man who forced her to share a bed with him and his mistress. He beat her so badly that she miscarried twice. She took him to court and won her case.

In a Paris Review interview about The Volcano Lover Sontag insisted that “the last word should be given to someone who speaks for victims.” The crucial distinction is made there–not a victim, but someone who speaks for them. She leaves no doubt that she stands alongside Pimentel as her words seethe with rage. 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.


* “I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a ‘nose’ make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks, pears, white peaches, cherries, colors, watches, all kinds of writing pens, desserts, unrefined salt, realistic novels, the piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France, the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house, the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc. I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos, Burgundian branles and Renaissance dances, the organ, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, his trumpets and kettledrums, the politico-sexual, scenes, initiatives, fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, etc.” — Roland Barthes

Note: For welcoming me into their classroom to present a draft of this entry and for the rich discussion that followed, I am grateful to Betti-Sue Hertz and the graduate students in the Collaborative Project Seminar on Susan Sontag (co-taught with Robert Atkins) at the San Francisco Art Institute in Fall 2016.