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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’


Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” — Eugene V. Debs who ran for US president as a socialist

Friends,

Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover: A Romance, was the historical novel I chose to teach this summer alongside Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General. As DuMaurier’s novel was our example of great old-fashioned (pre-1960s/70s) historical fiction, so Sontag’s was our example of contemporary post-modern (yet progressive), post-colonial, feminist, self-reflexive realism (and she is even pro-animal rights). A familiar embodiment of the old-fashioned type (to anyone reading my blogs) is Winston Graham’s Poldark cycle (the first quartet falling just after WW2: Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945, ’46, ’48, ’53). Among the first embodiments of contemporary post-modern historical fiction (a first full flowering), Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and a typical choice for the Booker Prize, whose choices are always of the post-modern variety, from Scott’s Staying On (1977) and Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

I confess the first time I tried to read The Volcano Lover, I couldn’t get on with it. That was in 1993 when my husband Jim, gave me this book as a Christmas present. It has an inscription — not written down by him but by me. At that time Sontag’s frequent changes of era and character for her narrator without traditional signalling defeated me. I did know it in the early simple form of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but I didn’t connect Mrs D with Volcano Lover, and anyway I just wasn’t used to reading a book which attacked the very foundations of realistic fiction, of history writing. I couldn’t have begun to read Woolf’s The Waves. Since then I had conquered much more complicated versions of this: Graham Swift’s Last Orders (now one of my many favorite books, a Booker Prize winner), and with the use of Simon Slater’s brilliant reading aloud (on CDs), Wolf Hall (another favorite). Well this past Christmas (2016) I just fell into it. No trouble at all. Exhilarating because this new wildly free structuring is accompanied by an exposure of the limits of Enlightenment thought as winning out (however slowly) over the centuries humankind’s utter irrationality, vehement appetites, greed, deep-buried (only for some) amorality, atavistic beliefs, violence, and accompanying despair, the impulse towards death.

I’ve outlined the differences between old-fashioned, traditional historical fiction and post-modern, post-colonial too many times (scroll down). I taught a course in Booker Prize books. To be sure, there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras: both kinds romance a great deal, fantasize, use anachronism (all historical fiction and films intersect the past with the present). It’s a matter of emphasis: a romance. The best aim to combine the strange with the familiar. You embody history through novelistic elements so the reader (or viewer when it’s a historical film or adaptation) experiences the past as if we were there.


View of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 9 August 1799, after a drawing by Pietro Fabris

Onto this marvelous book: we had great fun in my class the days we discussed it. As is characteristic of the type, Sontag continually takes wholly unexpected angle: instead of telling say Emma Lady Hamilton’s story or Nelson’s as a dual romance (though they are often mocked as a whore, and half-crazy naive admiral), her center was Sir William Hamilton, the collector-husband of Emma (himself remembered as a cuckold). But Sir William was a brilliant man; his is one of the collections that the British Library began with. Here he is one of those people who are central in upholding utterly corrupt regimes because it’s convenient for them to do so, in their interest. Instead of pivoting from London, or Paris, or Rome, or the usual center of empire, we find ourselves in Naples, a highly corrupt marginalized cityscape, where Sir William had ended up ambassador (longing to be somewhere else, the city of his final destination not quite Moscow).

The later 18th century from Sir William’s continual presence allows for several meditations on why people collect, on art, on obsessions (like studying volcanoes); sometimes the narrator was your conventional implied presence erupting from the later 18th century and then again she’d be Sontag of 1992,the scholar-essayist, but slipping, less distinct, and we find ourselves in World War Two (and are reminded no matter how bad our present moment, they came back, we come back from the nadir of 1943) of just after; and then again zeroing in in a specific year 1798-99 because at the core of her book (the center of the onion) was the disastrous rebellion by a small enlightened and artisan group in Naples, put down by the great hero Nelson, abandoned by the other great hero, Napoleon, and then savagely tortured and murdered. And then the perspective turns again and you are in the story matter of Puccini’s Tosca (which occurs just after that rebellion).

The most moving part of the novel is probably Part Three, Sir William’s meditation as he lays dying, but it’s arguable that the novel’s main characters are the seemingly marginalized women who variously comply with the men, rebel against them, stealthily control them (the Naples queen, Maria Carolina, sister to Antoinette, kept the garantuanly fat, asinine, blood-hungry King Ferdinand IV, on his throne), are variously destroyed, or somehow survive, sometimes grow very rich and powerful but then at the change of a male can become destitute in no time. These women are the collector’s first wife, Catherine Barlow, daughter of an MP for Pembroke, a very wealthy heiress whose money it is that Sir William is spending and carries on spending after she dies. The first part of the book ends with her death (after falling in love with William Beckford, who unlike Sir William pays attention to her). There’s Emma herself (Lady Hamilton); Emma’s mother (Mrs Cadogan, whom like the actress Farrell and her mother, Emma never left behind), Efrosina Puma (great name), the sybil who reads everyone’s fates through connecting each to a tarot card, and last but never least a remarkable journalist-poet, radical political activist, deeply humane, idealistic, Eleanor de Fonseco-Pimentel (hung). Along the way, Maria Carolina remembers her sister’s beheading in a nightmare (when she thinks the Parthenopena Republic has a chance, and suddenly we are deeply inside the mind and body of Antoinette as David so cruelly depicted, all steely pride as the cart trundles her to the guillotine. The book just soars in the fourth and last part, the concluding monologues by Emma, by her mother and by Eleanor are as important as any before and we end on Eleanor – a revolutionary, daring journalist, poet imprisoned starved raped tortured and then hung. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and was senselessly murdered along with a profoundly important physician of the day (Cirillo among the dead, a friend-doctor to Hamilton), humane thinkers; people understood this was disgraceful and did nothing to stop it. Her words end the novel unforgettably:

I will not allow that I was moved by justice rather than love, for justice is also a form of love. I did know about power, I did see how this world was ruled, but I did not accept it. I wanted to set an example. I wanted not to disappoint myself. But I was afraid as well as angry in ways I felt to powerless to admit. So I did not speak of my fears but rather of my hopes. I was afraid my anger would offend others, and they would destroy me. For all my certitude I feared I would never be strong enough to understand what would allow me to protect myself. 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.

So, the book’s deeply feminist. The book opened with Sontag moving into a flea market, and from there the prestigious antique show, and then she is the alter ego, the absent-present narrator half-inside the minds of Sir William and his nephew (king and knave of cups) at an 18th century auction (where bankrupt people sold their cherished things). For those who love paintings, this book is filled with descriptions of paintings that once or still do exist, of caricatures, objects historically real, and faked, and when the scene is over, you have learned much more about history than most other ways. Part of the fascination is how she brings in through allusion biographies, other historical fictions history; the book is anti-genre (these are false constraints, rhetorical schemes so slow readers can catch on) too.

But the only character I loved absolutely, bonded utterly with, cared about (well along with Catherine Barlow and Eleanor) is the monkey, Jack, whom William Lord Hamilton buys and at first loves him abjectly and shows it. At first the animal is himself and we see (Darwin-like) how just like human beings this animal is — as complex, as feelingful. But Hamilton doesn’t want that, he wants a toy, and teases and is cruel to Jack, who a quick learner, does a turn-about and becomes the performing anxious doll-like creature, the “monkey” Hamilton wanted. I felt the cruelty of Hamilton’s teasing and so bad for the monkey who died, partly of neglect (the servants would not care for it when Hamilton was away) and partly of a broken heart. Sontag has made this effect deliberately because she has Hamilton think to himself how he has been told to buy two creatures so they will not be lonely as they need their own species but he coolly will not do it. He is clearly paralleled in the book to Catherine Barlow who was depicted with Hamilton by David Allen (both impossibly idealized): she was his companion, played beautifully, gave him many ideas as she read with him


William and Catherine Hamilton

Human beings are given names they don’t lose; when they die, it is recorded; it matters, they don’t just disappear the way an animal will from a narrative. And after Catherine dies, the stage is open for Emma to come on, followed by Nelson. There is order, observance. Not for the other non-human animals in this novel. Immediately we are introduced to the disgusting King of Naples, we see him rushing out to the phony hunt, where all is set up easily for his and his courtier’s slaughters (the animals have no chance) and then we (and the king and courtiers) watch the desperately poor of Naples jumps on the non-human animals’ carcasses, tear them to pieces to eat them. Horrible horrible oh most horrible. There are scenes of such visceral depravity scattered through the novel as well as scenes of beautiful music-making, rehearsals of scholarship (on volcanoes), archaeological digs (Pompeii, a palace that is still standing in Palermo today).

I learned much reading it, what I had to look up to explain to students (about Goethe’s Italian Journal, one of Sontag’s sources). There are characters whose name she never uses: Sir William’s name appears, but he is most often called the cavaliere, Emma is occasionally Emma, but mostly the cavaliere’s wife, Nelson is always “the hero,” Goethe “the poet.” The point is to make us keep distance so we see this individual (however convincingly presented because of their idiosyncracies, there are no stereotypes here) as a type living today. The king reminds me of Trump. The (landscape artist), Tishbein (Goethe’s friend), the painter, David. Winckelmann is there, the philosopher, but what we hear about is his sordid death (a homosexual, he invited to his room a street male whore and was murdered for the money in the room).

So much learned detail of all kinds went into the book I couldn’t begin to explicate it. The novel is like DuMaurier’s anti-war and war is again seen from the woman’s point of view. A lot of the present action takes place in the palace in Palermo during the revolt against the Naples king and queen, and the brief republic that was set up – Parthenopean as I said), the ODNB retells that tragic disaster for the republicans and decent people briefly – January 1799 to middle summer 1799. Napoleon had successfully invaded in 1795 and for a while put his relative on the throne, then a deal was hatched and the Naples royality went back, the French gov’t of 1799 invaded again and this time set up a republic; but then Napoleon’s forces deserted and the reprisals taken were ferocious. Those who’ve seen the opera Tosca have been introduced to the monster head of police and torture, Baron Scarpia who did run a network of spies during this era. Angelotti– former consul, the painter, Cavaradossi — Sontag enjoys bringing in semi-fictional characters from other historical fiction works which is what the opera is,

At one point the characters are holed up in the palace of a Palermo aristocrat. Try hard as I did I could not identify who this Duke was, probably an Orsini (not Colonna), member of Patagonia aristocracy, a wealthy clan not gone from this earth even now; Goethe visited and described the villa. You can visit it today – much has been looted and is in museums. Villa La Baghera, east of Palermo. The place still exists –- this worship of objects as numinous is central to touring. Some of us might do some touring this summer – me too. I’m not exempt: we do an odd thing when we tour: we go to see something that is circled as super-special or why spend so much money and trouble to see them. We endow them with ideological magic forgetful of all the suffering and circumstances of other people at the time around these rich people who owned or made or had made these beautiful things, all these other people which made these things possible.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us about his or her life from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. for myself I’ve felt that death defines life as we know it; we are ever aware how short our lives are, so a book where death is not taken seriously (where characters come back as in science fiction) must at some level be silly. I’ve changed that view. Time-traveling and the bringing back of a dead person, not as a revenant (sheer ghost) but presence of themselves are fantasy conventions that can be instruments for creating sudden illuminations. More pragmatically, I learned about another 18th century woman writer: Fonseca Pimentel is the center of a historical novel I will get to when I return to my Italian: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91).

Settings include specific houses in Naples, London, the English southern counties, back to Naples, Palermo, we even go to Merton Place, the last idyllic house Emma created for her and Nelson to live out their lives together in. I said just about all the pictures including the cruel caricatures are pictures that really existed or exist still. Such things help us recreate the past. Single great lines by the narrator, single moments that strike us (probably why the book reminded the woman in my class of Tom Jones).

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I offered some history and brought into class the magnificent book that was published as an accompaniment to the art exhibit that resulted from this book: 1996: Vases and Volancoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection, ed Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan. I passed it around the class so everyone could see some of the objects described in The Volcano Lover, and pictures of the semi-famous people. Sontag’s book shows us the circumstances surrounding these objects, and the privileges and deprivations of the people who owned or made them. The idea is to prevent cleaned up versions of what happened (ironically as in this book or exhibition) that mattered. I’m reading a book on the Highland clearances before I go see the battlefield of Culloden this August in Inverness, Scotland. Before I went to Leeds, England oh so many years ago I was told to read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.


Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted Emma Lady Hamilton as a Sybil (a Corinne) — Sontag thinks that LeBrun was half-mocking Emma here and either Emma didn’t realize this or didn’t care

Emma was famous for her “attitudes:” enacting goddesses in type roles until she grew very fat. A woman painter, Vigee-LeBrun also painted Emma as Ariadne – she was abandoned on an island by Theseus. Sontag remarks: “never in all the portraits made of her, was she depicted so patently as a courtesan (meaning whore).” I note Mrs Trump is no longer as scared to show skin; at first she was trussed head and hand to toe, not now.

There’s a rare superb biography (not condescending, not salacious) on Amy Lyon with Horatio Nelson as a secondary subject by Colin Simpson. Emma Hamilton’s birth name was Amy Lyon. Her mother was Mary Lyon and she was illegitimate. Impoverished people. She is said to have been very beautiful – 18th century taste. Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh was one of the first young squires in Cheshire to “protect” Emma, Simpson called him “an archetypical wicked philandering squire — he taught her to ride and introduced her to Charles Greville the heartless nephew of Hamilton; Greville was the one who taught her the surface manners of upper class life and then offloaded her onto Hamilton. But it was she who created (fashioned if you will) herself into a courtier; it was she who kept the Queen of Naples contented with Hamilton, she who organized fetes, she would brought Merton Place in her and Nelson’s very few months together in England. She couldn’t spell very well, but she was eloquent. In her desperate last years when she was living in hovels fleeing the creditors’ bailiffs, she wrote Featherstonehaugh (it took a lot of pride swallowing) and wonderful man sent a present of game (how good of him) and promises of more and maybe a visit to his house (that would have helped) “when times were quieter” (meaning he too worried lest he would offend). She was enormously good-natured. So many relatives were in effect vindictive and they were so lest they might have to pay her something that was intended for her. Others who said they were on her side (very like people jumping on the Trump bandwagon) could not be bothered to do anything lest somehow somewhere it hurt their interest. After all she was she: Mary Lyons’s bastard daughter and who had she been? and they couldn’t have gotten away with it but for the debtor’s laws, and I had two sentences in mind as I closed the book.

As a character in the book: very able, finds passages in texts that are wanted, writes to the Queen – she rose because she was bright, pro-active –- late in life a good hostess for Nelson and very motherly to him. The improbable couple. The thin crippled man, the heavy tall full-bodied woman. She is blamed for spending – get this. Like people on medicaid are not supposed to want white teeth like others. How dare they? She’s blamed for keeping Merton when the wise thing to do was sell immediately (her last home, made for Nelson and herself, from a raw downtrodden place into a pretty farm house, with gardens, cost a lot) but her way of how she survived so luxuriously and with upper people through life was to always keep the parade up. In her closing letters she is keeping it up with her clearly half-delusional upbeat lies (some would say looking through rose-colored glasses, others how brave and gallant)


Most depictions of Nelson are reverential (so leave out his missing arm, shoulder, eye, damaged legs, that he was so short) or they are caricatures so we might as well have this idealization: it’s a detail from Nelson imagined deeply in thought before a window and the battle of Trafalgar

Nelson: the key here is he was originally lower class; he rose through the ranks quickly in war and the two identified with one another. He was vulgar and poorly educated except insofar as his technical educationin the navy. He and she shared tastes. Each time he had a defeat he was in danger because he had few familial connections. That he died young prevented any of this from coming out. Simpson is continually showing us how the historians have distorted and got what happened wrong, and without saying so explicitly as with Sontag exposes the viciousness underlying the worship of great heroes. He’s (Simpson) is not having any of this naval genius applied to Nelson: it was the psychology of the man (coming out of his lower class origins, his ambition, his continually asserting himself with these rewards against insecurity), reminding me of a couple of mad-dog (I allude deliberately) confederate generals who were similarly early wounded and killed. Very nervy, very daring. Side issue: he was so short – like Napoleon. Nelson begins in the book on p 188. He vaults into their lives. Thumbnail sketches of people scattered through out the book, so how he looked when Emma first saw him as envisaged by Sontag; then how he looked another time. Sontag does not take sides the way DuMaurier does though we may infer her horror at Nelson’s support of the King and her detestation of the queen whom all recognized for what she was.

But “the hero” was treated very badly apart from when out of this wild risking of his and everyone else’s life to win a battle, this extraordinary daring when (to revert to Tolstoy) he realized inspirited the man to fight wildly, desperately, heroically (if we must use such words): time and time again he is snubbed; he is promised big payments which never come. Property which never materialized. He has no connections which matter. He is small awkward and his accent like Emma’s) never disappears: he likes her because she is of the lower class like him. He did leave her adequate money but the trustees and lawyers refused to pay out on all sorts of invented grounds. This part of Emma’s life reminded me of the plight of Charlotte Smith. Don’t be a woman in this world.

I didn’t omit Sontag herself. She is in her book. She was celebrity among a subset of of “in” people in New York City in the 1970s through 90s. A celebrity is someone who is famous because they are famous – much awe and silly amounts of ink or electrons are now dedicated to this topic; TV celebrities are famous because they are famous: they are just the types those who watch TV during the day want to identify with. Arts-in people who know everyone who writes for the New Yorker. She was better than this intrinsically: a writer of real depth and originality and her series of non-fiction essays have been very influential – not given the credit Foucault is because she’s a woman and not French. Against Interpretation. On Photography, Illness as a Metaphor – expatiate; Regarding the Pain of Others – expatiate. A political activist: active against the war in Vietnam, against colonialism as practiced by (among others) the US. She became infamous for a short while after 9/11 when she said, well what do you expect? You go around repressing social democracy, bombing people, training death squads, backing dictators and especially killing and destroy the chances of middle eastern people (especially young men). Not a good moment to bring this out.

As with DuMaurier, there is a complicated personal life and unusual, she made it by unconventional paths, not through her high degrees, getting tenure, giving papers but by the force of her personality and people she became closely associated with – as editor, fellow writers. She is said to have thought of herself as a novelist but her fictional corpus is very small -but then her non-fiction essays are not long either. Volcano Lover is her longest book. She wrote “an acclaimed” novel” in the 1980s. The Way We live Now, about AIDs Sontag’s parents were Jewish NYC, father died and mother remarried US army chaplain Nathan Sontag. She said her mother was distant and cold; they lived in California; her career begins when she goes to the University of Chicago where she graduates with a BA at age 18. She married Philip Rieth, father of her beloved son David; divorced after 8 years . Basically she got into circles of influential people, original thinkers, studied German. She went on for a Masters in Philosophy. Lived in late 1950s in Paris – – she said most central time of her life. She wrote and directed four films,Lady from the Sea, Alice in Bed. Bisexual and last long-time lover and partner was Annie Leibowitz; hence we have many photos and hence her book on photography. A role model, she died in 2004. she had had cancer twice before, but it came back raging Illness as metaphor came from the first bout when she had breast removal and painful bone operations – about how people treated her when they discovered she was mortally ill.

The life of Sir Wm Hamilton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is excellent and justifies Sontag’s choice. He took the post in Naples, collected Emma; Nelson too, patient, tolerance, brilliant use of an access to wealth – he was not a fabulously wealthy man like his cousin, Beckford. The nephew, and his heir, Charles Greville, cold, coolly selfish, passed Emma along to William.

Hamilton, as a character very good natured well meaning intelligent man, generous too, kindly. what’s the irony? He supports such vicious regimes. King of cups in the tarot pack Puma says. The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power – R.H.Tawney. I don’t know who said;  “Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced.” I liked him but should we like him? – look at his behavior to Jack, to his wife Catherine. He seems to have been more taken with Emma than she with him. Entranced with her youth and beauty. His detachment suited her purpose. There is his obsession with volcanoes: by gathering things, and information he gains power and thus prestige. He counts, he matters, he is meaningful. Towards the end of the book when Wm is dying with Nelson and Emma by his side, he confuses Nelson with Tolo, his one-eyed valet (whom he calls Cyclops) who climbed up and down with him but is killed in Ferdinand’s disastrous march on Rome – anything that king did was a disaster – utterly incompetent cruel narcissist. There’s a pathos in Hamilton remembering him with such fondness late in the book

Charles Greville – selfish narrow cold mean – lots of people like this – a monster if to take care of yourself first and foremost and all that takes it is to be a monster. Both Hamilton and Greville left diaries, letters, sales catalogues, wills. Nephew and heir. Probably if I knew more about tarot cards and the pack we’d find another skein of allusion. He is Knave of cups. To jump to late in the book, Emma’s mother summing up Charles: she is ever saying all is for the best (in the best of all possible worlds). Many of Hamilton’s letters are to Charles: instructions, directions. We’re told he went after widows.

Catherine Barlow whom Sontag attributes a number of the central insights in Hamilton too left very little. As many women did and Sontag has her express relief that she will not be laughed at.  Queen of cups. Great pathos. It’s that she loves him and seems also to die of no one paying attention except for Beckford. The parallel character is Jack, the monkey – who I said was my favorite character.  I liked Harriet Fitzgerald best of all in Tom Jones. One woman in the class said the book reminded her of Tom Jones, only we didn’t have the supposedly rational narrator to fool us.

Hamilton watches Catherine die (pp. 113-16) the narrator moves forward in time about what Hamilton cannot see. I like to be taught new things: I never considered how powerful it is to have a character who is dead brought back and comment on him or herself – which is the ending of the book. New function for ghosts.

Her monologue at the end (375-80) He left her alone too much, she was not a hermit, she didn’t go to the court because she didn’t like falsity at court. When dead she thinks to herself he is remembered as the husband of his second wife, she not at all. 

The Queen of Naples peculiarly mean and vicious; we are shown during the rebellion, it matters who is in power to the powerless and vulnerable. She comes into her utterly selfish own. At one point Sontag remarks that the well-meaning are just unspeakable naïve and easy to destroy. The peasants supported the idiot king.

Sontag moves in ways that allow her to zero in on specific moments and live them fully from within and without – like the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Begins with how The Cavaliere keeps the king company and Emma, the queen. They write letters. And suddenly we are in Maria Caroline’s mind and her worst fears, her nightmare (and unadmitted to guilt): she would (rightly) be butchered. Both of them have a need for female friendship (as did Antoinette with her ladies) – she imagines herself carted away, beheaded (p. 132) – of course during this time her sister was and we have David’s cruel picture of Antoinette at her journey’s end – the two of them grieve (p 134) – we move to the volcano, then an allusion to a famous book by Elias Canetti: Auto-da-fe.
 

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Susan Sontag makes me think of Umberto Eco: a critic and essayist who turns himself into a novelist but remains a critic and essayist. Her book like DuMaurier’s is also l’ecriture-femme: the cyclical structures, the topics or subjects, the point of view, real inwardness (more than DuMaurier in KG). One of the online YouTubes of Sontag has her discussing fiction with John Berger: his and her books are about what we see, and the ethics of seeing, what is it we are seeing in this photo in this depiction of pain, how do we judge central states of our being when we refuse to recognize as natural like illness and death. Illness is not the nightime side of life. Sontag says we tell stories to give value to a life; that we long to see taboos violated; that you can tell in written form what you cannot say orally. Fiction is often moralized fantasy.

From the Savanna Illinger lecture: Sontag’s looks especially at the ethics of representations of other people’s pain. Sontag asks of a text, Does it advance our understanding of the real, denounce that which conceals human misery, substitutes sentimentalism (shallow feeling, not rooted in anything really felt). But can art make us understand the reality of another person’s suffering? If we understand, the text is still not functioning ethically unless feeling is translated into action. (A high standard here; I think it’s enough to make another person think and feel morally, recognize what is ethical, and one can then hope this will influence him or her.) For Sontag the trouble with photos (and nowadays we must add videos) is they acknowledge but do not explain. Art must create and explain the conditions that make for sympathy for those who have been victimized, ridiculed, their lives wrecked. In The Volcano Lover Illinger thinks Sontag was interested in the political consequences of egoism (the characters are all egoists). Did their art or knowledge or science contribute to a just society? For the 18th century significant moments were just before the horror falls; it seems audiences now want to experience the trauma of violence, of indignity. Sontag is not sure this helps, but she writes a book offering this latter.

To return to the course comparison of DuMaurier and Sontag: we had two fine examples of historical fiction, both by women, both anti-war. The book far truer to experience, and thus more serious, is The Volcano Lover, but both very much worth reading and studying, talking about, writing about. I was told by women in the class that most of them had not heard of The King’s General; it is one of her novels that have fallen out of public memory (there has been no film to date), so I was glad that I had assigned it. The closest non-fiction memoir I could compare KG to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (an extraordinary book).


Daphne DuMaurier around the time Vanishing Cornwall was published

Ellen

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