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  • Remakes, Outtakes, and Updates in Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover

Our friend Sir William is well. He has lately got a piece of modernity from England which I am afraid will fatigue and exhaust him more than all the Volcanos and antiquities in the Kingdom of Naples.

—James Byres to the Bishop of Killala, 14 June 1786 1

The “piece of modernity” in question was Emma Hart, formerly Emily Hart, formerly Emy Lyon, recently arrived in Naples after having been dispatched from London by her erstwhile protector Charles Greville in an attempt to exchange the financial burdens of supporting her for the financial rewards that might accrue from a lucrative marriage. The marriage Greville anticipated for himself did not take place; the one he never contemplated did, though, as Emma became the wife of his uncle William Hamilton on September 6, 1791. In so doing, she, whom nephew had dangled before uncle as “a modern piece of virtu,” 2 one more beautiful item to add to Hamilton’s antiquarian collections, became more than just a companion whose status had been sanctioned legally and whose name could be prefaced with the title “Lady.” She became the heroine [End Page 117] of a romance, peculiarly modern perhaps in that her virtue did not hinge on her virginity (which was long lost), but certainly romantic in that the wedding between low-born servant girl and plenipotentiary of British royalty both confirmed the prospects presented in Pamela’s fiction and anticipated those socially unequal liaisons, such as that between William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, that later would occur in fact. (And that was before Nelson ever entered the picture.)

That Byres, an art dealer, should refer to Emma as a “piece of modernity” in particular is most appropriate when considering Susan Sontag’s re-telling of her story in The Volcano Lover, for Sontag-from whose vocabulary the word “postmodernism” is noticeably absent-professes 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” (Cott 49), the very period during which the marriage between Emma and Hamilton and her subsequent affair with Horatio Nelson took place. But that Byres’s fears should focus on the possible exhaustion that Hamilton’s piece of modernity might exact upon a significantly older benefactor unintentionally raises questions about literary exhaustion-a distinctly postmodern concern-with respect to any contemporary re-telling of the story of the Hamiltons and Lord Nelson as a romance, to cite the subtitle that Sontag appends to her historical novel.

Such distinctly postmodern concerns about literary exhaustion, moreover, are not the only ones that link Sontag to a cultural phenomenon she never identifies by name. Admittedly, different postmodernisms exist for different postmodernist commentators (the, by now, de rigueur caveat by which the work of each is prefaced); that being the case, many of Sontag’s remarks nevertheless conform to almost every defining element upon which commentators agree as basic assumptions. Her evolutionary conception of aesthetic forms, in which “exhausted” forms are periodically “replaced by new forms which are at the same time anti-forms” (Against Interpretation 180), actually predates John Barth’s 1967 and 1980 pronouncements on exhaustion and replenishment respectively. Her rejection of grand narratives, whether exemplified in the myth imposed by Lévi-Strauss upon all cultures over all times or the single scenario by which the North Vietnamese understand their entire history (Against Interpretation 79; Radical Will 219), is no different from Lyotard’s repudiation of totalizing systems. Her view of images that [End Page 118] displace the reality of their referents, as illustrated by photography’s “hyping up the real” (On Photography 169), virtually duplicates Baudrillard’s simulacra (not to mention his wording). And if her tracing the production of those images within advanced industrial societies does not duplicate Fredric Jameson’s wording in quite the same manner (he would prefer multinational), her proposing that “freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself” (On Photography 178–179) as the ideological upshot of a proliferation of images corresponds completely with his diagnosis...

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pp. 117-139
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