Authors: Susan Sontag
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beloved son, comrade
My Cavaliere is Sir William Hamilton's double, a fictional character on whose behalf I have taken what liberties suited his nature, as I have with other historical persons given their proper names. I wish to acknowledge the stimulation given by and information gleaned from the many modern historical studies and biographies as well as from memoirs and letters of the period.
I am grateful to the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), which brought me to Berlin in 1989, when I began
The Volcano Lover,
and again in 1990; to Robert Walsh and Peter Perrone; and, most of all, to Karla Eoff.
(aside): Nel petto un Vesuvio d'avere mi par.
CosÃ¬ fan tutte,
It is the entrance to a flea market. No charge. Admittance free. Sloppy crowds. Vulpine, larking. Why enter? What do you expect to see? I'm seeing. I'm checking on what's in the world. What's left. What's discarded. What's no longer cherished. What had to be sacrificed. What someone thought might interest someone else. But it's rubbish. If there, here, it's already been sifted through. But there may be something valuable, there. Not valuable, exactly. But something
would want. Want to rescue. Something that speaks to me. To my longings. Speaks to, speaks of. AhÂ â¦
Why enter? Have you that much spare time? You'll look. You'll stray. You'll lose track of the time. You think you have enough time. It always takes more time than you think. Then you'll be late. You'll be annoyed with yourself. You'll want to stay. You'll be tempted. You'll be repelled. The things are grimy. Some are broken. Badly patched or not at all. They will tell me of passions, fancies I don't need to know about. Need. Ah, no. None of this do I need. Some I will caress with my eye. Some I must pick up, fondle. While being watched, expertly, by their seller. I am not a thief. Most likely, I am not a buyer.
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.
Why enter? There are many places like this one. A field, a square, a hooded street, an armory, a parking lot, a pier. This could be anywhere, though it happens to be here. It will be full of everywhere. But I would be entering it here. In my jeans and silk blouse and tennis shoes: Manhattan, spring of 1992. A degraded experience of pure possibility. This one with his postcards of movie stars, that one with her tray of Navajo rings, this one with the rack of World War II bomber jackets, that one with the knives. His model cars, her cut-glass dishes, his rattan chairs, her top hats, his Roman coins, and thereÂ â¦ a gem, a treasure. It could happen, I could see it, I might want it. I might buy it as a gift, yes, for someone else. At the least, I would have learned that it existed, and turned up here.
Why enter? Is there already enough? I could find out it's not here. Whatever it is, often I am not sure, I could put it back down on the table. Desire leads me. I tell myself what I want to hear. Yes, there's enough.
I go in.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It is the end of a picture auction. London, autumn of 1772. The picture in its bulging gold-leaf frame stands against the wall near the front of the huge room, a
Venus Disarming Cupid
thought to be by Correggio on which its owner had placed such high hopesâunsold. Thought wrongly to be by Correggio. The room gradually clears. A tall, sharp-faced man of forty-two (he was a tall man for that time) comes forward slowly, followed at a respectful distance by a man half his age bearing a marked family resemblance. Both are thin, with pale skin and cold patrician expressions.
My Venus, says the older man. I was confident it would sell. There was much interest.
But, alas, observed the younger man.
Hard to understand, mused the older man, when the distinction of the picture seems self-evident. He is genuinely puzzled. The younger man was listening with a becoming frown.
Because it grieved me to part with her, I suppose I should also be glad it failed to sell, continued the older man. But necessity obliged, and I don't consider the price I asked too high.
He gazed fixedly at his Venus. Most difficult, the older man went on, now referring not to the difficulty of understanding why the picture had not sold (nor to the hardship of keeping creditors at bay) but to the decision to sell; for I doted on this picture, he said. Then I knew I should sell it and so made myself apt to relinquish it; and now, since no one offered what I know it to be worth and it remains mine, should love it as before, but won't, I wager. Having stopped loving it in order to sell it, I can't enjoy it in the same way, but if I am unable to sell it I do want to love it again. It would be churlish of me to find its beauties spoiled by this misadventure.
What to do? How much to love it? he mused. How to love it now.
I should think, sir, said the younger man, that the only question is where to store it. Surely a buyer will be found. Have I your permission to try on your behalf among collectors of my acquaintance perhaps not known to you? I would be happy to make these discreet inquiries after your departure.
Yes, it's time to go, said the older man.
They went out.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It's the mouth of a volcano. Yes, mouth; and lava tongue. A body, a monstrous living body, both male and female. It emits, ejects. It is also an interior, an abyss. Something alive, that can die. Something inert that becomes agitated, now and then. Existing only intermittently. A constant menace. If predictable, usually not predicted. Capricious, untameable, malodorous. Is that what's meant by the primitive? Nevado del Ruiz, Mount Saint Helens, La SoufriÃ¨re, Mount PelÃ©e, Krakatoa, Tambora. The slumbering giant that wakes. The lumbering giant who turns his attentions to
King Kong. Vomiting destruction, and then sinking back into somnolence.
Me? But I've done nothing. I just happened to be there, mired in my rustic routines. Where else should I live, I was born here, wails the dark-skinned villager. Everyone has to live somewhere.
Of course we can regard it as a grand pyrotechnical show. It's all a question of means. A long enough view. There are charms made only for distant admiration, says Dr. Johnson; no spectacle is nobler than a blaze. At a safe distance, it is the ultimate spectacle, instructive as well as thrilling. After a collation at Sir ***'s villa we go onto the terrace, fitted out with telescopes, to watch. The plume of white smoke, the rumbling often compared to a distant roll of timpani: overture. Then the colossal show begins, the plume reddens, bloats, soars, a tree of ash that climbs higher, higher, until it flattens out under the weight of the stratosphere (if we are lucky we'll see ski runs of orange and red start down the slope)âhours, days of this. Then,
it subsides. But up close, fear churns the guts. This noise, this gagging noise, it's something you could never imagine, cannot take in. A steady pour of grainy, titanically thunderous sound that seems always to be mounting in volume yet cannot possibly be any louder than it already is; a sky-wide ear-inundating vomitous roar that flushes the marrow out of your bones and topples your soul. Even those who designate themselves as spectators cannot escape an onrush of revulsion and terror, as you've never known them before. In a village at the foot of the mountainâwe might venture thereâwhat appeared from afar as a torrential flow is a creeping field of viscous black and red ooze, nudging walls that for a moment still stand, then devolve with a shuddering sucking plop into its heaving front; pushing into, inhaling, devouring, unfastening the atoms of houses, cars, wagons, trees, one by one. So this is the inexorable.
Watch out. Cover your mouth with a cloth. Duck! A nighttime ascent of a moderately, punctually active volcano is one of the great excursions. After the trudge up the side of the cone, we stand on the crater's lip (yes, lip) and peer down, waiting for the burning innermost core to disport itself. As it does, every twelve minutes. Not too close! It's starting. We hear a basso-profundo gurgling, the crust of grey slag begins to glow. The giant is about to exhale. And the suffocating sulphur stench is unbearable, almost. Lava pools but does not overflow. Fiery rocks and cinders soar, not very high. The danger, when not too dangerous, fascinates.
Naples, March 19, 1944, afternoon, four o'clock. In the villa the hands of the big English pendulum clock stop at another fatal hour. Again? It had been quiet for so long.
Like passion, whose emblem it is, it can die. It's now known, more or less, when a remission should start counting as a cure, but experts hesitate to pronounce a long-inactive volcano dead. Haleakala, which last erupted in 1790, is still officially classified as dormant. Serene because somnolent? Or because dead? As good as deadâunless it's not. The river of fire, after consuming all in its path, will become a river of black stone. Trees will never again grow here, ever. The mountain becomes the graveyard of its own violence: the ruin the volcano causes includes its own. Each time Vesuvius erupts, a chunk of the summit is lopped off. It becomes less shapely, smaller, bleaker.
Pompeii was buried under a rain of ash, Herculaneum under a mud slide that raced downslope at thirty miles an hour. But lava eats a street slowly enough, a few yards an hour, for everyone to get out of its way. We also have time to save our things, some of them. The altar with the holy images? The uneaten piece of chicken? The children's toys? My new tunic? Whatever is handmade? The computer? The pots? The manuscript? The cow? All we need to begin again is our lives.
I don't believe we're in danger. It's going that way. Look.
Are you going? I'm staying. Unless it reachesÂ â¦ there.
It has happened. It is over.
They fled. They mourned. Until grief had turned stony, too, and they came back. Awed by the completeness of the erasure, they gazed upon the fattened ground below which their world lay entombed. The ash under their feet, still warm, no longer seared their shoes. It cooled further. Hesitations vaporized. Not long after
. 79âwhen their fragrant mountain, matted with vines, crowned by the forests where Spartacus and thousands of slaves who joined him had sought to hide from the pursuing legions, first revealed itself to be a volcanoâmost of those who had survived set about rebuilding, reliving; there. Their mountain now had an ugly hole at the top. The forests had been incinerated. But they, too, would grow again.