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Susan Sontag’s Funny! Sexy! Sad! Magnum Opus Threatens to Upend Our Democracy

‘The Volcano Lover,’ published in 1992, celebrates ideas of excellence and intellectual seriousness that today feel ancient

Blake Smith
January 23, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

In a 1985 essay on Susan Sontag, her friend the translator and poet Richard Howard noted that one of Sontag’s preferred techniques of fiction was the mise en abime—the repetition of forms and elements such that “the story is inlaid within the story.” These doublings and digressions-in-digressions suggest an “infinite regress” that thwarts such conventional pleasure of reading as moving forward step-by-step toward an assured ending—or even knowing exactly what’s going on and who is whom. The technique of mis-en-abiming, Howard argued, was logically accompanied by tactics of hybridization and fragmentation that Sontag, along with writers she admired like Donald Barthelme and Guy Davenport, had learned from the French critic Roland Barthes, who in his last works (translated by Howard) broke open genre conventions in texts partaking of memoir and essay, organized, or disorganized, around arbitrary clusters of themes, by a craft of disorder.

Sontag’s sentences, too, were crumbly, short, and disjointed, tending toward aphorism and separated by a certain degree of parataxis, following the pattern of Barthes, Emile Cioran (also translated by Howard) and other postwar European “masters of the elliptical and the oblique.” Behind these figures stood the higher, or deeper, master of European intellectual modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche. Howard, who had known Sontag for decades, recalled that in the early ’60s he’d spotted scrawled on her notes for a talk “NIETZSCHE—my hero!” like an adolescent writing the name of a crush.

Seven years later, with the publication of her novel The Volcano Lover (1992), Sontag showed that she was capable of something much more worthwhile than another whirl of European decadence—a brilliant, polyphonic, moving (often funny! sexy! sad!) work in which different thoughts and different forms of writing play—like the voices of her characters and multiple narrators—together in a pageant, an opera of a book.

If her earlier work, as Howard insisted, was Nietzschean in its aphoristic fragmentation and resistance to simplicity, here it became Nietzschean in its sensuous vitality, its celebration of a solar pagan Mediterranean, chthonic sexual power, and baroque violence—the world-devouring, greedily enjoying sweep of the novel, which in its scale and variety and richness almost seems to reconcile (and reconcile the reader to) all the contraries of life—pleasure and seriousness, aesthetics and politics—only, at last, to remind us such reconciliation only happens in fiction of genius, and perhaps not even there.

As she explained in a 1992 interview, given a few weeks after The Volcano Lover’s publication, Sontag didn’t mean to write a proper novel. Her initial vision had been a set of semi-essayistic excursuses of the sort Howard had described, meditating on the archetype of “the collector,” already familiar from her (boring) essay on Walter Benjamin (who continues to be a favorite thinker of a certain sort of terminally dull American intellectual). These musings were to hang on a highly intellectualized (that is, emotionally attenuated) adaptation of the story—to be kept carefully in the far background—of an infamous love triangle among British expatriates at the court of Naples during the Napoleonic Wars. William Hamilton, ambassador and renowned collector of antiquities; his mistress Emma, admired for her innovative “Attitudes” in which she posed as classical heroines; and Horatio Nelson, future victor-martyr of the battle of Trafalgar. The menage had scandalized public opinion back in Britain, with Emma in particular celebrated in lusciously fleshy paintings by George Romney and viciously satirized in popular caricatures as a fat alcoholic tramp.

Sontag meant to dry this material out into something bare as the narrative of a Robbe-Grillet novel (or her own unreadable first fiction, The Benefactor), making it a mere pretext for passages on collecting, the French Revolution, and other topics on which she could easily opine. The novel was to end with a phrase “damn them all,” condemning the members of the triangle as spoiled, self-involved elites who had been unable to understand the historical events in which they participated. They had taken, of course, the wrong, counterrevolutionary side; they were not as smart and serious as Sontag.

Fortunately, Sontag’s own talent and sensitivity got the better of her—part of her genius was to outthink her own plans and opinions, to be carried ecstatically past their limits, to achieve something—with brilliant success—she would never have set out deliberately to do. She found herself, as she put it, “falling in love with her characters,” whose story became the center of a text that became not only a real novel, but as she subtitled it, quite unironically, “A Romance.”

The Volcano Lover represented a real ethical education for Sontag, who, as she told her interviewer Michael Silverblatt, had learned not to approach her material (or, it might be said, her readers—or her own passions) with “condescension.” The desire for intellectual mastery, the modernist conceit of insistently showing that fictionality, linearity, representation, etc., are after all only writerly devices, was, she came to recognize, a defense from the truly experimental, transgressive, and wild possibilities inherent in apparently more conventional or traditional forms of fiction: that we might, in letting our imaginations pursue the energies of some invented personage, find ourselves revealing in them our own multiple, contradictory, unreconciled possibilities.

Unpromisingly, The Volcano Lover begins with a series of stubby, chopped sentences, spoken by an unidentified narrator in an uncertain time—characteristic, as Howard observed, of Sontag’s previous attempts at fiction:

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.

It sure is! The awful ding-dong rhythm, the irritating address to a second person (you), the baroque, tasteless word choice (the crowd is sloppy, vulpine and larking). If it weren’t Sontag writing, no one would keep reading.

It turns out after a few more paragraphs of rubbish that we are in “Manhattan, the spring of 1992,” and that the flea market full of questionably interesting junk is a metaphor for our postmodern culture and its accumulated debris of previous eras. This is already a figure as old as Eliot’s fragments shored against my ruins, and as sententiously dull here as it was in The Waste Land.

Soon we are introduced to the late-18th-century collector, Il Cavaliere—stand-in for William Hamilton—who is obsessed with antiquities (like the narrator in the flea market) but also, as the novel’s title prepares us, the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, which looms over and periodically threatens his ambassadorial appointment in Naples. The narrator’s introduction to him also starts in fragmented little sentences roughly juxtaposed, periodically interrupted by pseudo-philosophical digressions in the same disjunctive, tedious style (Collections unite. Collections isolate. They unite those who love the same thing.), which, however, begins soon to breathe, expand, and indeed erupt.

The first eruption, some 30 pages in, is a fart. Il Cavaliere, as ambassador to Naples, must attend the backward, reactionary monarchy’s monarch even in his most private functions:

The King is on the toilet. Breeches at his ankles, frowning as he strains, his fundament spluttering. Although twenty-four, he is fat, fat. His belly, striated like his wife’s (who has already gone through six of her eventual tally of seventeen pregnancies), rocks from side to side on the immense porcelain chaise percée. He had pawed his way through a copious meal, pork and macaroni and wild boar and zucchini flowers and sherbet, that had begun over two hours earlier. … Oh my gut! (Groans, farts, sighs).

That this novel was written not to be The Collector (its original title—until Sontag discovered there was already such a book by John Fowles), a set of small digressive curiosities presided over by a gray and unemotive consciousness, but The Volcano Lover, an explosive narrative about the release of dangerous forces, is thus royally trumpeted.

More explosions follow. Vesuvius, of course, and political crises (a revolution on the model of the French in Naples, brutally suppressed by the Neapolitan king and his British allies, in acts of mass and singular atrocity flamboyantly recounted), and passion. The Cavaliere’s first wife, Catherine, a pious, self-controlled, genteel woman, admired by all for her propriety and kindness, becomes enamored of a fictionalized version of William Beckford, the British aristocrat who fled from England after being caught with a boy, and then, as Sontag recounted in a vivid, flowing sentence:

In the north of south, he re-created the same scandal, from which he was again obliged to flee: a passion for the fifteen-year-old son of a Venetian noble family, the prompt discovery of which by another irate father had got him driven from the city and hurled down the chute of the peninsula—into the Neapolitan fascination, the Neapolitan torpor, and into Catherine’s lonely heart.

Catherine, initially drawn to William by a love of music, is soon delighted “to have someone to be sensitive with.” He awakens her erotic longings, and they go, as it were, cruising together: Parented by William’s lustful stage, she let her own glance linger on the ripe mouth and long dark lashes of a bare-chested young blacksmith. For the first time in her life, when too worn, too old to seduce, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of young men. (Sontag perhaps drew on experience of playing both Catherine and William; Richard Howard related after her death that in the ’70s she would dress as a man and slip into “these rather extreme” gay bars, “The Anvil, The Toilet, those places.”) The body’s explosive demands—sexual, scatological—break us open to experiences ravishing, grotesque, bitterly ironic and crudely funny. The body also returns us, disappointingly, to our own fading charms and shortening lives, able to hold so little of the beautiful world.

But the mind can take in beauty without having to seduce it—and, better, can invent beauties for its own delight. Sontag’s readers are treated to a feast as varied and rich as the king’s dinner—scenes of love-making, dying, storms at sea, revolutionary and counterrevolutionary mobs, palaces full of grotesque statuary, parties at court, and a final, dazzling series of short monologues in which four of the characters tell us what they think really happened, concluding with the posthumous diatribe of a Neapolitan revolutionary who saw her short-lived Jacobin republic crushed by the British Empire in support of the farting king, backed by the Cavaliere, his mistress and her lover the admiral, concluding of them, as Sontag intended from the start: damn them all.

Instead of feeling like a final word, a snap of the lid of the box to which the author has returned the dolls she had played with for a moment, damn them all, and its revolutionary speaker—the voice of political justice who reminds us that these characters lived at the apex of a cruelly hierarchical society in which the vast immiserated masses lacked the most basic necessities (one of Sontag’s darkly Rabelaisian scenes shows a starving crowd tearing apart live, bleating animals offered to them by the king, who finds the spectacle hilarious)—reach the reader with genuine anguish, because we, like Sontag, have learned by the end of the novel to love its characters.

The Vesuvian eruption of revolution—which, the narrator insists, began doomed, coming too early in history, the very model for a “revolution that doesn’t stand a chance”—threatens the three lovers’ world, from which they and we had been taking so much pleasure. Their revenge on the revolutionaries and defense of their privileges is itself a moral catastrophe. We leave the novel stunned.

Commenting on the novel’s final phrase, one of our usually most stimulating contemporary critics, John Pistelli, makes the following mistake:

This leads us to the novel’s politics ... The leaders of the republican revolt were enlightened elites … get[s] the novel’s last word from beyond the grave on the reactionary lovers at its center: “Damn them all.” Meanwhile, the spies and torturers of the stupid, crass Bourbon monarchs are abetted in slaughtering the intelligentsia by the filthy and bloodthirsty mob … Sontag therefore refurbishes left-liberal politics as the prudent province of the intellectually deserving elite against backward rival elites and especially against the tasteless dregs and scum of the lower orders. All in all, a startling prophecy from 1992 of what American politics would become in the second and third decades of the 21st century.

For Pistelli, we should read The Volcano Lover as a proto-Never-Trump warning against an alliance of the counter-enlightenment mob and such reactionary aesthetically inclined elites as the Cavaliere, who thus figures as some lost figure from Dimes Square. This bizarre misreading is born from not only the ubiquitous demand to transpose our present-day, provincially American political misfortunes onto every other era and text, but also from an assumption that this or any novel has a politics, which they no more have than they have a geology.

Novels, if they are any good, if they are novels at all, confront multiple characters, perspectives, voices, discourses, ideas, to make us feel their validity and vitality, and then release us back into the world where we can no longer be a spectator and vicarious enjoyer but must bear our own multiple, riven, self-antagonizing character. If the novel was truly great, it may have changed that character in the transformative play of its constitutive pleasures and discords.

Sontag’s characters are undone by encounters with beauty and political violence—which, as its revolutionary last speaker insists, is itself a romantic passion (I saw beauty and my eyes were put out … justice is also a form of love). And they are condemned repeatedly, not only by the last character to speak, but by the narrator, repeatedly, less for their conservative political stance than for their inability to reflect on what their pursuit of beauty means, to take the changes that it wreaks on them seriously—seriousness being the watchword of Sontag’s worldview.

In the novel’s central scene, years before the Revolution, Goethe visits Naples. For several very funny pages he annoys the Cavaliere and Emma with his ponderous, Teutonic, self-satisfied genius, while thinking to himself that these frivolous people understand nothing. And both were right, the narrator insists. On the level of a comedy of incompatible characters, each of them is playing a risible role.

Then Goethe is the guest of honor at a party thrown by the Cavaliere, which becomes (here Sontag’s earlier experimental techniques are put to good use) a digression set in some fantastical present at a party thrown by you:

You, one of the guests—or better, the host—make light of this scowling presence. You try to be charming. He refuses to be charmed … He continues to contradict what is said to him, to make plain that he is not amused. And he can’t really get your attention. You flit from guest to guest. For a party is not a tête-a-tête. A party is supposed to reconcile its participants, to conceal their differences. And he has the bad manners to want to expose them … You can’t both be right.

Suddenly, instead of all characters being somehow right and somehow wrong, comically different and each entitled to their unique and partial perspective as revealed by the novelist, the character of you the reader is attacked for treating the novel as a dinner party in which various points of view may be sampled like petits fours. Now fiction does not reconcile, it accuses. Goethe “reminds the revelers of the existence of another, more serious way of experiencing,” and Sontag turns on her reader as if to say, Idiot, you must change your life.

Is this seriousness the novel’s moral, its true politics? Was all this enjoyment a ruse?

The body’s explosive demands—sexual, scatological—break us open to shattering experiences—beautiful, grotesque, bitterly ironic and crudely funny. The body also returns us, disappointingly, to our own fading charms and shortening lives, able to hold so little of the beautiful world.

Seriousness shadows Sontag. In his shallowly psychologizing popular biography of the author, Benjamin Moser often figures “two Sontags,” one a sensitive, brilliant public intellectual, the other a cruel, needy, private woman. But there is only one, united by the quality evinced in her public work and private diaries—a morbid, narcissistic, humorless pomposity that Sontag’s admirers in the present, from Merve Emre to Tobi Haslett, like to call, flattering both her and themselves for having it, seriousness.

On one page of her diary written during the Volcano Lover years (1990-92), for example, Sontag wrote two comments, perhaps at different times, divided by a double line. In black ink: I feel—as a Jew?—a special responsibility to side with the oppressed and the weak. In blue ink, below: [memory of Philip—Jan. 51] 2 days after a marriage—he makes a mess of opening soft-boiled eggs in cup, shatters (instead of shears) shell—she is repelled.

The first sentence relates to the political positions Sontag took as an intellectual, which ranged from a Jane Fonda-esque visit to Hanoi in the ’60s, where she hoped for the victory of the courageous and patriotic North Vietnamese over the reactionary American empire, to her calling, 30 years later, on that same empire to rain death on Belgrade to save multicultural Bosnia from nationalist Serbian aggression. The apparent shifts from a youthful radical leftism to a mature globalist liberal imperialism are (like the apparent difference between the left and liberal center more generally) only the contingent expressions of a half-secularized religious sentiment, the sense that by virtue of one’s membership in a particular group equipped with a special degree of moral sensitivity, one cares for the whole of humanity by giving special attention its most abject members, whomever one declares them to be (who in America remembers Bosnia today? Who remembers Black Trans Lives?).

This is, of course, not a uniquely Jewish sentiment: Sentimental liberal philanthropists and radical ideologues of every ethnic and religious background share some form of this only seemingly paradoxical combination of universalism (we care for anyone who suffers) and chauvinism (no one cares for them as much as we do). This posture of self-aggrandizing aggressive moralism is, in its seriousness, equivalent to the glowering contempt that Sontag remembers herself at 17 pouring over her new husband, Philip Rieff, as he clumsily wrecked his soft-boiled egg. The thought What a loser, in private life, generates none of the imperial pity that the public intellectual can lavish on the losers of history. Masculine incompetence dries up the milk of kindness no less than the loins; no one wants to save or screw the floundering husband.

There are not two Sontags—outer humanist and inner bitch—at play here, just as there is no chasm between her earlier leftism and later liberal humanism. There is only one serious, demanding thinker taking upon herself the privilege—the responsibility—to judge everyone’s morality, capacity, and standing. The humanitarian savior and the household shrew, the Marxist and the champion of American aerial campaigns, bear the same face of the sovereign judge. Goethe at the dinner party, Sontag at the breakfast table—the boot of seriousness in our face forever.

In pages close to this double entry, Sontag had written: I’m tormented by feelings of scorn, indignation, rage for those who don’t pay attention, don’t care about getting it right, don’t make an effort, don’t honor the better, the best. Her seriousness was a hatred of weakness that sometimes disguised itself politically and morally as pity for the unfortunate. Nietzsche, famously, reviled pity for being such a guise. Sontag admired Nietzsche, however, not in order to put all his own prejudices into practice, but to undergo some stranger ascesis. Our admirations are often rather a mode of self-contempt, or at best a bridle on essential attributes we perhaps mistake for excesses and vices.

The humanitarian savior and the household shrew, the Marxist and the champion of American aerial campaigns, bear the same face of the sovereign judge. Goethe at the dinner party, Sontag at the breakfast table—their critical boots in our face forever.

If Sontag’s foreign policy expressed a world-bestriding will-to-power as care for the oppressed, she was in her sympathies not much more of a liberal democrat than Nietzsche himself. Those who don’t pay attention—the incompetents who shatter their eggs—are after all, if you hadn’t noticed, the vast majority of our fellow citizens. Pity is perhaps after all the safest thing to feel for them, the outward, decent face of our indignation (they are too stupid to help themselves and their oppressors are too stupid to stop oppressing them).

“A great artist is always separate,” she wrote toward the end of her diary, continuing: the purpose of art is to create reconciliations on a different level from democratic compromises. On the ordinary, everyday level of life, where our idiot husbands (whom we married too young and will have to divorce soon) shatter their eggs so contemptibly, we have to put up with a great many compromises because of other people’s inability to attend seriously to what they’re doing. We have to get along with them, even as they circulate opinions about people, events, and books they haven’t understood, haven’t bothered to know they haven’t understood.

Democracy (unlike revolution) is a dinner party, at which real seriousness would be a catastrophe. People in a liberal democracy hold and exchange opinions about religion, morality, sexuality, politics, and art that—if we cared about them at all—would put us at each other’s throats. Who can tolerate hearing what he cares about denied or denigrated, or merely discussed with confident ignorance? Our constant noisy disagreements about the supposedly most important things end in reconciliations rather than insuperable conflict because we care so little about God or beauty or the common good that we can treat what we say to each other about these things to be nothing but a verbal pastime. Censorship, like civil war, is an outbreak of seriousness—and tolerance the virtue we make of our not caring enough to get things right.

We have to live at the level of democratic superficiality, Sontag suggests in her diary, except for those moments when, withdrawing into the solitude of art, we can feel the call of each contrary: justice against oppression, order against chaos, beauty against ugliness, intelligence against mediocrity. Art provides us, in its intensities, a vision in which all the vitalizing, opposing delights of life could be held at once, or at least successively, without destroying each other and the individual life that would contain them all—in it alone we have the feast of opposites. But only the genius who separates herself from democratic mediocrity can labor even toward this temporary vision.

The narrator of The Volcano Lover seems to deliver us this moral (this politics?):

We like to stress the commonness of heroes. Essences seem undemocratic. We feel oppressed by the call to greatness. We regard an interest in glory as a sign of mental unhealthiness, and have decided that high achievers, who are called overachievers, owe their surplus of ambition to a defect in mothering (either too little or too much). We want to admire but think we have a right not to be intimidated. We dislike feeling inferior to an ideal. So away with ideals, with essences. The only ideals allowed are healthy ones—those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine possessing.

But to tell us this, Sontag interrupts—with comic effect—the Hero’s attempts to tell Emma about a dream he’d had, or rather a dream he was making up to seem more interesting to her, thinking all the while to himself: What the devil does someone dream? Had he forgotten how to converse with a beautiful woman?

Set in the middle of the Hero’s romantic fumbling (he and Emma have not yet slept together), the narrator’s aside, and its smugly pompous critique of democracy, is thus relativized, made to seem the voice of a particular, perhaps equally humorously bungling character, rather than of a universal, impersonal intellectual authority. Authors too often seem to be the latter, to be giving us in their fictions some ultimate teaching, rather than characterologically appropriate statements from an imaginary, fallible figure called “the narrator.”

Just as Sontag’s love for her characters kept leading her beyond her own self-conscious aesthetic practices, so too does it give her in Volcano Lover an unaccustomed freedom to be funny (although her poor narrator has a page-long digression on how, as a woman, she finds it very hard to tell a joke!). This humor, which lies in the sudden movement from one perspective to another, allows the condemnatory voices of the narrator, the revolutionary, and Goethe to be seen as arising naturally from their own, limited, points of view. It suggests that we too, all of us, even serious geniuses, must appear from some other perspective to be ridiculous.

The Volcano Lover is Sontag’s battle with anti-democratic seriousness, as well as with her earlier, withered style of fiction. After all, if Sontag were only the much-vaunted serious thinker, she would have been a tiresome, bitter writer, an eternal college student speaking from the authority of yesterday’s trip to the library, a lonely child trying to act very grown up. At her worst she was these people, as indeed often are today her worst and most famous admirers. But just as her prose could—and in The Volcano Lover often did—dazzlingly transcend Howard’s (by no means inaccurate) description, so could she, her thinking and writing self, glow with vivifying friction between seriousness and comedy.

The greatness of The Volcano Lover is that, more deeply than any of Sontag’s previous emaciated pseudo-fictions, it is riven by the violence of thinking that alternately rejoices in the richness of the world and condemns its inadequacy. Here Sontag, because she is a genius, whose seriousness wrestles with love of others and contempt for itself, reaches a pitch unimaginable to present-day humanist liberal essayists-novelists who would be her heirs. In a recent essay calling for the end of woke political fiction and a revival of “aesthetic” writing that presents readers with unlikable characters, for example, the essayist Garth Greenwell—who missed a career as a Sunday school teacher—argues that novels provide “moral education,” and almost hits on what Sontag understood.

Revisiting Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater, he insists that it teaches us how to love its unlovable protagonist. Learning to sympathize with such figures is a moral and political task:

for finding another intolerable and at the same time cherishing their existence, is deeply uncomfortable and urgently necessary. Because, at least in part: what’s the alternative? What do we do with people who refuse to act in accordance with our standards, our sense of decency, who have no interest in being reformed? Lock them all up? Exterminate them?

To which one must say, yes, of course, you fool—that’s what we do with such people! Politics is what we call killing them.

Luckily, not everything is politics, at least to that fatal degree. Most of the people we claim to find “intolerable” are merely annoying, just as much of the “violence” wokes complain of is merely verbal unpleasantness. We do not take our everyday dislike of other people seriously enough to make it political—that is, generating a deadly degree of enmity. Even when we speak of minor slights as “microaggressions” and pretend to invest them with political significance, we (or most of us) hardly mean to have each other jailed or killed for them (although it is telling that Greenwell imagines we do, that there is little gap between finding someone personally unbearable and beginning a campaign of extermination). It is perhaps a point to be scored in favor of democratic unseriousness that we can live in it disagreeing with and even despising each other without resorting to violence, even when we speak stupidly to each other of our disagreements as if they were “violence” (no one, notably, is calling for the extermination of essayists who write with “intolerable” stupidity about violence). But seriousness and politics—and thus the possibility of killing—inevitably return whenever someone so “refuses to act in accordance with our standards” that they really threaten us. No novel will educate us out of having to exterminate our real enemies—that is, out of the threat of politics.

Greenwell urges readers to learn to love Roth’s Sabbath, and thus to learn to overcome cancel culture and its shrill moralism: Had I turned my back on Sabbath at his first indefensible act, had I canceled him or blocked him or deplatformed him, had I cast aside the book as terminally problematic, I would have missed much that has felt useful to me, in the not-quite-articulable way art is useful: the sense of life, of manic energy, the texture of existence and the terror of the abyss …

Then retreating from his demand for readerly empathy, Greenwell concludes by revising his point, saying that art should address the monstrous, that much of the moral office of art might lie in making us identify with the monstrous—identification not as consolation but as indictment, presumably of ourselves. We should learn to identify with bad characters—this should be the point of fiction—it turns out, in order to improve our powers of condemning the badness they represent, of purifying ourselves more thoroughly for having confessed the darkness inside us. The unwoke novel Greenwell promotes will be in the end more thoroughly moral and political than the woke literature he rejects, showing us complex, morally ambiguous characters on whom to practice the skills of first empathy and then indictment.

The Volcano Lover might sound like a novel Greenwell would promote, full of manic energy, a sense of life, textures, terrors, and abysses. It never lets us forget for long our imperative to indict others and ourselves (to live, as a human being, is to judge, even if we are only judging our own seriousness, trying, wrenchingly, to suspend for a moment its unbearable cruelty as it tells us to revile our husband for mishandling an egg). But our identifications with its characters and our reelings from its indictments never settle into Greenwellian lessons in liberal tolerance for imperfect people. Sontag warms us into sympathy with a varied humanity, while demanding a moral and intellectual excellence chilled with inhumanity. Rather than loving the debased person as “monstrous” and leading him, at least in the readerly imagination, back into society (enriched and enlarged by its newly extended power of tolerance), she argues that genius is monstrous—and threatens, in the novel’s peaks of intensity, to upend society on its behalf.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.