First Anniversary Of The Death Of Susan Sontag

(translation from Chinese by Bei Ling (貝嶺); the original is posted here)

On December 31, 1926, Russian poet-in-exile Marina Tsvetaeva was in her Paris suburban apartment and wrote a final letter to the recently deceased Rainer Maria Rilke, a letter that he would never receive.  The letter began thus:

Do you think that the year will end with your passing away?  Will it end?  It is just the beginning!  You yourself will be the new year.  (Dear, I know because you read my letter earlier before I wrote you that letter) -- Rainer, I am crying.  You are gushing out from my eyes!"

Will this year also end with your passing away?  Might I also ask you like Tsvetaeva?  Can I quote her letter to express my sorrow.  Can I say?:

Susan, I'm crying.  You are gushing out from my eyes!

December 28, 2004.

I was living in Taipei.  I was alone.  Joyless.  I was emotionally unsteady that day, for no reason.  No.  I had a sense of foreboding.  It was cloudy that day.  I was in the misty rain by Tamshui river that night.

Next morning (on the night of December 28 in the United States), I turned on the computer and got on the Internet.  I went into the email.  A mail from the United States: "Bei Ling, your friend Susan Sontag passed away today, December 28, ..."

I was overwhelmed by the bad news.  The past came back to me like a stormy ocean.  A day before, the South Asian tsunami brought deaths in a disaster.  Your life, and many other lives.  Late at night (in early morning of December 30), I wrote my elegy:

"This morning, I was told: Susan Sontag is gone.  I am shocked, I cannot believe this, I cried, I am left alone and I remembered."

December 28.  Why this date?  (This day is also my birthday).

She had leukemia.  She had stayed in a hospital bed in Seattle for more than half a year.  She had vanquished other kinds of cancer.  I thought that she would do so this time as well.  But she left us on this day.

She spent her life defending quality and taste in literature.  She rigorously scrutinized fashion and she rejected boorishness and vulgarity.  She was a sentimental person, she was a flower of passion, she was graceful, progressive, wise, beautiful and intelligent at the same time.  She was an indefatigable explorer of the human experience and humanistic spirit.  She was a warrior against national corruption, power corruption and human corruption.  She was a true citizen of the world.  Her concerns transcend national boundaries, territories, culture, politics, ideology and race.

She was my true friend in time of need.  My dear friend, my benefactor (in August 2000, she worked hard to get me released from a Beijing prison), my literary and philosophical tutor and patron (during the past four years, she provide assistance and advice about my life in exile and writing) and she demanded me to be my best just like my mother did (my degeneracy, laziness, stupidity and confusion at the time).

She has gone.  She has really gone away.

I can no longer hear her perceptive, magnetic, sometimes leisurely and other times hurried, voice.  At the number that I have called innumerable times -- it still goes through -- it seems that Susan's voice was still there.  The answering machine is miraculous.  I can even listen to her voice asking people to leave a message.  She is still there.  I am waiting for a return call.  At this moment, and it is at this moment that I realize that I can no longer visit her, I can no longer call her, I cannot ask her for help, I cannot discuss and debate with her, I cannot hear her say her favorite "Listen! Listen!".  I cannot listen anymore.

She was a true warrior in fighting against cancer.  She fought against cancer in the second half of her life.  First, it was breast cancer.  Then it was uterine cancer.  Finally, it was leukemia. Alone, she faced so many diseases that could have destroyed her will to live, so many chemotherapy treatments and so much pain unimaginable to outsiders.  She was a truly strong person, and she never told me how hard it was and she never discussed her cancer.  Even when we met right after she got healed, she would not speak of it.  She pitied others and she loved people.  But does she not need the pity, comfort and care of others?

Perhaps I am not her true relative, perhaps I am only her junior, perhaps ...

I am pained that I began writing about her only after she is gone.  Why did I wait until she has gone that I began to read that new book and to read all the books that she has written?

In my life, there is more than one thing that I regret.  But the most unforgivable thing was that when she had leukemia, I did not go out to visit her in Seattle.  I knew that she had just been awarded the Swedish Royal Order of the Polar Star in appreciation of her exceptional contributions to human life.  I wrote a letter of congratulations, but I received a reply from Susan's assistant Anne: "Susan is seriously ill and she cannot reply to you.  She has acute bone leukemia and has been under treatment at a Seattle hospital ..."  I was astonished and I had a premonition.  I replied immediately and I requested to visit her in Seattle on the way during my trip to Taiwan ten days later.  But she asked her assistant to thank me for my best wishes but she told me not to bother.  She told me not to be concerned and wait for her to recover and she said that she will be back in New York City soon.  She wanted me to meet her in New York City in late December when I return from Taiwan.

I was dim-witted, and I was convinced by her persistent optimism and fighting spirit.

I am mourning.  But mourning is also remembering, and there are many levels of remembrances.  There are too many regrets placed side by side in the memories.  Just like in the deceased Derrida's elegy of the late Paul de Man: "To recall the memories is to recall the responsibilities."

At this moment, this essay of words for her being, this essay of the survivor remembering the deceased of how the deceased instructed the survivor and will continue to do so, is the responsibility of the survivor -- following the expectations of the deceased, the survivor will continue to live on with that spirit.

To please her -- a wonderful mind.

The proud -- and therefore not liked by many but beloved by a few during his lifetime -- Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once humbly described the English poet W.H. Auden who rescued him from a totalitarian prison camp: "Everything that I write now is to 'please a shadow.'"

So all I can do and will be able to do will only be: to be less conscience-stricken -- according to her straight and direct guidance -- about the lessons that she taught me.

Was I destined to meet her?

I began my exile in 1992.  I had received US$10,000 in aid.  I got a room in Boston where I lived and worked and I lived on US$200 per month.  I began to launch the "Tendency" magazine along with Meng Long, She Tao and others.  I was bold enough to write her my first letter, with the plan for "Tendency" magazine being attached and I asked for her support and listing as an editorial advisor.  She replied quickly to state her acceptance.  She corrected what I wrote in my letter about her being a 'writer' and 'critic.'  She wrote that she was a 'fiction writer' and 'essayist.'

I think that was how our friendship began.

Later on, I thought that the Chinese intelligentsia knew very little about Walter Benjamin and his works, we decided that the inaugural issue of "Tendency" would be a special issue on Benjamin.  For this, She Tao translated from the English edition of Benjamin's One Way Street.  At the same time, with the concurrence of Susan, her 1980 essay Under The Sign Of Saturn about Walter Benjamin was translated.  This essay was, and still is, the best source through which I understand Benjamin.  Thus, Benjamin and his works became the spiritual tie in my long friendship with Sontag.

Although I had been updating her periodically about the progress of "Tendency", it was only later in 1996 that she invited me to drop by her house.  That was the first time that we met.

It was an afternoon in spring.  I was afraid that my English would not be good enough to deal with this master of the English language.  So I invited a young scholar, Ms. Tian Xiaofei who is now teaching at Harvard University, to support me.  We went looking for the place in lower Manhattan, until we found Sontag's brownstone building on 23rd street in the Chelsea district.  We called the doorman, we were admitted and we took the small and narrow elevator up.  She was waiting by the door.  She was tall, dressed in black clothing and black pants, warm and just as beautiful as I had seen in the previous photographs.

Was this my 'pilgrimage'?  That year, she was 63 years old.  We went into her spacious penthouse.  On the wall, there were dozens of  dazzling framed paintings of the deceased Italian architect and artist Giovannia Battista Piranesi.  She led us into the kitchen, which served to be a meeting room with guests.  At the end of the kitchen was an open door.  Outside the door was the roof veranda that surrounded the entire apartment.  It was impressive and breathtaking.  She led us to the veranda, from which we can looked down the Hudson River shimmering in the sunlight and we could also see the Manhattan skyline with the tall buildings.

We sat down by the long dining table.  As she made coffee, she asked us if we minded that she smoke.  Afterwards, she brought us coffee.  She sat down, she subconsciously put one leg on a chair, she lit a cigarette, she drank the coffee, she tilted her chair backwards a bit, she smiled and she asked about China and everything that I was doing.  Through the cigarette smoke, she would look at us sharply.  It was overawing blended with a certain kindness.

On that occasion, we discussed what happened during her trip to China in 1973.  She corrected my wrong impression that she was born in China.  She described herself as being 'made in China' by her parents, but she was physically born in the United States.  She spoke about the special meaning of China for her.  She had a firm tie to China and she wished to go to China again.  She described the details of how her father passed away in Tianjin.  

I asked her about her recent writings and other work.  She spoke about the novel in progress, she spoke about her plays, critical essays, book reviews and short stories.  This included everything in literature except poetry.  She knew that I wrote poetry.  She said that she wrote poetry too, but she was not satisfied (Does she have high standards for the quality of poetry?  She told me: "The only form of literature that I lack is poetry.  I feel that my poems are not good enough."  At that moment, she had an expression of refusing to admit defeat) and therefore she has never published her poems.  Xiaofei was interested and spoke with her about her research in classical Chinese poetry for her doctoral research at Harvard.  I listened on the side and I could not join in, so I just listened.

At that meeting, she said that she identified with the ideals and quality of "Tendency".  She began to care about "Tendency", a Chinese literary magazine that is exiled in an environment with a different language and that attempts to create its own theoretical and literary concerns.  At the same time, she paid attention with a great deal of interest and even great worries about my efforts to go back to China with this publication.

Each time that I returned from China, I would call her to let her know that I am safe.  I am accustomed to calling her Susan, I told her about all the dangerous and exciting adventures in China and she was worried about me.  Each time that we were both in New York City, we would try to meet.  She usually suggested that we go to eat in Chinatown, but I would rather go to her home, drink coffee, talk, look at her collection of books and paintings or watch the Hudson river from her rooftop veranda.

When we met, she would observe my physical and mental state and she was always worried.  I usually told her that China was becoming more and more tolerant about alternate beings like me as well as publications with literary ideas.  But as she wrote: "When he brought his magazine back to China and distributed it amongst the students and literary circles in Shanghai and Beijing, I was always worried.  But just as before, when we chatted in New York City the last time, he promised me that the Chinese authorities tolerate the existence of this magazine and that he would be in no danger ..."

More than once, always in the afternoon, I sat with Susan on the long bench in her kitchen.  She leaned against the dining table, and she smoked while she spoke to me.  She quoted and cited and she talked non-stop . Her breadth of knowledge often made it impossible for me to follow her ideas, but her breadth of knowledge also made it possible for her to understand the deep meaning behind my poorly expressed and confused English.  I am usually trying to bring up questions about things that I don't know, I wanted to hear her talk about what she knew and provide deep analyses of those great writers such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Russian piety, Russian poets Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandestam and Joseph Brodsky.  I asked her about contemporary American writers.  I told her which books of her I have read, I asked her about her recent experiences in Yugoslavia and the details of her experience in directing Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot in the midst of gunfire in Sarajevo.

She has unique and straightforward views.  For me, listening to her speak was much more important than her asking me.  It was a great opportunity for me to listen to a great writer expressing her views, but she would always be asking me about what she wanted to understand.  She wrote in the same essay: "During our acquaintance, Bei Ling wanted to talk about Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, as well as my Sarajevo days, but I wanted to talk about the possibility for literature, film and independent expression in China today."

She agreed to the request to have a special issue for her in "Tendency" and scheduled for an interview of her by me.  It would be a significant occasion to have a complete presentation of her ideas and literary works to the Chinese-reading world.  Susan personally selected the essays for that special issue.  She provided almost all of the English material for that special issue, including the first chapter of her unfinished novel In Amerce, her childhood visit to Thomas Mann in Pilgrimage (60 years later, she could proudly stand in the company of this great literary artist that she once admired), selections from Illness As Metaphor and On Photography, the short story The Way We Live Now and the famous interview in The Paris Review.

There was a short interlude, but it was unforgettable as recounted by my friend Chen Jun.  In August 1997, before I was going to interview her, Chen Jun said that he wished to meet with Susan.  As I was coming down from Boston and I was worried about delays on the road, I called Susan a day before and I asked for a postponement of the interview by two hours.  Susan said it was okay.

Chen Jun was living in New York and I left a message on his answering machine to tell him that the meeting was postponed and to meet me downstairs at Susan's place.  But he showed up at the originally scheduled time.  When the guard called up, "The visitor is here.  Can he come up?"  Susan was surprised.  She asked for the name of the visitor and then for him to be sent up.  She invited the visitor in, they exchanged names but she was somewhat upset.  She said: "Bei Ling arranged for me to meet at 330pm.  Why are you here early?  I am working right now.  Please stay here and read some books, go to the veranda or whatever."  After saying that, she returned into her study and left Chen Jun alone in the kitchen.  Chen Jun was somewhat embarrassed, because he wanted to talk to Susan.  After a while, he saw Susan's ashtray and knew that Susan smoked.  So he thought up an excuse.  He went to her study, knocked on the door and asked if Susan could give him a cigarette.  Susan said: "Of course."  She gave him a cigarette.  As he lit up, Chen Jun asked a deliberate question: "Susan, are you a person who lives according to an arranged schedule?"

This deliberate question made Susan laugh.

"Of course not."  Susan then put down her work.

"Then can I speak with you?"  He asked again.

So that was how he started to talk with Susan.  Half an hour later, Chen Jun apologized to Susan: "I have to leave early ... I'm sorry.  I have to leave early."  When she heard that, Susan laughed and said: "Of course you have to go.  It must be something more important than talking with me."

Susan was a serious and demanding person.  I faxed the questions of my interview to her.  She read it and told me: "These questions are too shallow and not up to standard."  So I had to do my homework again.  I also invited another Tendency editor Yang Xiaobin who was studying for a doctorate in literature at Yale University to go with me.

On that afternoon in August 1997, Xiaobin took me in his car at Yale and we headed straight for Susan's home in New York.  His appearance probably made him looked like a college senior.  As she made coffee for us, she told us that she was staying in New York City this summer in order to concentrate on writing the novel In America.  As always, we sat around the long table in the kitchen.  I took out the tape recorder and started to record as the interview began.

The interview was completed with Susan's eloquent statements, or even in a debate.  We covered broad areas but we focused on the common themes that concerned us: the role of intellectuals in history, the understanding about 'vanguard literature and vanguard writers," the relationship between tradition and innovation, the so-called post-modernism, the influence of Nazism, Communisms and capitalism on Europe and China, etc.  Finally, we went back to the old subject about her writings, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, as well as her days in the battle lines of Sarajevo that had been reported about broadly.

During the interview, she was sharp, intelligent, direct, clear-headed and incisive in her remarks.  Concerning the subject of 'intellectuals', I argued with her and stated the dissident spirit of "intellectuals" while citing the case of Vaclav Havel and his views.  But she criticized me for glorifying the role of intellectuals in the twentieth century.  She cited stupid and evil deeds committed by intellectuals in contemporary history and she told me: "Most intellectuals are like most people.  They follow the mainstream.  In the 1970s under Soviet Russian rule, most intellectuals were supporters of the Soviet Russian authorities.  Perhaps the most exceptional intellectuals were not supporters, but they were only a small minority.  Why else were there Writers' Association, Artists' Association, Musicians' Association and other similar organizations?  Even Boris Pasternak and Dimitri Shostakovich wrote affirmations.  When you equate intellectuals with the opposition, you are overpraising the intellectuals.  In the previous century and in this soon-to-be-completed century, intellectuals supported racism, imperialism, class divisions, sexism and other disgusting ideas.  Even when what they support may be judged by us as progressive ideas, they may undergo qualitative change under different circumstances."  Undoubtedly, Susan rigorously scrutinized what intellectuals actually do.  She was nimble, clear-headed and she can comprehend by analogy.  I could not win against her in a debate.  As it turned out, she was also right.

Susan was definitely eloquent, even overwhelming.  She condemned those cowardly writers and that was why the interview had those incisive responses.  She hated that so-called post-modernist stuff and she dissected those theoretical post-modernist games.  She said: "What people called 'post-modernism' is nihilism.  Our culture and politics have a new kind of barbarity and vulgarity and they have a destructive effect on meaning and truth.  Post-modernism confers a legitimacy upon these barbarity and vulgarity.  According to them, there is no such thing as meaning and truth in this world.  Obviously, I disagree with this point ... when I hear about any terms that uses 'post-' as the prefix, the first question that I ask myself is, 'Since when did people begin to like these new and strange ways to describe reality?'"

Later, she pointed out clearly: "The term post-modernism emerged from architecture.  It had a very specific meaning ... But the term post-modernism went beyond architecture.  When it began to appear for all the arts, it was misused."

She re-emphasized: "In my view, the use of 'vanguard' has far exceeded its scope.  This term implies that art will progress continuously.  In a military operation, some people move out first and the others will catch up in the end.  But while art progresses continuously, this is not how it moves.  Therefore, I do not feel that I have any connection with the vanguard.  I do not call my work vanguard literature.  I do not call any of the contemporary work of any writer that I admire as vanguard work."

For those intellectuals or political figures that she does not like, she held no bars back and she was merciless in her criticism.  She rebutted the sarcasm directed at her by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.  She called him: "... the most cunning contemporary nihilist.  He had never been to Bosnia and he has never experienced any war.  He is totally ignorant about politics.  Apart from his own vicious imagination, he knew nothing about what I did in Sarajevo."

Everyone in European intellectual circles knows who Baudrillard is, and about his meanness and acerbity.  When he touched upon Susan's sore spots, Susan countered immediately.  Baudrillard was perhaps wise, but he under-estimated Susan's courage.  He may not know that Susan did not enter a war through words on paper, but she was a cultural warrior who was actually in a danger zone and a scene of disaster in which real bullets were being fired.

During the interview that day, Xiao Bin quoted the cruel statement by Bardrillard against Susan, which roused her anger.  She re-emphasized: "The most vicious part of Baudrillard's attack against me was that he relied completely on imagination.  He said that I was 'condescending.'  Actually, he was exhibiting the typical 'condescending' attitude that Europeans typically show towards the Sarajevans in Eastern Europe.  He guessed that I must be thinking that I am bringing to the Sarajevans something they had not previously understood.  But in a city without electricity, without water, without heating and without food, in a city where every moment was spent with the threat of death by gunfire, there was somehow a theater in a city besieged by the enemy.  The small theater which was lit up by candlelight was one of the few forms of entertainment (there was no television, no night life, no sports and no operas).  Beckett was well known in the former Yugoslavia.  The reason that they chose to stage Waiting For Godot was because they knew the play.  In the summer of 1993, Waiting For Godot was staged not as a gesture made in haste.  I had decided to stay in Sarajevo for a while (not just one day, not just one week, for sometimes for several months in a row), and I had organized several different programs.  Waiting For Godot was only one of them.  Later, I was in and out of Sarajevo for three years."

When Xiaobin attempted to use the viewpoint of an observer to speculate about her time going in and out of Sarajevo, she sarcastically asked: "Observer?  Where does an observer come from?  From a cafe in Paris?  Or an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts?  If you have been to Sarajevo, or if you have been to any place where everyone had to endure the same suffering, there would not be such a cynical or na´ve question.  If someone sees someone else trip in the street and helps them get up, would you think that their relationship is savior and saved one?  This kind of nonsense description is the kind of talk that challenges generous actions today.  Nobody is the savior and nobody is being saved.  When a people is being victimized unjustly and you insert your own life into it, it means that you are their ally."

This was an exciting interview.  Susan was awesome.  The power of her ideas was unforgettable.  Of course, I also experienced Susan's sharp tongue, the sharp tongue of a "combative aesthetician."

Later on, we made some additions to the questions and we sent them to Susan.  She edited them and then mailed in her response.  This interview and the Susan Sontag special were published in the tenth issue of Tendency.  At the same time, it was also published in overseas, Taiwan and Hong Kong newspapers.  The important Chinese cultural magazine "Tianya" also published it after excising those sensitive sections concerning the analysis of totalitarian control and its impact in China.  Nevertheless, that interview has created an impact in Chinese thinking.  Undoubtedly, that interview will become an important document in understanding the ideas of Susan Sontag.


(Salon.com)  My dinner with Sontag.  By Val Wang.  January 5, 2005.

I had gone out to dinner with her for exactly the opposite reason. I was 25 and an aspiring writer, living in Beijing and cobbling together a living as a freelance journalist. When I came back to New York for my yearly visit in 2000, I got in touch with a friend from college, whom I will call Sting. Sting worked for "Susan" as a personal assistant and he invited me to an evening film screening and meal with him and his famous boss. Of course I said yes.

This would be my initiation into New York literary life. I admired Susan Sontag for writing boldly about the things I felt only men were allowed to write about: Big Ideas, the European canon, history. And she looked striking doing it. Perhaps some of her erudition, or her verve, would rub off on me.

After the movie, which turned out to be an interminably long and sad Hungarian film that she enjoyed very much and I found soporific, the three of us walked toward the East Village. Susan was intimidating. Her presence was just as penetrating as I had imagined it would be, her mane just as thick and flowing. Each sentence she uttered with complete conviction.

"This. Is. A. Good. Sushi. Restaurant," she said as we descended the steps of a small place near St. Mark's Bookshop. I wouldn't have dared contradict her.

The dinner started out smoothly. We shared a large order of sushi, the glistening slices of fish sitting perfectly on their wooden slabs like tiny pigs. Sting and Susan talked familiarly as I interjected the odd comment. China was the only thing I knew anything about, and I clung fiercely to that small sureness like a drowning man to a life raft. Midway through the meal, Susan turned to me and asked what I did. I said I was a freelance journalist in China, hoping that we could just trade some meaningless chit-chat about China.

"So you must know about Bei Ling?"

"Who?"

"He's a poet who was recently arrested there. He lives in the States and when he returned to Beijing to distribute magazines, was jailed for several weeks."

I had never heard of him. The major Western Internet sites -- CNN, BBC, the New York Times -- were blocked in China, limiting my access to news. I had been working without an official journalist's accreditation and so I had stayed away from thorny political issues, preferring to write articles about the demise of traditional Peking opera, and tampon companies making inroads into the Chinese market.

To my frustration, I found that there were only two stories that the Western press wanted to hear about China: the economy's meteoric rise and the government's oppression of its people. The iconic image of a lone man standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 had not been replaced by a more complex portrait of China in 2000 in all of its contradictions.

I hesitated, not sure whether I should lie or not. I decided to adopt the know-it-all machismo of my new profession. Why lie? I was going to stand my ground.

"No," I said, "I hadn't heard about that."

"You're a journalist and you haven't heard about that?" she asked, an edge creeping into her voice.

At that point I should have just apologized for being so ignorant, but guilt and pride and all manner of human folly intervened, so I said, "Oh, um, ahem ... that's kind of dissident news ...um ... "

"What?""Dissident news. When you're covering news in China, you don't generally pay that much attention to the arrests of dissidents ... um..."

My hands and voice were starting to quiver like jelly. I put down my chopsticks.

"Why don't you?"

That arresting Sontagian stare you see emanating from book jackets and the pages of magazines? It had leapt off the page and was boring into me from across the dinner table. Her voice was low and commanding like a man's, transforming her question into an order. She was ready for a fight, and to my surprise, so was I. If only I could break my habit of transforming declarative sentences into questions.

"Well, dissidents just don't seem relevant sometimes?"

Sting tried to step in. "Maybe also you can't read that kind of news in China?"

"The Western press should be covering that kind of story," Susan said.

I was getting backed into a corner; the next thing I knew I would be defending the Chinese government.

"I don't know why I didn't see the story," I said, backing down. "I'm just saying that there are bigger stories in China?"

She sensed my weakness and went in for the kill.

"So, you're saying that the jailing of this poet isn't important?"

I gasped. Susan Sontag was going to sit in a sushi restaurant in the East Village and tell me that the fate of this dinky, two-bit poet who lived most of the year in the States was more important than, say, the plight of the country's 800 million farmers? The hubris!

"No. But in the grand scheme of all of the problems that China faces, I guess I'm saying it's not. China has a lot of big problems that the Western press doesn't cover. Poverty. You know, corruption," I said, racking my brains. "Environmental devastation." I looked over at Sting for help. He was drawing his finger across his throat.

We went back and forth for a few minutes, neither of us budging, before Susan turned away and ignored me for the rest of the meal. I tried to pick up my chopsticks but my hands shook too violently to lift even a single piece of sushi, much less choke it down.

We parted ways after dinner. Sting helped Susan get into a cab, and then he and I walked to the subway.

What a mortifying initiation into New York literary life. My petty insecurities had made me look like an ass in front of the most famous person I had ever had dinner with. I took solace in imagining that I had joined a pantheon of great minds who had locked horns with Susan Sontag.

"Do you want to know why she got so angry?" Sting asked.

"I don't know, do I?"

"She was personally involved in getting that poet out of jail. She and other PEN writers petitioned the Chinese government for his release," he said. "So you were basically taking her to task for being a Western intellectual with an inconsequential pet project."

I started laughing. I had schooled Susan Sontag! Relief washed over me.

She was right to defend freedom of speech, but I was right about China's having more basic and urgent problems. Dissidents might be a sexier sell than farmers, but they weren't necessarily more important.

My mortification began to fade as we walked. Her obstinacy, like mine, had not been fueled by a lofty sense of moral responsibility. We had both been motivated by personal passions and insecurities. And that was perfectly fine. In the end, she had schooled me too.

I live in New York now. When I read about Susan's death, I felt like Luke Skywalker at the moment of Obi-Wan Kenobi's death: a sharp ebbing of the Force. I am still an aspiring writer who swears every other day that I am going to quit news and devote myself to letters. (I try to follow what Susan revealed in her biography as the secret to her success: "I did what all writers do. I went to all the parties I was invited to.") But this past week was one when I was finally glad to work in news. Susan's death came just days after the tsunami hit South Asia. I work at UNICEF as a Web site editor, and I spent long days last week doing the mundane work of news: editing stories, checking captions against photos, making sure the home page did not have too much unsightly white space. The Web site raised millions of dollars in donations. At night I went home and cried.

The depth of my sadness took me by surprise. I tried to weigh the death of one famous writer against the deaths of 120,000 uncelebrated people. The stories sat next to each other on the New York Times Web site and they had the same nonsensical fight that Susan and I had had. Which was more important? Literature or journalism? Ideas or reality? New York or Asia? These were the very things I felt caught between. You couldn't say which was more important. It was simply a very sad week.