Under the aura of Saturn
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Bei Ling
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Bei Ling's biography and other articles by this writer
On December 31, 1926, from her lodgings on the outskirts of Paris, the exiled Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, wrote a final letter to Rainer Maria Rilke, who had died three days earlier. Her letter began like this: ‘Is this year to end with your passing? You yourself are the newest of years. (Beloved, I know you are in this letter before I write it.) I am crying, Rainer, you are streaming from my eyes.'[i]
In late December 2005, holed up in Taipei on my birthday, alone and joyless in my room, my mind was on edge without cause, or perhaps touched by presentiment. The weather was gloomy. At nightfall I walked along the storm-obscured bank of the Tamsui River. The next morning I turned on my computer and opened my email to find a letter from America: ‘Bei Ling, your friend Susan Sontag passed away on December 28th.'
The day before, a fatal tsunami had descended on South-East Asia. The news from America signalled a mourning period with no end in sight.
Of all the things I regret in this life, the most unforgivable was not insisting on seeing Susan in Seattle in October 2004 when she was suffering from leukaemia. On learning she had won the Swedish Royal Order of the Polar Star, I wrote to congratulate her and received a reply from her assistant Annie: ‘Susan is gravely ill and is unable to answer your letter. She is suffering from acute myelogenous leukaemia, and has been under treatment in Seattle for half a year. Henceforth ...'
I was shaken with foreboding. I immediately wrote to ask if I could pass through Seattle and visit her on my way to Taipei. Susan instructed her assistant to give me a warm greeting, and assured me she would soon recover and return to New York. She wanted me to wait until late December. I let myself be persuaded.
I am in mourning. And mourning is also recollection; a remembrance, in more than one sense, because many traces are lodged in my memory. As the late Derrida said when eulogising Paul de Man, ‘to awaken memory is to awaken responsibility.'[ii] The responsibility of the living is to live up to the departed's wishes, to let the departed's spirit live on. The prideful poet Joseph Brodsky once spoke humbly of the English poet WH Auden (who had rescued him from tyranny), ‘Everything I write is to please a shade.'
MY LIFE IN EXILE BEGAN IN 1992. Having received a grant of $10,000 to establish a journal, with a stipend of $200 a month and a flat in Boston that doubled as an editorial office, I made preparations to put out a journal of literature and humanities called Tendency. Presumptuously, I wrote Susan Sontag a letter, attaching a prospectus and telling her why I wanted to start this magazine. I asked her to support us by lending her name to the board of editorial advisors. She answered quickly, giving her permission. In her letter she corrected our use of the terms ‘writer and critic' instead calling herself a ‘fiction writer and essayist'.
That was how we got to know each other.
Although I kept her informed of Tendency's contents, it was not until one Spring afternoon in 1996 that she invited me to her home for a chat. Fearing that my English was not adequate, I brought along the young scholar Tian Xiaofei to translate and fortify my courage. We found our way from Lower Manhattan, checking addresses along the way to her residence, until we stood before the weathered cliff-face of a building on 24th Street in Chelsea. We spoke to the guard, gained admittance, and rode a small elevator to the top. Susan stood tall and regal in black shirt and slacks, framed in the doorway that served as an entrance to her private domain, waiting to welcome us warmly. I recognised her beautiful features from photographs. Was this to be my ‘pilgrimage'?[iii] She was sixty-three at the time.
Walking into her spacious rooftop apartment, I noticed dozens of framed prints by the Italian artist and architect Giovanni Piranesi. She led us into the kitchen where she received guests; a door stood open, giving onto the long curve of an imposing rooftop balcony with a spectacular view. She took us out on the balcony, from which we could see the Hudson River gleaming in the sunlight and the Manhattan skyline. We sat at her long dining table; she brewed coffee and asked whether we minded her smoking.
She served the coffee, resting a leg on the chair beside her, and lit her cigarette, beaming and pressing me with questions about China and everything I'd been doing.
Her piercing looks through wreaths of tobacco smoke were earnest and at times intimidating. We talked about her visit to China in 1973. She corrected my misconception that she was born in China, explaining that she was conceived there (‘Made in China') but born in the United States. She spoke of China's special significance to her, her deep-seated complex about China and her wish to revisit. She described her father's death in the city of Tianjin. Susan was aware that I wrote poetry, and said that she was also wrote poetry, but unsatisfied with it, kept it from public view. Then Xiaofei turned bubbly and began talking of her doctoral studies in classical Chinese poetry at Harvard. I could not get a word in edgewise, so I sat back and listened.
During our meeting Susan praised Tendency, and began taking notice of its lonely position as a Chinese journal of letters trying to define its own intellectual concerns in the English-speaking world. She took great interest in my obsessive efforts to move the journal back to my homeland.
Thereafter, each time I returned from China, I dutifully called her to report my safe arrival. It was my habit to use her first name when telling her about my brushes with the security apparatus. She worried about me. Whenever I passed through New York, if she was there, we would find a way to meet, she always suggested having a meal in Chinatown, but I preferred going to her place. There I could drink coffee and talk with her, look at her collection of books and paintings, and gaze at the Hudson River from her balcony.
Susan was an unrivalled source of insight. She let you know exactly what she thought. Listening to her was more important for me than answering her questions. She always wanted to find things out from me. She wrote: ‘When we meet, Bei Ling wants to talk about Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and about my time in Sarajevo, and I want to talk about literature and film and the possibilities of independent expression in today's China.'
She accepted my plan to do a special section about her, and we set up a time for an interview. To introduce her thought and works to the Chinese-speaking world would be a significant event and she helped me plan and choose material to include. She provided English manuscripts for every item we chose, including the first chapter from a work in progress – her novel In America. We also chose her memoir Pilgrimage, an account of her girlhood visit with Thomas Mann and chapters from Illness as Metaphor and On Photography, the short story ‘The Way We Live Now', some essays, and her Paris Review interview.