Write About An Other



Remembering Susan Sontag's Final Days
Katie Roiphe on the Legendary Writer's Will to Survive

If there is anyone on earth who could decide not to die it would be Susan Sontag; her will is that ferocious, that unbending, that unwilling to accept the average fates or outcomes the rest of us are bound by. She is not someone to be pushed around or unduly influenced by the idea that everyone has to do something or go through something, because she is and always has been someone who rises above. Nonetheless, right before Christmas, she is lying in a bed in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, doing something that very much appears to those around her to be dying.

One night she and her friend Sharon DeLano stay up late listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets in her hospital room. Sontag is very doped up. She is in a good enough mood to tell Sharon one of her favorite jokes. “Where does the general keep his armies?” Sharon answers, “I don’t know.” “In his sleevies,” Sontag says, smiling.

The next day she is much more sober. When Sharon arrives, Susan is reading the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s juvenilia and they watch two movies together. Sharon has to press pause frequently, because Susan is talking through the whole movie, adding commentary and glosses.

Sontag’s third cancer comes into focus when Sookhee Chinkhan, her housekeeper, who’s been with her for over a decade, sees bruises on her back when she is drawing her bath. Sookhee works for Susan five days a week, cleaning, cooking; there is a running chatter between them that other people are bewildered by.

The diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, which leads to a particularly virulent strain of blood cancer, comes in March 2004. In the weeks afterwards, Sookhee notices that sometimes she says, “Wow wow,” and closes her eyes. Susan tells her it’s the pain. Continue reading...


Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the dispatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


from Homage to Catalonia,
by George Orwell

In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table.

He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gaz- ing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the offiicers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend – the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist. There were both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors. Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat. I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone – any man, I mean – to whom I have taken such an immediate liking. While they were talking round the table some remark brought it out that I was a foreigner. The Italian raised his head and said quickly:


I answered in my bad Spanish: ’No, Inglés. Y tú?’ ’


As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.

I mention this Italian militiaman because he has stuck vividly in my memory. With his shabby uniform and fierce pathetic face he typifies for me the special atmosphere of that time. He is bound up with all my memories of that period of the war–the red flags in Barcelona, the gaunt trains full of shabby soldiers creeping to the front, the grey war-stricken towns farther up the line, the muddy, ice-cold trenches in the mountains.

This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.

From Reading Lolita in Tehran
by Azar Nafisi

I was making tea when the doorbell rang. I was so preoccupied with my thoughts that I didn't hear it the first time. I opened the door to Mahshid. I thought you weren't home, she said, handing me a bouquet of white and yellow daffodils. As she was taking off her black robe, I told her, There are no men in the house - you can take that off, too. She hesitated before uncoiling her long black scarf. Mayshid and Yassi both observed the veil, but Yassi of late had become more relaxed in the way she wore her scarf. She tied it with a loose knot under her throat, her dark brown hair, untididly parted in the middle, peeping out from underneath. Mayshid's hair, however, was meticulously styled and curled under. Her short bangs gave her a strangely old-fashioned look that struck me as more European than Iranian. She wore a deep blue jacket over her white shirt, with a huge butterfly embroidered on its right side. I pointed to the butterfly: did you wear this in honor of Nabokov?


Heel & toe to the end

Gagarin says, in ecstacy,
he could have
gone on forever

he floated
ate and sang
and when he emerged from that

one hundred eight minutes off
the surface of
the earth he was smiling

Then he returned
to take his place
among the rest of us

from all that division and
subtraction a measure
toe and heel

heel and toe he felt
as if he had
been dancing

-- William Carlos Williams


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George Orwell

When I set out a few years ago to write a book about Americans in the Spanish Civil War, one of the pleasures I looked forward to was the excuse to re-read, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, one of my favorite books, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. His memoir of fighting in that war is one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century. It vividly evokes the mixture of grime, boredom, and terror of his combat experience, and is a bravely honest account — something his readers on the left absolutely did not want to hear when Homage was published in 1938 — of the bitter factional fighting within the Spanish Republic.

Homage holds up. Its eloquence feels as forceful as ever; and it’s the book where Orwell first fully found his voice as a writer. Learning more about the war, however, made me respect him even more than I had, for he was a man who was not afraid to change his mind. Continue reading...

George Orwell in Spain, Where He First Fully Found His Voice, By Adam Hochschild