Other People’s Thoughts is a section in the Journal of the China Heritage site. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations put together by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors, during his reading life.
Pierre remarked that the resulting modest volume of quotations was ‘idiosyncratically complied for the amusement of idle readers’ (see Simon Leys, Other People’s Thoughts, 2007). Our aim is similar: to amuse our readers (idle or otherwise); as is our modus operandi: to build up an idiosyncratic compilation, one that reflects the interests of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology and its coterie.
In collecting this material, and by adding to it over time (this is a second instalment in the series), we accord also with a Chinese literary practice in which quotations — sometimes called yǔlù 語錄, literally ‘recorded sayings’ — have a particular history, and a powerful resonance.
The most famous collection of recorded sayings is The Analects 論語, compiled by disciples of Confucius. Then there is the timeless 5000-words of Laozi’s The Tao and the Power 道德經, as well as the Chan/Zen 禪宗 tradition of what in English are known by the Japanese term kōan 公案, dating from the Tang dynasty. Modern imitations range from the political bon mots of Mao Zedong to excerpts from the prolix prose of Xi Jinping’s tireless speech writers, and published snippets from arm-chair philosophers and motivational speakers.
Other People’s Thoughts also finds inspiration in the ‘poetry talks’ 詩話, ‘casual jottings’ 筆記 and ‘marginalia’ 眉批 of China’s literary tradition.
Quotations suggested by members of the Academy and friends are acknowledged by providing their initials in square brackets at the end of the relevant quotation. Thus, John Minford is [JM], Richard Rigby is [RR] and Gloria Davies is [GD]. My selections are unmarked.
The selected quotations in ‘More Other People’s Thoughts’, published below, will be added to the material already collected in Other People’s Thoughts under Projects in China Heritage.
Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. (Susan Sontag, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, 1965)
One of the things that make great artists great is their capacity to escape the confines of their personal lives and speak for us all. (Clive James, ‘Carry on Creating’, 23 July 1978)
O: ‘The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.’ (Bill Hayes quoting Oliver Sacks in Insomniac City — New York, Oliver, and Me, 2017)
Insensibly, he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment. (Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915) [RR]
Among artists without talent Marxism will always be popular, since it enables them to blame society for the fact nobody wants to hear what they have to say. (Clive James, ‘Wuthering Depths’, 8 October 1978)
The Self-silenced Majority
Life in China is saturated with pretense. People feign ignorance and speak in ambiguities. Everyone in China knows that a censorship system exists, but there is very little discussion of why it exists. …
The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness. …
The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-censorship. It is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.
For people who accept this passive position toward authority, ‘getting by’ becomes the supreme value. They smile, bow and nod their heads, and such behavior usually leads to lifestyles that are comfortable, trouble free and even cushy. This attitude is essentially defensive on their part. It is obvious that in any dispute, if one side is silenced, the words of the other side will go unquestioned.
That’s what we have here in China: The self-silenced majority, sycophants of a powerful regime, resentful of people like me who speak out, are doubly bitter because they know that their debasement comes by their own hand. Thus self-defense also becomes self-comfort. (Ai Weiwei, ‘How Censorship Works’, 8 May 2017)
O, as he goes over final galleys for his book:
He insists on crossing out clauses suggested by a copy editor that define or explain an unusual word or term he has used: ‘Let them find out!’ he says, meaning — make the reader work a little. Go look it up in a dictionary, or go to the library! (Bill Hayes, Insomniac City — New York, Oliver and Me, 2017 [‘O’ is Oliver Sacks])
When I met McCarthy, he implied that the unconscious played a role in his own writing. I asked him for his views on the source and power of his own novels, and, seated on a leather couch in the Santa Fe Institute library, he responded with a kind of parable: ‘There was a guy who was a great wingshot on a quail hunt in Georgia. He killed everything he saw, he dropped ’em all morning. One of the other guys said, “You’re the best wingshot I’ve ever seen.” At lunch the guy asked him, “Do you shoot with one eye open or both?” He paused and thought about it. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.” ‘ (Nick Romeo, ‘Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious’, 2017)
People-smugglers of the Intellect
Liberal humanism does not have a geographic home; it is not fixed in space, does not emerge from a single source. Rather its fragile decencies are founded on connections between disparate individuals, creative artists and people-smugglers of the intellect who carry other people’s words around inside their heads. (Geordie Williamson, ‘The Cosmopolitan Shirley Hazzard’, 2012)
Mandarin in Extremis
There’s an absolutely wonderful story, I don’t know where I read it, perhaps in Plato, which recounts how when they brought the poison to Socrates, they found him studying Persian. ‘But why are you studying Persian?’, they asked. Socrates replied, ‘Simply because I want to learn Persian. Ah — so I have to take the hemlock now? Then I’ll take it.’ This strikes me as absolutely marvellous. God grant that Death finds me thus, trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. (Mario Vargas Llosa, interview with María Luisa Blanco, Babelia, 20 May 2006, translated by Richard Rigby)
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes. (Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, 1844) [JM]
Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of those who fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ At which point an old woman puts up her hand and says ‘But Rector, I have no teeth’, to which the hell-fire preacher replies ‘Madam, teeth will be provided.’
Inviting the Gods
To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories. (Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1988) [GD]