Other People’s Thoughts, VIII

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Other People’s Thoughts is a section of the China Heritage site featured in our Journal. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations made by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors.

Pierre remarked that the modest volume of quotations recorded over his reading life 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 compendium, 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 the eighth 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 character ‘record’ 記 in the hand of Mi Fei 米芾, or ‘Madman Mi’ 米癲 of the Song. Source: 好事家貼.

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 — anecdotes or statements aimed at goading an individual towards enlightenment — that date 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, as well as 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.

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
9 March 2018


Other People’s Thoughts Index

Other People’s Thoughts VIII


Balk’s Law
I have previously shared with you Balk’s Law (‘Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people’) and Balk’s Second Law (‘The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything’). Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: ‘If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.’ The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I have a hard time seeing a future where anything gets better. Do you know why? Because everything is terrible and only getting worse. We won’t all be dead in twenty years, but we’ll all wish we were. (Alex Balk, My Advice to Young People, The Awl, 10 February 2015)

Counting in Chinese
Two and two makes six, says the tyrant. Two and two make five, says the moderate tyrant. To the heroic individual who would recall, at his peril, that two and two make four, the police say: ‘All the same, you don’t want to go back to the days when two and two make six!’ So goes the crazy pressure of the lie.

Deux et deux font six, dit le tyran. Deux et deux font cinq, dit le tyran modéré. A l’individu héroïque qui rappellerait, à ses risques et périls, que deux et deux font quatre, des policiers disent : « Vous ne voudriez tout de même pas qu’on revienne à l’époque où deux et deux faisaient six ! » Ainsi va la pression hallucinée du mensonge. (Philippe Sollers, Deux et deux font quatre, quoted in Philippe Paquet, Simon Leys:Navigator Between Worlds, 2017, p.373)

Russia Today
‘Today our relatively sluggish authoritarianism is trying to turn into a strict authoritarianism. Today the regime is making more and more extensive use of anti-Western, Great Power rhetoric; this rhetoric is becoming the base for the ruling elite. It’s hard to take and it’s unpleasant, that’s true,’ he added. ‘But not only is this not 1937, not mass state terror, it’s also not life behind the Iron Curtain. There is no curtain and by all appearances you would no longer be able to lower one over Russia. This is not just a question of technical capabilities, the Internet and the like, but about the fact that real isolation would not hold out, it would fall apart. Yes, we live in a reactionary age, but becoming Burma or even the Soviet Union under Brezhnev is not something that can be done any more.’ (David Remnick quoting Arseny Roginsky in The Historical Truth-Telling of Arseny Roginsky)

The Humbug
The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes — or pretends to believe — that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true, and that the only way to decide which is to consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that particular case. Religion he thinks one of the smartest business dodges extant, a first-rate investment, and by all odds the most respectable disguise that a lying or swindling businessman can wear. Honor he thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in the eyes of the greener portion of our race, as you would hold out a cabbage leaf to coax a donkey. What people want, he thinks, or says he thinks, is something good to eat, something good to drink, fine clothes, luxury, laziness, wealth. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body — sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, shortsighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! He has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others — it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible — let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule — leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness — it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as a turkey buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually slanders his father and dishonors his mother, and defiles the sanctities of home, and the glory of patriotism, and the merchant’s honor, and the martyr’s grave, and the saint’s crown — who does not even know that every sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue — I pronounce him — no, I do not pronounce him a humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool. (P.T. Barnum, The Great American Humbug, from Lapham’s Quarterly)

Walter Scott
Today for some reason Scott is the least read of our great writers, and not least by those professionally engaged in the study of literature… . But while we can be glad that he has escaped the A-level syllabus and the campus bookstore, it is sad that so many literate, English-speaking readers should deprive themselves of such a deep fund of possible enjoyment. For it is the art of enjoyment which has been lost… . The size and colour and energy of Scott’s work, its unique combination of intellectual depth with total lack of pretension, is critically disconcerting… . Written at the gallop, they are intended to be read at the gallop, quaffed in long draughts, and if necessary read lightly (Scott himself refers in Redgauntlet to the ‘laudable practice of skipping’). (A.N. Wilson, ‘Introductory’, in A Life of Walter Scott: the Laird of Abbotsford, 1980) [JM]

Political Speeches
Political speeches are rarely occasions for truth-telling. But the good ones combine a description of shared reality with the expression of a vision, or with words of celebration. The mediocre ones consist of platitudes — well-intentioned but lacking the force of inspiration or recognition. And then there is the genre of the thoroughly insincere pronouncement that is all empty ritual. This is not normally observed in countries with functioning democratic institutions, because hollow words are the very opposite of accountability. These kinds of speeches are usually given in dictatorships: their intended audience is not the public but the tyrant. (Masha Gessen, The Most Frightening Aspect of Trump’s Tax Triumph)

Late-night Comedy
At the end of the day, we sit down in front of the screen and watch the late-night comedians state the obvious: they imagine the unimaginable, think the unthinkable, and speak the unspeakable. There is nothing funny about it, but we laugh with relief. However briefly, the comedians free us from the nagging sense that we are crazy. It’s not us, it’s him. The laughter becomes hysterical. (Fire and Fury Is a Book All Too Worthy of the President)

China’s Future, China’s Confusion
But it is part of the country’s plans for China’s future. In a way, it’s remarkable when you think of how contemporary art is viewed by politicians in other countries.

The Party’s goal is China’s future. So the 19th Party Congress document talked about the happiness of Chinese people. Or the revival of the people. It didn’t say anything about realizing Communism. So it’s become a kind of party of nationalism that happens still to be called the Communist Party of China.

It’s even embraced traditional culture. What do you think about that? You practice calligraphy, but you’re also an advocate of contemporary art.

The problem is what we mean by tradition. How do you explain tradition? Qin Shihuangdi [the brutal first emperor of China] is part of Chinese tradition. So is [the Daoist philosopher] Zhuangzi. It will take a lot of effort to figure this out. What are we trying to promote? This is what China still doesn’t know.

(Ian Johnson, ‘The Biggest Taboo’: an interview with Qiu Zhijie, NY Daily, 6 January 2018)

Anti-Social Media
It’s getting harder and harder to talk about anything controversial online without every single utterance of an opinion immediately being caricatured by opportunistic outrage-mongers, at which point everyone, afraid to be caught exposed in the skirmish that’s about to break out, rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements, where they can safely scream out their righteousness in unison. (Jesse Singal, Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A., The New York Times, 22 January 2018)

Politics and Language
The great and unheralded triumph of the Trump Administration is that it has created parity between its politics and its language. Since at least the time of Robert McNamara, the prevailing style of American politics has been to cloak atrocity in euphemism. Clinical language, the belief holds, will balm the troubled citizen’s conscience. That is not our current predicament. Quoting this President in his own words has resulted in the term ‘pussy’ emerging from the side streets of impolite language to mainstream publications and cable-news shows. (Such is Trump’s affection for the word that a glossary of his statements would require two entries for it: ‘Cruz, Ted is,’ and ‘grab them by the.’) Trump shouted to all who would listen, including an audience at a community college in Iowa, that he would ‘bomb the shit‘ out of ISIS. He referred to N.F.L. players as ‘sons of bitches.’ He has uttered profanities more publicly and more prolifically than any of his predecessors. Antonin Scalia derided our ‘coarsened’ society, but rappers are not the ones who caused CNN to have to repeatedly air the vaginal slur on air. The current Commander-in-Chief did that. (Jelani Cobb, Tracing the Racist Roots of Donald Trump’s Obscenities, The New Yorker, 13 January 2018)

A Global View

It seems to me inevitable that we are going to live on this globe with a vast number of people who think as oppositely as we do as it is possible for human beings to think.

We must understand that for a long, long period of time we will both inhabit this spinning ball in the great void of the universe.

(Dean Acheson, ‘Remarks at the National War College’, 21 December 1949, 
quoted in Kevin Peraino, A Force so Swift: Mao, Truman, and the
Birth of Modern China, 1949, 2017, p.248)

What Anti-Matter is to Matter
As Trump and Xi proceeded along the maze of red carpeting, there was no greater visual emblem of the U.S.-China divide than the contrast between Trump’s cotton-candy hair (whose carotene-orange hue appeared to have been color corrected to off-white for the occasion) and the shoe-polish black, lacquered helmet that is Xi Jinping’s tonsorial signature. Always obsessed with appearances, Trump strode, with jaw jutting forward, like a prizefighter trying to play the part of the tough guy as he marches to the ring. As they progressed, Trump made occasional nervous comments, and Xi gave no hint of what was within, allowing only his signature Mona Lisa smile to cross his impassive face. But, then, he and the Chinese government are to transparency what anti-matter is to matter: the very antithesis of the self-indulgent, histrionic, and tweet-crazed Trump. If the latter is the product of American reality-TV kultur, the former is a product of ruthless Leninism and the ancient Chinese legalist philosophical tradition of Han Feizi, who counseled rulers of old:

‘Be empty, still, and idle, and from your place of darkness observe the defects of others.’

(Orville Schell, Will Trump’s Bruised Ego Launch a Nuclear War?, Vanity Fair, January 2018)

The Inner Ring
It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel. On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists. The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters.

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig — the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which ‘we’ — and at the word ‘we’ you try not to blush for mere pleasure — something ‘we always do’.

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel. (C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring, Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, 1944.)

Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption, and make us look up and see — with terror or with relief — that the world does not in fact belong to us at all. (Ursula LeGuin, Lord Dunsany: In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales, edited by S.T. Joshi, LA Times Book Review, 2004)

The Strand
The Strand [bookstore in New York] was a whirlpool of silent expression, of ideas happily waiting patiently … little letters on pages awaiting a glance. (Tom Verlaine, I Did The Strand, 6 January 2018)

Blog Death
Blogs are necessarily idiosyncratic, entirely about sensibility: they can only be run by workhorses who are creative enough to amuse themselves and distinct enough to hook an audience, and they tend to publish like-minded writers, who work more on the principle of personal obsession than pay. The result is editorial latitude to be obscure and silly and particular, but the finances are increasingly hard to sustain; media consumption is controlled these days by centralized tech platforms — Facebook, Twitter — whose algorithms favor what is viral, newsy, reactionary, easily decontextualized, and of general appeal. (Jia Tolentino, The End of the Awl and the Vanishing of Freedom and Fun from the InternetThe New Yorker, 18 January 2018)