Other People’s Thoughts, XVIII

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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.

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.

Pierre remarked that the resulting modest volume of quotations was ‘idiosyncratically compiled 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 that reflects our interests and disposition.

In collecting this material, and by adding to it over time, 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.

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
20 November 2020


Other People’s Thoughts Index


To Put it Differently

Poetry chooses choice things, carefully selecting
select words, arranging,
fabulously, things arranged. To put it differently
is hard, if not out of the question.

Poetry’s like a clay plate. It’s broken easily
under the weight of all those poems. In the hands
of the poet, it sings. In those of others, not only
doesn’t it sing, it’s out of the question.

(Natan Zach, translated by Peter Cole)

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

(John Berryman)

A Princess

… unfortified by irony, uninformed by history.

(Hilary Mantel on Princess Diana, 2013)

Smart, But Not Smart Enough

The advent of smartphones and other personal devices that enable us to talk to our friends, listen to our music, read our books, watch our movies, check our stock quotes and departure times, all while walking down a city street, literally allows us to create our own hermetic, private reality while passing through the (increasingly unnoticed) spaces of public life. It may be worth mentioning here that the word “idiot” comes from the Greek idiotês, from the word idios, “private”: an idiot is someone who acts in public as if they were still in private.

(Daniel Mendelsohn, ‘But Enough About Me’, collected in
Waiting for the Barbarians, New York, 2012)

Mott Fitzsimmons

He was lanky, silver-haired, seasonally Catholic and steeply neo-conservative. It was Kiki Pew’s commiserative coddling that got him through the Obama years, though at times she feared that her excitable spouse might physically succumb from the day-to-day stress of having a black man in the Oval Office. What ultimately killed Mott Fitzsimmons was nonpartisan liver cancer, brought on by a stupendous lifetime intake of malt scotch.

(Carl Hiaasen, Squeeze Me, 2020)

The Human Race

It is my considered opinion that the human race (soi disant) is cruel, idiotic, sentimental, predatory, ungrateful, ugly, conceited and egocentric to the last ditch and that the occasional discovery of an isolated exception is as deliciously surprising as finding a sudden brazil nut in what you know to be five pounds of vanilla creams. These glorious moments, although not making life actually worth living, perhaps, at least make it pleasanter.

(Noël Coward)

Surface Depth

The irony is that today’s culture of superficial glitter, of knowingness without any real knowledge, is sustained by the very magazines Lerman, however lofty his tastes and talents, devoted his working life to. And when you lie down with dogs, even greyhounds and Lhasa apsos, you may well get up with fleas. As I savored every page of his remarkable private writings, I couldn’t help noting that nearly every historical, literary, artistic, or biographical allusion had to be footnoted or explained, from Saint-Simon to Sainte-Beuve, from Gustave Moreau to William Hogarth, from Aubrey Beardsley to Ned Rorem—the intimates of Lerman’s fervent inner life, now apparently presumed to be wholly unrecognizable to readers at large. These, it’s perhaps worth noting, are the very readers on whose behalf the reviewer of Lerman’s book, in the Times Book Review, felt compelled to ask rhetorically, in her own introductory flourish, “Who is Leo Lerman?” Poignantly, Lerman himself anticipated this question. “The mortality of the fashion world,” he lamented in 1970. “Who will think of me? No one.” Here, as often, he knew how to spot a trend.

(Daniel Mendelsohn, ‘On the Town’)

Cancel

Cancel culture is all over the mainstream. I can give you plenty of examples from my own experience of things cancelled, books withdrawn, appearances on the national radio being cut off because somebody didn’t like it, some manager, some right-winger didn’t like it, endless numbers of this. It goes on all the time. That’s standard mainstream establishment behavior. People of the left are making a serious mistake when they try to imitate it. It’s wrong in principle; it’s wrong tactically. It’s a gift to the far right, and they run with it. They love it. … Therefore, for the left, who I’m interested in, and their activists, pay attention to principle and tactical consequences. They are important. Pay attention to them and do not adopt the characteristic repressive behavior of the mainstream.

(Noam Chomsky)

Signalling Virtue

… the refusal to be in and of the adult world—the world of people who realize that success doesn’t necessarily mean selling out, who know that people who are ethically rigorous rarely advertise, with so much energy and so little humor, their own ethical rigor.

(Daniel Mendelsohn)

Sean Connery

He was chosen for the chorus [of “South Pacific”] because he looked like a sailor and could do handstands.

During the year Mr. Connery toured in “South Pacific,” he lost much of a Scottish accent so impenetrable that, he later claimed, other actors at first thought he was Polish. His name was shortened to Sean Connery. And he found himself a mentor. An American actor in the cast, Robert Henderson, gave him a reading program that included all the plays of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, along with the novels of Thomas Wolfe, Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

“I spent my ‘South Pacific’ tour in every library in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales,” Mr. Connery told The Houston Chronicle in 1992. “And on the nights we were dark, I’d see every play I could. But it’s the books, the reading, that can change one’s life. I’m the living evidence.”

(The New York Times obituary, 31 October 2020)

The Bastard Dynasty 兲朝

Today, the Chinese mainland is ruled by a ‘Party Empire’; civil society has withered; the media bristles with hyper nationalist propaganda on the one hand and mindless popular entertainment on the other — there’s virtually no space for debate or rational discussion. The younger generations identify with the ‘China Model’ and are contemptuous of such Western ideas as freedom and democracy. And an SS-like ‘Puce Army’ crowds the online world like an occupying force while, for its part, the party-state system is peopled with compliant and fawning bureaucrats who simply go along with it all. Meanwhile, in the academy there is no dearth of scholars who are bereft of principles but brimming with ambition.

The authorities repress dissent and all forms of opposition relentlessly, and that includes the unilateral imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the vast network of ‘concentration camps’ that they’ve built in Xinjiang. The few heroic individuals who dare to raise their voices are variously arrested, defamed, forcibly silenced or sentenced to jail.

The vast Chinese middle class which, in the past, seemed to be the real hope for further economic and social reform, simply bury their heads in the sand and focus their energies on material consumption. It seems that the only things people really care about are spending money and enjoying themselves, be it in drinking and eating or by indulging in various leisure-time pursuits.

The ‘liberals’ constitute a constricted circle that, at most, lets off steam by mumbling a few impotent words of disaffection. Some have even placed their hopes for change in the policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo.

It leaves you wondering whether the informed members of society, the ‘Celestials’ in this new ‘Celestial Empire’, are simply lost in their own wet dreams? If that’s the case, the longer this dark night goes on, the more lurid their dreams may well become.

(Jianying Zha, ‘Adieu, China!’)

The Purge

Although they’re rarely mentioned in the same breath, it’s notable that the franchise came from Blumhouse, the same company behind “Get Out.” It has put together a string of projects whose animating principle is asking “Who will survive in America?” These movies commit to portraying our society in a way that finely calibrated awards-season films rarely do. Oscar bait’s great sin is not artistic pretension; it’s a lack of curiosity. We have developed a tradition of quality for our big “message” films — well shot, well acted, well made, redemptive and toothless. The better fare is praised for humanizing its characters, as though the realization that the working class also falls in love, faces disappointment and makes meaning were some sort of mind-bending epiphany. In these movies, a few good men can always outrun a history of violence. Realism reigns over the art form, yet it keeps returning to the same story: “Things might be bad, but they’re getting better all the time.” In the real world you might ask: “For whom have things been getting better?”

…In the era of superheroes’ teaming up with the C.I.A. to defeat terroristic supervillains, “The Purge” depicts ordinary people willing to protect and support one another in the face of a political system abandoning them to a cruel fate. If there’s any lesson for the political artist to be found in these films, it is this: It’s better to be clumsy in the pursuit of an ugly truth than eloquent in telling a flattering lie.

(On ‘The Purge’, 27 October 2020)

They Could Have Danced All Night

The Commander’s Ball had been staged every spring since Mastodon’s election. Lovingly organized by the Potussies, it was a giddy, feisty, celebrity-packed tribute to the forever embattled chief executive, and had become his most lucrative political fundraiser. Tickets started at ten thousand dollars a seat, but for only twice as much you got photographed at the President’s side. For thirty thousand he would personally sign the photograph; for forty grand he would shake your hand in the picture; for fifty he’d place an arm around your shoulders. (When advised to avoid physical contact due to the lingering virus threat, Mastodon had berated his doctors and said the risk of a lung infection was less important than the gusher of cash generated by the photo operation.)

Those who paid a hundred thousand dollars to attend the gala were called Legacy Friends, and each received a full bear-hug in their posed photo; a sleeve of new Titleists bearing the presidential seal; a liter of vodka from a Chernobyl distillery half-owned by Mastodon’s grown sons; an autographed teleprompter script for the first inaugural address, complete with “Pause for Applause” placements; an empty Dr. Pepper can, flattened, framed, and stamped with the time and date it had been hurled across the Oval Office; and two tickets to the after-party featuring a top Lee Greenwood cover band.

(Carl Hiaasen, Squeeze Me. 2020)

Sharknado Presidency

The most bizarre fact that sticks in my head is this: In 2015, Donald Trump was agonizing over whether to go for the role as the president in “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” or to run for the actual presidency.

How did we go from Abraham Lincoln to a “Sharknado” reject?

It is not only Trump’s fault. He is the Rosemary’s Baby of pernicious trends in this country over decades.

(Maureen Dowd)

The Choice

Trump and Biden are repugnant figures, doddering into old age with cognitive lapses and no moral cores. Is Trump more dangerous than Biden? Yes. Is Trump inepter and more dishonest? Yes. Is Trump more of a threat to the open society? Yes. Is Biden the solution? No.

(Chris Hedges, 19 October 2020)

Trumpty Dumpty’s Legacy

He’ll be remembered as the president who treated every civil servant as a personal servant, every cabinet secretary as a toady, every critic as an enemy, every enemy as a role model and every supporter as a fool.

(Bret Stephens, 16 November 2020)

Arc & Arch

I suppose we have to believe the arc of history bends towards justice, but it certainly takes some incredible hairpin detours.

(Marina Hyde, 4 November 2020)

A Sullen Commitment

It’s clear now that far too many of Trump’s voters don’t care about policy, decency, or saving our democracy. They care about power. Although Trump appears to have received a small uptick in votes from Black men and Latinos, the overwhelming share of his supporters are white. The politics of cultural resentment, the obsessions of white anxiety, are so intense that his voters are determined not only to preserve minority rule but to leave a dangerous sociopath in the Oval Office. Even the candidacy of a man who was both a political centrist and a decent human being could not overcome this sullen commitment to authoritarianism.

(Tom Nicols, 4 November 2020)

You’re Fired

When Trump spoke on election night about “a fraud on the American public,” he meant that the “public” consists only of his voters. In 1953, after a failed uprising in Berlin, Bertolt Brecht noted in his sardonic poem “The Solution” that the authorities had declared that “the people/ Had forfeited the confidence of the government”:

…Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

This is the election behind the election—the GOP’s decision to imaginatively dissolve the American majority and elect another.

(Fintan O’Toole, 13 November 2020)

The Undead

“I’m embarrassed to say, I thought you could defeat hate. You can’t. It only hides,” he said. “It crawls under the rocks, and, when given oxygen by any person in authority, it comes roaring back out. And what I realized is, the words of a President, even a lousy President, matter. They can take you to war, they can bring peace, they can make the market rise, they can make it fall. But they can also give hate oxygen.”

(Joe Biden to Evan Osnos, 31 August 2020)

Going, going …

“Until all the ballots are counted, President Trump is telling everyone to stay calm, and classy, and respect the process. Of course he’s not! He’s throwing a tantrum like the two-ton whiny little bitch he is,” cracked Maher. “He doesn’t like that for the first time he’s on the other end of an eviction notice.”

(Bill Maher, 6 November 2020)

Volksgemeinschaft

Trumpists believe that they represent “the people” in a quasi-mystical sense; they speak as if they have an organic connection to the country that their enemies lack. Reconciling them to a system in which they are but a loud minority won’t be easy, if it’s even possible.

Yet for now, an existential threat to liberal democracy in America has been vanquished. Trump will almost certainly continue to vandalize the country during the lame-duck phase of his presidency, but soon he will no longer be able to rule over us. He will be cast out of the White House, disgraced, to meet his creditors and New York criminal investigators.

The next chapter of American politics won’t be easy. But this one — squalid, terrifying, degrading, tragic — is almost over.

(Michelle Goldberg, 7 November 2020)

Reason vs. Violence

The Lincoln-Douglas debates came to be regarded as a preëminent example of American political discourse in the nineteenth century—a fierce clash of ideas, sustained by the close attention of the public.

But they also came to represent a darker lesson: for all their eloquence, they could not avert the Civil War, or protect Lincoln from assassination. American political culture was bounded by a contest between reason and violence—a seesawing battle that continues to this day, between the aspiration to persuade fellow-citizens to accept your views and the raw instinct to force them to comply.

(Evan Osnos, 16 November 2020)

Lost Souls

In our finest hours … the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.

(Jon Meacham, August 2020)

Ne plus ultra

“In all honesty right now . . . . I just wanna make the world glow, dude. … That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back. We’re gonna topple it all. … I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it.”

(Adam Fox, ringleader of the six men who plotted to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, in October 2020)

That Line of Guys

… no matter the absurdity of any situation, no matter how ridiculous it looks when you get there, there will ALWAYS be a line of guys ready to butch it out like it was their plan along. There will ALWAYS be a line of guys who feel that it is somehow less ridiculous to look completely ridiculous than it is to simply say: “Oh wait, we made a mistake – give us half an hour and we’ll tell you the new venue.” There will ALWAYS be a line of guys who, even if they walked over a cliff, would leave very specific last words echoing behind them. “I meant to do that.”

(Marina Hyde, ‘Now what does Giuliani’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping farce remind me of?’, 10 November 2020)

On Democracy

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.

(E.B. White, 1943)

Resolution

I don’t stand by anything.

(Donald Trump to John Dickerson, May 2017)

America from Ireland

On Saturday afternoon our time, Wolf Blitzer crossed the spaceship floor of CNN’s studio to announce Mr. Biden as victor. The game, or this part of it, was over. We greeted the news like it was an acquittal for a crime we had not committed, gasped at the commentary for another hour or so, and promptly switched off CNN for the first time in four, long days.

(Séamas O’Reilly, 13 November 2020)

Christian Fascists

The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal, justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue, to denounce the followers of the Christian right as heretics. By tolerating the intolerant, it ceded religious legitimacy to an array of con artists, charlatans and demagogues and their cultish supporters. It stood by as the core Gospel message–concern for the poor and the oppressed–was perverted into a magical world where God and Jesus showered believers with material wealth and power. The white race became God’s chosen agent. Imperialism and war became divine instruments for purging the world of infidels and barbarians, evil itself. Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, became shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism became intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith.

The mega-pastors, narcissists who rule despotic, cult-like fiefdoms, make millions of dollars by using this heretical belief system to prey on the despair and desperation of their congregations, victims of neoliberalism and deindustrialization. These believers find in Trump, who preyed on this despair in his casinos and through his sham university, and these mega-pastors, champions of the unfettered greed, cult of masculinity, lust for violence, white supremacy, bigotry, American chauvinism, religious intolerance, anger, racism and conspiracy theories that are the core beliefs of the Christian Right.

(Chris Hedges)

No Salvation

The Democrats and their liberal apologists are, the election has illustrated, oblivious to the profound personal and economic despair sweeping through this country. They stand for nothing. They fight for nothing. Restoring the rule of law, universal health care, banning fracking, a Green New Deal, the protection of civil liberties, the building of unions, the preservation and expansion of social welfare programs, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the forgiveness of student debt, stiff environmental controls, a government jobs program and guaranteed income, financial regulation, opposition to endless war and military adventurism were once again forgotten. Championing these issues would have resulted in a Democratic Party landslide. But since the Democratic Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate donors, promoting any policy that might foster the common good, diminish corporate profits and restore democracy, including imposing campaign finance laws, was impossible. Biden’s campaign was utterly bereft of ideas and policy issues, as if he and the Democrats could sweep the elections by promising to save the soul of America. At least the neofascists have the courage of their demented convictions.

(Chris Hedges, ‘American Requiem’, 5 November 2020)

Percentages 

Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.

(Susan Sontag)

Bisogna saper leggere

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

(James Baldwin)