Other People’s Thoughts, X

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
28 May 2018


Other People’s Thoughts Index

Other People’s Thoughts, X

History teaches but it has no pupils. (António Gramsci, Italy and Spain, 1921)

Only If
As the artist Chen Danqing says: 畫家陳丹青說:

  • I’ll only believe that you’re a true patriot if you tear up your American Green Card; 如果你們銷毀了美國綠卡,我就相信你們愛國是真的;
  • I’ll only believe that Socialism is Superior if you send your children to North Korea; 如果你們把子女送到朝鮮,我就相信社會主義是優越的;
  • I’ll only believe in your Anti-Corruption Campaign if you publish the details of the personal wealth of China’s officials; 如果你們公佈了官員的財產,我就相信你們的反腐是真的;
  • I’ll only believe that you Serve the People if you give everyone in China a vote, instead of having a self-selecting bureaucracy. 如果你們給全國人民一張選票,不是自選官員,我就相信你們是為人民服務的。
  • If you can’t do even one of these things, why should I believe anything you say? 如果你們哪一條都做不到,憑甚麼讓我相信你們?

(Lee Yee 李怡, In an Age of Falsehood, 世道人生: 假話時代,
Apple Daily, 4 May 2018, trans. GR Barmé)


Zoe Cooper: Can you comment on the role that fences — both literal and metaphysical, from border walls to discriminatory policy — play in forming identity? It seems to be a running theme in your artwork.

Ai Weiwei: Because we never really adjusted to so-called globalization, identity gets lost. Walls and fences built along country borders have dramatically increased from 11 countries at the time of the Berlin Wall to more than 70 countries now. And they’re still building more. So we see this kind of border — on the map it’s physical, but it’s also in our heart, our mind. We no longer want to accept or talk to [anyone who is] different, or to really try to tolerate or understand each other. Rather [we are] more exclusive and defensive. And of course politicians use this kind of danger or risk to scare people, and to increase their reputation.

(Zoe Cooper, Artist and activist Ai Weiwei on exploring the absurdity of national borders, Vox, 3 November 2017)

Vilma Grunwald’s note of 11 July 1944, to her husband:

‘You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You — my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal — if not completely — then — at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you — stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks.

‘Into eternity, Vilma.’

(Will Higgins, ‘Into eternity’: She did not survive the Holocaust, but her words did, IndyStar, 28 April 2018)

Royal Wedding
What occurred today, in summary, was this: an American divorcée married a man whose brother will only become king because of his paternal grandmother’s father, who only became king because his brother wanted to marry an American divorcée. (Anthony Lane on the Marriage of Harry and Meghan)

Writers and Publishing
It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquor cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfillment, and supply chain alignment had connected like tightening coils in a hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent of, say, a Red Army canteen in Kabul, circle 1979.

And like the Red Army then, publishing was entering a crisis of stagnation not yet understood as either a crisis or as terminal. And beneath where the publishing people sat were so many little holes being bored by redundancies slowly coming together into one large sink hole through which, a few years hence, the several floors of the publishing house would suddenly and unexpectedly fall until they landed with a crash and compressed into just one floor. Then that floor, in turn, would begin to shrink as a rising sea of start-ups, finance companies and net businesses flooded over the publisher’s office space — an encroaching ocean of disruption — until the floor was now only half a floor, and on that vanishing island of books were now only content and writers only content providers, sandbag fillers, but of an ever lower and lower caste, if such a thing were possible. (Richard Flanagan, First Person, Knopf, 2017, p.7)

Inside and Outside the Lie
The great French thinker and activist Simone Weil had a prescription that she wrote down in her journal in 1933: ‘Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.’ A few days later, she added, ‘Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie — don’t keep your eyes shut.’

Throughout the twentieth century, writers and thinkers who faced reality-destroying regimes kept producing similar recipes. ‘Live not by lies,’ the Russian dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote. The Czech dissident playwright and future President Václav Havel pondered the predicament of living, unquestioningly, ‘inside the lie’ — and the uncanny power of stepping outside of it. In our case, stepping outside the lie means refusing — stubbornly, consistently, incrementally — to lend credence to the opposite of politics, the opposite of diplomacy, and the opposite of sanity. That would require thinking, reading, and speaking critically: not treating an outburst as though it were politics, a tantrum as though it were diplomacy, and a delusion as though it were aspiration. The good news is that this is not an entirely impossible task. (Masha Gessen, In the Trump Era, We Are Losing the Ability to Distinguish Reality from Vacuum, The New Yorker, 25 May 2018)

The Modern University
A hedge fund with a library attached. (Astra Taylor, Universities Are Becoming Billion-Dollar Hedge Funds With Schools Attached, The Nation, 8 March 2016)

Temples and Words
Words are what governments with a liberal public face have to live by. We know tyrannies by their temples; we know democracies through their tongues. (Adam Gopnik, Trump’s Tweets Are Ridiculous, but Perilous to IgnoreThe New Yorker, 17 April 2018)

Free Speech
There’s a similar problem with debates about free speech on liberal college campuses. Yes, it’s obviously bad when speakers are denied a platform, threatened and shouted down. But if every protester suddenly fell silent, the atmosphere in elite academia would still be kind of awful — and not only from a conservative perspective.

Meritocracy, materialism and smartphones would still induce mental breakdowns among bright young climbers. The humanities would still be in existential crisis and possibly terminal decline. A ‘hedge fund with a library attached’ model of administration would still prevail. An incoherent mix of ambitious scientism and post-Protestant moralism and simple greed would still be the ruling spirit.

Much of recent left-wing campus activism has to be understood in this depressing context — as a response to a pre-existing crisis, an attempt to infuse morality and purpose into institutions that employ many brilliant minds but mostly promote incurious ambition and secular conformity. (Ross Douthat, Free Speech Will Not Save Us, New York Times, 26 May 2018)

Radical Chic Evenings
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons … The butler will bring them their drinks … Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact — is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice…. (Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s, New York Magazine, 8 June 1970)

The Apache Dance
The ambitious artist, the artist who wanted Success, now had to do a bit of psychological double-tracking. Consciously he had to dedicate himself to the antibourgeois values of the cénacles of whatever sort, to bohemia, to the Bloomsbury life, the Left Bank life, the Lower Broadway Loft life, to the sacred squalor of it all, to the grim silhouette of the black Reorig Lower Manhattan truck-route internal combustion granules that were already standing an eighth of an inch thick on the poisoned roach carcasses atop the electric hot-plate burner by the time you got up for breakfast … Not only that, he had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this fall’s avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century … all this in order to make it, to be noticed, to be counted, within the community of artists themselves. What is more, he had to be sincere about it. At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching. Have they noticed me yet? Have they even noticed the new style (that me and my friends are working in)? Don’t they even know about Tensionism (or Slice Art or Niho or Innerism or Dimensional Creamo or whatever)? (Hello, out there!) … because as every artist knew in his heart of hearts, no matter how many times he tried to close his eyes and pretend otherwise (History! History! — where is thy salve?), Success was real only when it was success within le monde.

He could close his eyes and try to believe that all that mattered was that he knew his work was great … and that other artists respected it … and that History would surely record his achievements … but deep down he knew he was lying to himself. I want to be a Name, goddamn it! — at least that, a name, a name on the lips of the museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, patrons, board members, committee members, Culture hostesses, and their attendant intellectuals and journalists and their Time and Newsweek — all right! — even that! — Time and Newsweek — Oh yes! (ask the shades of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko!) — even the goddamned journalists!

During the 1960s this entire process by which le monde, the culturati, scout bohemia and tap the young artist for Success was acted out in the most graphic way. Early each spring, two emissaries from the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller, would head downtown from the Museum on West Fifty-third Street, down to Saint Marks Place, Little Italy, Broome Street and environs, and tour the loft studios of known artists and unknowns alike, looking at everything, talking to one and all, trying to get a line on what was new and significant in order to put together a show in the fall . . . and, well, I mean, my God — from the moment the two of them stepped out on Fifty-third Street to grab a cab, some sort of boho radar began to record their sortie … They’re coming! … And rolling across Lower Manhattan, like the Cosmic Pulse of the theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat:

Pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me … O damnable Uptown!

By all means, deny it if asked! — what one knows, in one’s cheating heart, and what one says are two different things!

So it was that the art mating ritual developed early in the century — in Paris, in Rome, in London, Berlin, Munich,

Vienna, and, not too long afterward, in New York. As we’ve just seen, the ritual has two phases:

(1) The Boho Dance, in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself, as if he doesn’t care about anything else; as if, in fact, he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world uptown.

(2) The Consummation, in which culturati from that very same world, le monde, scout the various new movements and new artists of bohemia, select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards — and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.

By the First World War the process was already like what in the Paris clip joints of the day was known as an apache dance. The artist was like the female in the act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt … more thrashing about … more rake-a-cheek fury … more yelling and carrying on … until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriek — pain! ecstasy! — she submits … Paff paff paff paff paff … How you do it, my boy! … and the house lights rise and Everyone, tout le monde, applauds …

The artist’s payoff in this ritual is obvious enough. He stands to gain precisely what Freud says are the goals of the artist: fame, money, and beautiful lovers. But what about le monde, the culturati, the social members of the act? What’s in it for them? Part of their reward is the ancient and semi-sacred status of Benefactor of the Arts. The arts have always been a doorway into Society, and in the largest cities today the arts — the museum boards, arts councils, fund drives, openings, parties, committee meetings — have completely replaced the churches in this respect. But there is more!

Today there is a peculiarly modern reward that the avant-garde artist can give his benefactor: namely, the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle classes … the feeling that he may be from the middle class but he is no longer in it … the feeling that he is a fellow soldier, or at least an aide-de-camp or an honorary cong guerrilla in the vanguard march through the land of the philistines. This is a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money) and something quite common among the well-to-do all over the West, in Rome and Milan as well as New York. That is why collecting contemporary art, the leading edge, the latest thing, warm and wet from the Loft, appeals specifically to those who feel most uneasy about their own commercial wealth … See? I’m not like them — those Jaycees, those United Fund chairmen, those Young Presidents, those mindless New York A.C. goyisheh hog-jowled stripe-tied goddamn-good-to-see-you-you-old-bastard-you oyster-bar trenchermen … Avant-garde art, more than any other, takes the Mammon and the Moloch out of money, puts Levi’s, turtlenecks, muttonchops, and other mantles and laurels of bohemian grace upon it.

That is why collectors today not only seek out the company of, but also want to hang out amidst, lollygag around with, and enter into the milieu of … the artists they patronize. They want to climb those vertiginous loft building stairs on Howard Street that go up five flights without a single turn or bend — straight up! like something out of a casebook dream — to wind up with their hearts ricocheting around in their rib cages with tachycardia from the exertion mainly but also from the anticipation that just beyond this door at the top … in this loft … lie the real goods … paintings, sculptures that are indisputably part of the new movement, the new école, the new wave … something unshrinkable, chipsy, pure cong, bourgeois-proof. (Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, 1975)

On Tom Wolfe
‘As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world,’ Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. ‘His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word “hernia” 57 times.’

‘Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,’ Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. ‘How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.’

‘Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,’ Mr. Mailer continued. ‘But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.’

A close observer of American society his entire life, Wolfe wrote the following in a collection titled ‘Hooking Up’ (2000):

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, old people in America had prayed, ‘Please God, don’t let me look poor.’ In the year 2000, they prayed, ‘Please God, don’t let me look old.’ Sexiness was equated with youth, and youth ruled. The most widespread age-related disease was not senility but juvenility.

(Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes, Tom Wolfe, 88, ‘New Journalist’ With Electric Style and Acid Pen, Dies, New York Times, 15 May 2018)


America is a wonderful country! I mean it! No honest writer would challenge that statement! The human comedy never runs out of material! It never lets you down!

(Tom Wolfe, ‘Hooking Up’, 2000)