Other People’s Thoughts, XI

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 June 2018


Other People’s Thoughts Index

Other People’s Thoughts, XI


In the Nightmare of the Dark

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

(from W.H. Auden, In Memory of W.B. Yeats)

Ne Plus Ultra of the Brand

Early in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, from 2003, Cayce Pollard, a highly paid professional ‘coolhunter’, wanders through a London department store. Pollard is hypersensitive to the semiotics of brands: when a product is lame, she feels it physically, as a kind of pain. In the basement, she stumbles upon a display of clothes by Tommy Hilfiger. Recoiling from the ‘mountainside of Tommy’, she thinks, ‘My God, don’t they know?’

This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row… . But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul. (Joshua Rothman, The Growing Emptiness of the ‘Star Wars’ Universe, 31 May 2018)

À Table
Abraham Lincoln, quoting Genesis, asked how could any man wring his daily ‘bread from the sweat of other men’s faces’. Surely, in hard times, it’s even more important to remember we don’t start dinner until everyone is seated. (A.A. Gill, 2013)

Fine Dining
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger — risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.
Gastronomy is the science of pain. (Anthony Bourdain, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, 1999)

Henry Kissinger
Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević. (Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines)

Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… . If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer. (Anthony Bourdain)

Fit for a King
I could eat bloody Elvis — if you put enough vinegar on him. (Anthony Bourdain)

Perhaps our adult lives are nothing more than sophisticated replays of our extreme youth. The myths which nourish our childhood are implanted for ever. (Anthony Burgess, Metropolis Changed My Childhood)

Holy Writ
I got kicked out of Barnes & Noble once for moving all the bibles into the fiction section. (Anonymous)

The Truth of Fiction
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. (Mark Twain)

I flipped and ran away, like a pancake with legs. (Titus Andromedon)

Einstein on China
It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary. (Albert Einstein, 1922)

I’ve been called worse things by better people. (Pierre Trudeau on being called an ‘asshole’ by Richard Nixon.)

What is an Aryan? An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring. (Joke from die Hitler-Zeit)

History Won’t Save You
Having failed to learn from history, we now hope that it will one day look back harshly on our enemies — and by implication, fondly on those of us who stand here angrily tweeting our protests. (Jon Silverman, The Baffler, 15 June 2018)

Trump TV
The President of the United States just fucking sits there and watches television all day long, in large part because he is on television a lot now. He is either pleased or displeased by what he sees, and he shapes his actions — and, more or less by accident, the scope and tenor of our broader national politics — in response to what he sees. Some unlucky but mostly invisible people suffer greatly as a result. Some even unluckier people might even die. They may be dying now. They may in fact be dying right outside, right now, but the program is in commercial break at the moment. William Devane is telling the people at home about gold. An octogenarian former game-show host the color of a walnut is explaining how a reverse mortgage works, kind of. (David Roth, Dead Spin, 5 June 2018)

If he was still nothing more than a New York City ganser macher and goniff, this would be amusing and we would all shake our heads on our way to the subway and go on about our business. But we’re in a whole new ballgame now, aren’t we? (Reader’s comment, The New York Times)

See You Next Tuesday, Ivanka
Do something about your father’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt. (Samantha Bee, 30 May 2018)

‘Cunt’ makes of womanhood something repugnant, and so does Ivanka, who embraces the shine and the softness of femininity at the same time that she rejects its bravery, love, and power. (Katy Waldman, 1 June 2018)

We All Watch and Talk About It
That’s how these beautifully-crafted news dramas come together: You invite someone on your show because you know they’ll say something crazy, and then they say something crazy and you get to act outraged and we all watch it and talk about it. It’s like one long brothel orgy from Game of Thrones where you’re all getting paid and we’re all getting fucked. Imagine if these shows just reported the news. They wouldn’t need any of these guests at all, all they’d have to say is ‘Immigrant children have been ripped from their parents due to Trump’s policies. End of news.’ But that’s so boring! Sure, you guys aren’t nearly as bad as the racist catheter-peddlers over at Fox News, but you’re still an accomplice if you’re giving a megaphone to a liar. Hey, but as long as you keep doing it, we’ll keep watching it. That’s entertainment! (Michelle Wolf, Entertainment Explosion, The Break, 22 June 2018)

Black Comedy in Dark Times
I like black comedy, particularly in dark times. The blacker the comedy, the more truthful it gets. I think it’s more important to have satire in these times. It’s a sharp tool and it has often been used in very difficult times. You could argue that the literature of Soviet Russia was sharper and better than that of post-Soviet Russia because they had a target. (Salman Rushdie, The Guardian, 16 June 2018)

In a Glass Darkly
I hadn’t moved from my permanent station behind my computer monitor, a hub for the ongoing erosion of my belief in human good. (Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker, 16 June 2018)

Being Human
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. (George Orwell, Reflections on Gandhi)

One Reality, Two Lies
Totalitarianism, however, does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. Such a society, no matter how long it persists, can never afford to become either tolerant or intellectually stable. It can never permit either the truthful recording of facts or the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands. But to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy — or even two orthodoxies, as often happens — good writing stops. This was well illustrated by the Spanish civil war. To many English intellectuals the war was a deeply moving experience, but not an experience about which they could write sincerely. There were only two things that you were allowed to say, and both of them were palpable lies: as a result, the war produced acres of print but almost nothing worth reading. (George Orwell, The Prevention of Literature)

We live in a dour and censorious age. Perhaps in future it will prove necessary to write every column twice, the original with wit, playfulness and brio. Then I’ll draft a pedantic, leadenly prosaic rendition without any jokes. …

In a polarised and broadly illiterate digital universe, full of predators gorging on animosity who are determined to read whatever they wish to, words cease to function. All nuance out the window, the language no longer serves to communicate, and what we writers do for a living is worse than pointless. When others can overwrite our work with whatever they feel like, using our text like a blank screen on which to project their personal power-point presentations, at best tearing scraps of our prose out of context to construct their own gaudy collages, writing anything at all, much less putting truly controversial ideas into the public sphere, becomes too perilous to be worth the risk. (Lionel Shriver, A Reply to My Critics, June 2018)

Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others. (Groucho Marx)

In Retrospect
We must not look at the past with the enormous condescension of posterity. (E.P. Thompson)

The Great Divide
There are the gauchos and the gauleiters. (John Kidd, Joyce scholar)