Other People’s Thoughts, XIX

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
25 January 2021


More Other People’s Thoughts:

Other People’s Thoughts XIX


Axe to hand

Our entire much-praised technological progress, and civilization generally, could be compared to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.

— Albert Einstein in a letter to Heinrich Zangger written in 1917

The Zen Master

In the bad silence, Ben Lama tells the audience a story about Master Joshu and his monk, who come to a clearing in the forest only to see all the animals run away. ‘Why do they flee?’ cries the monk. ‘Don’t they know you are a great Zen master?’ And Joshu smiles. ‘Perhaps. But they also know I am a killer.’ And Ben smiles, too.

— Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise: a novel, 2014

On Bearing Witness

… little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth.

— Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise


Library-induced realism is a great thing, one that can do much to increase your happiness. Because the world in which you are perpetually under the impression that the next book purchase, the next apartment, the next significant other will be the one that finally delivers the goods is not a life of happiness. It is a life of perpetual dissatisfaction, a life of thin and sugary highs followed by long and unenlightening lows. The library is, with its careworn and temporary offerings, as lovely and as poignant a reminder of our actual human condition as the tides or a forest in fall. To quote Penelope Fitzgerald (whose books are well worth owning): ‘Our lives are only lent to us.’

— Ben Dolnick, ‘Library Books: A Small Antidote to a
Life of Perpetual Dissatisfaction’

The New York Times, 8 December 2020

The Liberal Class

The only thing that mattered to liberals in the presidential race, once again, was removing a Republican, this time Donald Trump, from office. This, the liberals achieved. But their Faustian bargain, in election after election, has shredded their credibility. They are ridiculed, not only among right-wing Trump supporters but by the hierarchy of the Democratic Party that has been captured by corporate power. No one can, or should, take liberals seriously. They stand for nothing. They fight for nothing. The cost is too onerous. And so, the liberals do what they always do, chatter endlessly about political and moral positions they refuse to make any sacrifices to achieve.

— Chris Hedges, ‘The Collective Suicide of the Liberal Class
Sheerpost, 7 December 2020


… there is one level on which people are not different and that’s the level on which they are wicked. There again you can say that all men are brothers. We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.

— James Baldwin in A Rap on Race

Second Nature

For Boris Johnson, lying is not second nature: it is nature. Even on the occasions he wants to tell the truth – a rarity, but imagine it momentarily aligning with his self-interest — he has to make a vast, almost physical effort to override his psychiatric biology. It’s like watching a cat try to bring up a six-kilo hairball.

— Marina Hyde, ‘Boris Johnson’s “charm”, like a trolley in a supermarket car park,
has its limits’
, The Guardian, 11 December 2020

Existential Crisis

All I am saying is that the Western world will either live by what it professes to believe in or it will cease to exist.

— James Baldwin, A Rap on Race

Broken Beyond Repair

When things break, it’s not the actual breaking that prevents them from getting back together again. It’s because a little piece gets lost the two remaining ends couldn’t fit together even if they wanted to. The whole shape has changed.

— John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Maxim’s in Peking

Two years later, as part of an international expansion, Maxim’s opened its first branch in Beijing, prompting Mr. Cardin to exult, with his sense of a limitless future, ‘If I can put a Maxim’s in Beijing, I can put a Maxim’s on the moon.’

The King James Version

To make the Bible readable in the modern sense means to flatten out, tone down, and convert into tepid expository prose what in [the King James Version] is wild, full of awe, poetic, and passionate. It means stepping down the voltage of the K.J.V. so that it won’t blow any fuses. Babes and sucklings (or infants) can play with the R.S.V. [Revised Standard Version] without the slightest danger of electrocution.

— Dwight MacDonald in Franklin Foer,‘The Browbeater’
The New Republic, 23 November 2011


It was nice to hear from Mark Zuckerberg, who grandly announced he’d blocked Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. This is not so much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted as doping the horse, whipping it into a frenzy, encouraging it to bolt, fostering a world in which humans are subjugated by horses, monetising every snort and whinny, allowing the very existence of ‘humans’ and ‘horses’ to become just one of a bunch of competing opinions, and then – only when that one particular horse has outlived its usefulness and seems destined for the glue factory – gently closing the stable door with a self-satisfied little “click”.

— Marina Hyde, ‘As the US descends into chaos, what better time for
Britain to go the same way?’
, The Guardian, 8 January 2020

People as Objects

A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object. That is why the accused is never produced and killed before the eyes of the world unless he consents to say that his death is just and unless he conforms to the Empire of objects. One must die dishonored or no longer exist— neither in life nor in death. In the latter event, the victim does not die, he disappears. If he is punished, his punishment would be a silent protest and might cause a fissure in the totality. But the culprit is not punished, he is simply replaced in the totality and thus helps to construct the machine of Empire. He is transformed into a cog in the machinery of production, so indispensable that in the long run he will not be used in production because he is guilty, but considered guilty because production has need of him. The concentration-camp system of the Russians has, in fact, accomplished the dialectical transition from the government of people to the administration of objects, but by identifying people with objects.

— Albert Camus

The 1/6 Stupid Coup

Harsh and gray dawned the day of the Stupid Coup, with a lowering sky of dense dark clouds, slippery muddy grass underfoot, and a stiff, unforgiving wind that kept the “Stop the Steal” flags flapping. Face-painted and brightly festooned pilgrims bearing banners—snarling Trump straddling a tank, pumped-up Trump-as-Rambo brandishing a machine gun, grimacing Trump as motorcycle gang chieftain—milled about the archaic hulk of the Washington Monument looking like the remnants of a postapocalyptic cult, with beefy bearded men in camo pants and Harley jackets, and women wearing red, white, and blue sweatshirts and draped in red “Make American Great Again” flags like Roman togas. And everywhere on hats and helmets and sweatshirts and pants was that double-plosive syllable he had spent his life affixing to buildings and airplanes and “universities” and steaks and vodka: “TRUMP: NO BULLSHIT!” “FIGHT FOR TRUMP!” “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT.” …

“Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” Above my head a tall homemade flag on a jointed metal pole flapped and waved and finally extended out fully for a moment, and I could read the words that had been printed in black type: “Lead Us Across the Rubicon!” And on the other side: “The die is cast!” I managed to nudge with my elbow the clean-cut, thirtyish young man gently waving the pole. “I like your flag,” I said. He turned his head back at me and smiled: finally, one who understood. “Yes,” he said. “It’s time.” …

Our future Suetonius will have work to do, describing these several decades in the life of the “indispensable” nation. The genocides of the 1990s, the “Supreme Court election” of 2000, the attacks of September 11, the war of choice in Iraq, the torture and endless drone assassinations of the “war on terror,” the economic collapse of 2008, the election of Donald Trump, the hundreds of thousands of dead in the Great Pandemic—and, finally, the Stupid Coup. Will Trump seem as striking and unusual to our historian as he does to us? Will he make more sense when viewed against the March on Rome or the Beer Hall Putsch? Or will Trump be seen as the beginning of something and not its ending?

— Mark Danner, ‘Be Ready to Fight’, The New York Review of Books, 11 February 2021

In the Beginning was the Tweet

Twitter and the other major social networks spent their first decade of existence branding themselves as ‘the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,’ using this as a catchall excuse to absolve themselves of any real responsibility for moderating their platforms. They seemed to assume, blithely and conveniently, that the marketplace of ideas would take care of itself. This isn’t what happened. Instead, with shocking speed, social media decimated professional media, abraded our civic life, coaxed us into unhealthy relationships with our phones and with one another, harvested and monetized our personal data, warped our brains and our politics, and made us brittle and twitchy and frail, all while a few entrepreneurs and investors continued to profit from our addiction and confusion. Social media was hardly the only malign force in the world, but it certainly didn’t seem to be helping.

— Andrew Marantz, ‘The Importance, and Incoherence, of Twitter’s Trump Ban’
The New Yorker, 15 January 2021,

The Boxes of the Republic 

‘A legitimate republic stands on 4 boxes,’ Officer Thomas Robertson, 47, wrote in response on his Facebook page. ‘The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box and then the cartridge box. We just moved to step 3. Step 4 will not be pretty…I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting a counter insurgency. Im about to become part of one, and a very effective one.’

— in Kimberly Kinda, et al, ‘Off-duty police were part of the Capitol mob. Now police are turning in their own.’, The Washington Post, 17 January 2021


Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” Biden’s executive order states. “Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes. People should be able to access healthcare and secure a roof over their heads without being subjected to sex discrimination.”

— Joseph R. Biden, Jr, ‘Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation’, The White House, Washington, 20 January 2021,

The Passing of an Infotainer

Like all old people, or so King claims, he likes to read the obituaries first thing every morning. God’s box scores. He can’t turn away. People might learn about someone who died at the age of 88, or 89, and say, ‘Oh, he lived a long life.’ But that’s not how King views it. ‘’I think, That’s only seven or eight years off for me,’ he said. There were some 78s and 79s in the paper that morning. He shook his head. Negative math is terrifying.

— Mark Lebovich, ‘Larry King Is Preparing for the Final Cancellation’
The New York Times, 26 August 2015. Larry King died on 23 January 2021 at age 87

Staying Power

There is an old Vaudeville saying:

‘If you’re not appearing, you’re disappearing.’

They’ve taken off their turbans

… all the components of the Trump era remain: racism and economic hardship, guns and conspiracists, propaganda and manipulation, and our ceaseless, exhausting battles for space itself—space online, space in the streets, space to speak and hear.

— Meagan K. Stack, ‘The Week the Trump Supporters Disappeared’
The New Yorker, 22 January 2021

The Prophet

There is something in the consciousness of literati that cannot stand the notion of someone’s moral authority. They resign themselves to the existence of a First Party Secretary, or of a Führer, as to a necessary evil, but they would eagerly question a prophet. This is so, presumably, because being told that you are a slave is less disheartening news than being told that morally you are a zero. After all, a fallen dog shouldn’t be kicked. However, a prophet kicks a fallen dog not to finish it off but to get it back on its feet. The resistance to those kicks, the questioning of a writer’s assertions and charges, come not from the desire for truth but from the intellectual smugness of slavery. All the worse, then, for the literati when the authority is not only but also cultural — as it was in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s the moral case.

— Joseph Brodsky, ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980): An Obituary’


‘Fifty years I have perfect health. Now this!’

— headstone in a Berlin cemetery