Other People’s Thoughts XLV

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.

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, 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, 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, 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 May 2024


Other People’s Thoughts I-XLIV:

Other People’s Thoughts, XLV

Half Full

The difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist? The pessimist says, “It can’t possibly get any worse than this.”

The optimist replies, “Oh, yes it can.”



— 龔自珍,《己亥雜詩》

Killer Opening

Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.

— the first paragraph in the first chapter of David Goodstein, States of Matter, 1975

Yeoman’s Work

It’s tempting to laugh at this painting, but if you care about art it’s a bit sad too. Yeo seems to be saying that painting itself is just a cheery bit of fakery and razzle dazzle. Who cares about truth when you can beautify? A serious portrait would look hard and long at Charles (or anyone), not combine facile pseudo-portraiture with the cheery serotonin of random colour. We all know the king is more complex than this. The king knows he is more complex than this. It is a masterpiece of shallowness by an artist so ludicrously upbeat he should be called Jonathan Yo!

— Jonathan Jones, Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of Charles III review – a formulaic bit of facile flattery, The Guardian, 16 May 2024

News Cycle

In catching up with the news, he had a running order that he stuck to religiously.

First, AP and Reuters, to find out what had happened in the world overnight.
Then, the Guardian, to find out why this would cause all life on earth to end soon.
The Telegraph, to find out why the United Kingdom was alone among nations with the courage and resilience to survive this global catastrophe.
The Times, to find out how much it would cost.
Sky News, to find out what a group of middle-aged men down the pub in Bradford made of it all.
The New York Times, to find out why their journalists had been predicting this for years.
The Mail Online, to find out whether it might interfere with a Love Islander’s holiday plans.

And, finally, Fox News, to find out why none of it was going to happen anyway because it was all a vast left-wing conspiracy dreamed up by a bunch of liberal elites and Hollywood perverts.

— John Boyne, The Echo Chamber, Penguin, 2022,  pp.197-198

Status quo

Personne ne se rend compte que certaines personnes dépensent une force herculéenne pour être seulement normales.

— Albert Camus 

Élan vital

Melba’s real name was Helen Porter Mitchell, …her stage name … taken from the city where her career began, Melbourne. She was an extremely direct, not to say blunt, superstar; one of the many stories about her was that, on being asked what she thought of the great Enrico Caruso, with whom she had often sung, she rejoined” “Finest semen I ever gargled with.”

— Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir, Random House, 2006, p.109

An Understanding, not a Law

Academic freedom is an understanding, not a law. It can’t just be invoked. It has to be asserted and defended. That’s why it’s so disheartening that leaders of great universities appear reluctant to speak up for the rights of independent inquiry and free expression for which Americans have fought. Even after Shafik offered up faculty sacrifices on the congressional altar and called in the N.Y.P.D., Republicans responded by demanding her resignation. If capitulation isn’t working, not much is lost by trying some defiance.

— Louis Menand, Academic Freedom Under Fire, The New Yorker,  6 May 2024

It was ever thus

The human record is virtually universally one of cruelty barely overcome and restrained by civilization. Imperialism and slavery are no white male monopoly but are everywhere, from Egypt, Assyria, and Persia to India, China, and Japan.

— Camille Paglia, Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders, 1991


Here’s a man alone in the dark, ignorant of the danger that’s already very close.

Here’s a man going to bed. In the morning his life will change.

He knows nothing, the poor innocent. He’s asleep.

The future rushes at him while he sleeps.

Except, strangely, it’s really the past returning, my own past rushing at me, not a dream gladiator but a masked man with a knife, seeking to carry out a death order from three decades ago. In death we are all yesterday’s people, trapped forever in the past tense. That was the cage into which the knife wanted to put me.

Not the future. The revenant past, seeking to drag me back in time.

— Salman Rushdie, Knife, 2024, pp.10-11

Victory City

Many years ago, he recalled, there were people who seemed to grow tired of his persistent existence. “People didn’t like it. Because I should have died. Now that I’ve almost died, everybody loves me. . . . That was my mistake, back then. Not only did I live but I tried to live well. Bad mistake. Get fifteen stab wounds, much better.”

— David Remnick, The Defiance of Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker, 13 February 2023

The Darkness is Everywhere

“It’s so much easier to put everything on Netanyahu, because then you feel so good about yourself and Netanyahu is the darkness,” said Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist who has documented Israel’s military occupation for decades. “But the darkness is everywhere.” …

The carnage and cruelty suffered by Israelis on Oct. 7 should have driven home the futility of sealing themselves off from Palestinians while subjecting them to daily humiliations and violence. As long as Palestinians are trapped under violent military occupation, deprived of basic rights and told that they must accept their lot as inherently lower beings, Israelis will live under the threat of uprisings, reprisals and terrorism. There is no wall thick enough to suppress forever a people who have nothing to lose.

Israelis did not, by and large, take that lesson. Now apathy has been replaced by vengeance.

— Meagan K. Stack, The Hardening of the Israeli Psyche, New York Times, 16 May 2024



再說一句: 遇事,就歸因於文化論、國民素質論等等,這類東西說到根底,就是:



— 大生劉蟾,X,2023年12月29

The momentous and the monotonous

An Enemy of the People is one of those plays that, in its original form, feels at once urgent and old-fashioned. It goes on too long and becomes, in some passages, heavy-handed and repetitive. With its elaborate scene-setting and what Arthur Miller called “the dull green tones of Victorianism,” it sometimes puts the turgid into late-nineteenth-century dramaturgy. Yet it explores tensions—between science and politics, truth and self-interest, democracy and individual conscience—that never go away. This peculiar combination of the momentous and the monotonous is, oddly enough, what makes the play live. It is a classic that is not sacrosanct. It is weighty enough to be canonical but flawed enough to be treated with healthy disrespect. It is infinitely malleable.

… It is alarming. That we’ve lived here this long, without understanding who our neighbors are, that they turn everything upside down, call the truth a lie and vice versa—and the scariest thing? Is that these people genuinely believe themselves to be free-thinkers.

— Fintan O’Toole, The Whistleblower We Deserve, The New York Review of Books, 23 May 2024

Ne plus ultra

It is always sort of heartwarming when a person fulfills their peak potential. Many of us never do so, after all, and instead spend our lives caught in the frustrating gap between ability and opportunity. When someone is able to bridge that gap and become their optimal self, it should count as cause for celebration. And so I am genuinely glad to see that former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is now doing the work that he was always meant to do: posting crackpot videos to the internet for an audience of angry loons.

— Justin Peters, What Is Tucker Carlson Even Doing?, Slate, 17 May 2024

Carpe Diem

One of Boris Johnson’s favorite yarns in his well-paid after-dinner speeches was about why my political hero is the mayor from Jaws. Yes. Because he kept the beaches open. Yes, he repudiated, he foreswore, and he abrogated all these silly regulations on health and safety and declared that the people should Swim! Swim! Now, I accept that as a result some small children were eaten by a shark. But how much more pleasure did the majority get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the mayor in Jaws?

— Fintan O’Toole, The Whistleblower We Deserve, The New York Review of Books, 23 May 2024

No laughing matter 

Trump is America’s biggest comedian. His badinage is hardly Wildean, but his put-downs, honed to the sharpness of stilettos, are many people’s idea of fun. For them, he makes anger, fear, and resentment entertaining.

For anyone who questions how much talent and charisma this requires, there is a simple answer: Ron DeSantis. Why did DeSantis’s attempt to appeal to Republican voters as a straitlaced version of Trump fall so flat? Because Trumpism without the cruel laughter is nothing. It needs its creator’s fusion of rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation, whether of a reporter with a disability or (in a dumb show that Trump has been playing out in his speeches in recent months) of Joe Biden apparently unable to find his way off a stage. It demands the withering scorn for Sleepy Joe and Crooked Hillary, Crazy Liz and Ron DeSanctimonious, Cryin’ Chuck and Phoney Fani. It requires the lifting of taboos to create a community of kindred spirits. It depends on Trump’s ability to be pitiless in his ridicule of the targets of his contempt while allowing his audience to feel deeply sorry for itself. (If tragedy, as Aristotle claimed, involves terror and pity, Trump’s tragicomedy deals in terror and self-pity.)

… Cognitive dysfunction is not a worry with a man whose métier is cognitive dissonance.

— Fintan O’Toole, Laugh Riot, The New York Review of Books, 21 March 2024 

Lucky save

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”

— Cormac McCarthy

Zones of Interest

The person who says “We must eliminate Hamas” says this not necessarily because she thinks this is a possible outcome on this earth but because this sentence is the shibboleth that marks her membership in the community that says that. The person who uses the word “Zionist” as if that word were an unchanged and unchangeable monolith, meaning exactly the same thing in 2024 and 1948 as it meant in 1890 or 1901 or 1920—that person does not so much bring definitive clarity to the entangled history of Jews and Palestinians as they successfully and soothingly draw a line to mark their own zone of interest and where it ends. And while we all talk, carefully curating our shibboleths, presenting them to others and waiting for them to reveal themselves as with us or against us—while we do all that, bloody murder.

— Zadie Smith, Shibboleth, The New Yorker, 5 May 2024

Noxiae poena par esto

Virtually every tactic employed by the protesters in the encampment has been deployed before and tolerated at Harvard: unregistered assembly in public spaces, amplified speeches, even putting up tents and sleeping in the yard. In a recent example of disruptive (and arguably illegal) assembly, more than a hundred students ran naked through the yard and around the encampment in Primal Scream, an annual ritual celebrating the beginning of final exams. Once the words “Ceasefire Now” or “Free Palestine” are spoken, however, students’ on-campus gatherings become the subject of extraordinary attention, concern, regulation, and threatened sanction. Indeed, because the rules in question were effectively tightened by a new administrative “guidance” in the middle of January, which interpreted the university’s Statement on Rights and Responsibilities to forbid a wide spectrum of assembly and protest, there is an odd sort of circularity at work here: your protest broke the rules we just formalized to keep you from protesting.

— Walter Johnson, In Harvard Yard, The New York Review of Books, 8 May 2024

Collateral Damage

Nathalie Rozens, 37, an actor and writer who grew up in Europe, said the discussion within Israel about the war had evolved to include more criticism. (A poll published Friday showed declining trust in Israel’s military leadership since March.) But outside the country, she said, Israelis are flattened into caricatures.

In her view, Israel’s critics fail to understand its nuances, that this is a place where many people loathe Mr. Netanyahu and lament the killing of innocents in Gaza, but have a sibling fighting there and are just two generations from the Holocaust’s attempted destruction of global Jewry.

Banning Israeli artists from festivals, protesting singers at Eurovision, refusing to fund Israeli films — “the pressure, in a way, hits the wrong people,” she said.

“I don’t feel aligned with this government and I’m Israeli,” she said. “There is no space for my voice inside the country and also not abroad.”

— Damian Cave, Isolated and Defiant, Israel Vows to ‘Stand Alone’ in War on Hamas, New York Times, 11 May 2024





Progressives had started backing away from it toward new definitions of the social good according to which people would no longer be entitled to dispute the new norms. Protecting the rights and sensibilities of groups perceived as vulnerable would take precedence over freedom of speech, which the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti had called “the tongue set free.” This move away from First Amendment principles allowed that venerable piece of the Constitution to be co-opted by the right. The First Amendment was now what allowed conservatives to lie, to abuse, to denigrate. It became a kind of freedom for bigotry. The right had a new social agenda too, one that sounded a lot like an old one: authoritarianism, backed up by unscrupulous media, big money, complicit politicians, and corrupt judges. All of this, the complexities created by new ideas of right and wrong, and my desire to protect the idea of freedom—Thomas Paine’s idea, the Enlightenment idea, John Stuart Mill’s idea—from these new things, was beyond my power to articulate. My voice was weak and faint. My body was in shock. Talking about miracles was about as much as I could manage.

— Salman Rushdie, Knife, 2024

Next Year in Yavneh יַבְנֶה‎

Two millennia ago, religious zealots inflicted a terrible catastrophe on the Jewish people. Out of religious fanaticism, they rebelled against the Roman Empire. The legions of Vespasian and his son Titus defeated the Jewish zealots, conquered one city after the other, and finally surrounded Jerusalem in a ring of steel. The moderate Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai decided to escape the besieged city. To elude the Jewish fanatics, who would have killed him on the spot, he hid himself inside a coffin. According to Jewish lore, after exiting the city, Ben Zakkai prophesied that Vespasian would become emperor of Rome. The general was overjoyed by the prediction, and agreed to fulfill any request Ben Zakkai made. The rabbi asked Vespasian to spare from destruction the small town of Yavneh, and to allow Ben Zakkai to establish there a center of Jewish learning. The Roman general agreed.

Vespasian indeed became emperor, and left Judea to assume power in Rome. His son Titus was left behind to besiege Jerusalem, which he conquered and burned to the ground. Ben Zakkai went to Yavneh, and he and the entire Jewish people embarked on a unique historical journey — a journey of learning. Judaism renounced the burned temple, the bloodthirsty temple rituals and the zealots who ignited the flame of rebellion, and instead became a religion of learning. Jews lived in Yavneh, and learned. They settled in Cairo and Baghdad, and learned. They settled in Vilna and Brooklyn, and learned.

After 2,000 years, Jews from all over the world returned to Jerusalem, ostensibly to put into practice what they had learned. What great truth, then, did Jews discover in 2,000 years of study? Well, judging by the words and actions of Netanyahu and his allies, the Jews discovered what Vespasian, Titus and their legionnaires knew from the very beginning: They discovered the thirst for power, the joy of feeling superior and the dark pleasure of crushing weaker people under their feet. If that is indeed what Jews discovered, then what a waste of 2,000 years! Instead of asking for Yavneh, Ben Zakkai should have asked Vespasian and Titus to teach him what the Romans already knew.

If Jews have learned anything over the past 2,000 years that Titus didn’t know, now is the time to show it.

— Yuval Harari, Israeli Independence Day brings hard questions about the future of Zionism, The Washington Post, 13 May 2024

Icon of the Seas

The ship makes no sense, vertically or horizontally. It makes no sense on sea, or on land, or in outer space. It looks like a hodgepodge of domes and minarets, tubes and canopies, like Istanbul had it been designed by idiots. Vibrant, oversignifying colors are stacked upon other such colors, decks perched over still more decks; the only comfort is a row of lifeboats ringing its perimeter. There is no imposed order, no cogent thought, and, for those who do not harbor a totalitarian sense of gigantomania, no visual mercy. This is the biggest cruise ship ever built, and I have been tasked with witnessing its inaugural voyage.

— Gary Shteyngart: Crying Myself to Sleep on the Icon of the Seas, The Atlantic, 4 April 2024

Green Books Only

My first bookshop in Manapouri, 45 South and Below, was very well known in the area. The walls were home to a growing number of books displayed on an array of bookshelves, some professionally made, and others nailed together by Lance.

A middle-aged lady came into the shop one day and without any greeting she started to collect together books with green spines. Her pile grew as she stripped my shelves. I thought it was a little strange, and surely not coincidence.

“This is an interesting collection of books,” I said eventually. “Are you aware that some of them are rare… and quite … expensive?”

“Oh, I’m not worried about the cost,” she replied. “Only the colour. I have a new home and want to colour-coordinate the library?” She smiled when she said this.

I had never heard of a colour-coordinated library. I stood looking at her in total disbelief. After about 20 seconds of stunned silence I managed to blurt out, “Well, my books have to be read! I will not sell any of my books just to be put in a fake library and forgotten. You can’t buy any of these books!” 

“I’m willing to pay for them!” she replied, taken aback.

“Well, I’m not going to sell them,” I said sharply, and started to put the books back on the shelves.

She gathered up her things and stormed out of the shop. A colour-coordinated library?! Not with my books!

— Ruth Shaw, The Bookseller at the End of the World, Allen & Unwin, 2022, pp.64-65



— 總統接見「魯保羅變裝皇后秀冠軍得主」,中華民國113年05月15日


Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.

— Bo Burnham

Too many humans & not enuf souls.

— scrawl on a power box near Washington Sq., NYC, noted by Reader #2, 19 May 2024