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 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.
More Other People’s Thoughts:
- Other People’s Thoughts, China Heritage
Other People’s Thoughts XX
All Things Are Possible
To escape from the grasp of contemporary ruling ideas, one should study history. The lives of other men in other lands in other ages teach us to realise that our ‘eternal laws’ and infallible ideas are just abortions. Take a step further, imagine mankind living elsewhere than on this earth, and all our terrestrial eternalities lose their charm.
— Lev Shestov, All Things Are Possible
To Be or Not To Be
Truth and Falsehood are arbitrary terms. There is nothing in experience to tell us that one is always preferable to the other… . There are lifeless truths and vital lies… . The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little whether it is true or false.
— Arthur Bullard, quoted on the title page of the United States Committee on Public Information National Service Handbook Red, White and Blue Series, No. 2 (Washington, DC: 1917)
Heads & Tails
The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
— Hannah Arendt
A Voice for Democracy
Bernard Woolley: What if the Prime Minister insists we help them?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Then we follow the four-stage strategy.
Bernard Woolley: What’s that?
Sir Richard Wharton: Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis:
In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we ‘can’ do.
Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.
— Yes, Prime Minister, 1986
A Wink and a Nod
Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink.
The tragedy of official Washington is that it is confounded at every turn by the hangover of old political habits and outworn institutions but is no longer nourished by the ancient faith on which it was founded. It clings to the bad things and casts away the permanent. It professes belief but does not believe. It knows the old words but has forgotten the melody. It is engaged in an ideological war without being able to define its own ideology. It condemns the materialism of an atheistic enemy, but glorifies its own materialism.
— James Reston, The New York Times, 10 April 1955
An Editor’s Paper
Every story is a fire hydrant, and the hydrant is passed from dog to dog to dog. The dogs don’t change the nature of the hydrant. But they rarely improve it.
Dreaming of country in which: 1. Doctors don’t sell medicine to their patients; 2. Foodstuffs aren’t poisonous; 3. The news isn’t full of lies; 4. Teachers aren’t half-wits; 5. Officials aren’t corrupt; 6. Traffic wardens don’t beat people up; 7. Houses aren’t forcibly demolished; 8. People aren’t scared of the power holders; 9. The environment isn’t polluted; and, 10. The leadership doesn’t have secret privileges.
中国人的中国梦： 1. 医生不卖药; 2. 食品不带毒; 3. 新闻不说谎; 4. 老师不白痴; 5. 当官不受贿; 6. 城管不打人; 7. 房子不强拆; 8. 百姓不畏权; 9. 环境不污染; 10. 领导不特权。
— online Chinese black humour
I doubt it’s happenstantial that the vibrantly imperial, yet still domestically democratic, country that elected the young John F. Kennedy would, 60 years later, elect a 78-year-old to replace a 74-year-old in the White House. Joe Biden will, in turn, join forces with the 80-year-old Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, while butting heads with the 78-year-old Minority Leader of the Senate to ‘run’ a country that hasn’t been able to win a war since 1945, a pandemic nation of such staggering inequality as to be nothing short of historic.
— Tom Englehardt, ‘The Imperial Presidency Comes Home to Roost’, 2 February 2021
Gender & Journalism
‘Some women are interested in needlepoint,’ Ms. Cheshire told Time magazine in 1977. ‘I’m interested in organized crime.’
— Maxine Cheshire Obituary
The Ties of White Power
‘tangohia te taura i taku kakī, kia waiata au i taku waiata‘
Take the noose from around my neck so that I may sing my song.
The People’s Stick
When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the People’s Stick’.
— Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873
In the wake…
Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.
— Franz Kafka
The little is seen best near: the great appears in its proper dimensions, only from a more commanding point of view, and gains strength with time, and elevation from distance!
— William Hazlitt
Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell
After Mr. Falwell’s death in 2007, Mr. Flynt said that despite their differences they had become friends. ‘I always appreciated his sincerity,’ he told The Los Angeles Times, ‘even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.’
He Lied Like a Rug
‘Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain,’ he began in one of his stream-of-consciousness perorations from the bunker, an American flag dangling in the corner. ‘This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God.’
Rest in Piss
He was a pioneer of the audience-optimization model of media — identify an audience, observe its obsessions, then vomit your demographic’s self-image back across the airwaves in big chunks, in between ad blocs. Jacking off your target market’s hangups was an innovation back then, and he had the skill to turn his broadcast studio into a second Oval Office.
Rush grew audience in an almost agricultural fashion, watering the landscape with diatribes about the libs and feminazis that truckers and cabbies with their radios on spread ‘across the fruited plain.’ Unlike the Republican politicians he aided, the core of Rush’s act was the voters themselves: he made caller stories central to his show, carefully tending to the audience relationship, offering a kind of group therapy just by listening, in addition to serving up plenty of targets to blame in response.
— Matt Taibbi, 19 February 2021
If I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.
The cancel culture, a witch hunt by self-appointed moral arbiters of speech, has become the boutique activism of a liberal class that lacks the courage and the organizational skills to challenge the actual centers of power — the military-industrial complex, lethal militarized police, the prison system, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the intelligence agencies that make us the most spied upon, watched, photographed and monitored population in human history, the fossil fuel industry, and a political and economic system captured by oligarchic power.
Lolita remains unassailable because it disarms you and transcends judgment. The experience of reading it, if you do actually read it, is to relinquish concern with right and wrong and just to feel things as another person feels them. One of our most precious attributes, and perhaps the greatest measure of our humanity, is our ability to do this.
‘I hate Paris. That place is just one giant gay ashtray.’
— Dina Fox in ‘Superstore’, Season 2, episode 16
Happy New Year 2021!
Our parents had to wait eighteen years after the end of the last, darkest of all Gengzi Years [that is from 1960 to 1978]. Our ancestors had to wait eleven years after the end of the previous Gengzi Year [of 1900].
Tomorrow, [Chinese New Years’ Day 2021] will be the first year of a new round of waiting.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!
— Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III
Roots is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one — the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.
— James Baldwin, 1976
The eleven hundred pages detailed every — or almost every — decent act I had performed in my life. If I were to seek some testament to leave to my grandchildren, proving that I had not lived a worthless existence but had done my best to help and nourish the poor and oppressed, I could not do better than to leave them this FBI report. In those pages, there is no crime, no breaking of the law, no report of an evil act, an un-American act, an indecent act — and I was no paragon of virtue, and I did enough that I regret — but the lousy bits and pieces of my life are nowhere in those pages, only the decent and positive acts: speaking at meetings for housing, for trade unionism, for better government, for libertarianism, for a free press, for the right to assemble, for higher minimum wages, for equal justice for black and white, against lynching, against the creation of an underclass, against injustice wherever injustice was found, and for peace, and walking picket lines, and collecting signatures. These are what make up that brainless report.
— Molly Jong-Fast, ‘What the FBI Had on Grandpa’
David Lynch Makes Sense
In what seems the far-distant past of 2018, the critic Dennis Lim wrote that ‘the primal terror of Lynch’s films is an existential one, stemming from the ever-present possibility of things falling apart — the daily state of affairs, in other words, of Trump’s America.’ But then things really did [ITS] fall apart, and that destabilizing, anything-can-happen feeling at the foundation of Lynch’s pictures became right for a time of mutating lethal virus strains, QAnon cult conspiracies, bomb cyclones, Rudy Giuliani’s dripping temples, and sports teams cheered on by the piped-in reactions of cardboard-cutout fans. In the course of the past year, the world of David Lynch — which has never made logical sense — made perfect 2020 sense.
— Howard Fishman, 21 February 2021
We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.”
— Blaise Pascal, Pensées
I asked Judge Cassese how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself. His face brightened. ‘Ah,’ he said with a smile. ‘You see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town, so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.’
— Lawrence Weschler, 1996
The Artificial Dialectic
There was once a man who had taken employment as a steward on a seagoing ship. It was explained to him that, in order to avoid breaking plates when the ship was rolling in heavy weather, he must not walk in a straight line, but try to move in a zigzag manner: this was what experienced seamen did. The man said that he understood. Bad weather duly came, and presently there was heard the terrible sound of breaking plates as the steward and his load crashed to the ground. He was asked why he had not followed instructions. ‘I did,’ he said. ‘I did as I was told. But when I zigged the ship zagged, and when I zagged the ship zigged.’
Capacity for careful co-ordination of his movements with the dialectical movement of the Party — a semi-instinctive knowledge of the precise instant when zig turns into zag — is the most precious knack that a Soviet citizen can acquire. Lack of facility in this art, for which no amount of theoretical understanding of the system can compensate, has proved the undoing of some of the ablest, most useful and, in the very early days, most fanatically devoted and least corrupt supporters of the regime.
— Isaiah Berlin, 1957
The Immortal Beat
‘But the whole idea was, it wasn’t whether you were an anarchist or a socialist — it wasn’t that. It was just don’t fall for the corporate state. The Madison Avenue, the advertising world. And now you look at San Francisco — it’s the center of that world. It’s the center of glibness.’
What Lawrence represents is the ultimate uncompromising spirit. Not in the sense of some pompous asshole who says I know the truth and here it is, but of saying I — I am a bullshit detector. And I am a bullshit detector whose main concern is that the average person, and artists and poets and everybody, not get fucked over. But the average person; he’s never been an elitist. It’s never been high poetry. That’s the whole urging of Beat poetry: to be urgent, to be accessible, to convey strong emotion, to be uncompromising. That’s what the Beats were about, that’s what City Lights Books was about.
— Robert Scheer on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, March 2019
Every Slightest Pebble
… such was the stature of Akhmatova that every slightest pebble lending strength to the aggregate of her posthumous monument must seem valuable… she produced on most people who knew her the contradictory effect of being both unapproachably remote, so that treason could but peep to what it would, and also ready to let down her guard and plunge forthwith into whatever treason was afoot.
— Clarence Brown
The End of a Beautiful Era
Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose,
deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less
insignificant nation that’s stuck in this super
power, wishing to spare my old brain,
put on clothes – all by myself – and head for the main
street: for the evening paper.
—Joseph Brodsky, from ‘The End of a Beautiful Era’
America: ‘Back’ where?
America’s version of ‘liberal internationalism’ — code for global military dominance exercised on behalf of liberal values — remains the primary source of decades of foreign policy disaster. Unless Mr. Biden challenges the very premise, he will repeat the same mistakes, now in a more competitive world. …
Investing military might with self-righteous moralism has not only produced one policy failure after another, it has also tarnished the very ideals conscripted into power politics. In crusading to spread American-style freedom, presidents have put the credibility of liberal democracy on the line. When their campaigns failed abroad, a segment of Americans turned to strongman rule at home.
— Stephen Wertheim, 24 February 2021
The Utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. All too often throughout history, those who believed in the possibility of this perfection (variously defined) have called for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular notion of the good into an inflexible standard of universal good. They prove blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil not for evil’s sake but to make a better world.
— from Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists
‘Give Us a Color, Any Color…’
This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Am I right? A group of slave owners who wanted to be free! So they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people, and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving ’em a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what the motto for this country ought to be? ‘You give us a color, we’ll wipe it out.’
— George Carlin, 1988
Chloé Zhao, Cancelled
‘I get asked a lot, “Why are you doing this?” … It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere,’ she continues. ‘You felt like you were never going to be able to get out. A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true, and I became very rebellious toward my family and my background. I went to England suddenly and relearned my history. Studying political science in a liberal arts college was a way for me to figure out what is real. Arm yourself with information, and then challenge that too.’
‘My Eyes Are Infamously Greedy’
If I could, I would want to see everything: the affairs of others, the scene of a murder, the pygmies in the African rain forest, the super-rich of Wall Street, the face of the man who stole three hundred million yen, the Sydney Opera House, the graveyard of ships in the Sargasso Sea, the tail of an orca, the plankton of the deep ocean, the inside of Prime Minister Sato’s belly, Mao Zedong, Mars, Cape Kennedy, Antarctic blizzards, the animal whose name is “sloth,” the pudendum of Marilyn Monroe. My eyes are infamously greedy.
— Tomatsu Shomei, 1969
Travelling in the Dark
The obscure streets of life do not offer the conveniences of the central thoroughfares: no electric light, no gas, not even a kerosene lamp-bracket. There are no pavements: the traveller has to fumble his way in the dark. If he needs a light, he must wait for a thunderbolt, or else, primitive-wise, knock a spark out of a stone. In a glimpse will appear unfamiliar outlines; and then, what he has taken in he must try to remember, no matter whether the impression was right or false. For he will not easily get another light, except he run his head against a wall, and see sparks that way. What can a wretched pedestrian gather under such circumstances? How can we expect a clear account from him whose curiosity (let us suppose his curiosity so strong) led him to grope his way among the outskirts of life? Why should we try to compare his records with those of the travellers through brilliant streets?
— Lev Shestov, All Things Are Possible
Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.
— Howard Rheingold
It’s a Sin