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.
Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny was a prescribed text in high school and Herman Hesse’s If the War Goes On … was the kind of adolescent reading material that teenagers of my era enjoyed. Both works came to mind, as did Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev and his follow-up volume , as the army of the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, thirty years and two months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
More Other People’s Thoughts:
- Other People’s Thoughts, China Heritage
Other People’s Thoughts, XXIX
What We Need To Do…
So what we need to do is this. Start with a little bit of George Kennan’s Containment Policy. Leaven that with a large dose of Reagan Doctrine, arming the dickens out of Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and any other sane polity feeling pressure from the Evil Post-Empire. Mix these with the black humor of Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. And sit back and watch the Putin regime rot.
— P.J. O’Rourke, ‘The Land of Magical Thinking: Inside Putin’s Russia’ a review of
Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible:
The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, World Affairs, vol. 177, no. 6 (March/April 2015)
It was pretty nice in the middle of Kyiv before the war arrived. It was even better in the summer; it’s a very green city. Even twenty years ago I remember a friend telling me how people coming down from Moscow for a break would say it was like a resort. The threat of war, combined with the complete absence of war, seemed to legitimise bourgeois indulgence. I discovered a rich red wine from Odesa, Kolonist. The night before I left I was in a bar on Yaroslaviv Val, drinking Kolonist with Andrei Kurkov while he told me the vineyard’s history. He’s been writing a series of crime thrillers set in the years of the first Ukrainian republic, after the First World War.
There’s an error here, a temptation to identify ‘peace’ with prosperity and comfort, and a rather limited form of it at that. Kolonist isn’t cheap; nor is the coffee in the slick joints around Yaroslaviv Val. In Kyiv as a whole, and even more in Ukraine as a whole, there are still many poor people. It is an unequal society. Russia is also unequal; Russia, too, has its hipster reservations in its big cities. They have coffee and nice wine in Russia too, as they do in China. On the far side of my invasion, Putin promises, you’ll have pretty much the same life as before. Thousands of people will be dead, and thousands more will be locked up, and thieves and murderers (in suits and ties) will be in charge, and we’ll shuffle the pack of billionaires a bit, but the damaged buildings will be repaired or replaced, like in Grozny – no ruins! – and you’ll still be able to buy nice things, and go to night clubs, and get good wifi in coffee shops, and speak Ukrainian if you must. The bourgeois will still be bourgeois and the poor will still be poor and everything will still be a bit corrupt. You will get over the war, and forget the pain, and your shallow consumerist lives will go on as before; and if your shallow consumerist lives consist of sitting in wine bars complaining about how shallow your consumerist lives are, well, that’s fine too, as long as you don’t really want to change anything.
This proposition for Ukraine is obviously ghastly, but also terrifying for the western world: if the fundamental obstacle to a transition from a democratic capitalist peace to an authoritarian capitalist peace is not the nature of the peace, but simply the nature of the transition – if the transition is one short bloody war, or one rigged election – everyone’s in trouble. But I don’t think it is. The peace and prosperity of Moscow is built not only on repression and raw materials but on predictability and stagnation. The peace of Kyiv before the war was nervous, dynamic, unpredictable. Full of obvious mistakes – as an actual democracy is bound to be. Full of people who strongly and openly disagree with each other, and have hope of having more political power – as an actual democracy is bound to be. Full of fearless bitching about how useless the president is – as an actual democracy is bound to be. Full of people who’ve zoned out of politics altogether – as an actual democracy is bound to be. I was never sure whether the unpreparedness of Kyiv for what was probably coming was carelessness or denial, but I think it is quite clear now that it was courage.
— James Meek, ‘In Ruins’, London Review of Books, 25 February 2022
In the 1870s, Dostoevsky described a conversation consisting, entirely, of one ‘unprintable noun’:
Once, late in the evening on Sunday. I chanced to take some fifteen steps side by side with a group of six drunken workmen; and suddenly I became convinced that it is possible to express all thoughts, feelings, and even profound arguments, by the mere utterance of that one noun which, besides, is composed of very few syllables indeed. First, one of the lads sharply and energetically pronounces this noun to express his contemptuous negation of something that had been the general topic of their conversation. Another lad, answering him, repeats the same noun, but in an altogether different tone and sense – namely, in the sense of complete doubt as to the veracity of the former’s negation. The third fellow suddenly blows up with indignation against the first lad, bitterly and excitedly bursting into the conversation, and he shouts to him the same noun, but this time in the sense of invective and abuse.
And so on. ‘Thus, not once having uttered any other single word, they repeated six times this one pet little word of theirs, in strict succession, and they fully understood each other. This is a fact which I have witnessed.’
The word in question, khuy (хуй) – ‘prick’ or ‘dick’ – has been banned in Putin’s Russia. But you hear it, over and over again, in phone videos and sound clips coming out of Ukraine, including the remarkable audio recording of an exchange between a Russian warship and Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea:
Russian warship: ‘Snake Island, I, Russian warship, repeat the offer: put down your arms and surrender, or you will be bombed. Have you understood me? Do you copy?’
Ukrainian 1: ‘Nu, vsyo. That’s it, then. Or, do we need to fuck them back off?’
Ukrainian 2: ‘Might as well.’
Ukrainian 1: ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself.’
Moments later, it was reported, the island was shelled and all the Ukrainian soldiers – thirteen in total – were killed. They are now said to be alive. The exchange became an instant, obvious example of Ukrainian courage and resolve; in Ukraine itself, road signs between Kyiv and Boryspil were altered to read: ‘Russian ship – fuck yourself.’
But that’s not quite right, because the word being translated as ‘fuck’ here is khuy. Idi nakhuy (иди наxуй) – ‘go to dick’ or, more loosely, ‘go sit on a dick’ – is what the Ukrainians (and the road signs) have been saying.
— Alex Abramovich, ‘Иди Hаxуй’, London Review of Books, 28 February 2022
A Study in Tyranny
Books about Hitler are without number, but after more than sixty years the first one to read is still Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Familiarity with the events that it recounts should be regarded as an essential prerequisite to the study not just of modern politics, but of the whole history of the arts since its hideously gifted subject first demonstrated that a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture no matter how widely diffused. It is not possible to be serious about the humanities unless it is admitted that the pacifism widely favoured among educated people before World War II very nearly handed a single man, himself something other than a simple Philistine, the means to bring civilization to an end. The lessons of history don’t suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy story.
— Clive James, ‘Adolf Hitler’, Cultural Amnesia, pp.322-323
If The War Goes On
Be that as it may, one opinion that has often been expressed in the course of the war is absolutely mistaken: the opinion that, through its sheer magnitude and the gigantic mechanism of horror it set in motion, this war would frighten future generations out of ever making war again. Fear teaches men nothing. If men enjoy killing, no memory of war will deter them. Nor will the knowledge of the material damage wrought by war. Only in infinitesimal degree do men’s actions spring from rational considerations. One can be thoroughly convinced that an action is absurd and still delight in it. Every passionate man does just that. …
In respect to mankind we all of us have but one task. To help mankind as a whole make some small advance, to better a particular institution, to do away with one particular mode of killing — all these are commendable, but they are not my task and yours. Our task as men is this: in our own unique personal lives, to take a short step on the road from animal to man.
― Hermann Hesse, If The War Goes On: Reflections On War And Politics