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, XXVI
There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.
— G.K. Chesterton
I told you long ago on the road
I got what they waiting for (I got what they waiting for)
I don’t run from nothing, dog
Get your soldiers, tell ’em I ain’t layin’ low (Bitch, I ain’t runnin’ from nowhere)
You was never really rooting for me anyway
When I’m back up at the top, I wanna hear you say
He don’t run from nothin’, dog
Get your soldiers, tell ’em that the break is over …
[Outro: Lil Nas X]
I’m the industry baby, mmm
I’m the industry baby
— from Lil Nas X, Jack Harlow, ‘Industry Baby’
Music is the way I fight for liberation. It’s my act of resistance. But I also know that true freedom requires real change in how the criminal justice system works. This isn’t just theoretical for me. It’s personal. I know the pain that incarceration brings to a family. And I know the disproportionate impact that cash bail has on Black Americans.
— Lil Nas X, The Bail Project, July 2021
A Popular Quotation, in China and Elsewhere
‘If sharp criticism disappears completely, mild criticism will become harsh. If mild criticism is not allowed, silence will be considered ill-intended. If silence is no longer allowed, not praising hard enough is a crime. If only one voice is allowed to exist, then the only voice that exists is a lie.’
‘You know how white people love their history right until it’s true.’
— Genevieve in Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections, p.222
The Exception is Not the Rule
Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them. They won’t put up with it. They have their standards. They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity. If they ever do die—not that most people believe in their heart of hearts that they ever will—they’ll be wise, warm, funny, and sound of mind until the very end, with doting friends and family gathered round.
Everyone thinks they have too much self-respect to allow a stranger to wash their private parts, or to incarcerate themselves in a care home that’s either sterile and impersonal, or filthy and impersonal. “Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else: either with some Bulgarian in the spare bedroom who despises them and sneaks their whiskey, or in a cynical institution that cuts corners by serving meat-paste sandwiches on stale white bread for every lunch.
— Lionel Shriver, Should We Stay, or Should We Go?
We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
― Don DeLillo, White Noise
The Priapic Space Pioneer
Born in 1964
Come on, Jeffrey, you can do it
Pave the way, put your back into it
Tell us why
Show us how
Look at where you came from
Look at you now
Zuckerberg and Gates and Buffet
Amateurs can fucking suck it
Fuck their wives, drink their blood
Come on, Jeff, get ’em!
— Bo Burnham, July 2021
Trump’s X-factor, his Luciferian pride, his engorged ego, his gargoyle chi — as well as his darkly telepathic relationship with his admirers and the sick realization that in his universe standard morality is waved aside as if by force majeure.
Wolff blames the “striving, orderly, result-oriented, liberal world and its media,” including this newspaper, for missing the point about Trump. Wolff suggests Trump dwells outside the knowable and the conventionally understood. He was never cynical and armed with a grand strategy. He had “completely departed reality.”
— ‘Donald Trump’s Final Year in Office’, The New York Times, 15 July 2021
Tip: If you don’t want comedians weighing in on politics, don’t elect a joke.
— Bo Burnham, 29 January 2017
For Democrats, who see him exiled to Mar-a-Lago, stripped of his key social media platforms and facing determined prosecutors, his future seems risible if not pathetic. But this is Donald Trump, always ready to strike back harder than he has been struck, to blame anyone but himself, to silence any doubts with the sound of his own voice, to take what he believes is his and, most of all, to seize all available attention. Sound the alarm.
— Michael Wolff, ‘Why I’m Sure Trump Will Run for President in 2024’, 23 July 2021
Leninism to the Left of US, Leninism to the Right of US
Today, there is no strategic challenge of the sort there was then to produce a rearrangement of global politics and the U.S.-China relationship. I would argue that we shouldn’t be doing the stupid things we are doing. We’re framing this as a military battle but the real sphere is economics. The Biden administration, unlike the Trump administration, knows how to run the government but they don’t know how to drive it. They have staffers rather than statesmen. They are stuck in the past. I don’t see any motivation for the kind of grand diplomatic opening that occurred in 1971 and 1972. We’re confronting the China of our imagination, not the China that exists in the real world. This is like the McCarthy era. We have a powerful, pseudo-patriotic attitude. “Get on the team! If you don’t, you’re a subversive or a sleazebag.” I wish I could say there was something we could do. In our own interest, we need to rebuild the relationship with China, brick by brick. We have a Leninist Republican Party that is conducting a scorched earth policy against Biden. They’re not going to let him achieve anything. Like Facebook, they want to slice and dice the public and exploit its disparate prejudices.
— Chas Freeman, The Wire, 11 July 2021
‘He’s just simply not a very nice person, period.’
— Alex Palmer, The New York Times, 7 July 2021
That mindset brings to mind Marx’s critique of Proudhon, where he pointed out that in Germany, where they didn’t know political economy, Proudhon presented himself as a political economist, and in France, where they didn’t know philosophy, he presented himself as a philosopher. It’s like a character from Amos and Andy or The Life of Riley where the character’s expertise is always in another place. But this is also a marker of the extent to which academia is one of the last strongholds of the professional and managerial class.
— Adolph Reed, 20 December 2019
‘My dad used to say that in one sense ideology is the mechanism that harmonizes the principles that you want to believe with what advances your material interest.’
Homo Academicus, 2021
My parents had relished introducing me as Dr. Jacobs, the history professor, and now didn’t quite know what to say I was. I had tried to explain to them that professor, even in its best incarnation, now meant answering every year to the tyranny of metrics and enrollments, meant spinning what you loved because you loved it and valued because it was valuable into a language of corporate speak to convince administrators your students were employable. It meant being told you were the problem if you coddled students too much, you, the last chance to prepare them for the sink-or-swim world, but also you were the problem if the students were in crisis, if you didn’t warn someone in time that a student was a danger to themselves, if you didn’t have a plan for how to keep your classroom in the fifty-year-old building with doors that didn’t lock anymore safe if a student with a gun showed up. It meant being told each year in a celebratory fashion that the faculty was now more diverse than ever, and then, at some more somber meeting a few months later, being given a list of all the acts of self-governance faculty would no longer be trusted to do and all the evaluative metrics that would now be considered more strictly. It meant being given well-intentioned useless advice from senior colleagues who floated in denial that the institutions they’d devoted their lives to were over as they had known them, but reminded by your more precarious colleagues that you had it too good to complain.
— Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections, pp.170-171
The Convict Colony
The offshore detention policy is a combination of hostage-taking, deception, secrecy, corruption, populist propaganda, and of course, systematic torture. It is sadistic, costly, and unnecessary. After all these years, Australians need to find the courage to look in the mirror and ask themselves, “What have we gained? What have we lost?” These are crucial questions.
— Behrouz Boochani, The Guardian, 21 July 2021
‘I would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.’
— Mark Twain
Institutionalised Terror in Xi’s China — the Spectre of Lenin-Stalin-Mao
Communism was not the crazy fantasy of a few fanatics, nor the result of human stupidity and baseness; it was a real, very real part of the history of the twentieth century, and we cannot understand this history of ours without understanding communism. We cannot get rid of this specter by saying it was just “human stupidity,” or “human corruptibility.” The specter is stronger than the spells we cast on it. It might come back to life.
These days, Stalin and Stalinism are in bad odor. We forget the romance that Western intellectuals indulged for this mass murderer. We also tend to overlook the fact that thuggishness is an integral, not an accidental, feature of Marxism. Marx spoke of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” What did he mean by “dictatorship”? Lenin explained. “Dictatorship,” he wrote in 1906, “means unlimited power based on force, and not on law.” In case that was not sufficiently compelling, Lenin added the word “scientific”: “The scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammelled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on violence.” In 1917, Lenin got the chance to show the world what this theory would look like when put into action. “He created a system,” Kolakowski observes,“in which, depending on the whim of a local party or police authority, any criticism might be regarded as counter-revolutionary and expose its author to imprisonment or death.” Hence the importance of terror, an essential ingredient in the revolutionary’s utopian program at least since Robespierre spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.” “The courts,” Lenin wrote in 1922, “must not ban terror … but must formulate the motives underlying it, legalize it as a principle, plainly, without any make-believe.”
— discussing Leszek Kołakowski and his My Correct Views on Everything
‘Socialism means keeping account of everything.’
— V.I. Lenin
Soviet history really (and not merely apparently) is a history of congresses, meetings, plans, obligations, overfulfillments, conquests of new fields, new departures, demonstrations, decorations, applause, folk-dances, farewell ceremonies, arrival ceremonies, and so on; in brief, everything which can be read in official Soviet newspapers, journals, novels, or which can be seen on Soviet television, and so on. There are certain things which happen in the Soviet Union which do not appear in the media of mass information, education, persuasion, and entertainment. But all this represents in this context an immaterial non-historic background to real Soviet history. Everything which, to an outside observer who has not passed through the school of the Soviet way of life, may seem a falsehood, demagogy, formalism, a bureaucratic comedy, propaganda, and so on, in fact represents the flesh and blood of this way of life, in fact this life itself. And everything which may seem to be bitter truth, the actual state of things, commonsense considerations, and so on, is, in fact nothing but the insignificant outer skin of the real process.
— Anton in Alexander Zinoviev, The Radiant Future
Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies it’s every step.
— Alan Finkielkraut, Le mécontemporain
Homo homini lupus est
‘A man is a wolf to another man’
Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?
My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious leaders, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
— Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Howard Zinn’s Hope
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
— Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, 2002
Good photography, or any other manifestation in man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when you are delivered from conventions, obligations, conveniences, competition, and you are free, like a child in his first discovery of reality. You walk around in surprise, seeing reality as if for the first time.
From Alpha to Delta
Mask, gloves, soap, scrub
Twinks, jocks, bears, cubs
Zoom is a new club
Six feet, no hugs
Still beat these mugs
Sick beat, got a rug
Joe Exotic is a thug
Kitty cat cat, tell me Carole Baskin
Where is the husband, everyone’s asking?
Stimulus check, everybody better cash in
Mask and gloves, yeah, that’s a new fashion
Girl, what did that girl just say?
I don’t go to work (work)
I don’t leave, I stay (stay)
I don’t care I eat, eat, eat, and sleep all day (okay)
And then I watch TV (yup)
That’s just the tea, hunty (yes ma’am)
Until they set us free (free)
Then Imma let you see
Whatchu gonna let them see?
My mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
Mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
Mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
Mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
My mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
Mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
Mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
Mask, gloves, soap, scrubs
No school, gym closed
Don’t touch these clothes
Need food, this blows
Line at Trader Joe’s
At home gym fish
Don’t come close, just
Wave, wave, blow a kiss
Mask for mask, sis
Left, right, left, right swiping on Tinder
What was life like? I can’t remember
Need my haircut, somebody shave her
Where is all of the toilet paper?
— Todrick Hall, ‘Mask, gloves, soap, scrub’, 30 April 2020
Party Speechifying, Then & Now
Brezhnev, whose chief quality of mind is the ability to produce speeches so boring that the Pravda compositors fall senseless into their keyboards when transcribing them for an indifferent posterity. …
Not even totalitarianism can entirely expunge the human propensity to laugh at the wrong moment.
— Clive James, ‘Laughter in the Dark’, 19 March 1981