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, XXVII
Viktor Orbán’s American Soulmate
Fox News host Tucker Carlson got a lot more than he bargained for when he walked into a store in Livingston, Montana to stock up on gear for a fly fishing trip. While in the store he was confronted by a local fly fishing guide, Dan Bailey, who apparently didn’t want to miss the opportunity to give the Fox News host a piece of his mind. “Dude, you are the worst human being known to mankind,” Bailey can be heard saying in the video. “I want you to know that.” Carlson kept his voice down and only replied “I appreciate that.” The video quickly went viral.
… It appears Carlson at one point asks him to keep in mind he is with his child. “I don’t care, man,” Bailey replies. He went on to say: “What you have done to this state, to the United States, to everyone else in this world. What you have done to families, what you have done to everybody else in this world. I don’t care that your daughter is here. What you’ve done to people’s families…”
— Daniel Politi, Slate, 24 June 2021
The Say-do Gap
Biden’s biggest weakness – of which Xi is doubtless aware – is a lack of solidarity among US allies whose support is vital for his policy’s success. How to agree practical ways to stand up to China is a question with numerous, conflicting answers, depending on where you sit in the world. The resulting dilemma is what Pentagon officials pithily call the “say-do gap”.
— Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 25 June 2021
It’s Ideology, Stupid!
Those advocating against fighting a U.S.-Chinese ideological contest fail to recognize that promoting human rights and democracy is
, in fact, advancing an ideology. That doesn’t mean Washington shouldn’t do it anyway—but it should at least be aware this isn’t advocating a neutral position.
Given the United States is highly unlikely to ever give up promoting democracy’s superiority and the universality of human rights, and the CCP already considers itself locked in an ideological contest with the West, ideological competition will be an inevitable part of the broader U.S.-China strategic contest, whether anyone welcomes this fact or not.
— Nathan Levine, ‘Ideological Competition With China Is Inevitable—Like It or Not’, Foreign Policy, 6 August 2021
It will always suit the current generation of any country to blame the turpitude of their ancestors on the culture then prevailing, as if people had no choice how to act. It saves us from the anguish of asking ourselves how we might have acted had we been there, at a time when plenty of people knew there was a choice, but couldn’t face the consequences of making it, and when those who did choose virtue were volunteers for torture and death.
— Clive James, Cultural Cohesion, p.495
‘A critic is someone who knows the way, but can’t drive the car.’
‘Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.’
The debacle in Afghanistan, which will unravel into chaos with lightning speed over the next few weeks and ensure the return of the Taliban to power, is one more signpost of the end of the American empire. The two decades of combat, the one trillion dollars we spent, the 100,000 troops deployed to subdue Afghanistan, the high-tech gadgets, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs and the Global Hawk drones with high-resolution cameras, Special Operations Command composed of elite rangers, SEALs and air commandos, black sites, torture, electronic surveillance, satellites, attack aircraft, mercenary armies, infusions of millions of dollars to buy off and bribe the local elites and train an Afghan army of 350,000 that has never exhibited the will to fight, failed to defeat a guerrilla army of 60,000 that funded itself through opium production and extortion in one of the poorest countries on earth.
Like any empire in terminal decay, no one will be held accountable for the debacle or for the other debacles in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or anywhere else. Not the generals. Not the politicians. Not the CIA and intelligence agencies. Not the diplomats. Not the obsequious courtiers in the press who serve as cheerleaders for war. Not the compliant academics and area specialists. Not the defense industry. Empires at the end are collective suicide machines. The military becomes in late empire unmanageable, unaccountable, and endlessly self-perpetuating, no matter how many fiascos, blunders and defeats it visits upon the carcass of the nation, or how much money it plunders, impoverishing the citizenry and leaving governing institutions and the physical infrastructure decayed.
— Chris Hedges, ‘The Collective Suicide Machine’, 26 July 2021
The Great Republic
But it was impossible to save the Great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people’s liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons.
— Mark Twain
The MyPillow Guy
When we walked outside, I thought that I might say something dramatic, something cutting, something like “You realize that you are destroying our country.” But I didn’t. He is our country after all, or one face of our country: hyper-optimistic and overconfident, ignorant of history and fond of myths, firm in the belief that we alone are the exceptional nation and we alone have access to exceptional truths. Safe in his absolute certainty, he got into his black SUV and drove away.
— Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic, July 2021
Realm of the Coin
If you make it in your business, you are commended; if you make it in your basement, you are arrested. We call it bread, cabbage, clams, bacon, biscuits, cheddar, gravy, and dough, but almost none of it could be mistaken for food. Broke means you have no money; broker means you probably do. You can use money to do your laundry, but you’d better not launder your money. Your bottom dollar puts you in the poorhouse, but a pretty penny buys you a mansion. You can use money to grease someone’s palm or to pay through the nose, so why would you ever put it where your mouth is?
— Frank L. Holt, When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics,
Oxford University Press, 2021
Jake the Peg
‘Your third leg was just phenomenal.’
— Claire Balding to Olympic swimmer Matthew Richards, 29 July 2021
Nixon in China
Nixon’s proudest boast is that he reopened the doors to China. He forgets to say that he started out as a fervent advocate of the policy which closed them.
— Clive James, ‘From Log Cabin to Log Cabin’, 1978
“China has and will continue to behave badly,” Geoff Raby, Australia’s ambassador to Beijing from 2007 to 2011, told me. “China won’t be changing, and we have to find a way of living with a China that is not like us but is big, powerful, and ugly.”
— Michael Schumann, The Atlantic, July 2021
Save Us from Celebrity
To respect achievement is the only antidote for being poisoned by glamour. But the antidote must be taken before the poison. People should do something before they are allowed to be somebody. Getting back to that reality will be a struggle, but we should make a start now, while we are still sane enough to see that our world is going mad. The prize is a life that our children will find worth living.
— Clive James, 2004
We’re swimming in a sea of overexposed nobodies.
— Maureen Dowd, 2021
‘I’ve been given the chance to do some re-writing on Some Kids. I’m grateful: I know I got many things wrong, and welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly. To people saying I shouldn’t centre myself in the kids lives: I agree. I’ve been worrying about this for years.’
— Kate Clanchy, 6:47 AM · 10 Aug 2021
Where to begin?
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain-porridge unleavened literature licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.
― from Ray Bradbury’s 1979 coda to Fahrenheit 451
When Cremutius Cordus’s history was burned just because he praised Caesar’s killers and did not respect the emperors enough, Tacitus commented: ‘It did in fact survive and was published. All the more, then, should we mock those dimwits who believe that today’s despotism can erase tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, repress talent and its influence grows; the only thing that fly-by-night tyrants or suchlike have achieved is ignominy for themselves and glory for their victims.’
— Peter Jones, ‘Tacitus and the hypocrisy of cancel culture’
The Spectator, 3 July 2021
Camus said it was a peculiarity of our age that the innocent are called upon to justify themselves. Nowhere has this been more true than in Soviet Russia, where the best the condemned innocent have been able to hope for is rehabilitation. But Solzhenitsyn has already managed, at least in part, to bring them back to their rightful role–as prosecutors.
— Clive James, ‘Bitter Seeds: Solzhenitsyn’
The New Review, October 1974
For, rather than thinking of his death, I will be thinking of the story of his death, so much so that after his funeral Amy will ask, “Did I see you taking notes during the service?”
There’ll be no surprise in her voice. Rather, it will be the way you might playfully scold a squirrel: “Did you just jump up from the deck and completely empty that bird feeder?”
The squirrel and me—it’s in our nature, though maybe not forever. For our natures, I have just recently learned from my father, can change. Or maybe they’re simply revealed, and the dear, cheerful man I saw that afternoon at Springmoor was there all along, smothered in layers of rage and impatience that burned away as he blazed into the homestretch.
— David Sedaris, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’
The New Yorker, 9 August 2021
‘Do you know what a cliche is? It’s a story so fine and thrilling that it has grown old in it’s telling. People tell it, not so many live it.’
吳簽/ Kris Wu/ 娘炮
‘I never got on with the English in general. People who believe that an elderly British matron is the Empress of the Indies and Queen of all Africa are dangerously removed from reality.’
— James Baldwin to Paul Gilroy
Only Eyes For You
‘Behind every camera is a human being. When I look into the camera, I’m actually looking at the guy behind the camera.’
… acid seeping down into your soul, and then your soul is gone.
— Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds, 2012
To P.Z.D., from Chorzów
“Please give me some hope of publication, or at least provide some consolation.” We must, after reading, choose the latter. So attention please, we’re giving comfort. A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. You will read it all for the pleasure of reading. Not spotting “tricks,” not wondering if this or that passage might be better written, or just as well, but differently. No envy, no dejection, no attacks of spleen, none of the sensations accompanying the reader who also writes.
For you Dante will always be Dante, whether or not he had aunts in the publishing business. You will not be tortured at night by the question of why X., who writes free verse, gets published, while you, who rhyme relentlessly while counting syllables on both hands, don’t even merit rejections. The editor’s facial expressions will mean less than nothing to you, while the wincing at various stages will signify, if not nothing, then at least not much. And there is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers. There are of course hordes of failed readers—needless to say, we do not include you among them—but somehow they get away with it, whereas anyone who writes without success will instantly be deluged in winks and sighs. Not even girlfriends are to be relied upon in such cases. So how do you feel now? Like a king? We should hope so.
— Wisława Szymborska, ‘No One Thinks in Esperanto’
trans. Clare Cavanagh
Asked once why she published fewer than 350 poems, Szymborska replied: ‘I have a trash can in my home.’
Hong Kong Punch & Judy
… why are Lam & Co. continuing to feed so heartily from the public trough? If none of them showed up for work one day, how many Hongkongers would notice or care? Would we miss the endless kowtowing? The patriotic bromides? The nonsense about collusion with foreign forces? The arrogance? The self-entitlement? The rank incompetence?
… it has become perfectly obvious that these officials are now nothing more than grossly overpaid functionaries for a central government that calls all the shots in Hong Kong.
— Kent Ewing, Hong Kong Free Press, 8 August 2021
‘It’s like visiting an Indian reservation run by General Custer’s family.’
— Marc Lieberman (d. 8 August 2021)
Nabokov would have roared with laughter to see a titan of middlebrow entertainment like J.K. Rowling set upon by moral mobs while his cackling portrait of tumescent evil continues to be taught in universities.
— Matt Taibbi, ‘On Good People and Bad People’
TK News, 9 August 2021
Covid Crocodile Tears
‘In the Pfizer contract it’s very clear: “we’re not responsible for any side effects.” If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem. If you become superhuman, if a woman starts to grow a beard or if a man starts to speak with an effeminate voice, they will not have anything to do with it.’
— Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, 17 December 2020
Who’s On First?
If the world is a contest of governing models, the pandemic is turning out to be a net-neutral event. It is no clearer than it was in 2019 if one-party democracy outperforms the more raucous kind. Or if either beats high-tech dictatorship. Or if generous welfare trumps a lean state. Or if collective action is easier among diverse citizens than homogenous ones.
— Janan Ganesh, ‘Vaccination and the bonfire of Asian clichés’
The Financial Times, 31 July 2021
The Mole of History
I imagine—with both sorrow and certainty—that the Byzantine system of power has triumphed for the foreseeable future in Russia. It’s too late to remove it from power by a normal democratic process, for democratic mechanisms have been liquidated, transformed into pure imitation. I am afraid that few of us will live to see the reinstatement of freedom and democracy in Russia. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that “the mole of history burrows away unnoticed.”
— Sergei Kovalev (d. 9 August 2021), 25 October 2007
To translate a text is to be conducted into its mysteries in a way that no mere act of reading—however conscientious or frequent—makes possible. At the very least, the translator is obliged to confront the words on the page not merely as meanings to be received, but as problems to be solved; and this demands an attention to detail for which most of us never quite have the time.
In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …”
— James Parker, ‘A Mind-Bending Translation of the New Testament’
The Atlantic, January/ February 2018
The Trump Snow Globe
It’s gobsmacking how easily Republicans swap their values for Trump’s voters. He turned Republicans upside down like a snow globe, and suddenly the party that loved to rah-rah for family, morals and religion was in the grip of a thrice-married, grabby, foul-mouthed Tartuffe.
— Maureen Dowd, 31 July 2021
Happy Birthday Mr President
Trump won in 2016 because America preferred someone who was already a pig to someone merely on the way to being one. The country didn’t reach that level of cynicism on its own. Disillusionment has a cost, and Barack Obama transforming from symbol of hope and possibility to whatever he is now — to a shallow, conceited, Fat Elvis version of a neoliberal washout — has been a hell of a blow, whether America’s ready to admit it or not.
— Matt Taibbi, ‘The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama’,
TK News Substack, 13 August 2021
‘There’s always someone younger and
hungrier coming down the stairs after you.’
Shortly after [Boris] Johnson appointed [Rishi] Sunak, his relations with the new chancellor were described as “hand in glove”. Unfortunately, Rishi now seems to have tired of the cavity search. The recent leak of his letter challenging Johnson on Covid travel restrictions has enraged the boss whose entire career has been characterised by exactly this type of posturing disloyalty.
— Marina Hyde
, ‘Is young Rishi about to shunt
an ageing Boris into the role of wicked queen?’
The Guardian, 14 August 2021
Print on Paper
‘Turn off your devices and read The Idiot.’
‘Delusions of grandeur are especially infectious for the semigrand.’
— Walter Yetnikoff (d. 9 August 2021)