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 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
9 December 2023
More Other People’s Thoughts:
- Other People’s Thoughts, China Heritage
Other People’s Thoughts, XXXIX
Pointing the Way
[Note: One of Xi Jinping’s many sobriquets is ‘Emperor Indicator’ 指明帝. State media frequently uses the expression ‘[he] shows us the way’ 指明方向 when referring to Xi Jinping’s latest policy directives.]
During the past weeks, I’ve been casting about to see what ideas are already out there. Suggestions I’ve found include the Terrible Twenties, the Long 2016, the Age of Emergency, Cold War II, the Omnishambles, the Great Burning, and the Assholocene. The novelist William Gibson coined “the Jackpot” in his 2014 novel “The Peripheral” for a near-future period of intersecting apocalyptic crises, when everything seems to be happening at once. In 2016, the scholar Donna Haraway deemed our time the Chthulucene, inspired by a word derived from ancient Greek, “chthonic”—of or relating to the muddy, messy, impenetrable underworld. The artist and author James Bridle titled their 2016 book on technology and our collapsing sense of the future “New Dark Age,” taking a phrase from H. P. Lovecraft.
— Kyle Chayka, What to Call Our Chaotic Era, 7 December 2023
The Level Beyond
Journalists often walk the paths where good is losing to evil.…
The war in Ukraine destroyed the part of me that missed Russia and felt pain for its fate. I can at last let go of my peculiar nostalgia—the nostalgia for what I hoped Russia could one day be—and see the country for what it is.
Russia is the country destroying cities and villages in Ukraine; the country where more than 500 political prisoners languish; where even Wagner soldiers know that their nation has no pity for its dead; the global power whose leader has entered an anti-Western entente with North Korea, China, Hamas, and other authoritarian governments that kill journalists and opposition activists. Russia has reached its bottom, and then the level beyond.
— Anna Nemtsova, How I Lost the Russia That Never Was, 24 November 2023
L’enfer, c’est les autres
Sylvain Tesson once famously said, “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.”
The Chainsaw President
Some accounts have compared Milei to Donald Trump as a right-wing populist with authoritarian sympathies. (He has downplayed the crimes of the military dictatorship that murdered thousands of Argentines between 1974 and 1983.) When it comes to economics, however, the comparison falls short. Although Milei and Trump are both self-styled economic nationalists, the Argentinean has no time for the protectionism that Trump espouses, or for telling manufacturers where to situate their plants. The intellectual inspirations for Milei’s hard-line economic libertarianism include Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas, two illustrious University of Chicago economists, and Murray Rothbard, a less famous New Yorker who helped to introduce the Austrian school of free-market economics to the United States. (Milei owns five English mastiffs, four of which are named Milton, Robert, Lucas, and Murray; the fifth is called Conan, after the Barbarian.)
— John Cassidy, The Free-Market Fundamentalism of Argentina’s Javier Milei, 21 November 2023
Klaas argued that the presidential contest now pits a 77-year-old racist, misogynist bigot who has been found liable for rape, who incited a deadly, violent insurrection aimed at overturning a democratic election, who has committed mass fraud for personal enrichment, who is facing 91 separate counts of felony criminal charges against him and who has overtly discussed his authoritarian strategies for governing if he returns to power against “an 80-year-old with mainstream Democratic Party views who sometimes misspeaks or trips.”
“One of those two candidates,” Klaas noted, “faces relentless newspaper columns and TV pundit ‘takes’ arguing that he should drop out of the race. (Spoiler alert: It’s somehow not the racist authoritarian sexual abuse fraudster facing 91 felony charges).”
What is going on? How is it possible that the leading candidate to become president of the United States can float the prospect of executing a general and the media response is … crickets?
— Thomas B. Edsall, The Roots of Trump’s Rage, 22 November 2023
Evolution is a concept that applies to biology, not human nature. It turns out that humanity does not grow out of the darkness of the past. It has to be contested by every generation. We are neither imprisoned by darkness nor ever fully captured by light.
— David French, An Old Hate Cracks Open on the New Right, 19 November 2023
George Santos, a MAGA avatar
That movement is multifaceted, and different politicians represent different strains: There’s the dour, conspiracy-poisoned suburban grievance of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the gun-loving rural evangelicalism of Lauren Boebert, the overt white nationalism of Paul Gosar and the frat boy sleaze of Matt Gaetz. But no one embodies Trump’s fame-obsessed sociopathic emptiness like Santos. He’s heir to Trump’s sybaritic nihilism, high-kitsch absurdity and impregnable brazenness.
— Michelle Goldberg, Farewell to George Santos, the Perfect MAGA Republican, 1 December 2023
A Candle in the Wind
“And it seems to me that I lived my life like an evil Forrest Gump.
I’m the guy who lied even too much for Donald Trump.
And you all got to laugh at me, and I say lucky you
My candle burned out long before I could flee to Peru.”
— ‘Saturday Night Live’ Says Goodbye to George Santos, 3 December 2023
People who are famous enough to be known by one name usually have one verdict attached to it. Though Churchill has his doubters and Mussolini his apologists, reputations are for the most part like summer rentals: an agreeably solid front, with the termites gnawing down below, unseen. Almost the only exception to this rule is the first of the great modern one-namers, Napoleon, Emperor of the French. In the case of no other historical figure does opinion diverge so widely, accept so extensive a set of possible judgments, or differ so radically from country to country. In France he remains a great man. Every year sees the publication of still more books, generally rapturous, about his life and times, to add to what is probably already the largest pile in the French language devoted to a single subject. (One guess puts the number at forty-five thousand.) A big success of French publishing this year has been a swoony series by a minor left-wing politician named Max Gallo, whose titles—“The Song of Departure,” “The Emperor of Kings”—give the game away. “What character, what will, what courage, what energy, what imagination,” the jacket blurb begins. The winner of this year’s prize from the French Academy, Patrick Rambaud’s “La Bataille,” is a retelling of a Napoleonic battle. Last week, it also won the Prix Goncourt, the first time a book has ever won both prizes. For the French, Napoleon is not just an icon; he is a constellation, high in the sky, and no more to be judged good or evil than the stars are.
The darker view has been around for just as long, and, not surprisingly, gets its biggest play in England, where Napoleon has been pictured as a deformed megalomaniacal dwarf ever since Gillray’s caricatures. In that vein comes Alan Schom’s new book,“Napoleon Bonaparte” (HarperCollins; $40), which offers the most polished, scholarly, and successful version of Gillray’s megalomaniacal dwarf that has yet appeared. Schom’s book is obviously meant to replace Vincent Cronin’s seventies biography as the standard one-volume work available to the general reader. But where Cronin took the worshipful French line Schom is a revisionist, even a negationist. Schom, whose earlier books include a precise, exciting history of the Battle of Trafalgar and a somewhat less exciting history of the Battle of Waterloo, can barely stand the sight of his subject. For Schom, nothing that Napoleon does is any good at all. He even goes after him with inverted commas: his victory at Austerlitz becomes “this ‘successful’ military campaign”; his impassioned love letters to his Polish sweetheart, Marie Walewska, become “impassioned ‘love letters.’ ” His accomplishments as a maker of laws and of schools are described in a couple of pages and then dismissed in a paragraph, with Schom maintaining that the Napoleonic curriculum to this day is one in which “glory was extolled at the expense of truth, French leaders preferring to treat their citizens like children.” Schom even concludes, in an afterword, that “all my medical friends confirm that Bonaparte—like so many dictatorial rulers—would according to the U.K. Mental Health Act of 1983 be described as a psychopath.”
— Adam Gopnik, The Battle Over Napoleon’s Legacy, 16 November 1997
Nigel Goes Bush
To watch him in the jungle is to watch an emotional black hole trying very hard not to come across as one. When another campmate cries or is distressed, Little Me is mesmerisingly out of his depth. The politician part of him knows he’s expected to comfort them in some way, but the human part of him doesn’t know how. Are you supposed to pat them ineffectually on the shoulder? What are the words? This is someone who experiences emotion only as the twitch of a phantom limb. It’s quite helpful knowing this about someone who apparently seeks to run the country.
— Marina Hyde, Nigel Farage wants people to see the ‘real him’ in the jungle, 24 November 2023
If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.
… it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum. God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid. … a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created?’ If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.
I can smile, and murder whiles I smile
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.
— Duke of Gloucester (Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III), Henry VI, Part 3, act III scene II
The world’s oldest living land animal — a giant tortoise named Jonathan — has just turned 191 alongside his male partner of 26 years. He’s lived on the beautiful island of Saint Helena since 1882, when he was 50. Yes, that makes Jonno’s birth year 1832, before the invention of the telephone, the photograph and even the postage stamp, as euronews writes. When he was born, folks, we did not even know dinosaurs existed. He’s lost his sense of sight and smell in the many decades since, but he’s very happy and healthy, his vet Joe Hollins told Guinness World Records, spending his days roaming slowly through the grounds of the governor’s house.
It wasn’t always so. During the 1980s when much of the world suffered an economic depression, Jonno battled a personal bout. He seems really lonely, experts said (presumably spending time in his shell listening to Bob Dylan, or mournfully eating ice cream right out of the carton). Enter Frederica in 1991, a gorgeous fellow giant tortoise, who evidently lit Jonno’s sad old heart on fire. The two swiftly became partners but never had any kids, with experts shrugging that maybe they liked their life the way it was. Some 26 years later, it turned out Frederica was actually Fred. The passion burns as bright as ever, Hollins says. He still has a “good libido”. Good for him.
— Crikey, 8 December 2023 (recommended by Linda Jaivin)
Radio host John Laws rates Australia’s prime ministers
Fitz: OK, let’s go through the latter-day prime ministers who you’ve known and interviewed extensively, and you give them a mark out of 10. Bob Hawke?
Fitz: Paul Keating? JL: Nine.
Fitz: John Howard? JL: Ten.
Fitz: Kevin Rudd? JL: Four.
Fitz: Julia Gillard? JL: Seven.
Fitz: Scott Morrison? JL: Oh, I can’t even remember him!
Fitz: Anthony Albanese? JL: Oh, I like him. I think he’s going well. I think I’d give him nine out of 10.
Fitz: How do you think Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is going? JL: Pretty ineffectual. …
Fitz: There will come a time John, I hope at least 15 or 20 years from now, when the news will break that you have died. What do you want the people of Australia to say?
JL: “At last!”
— Peter FitzSimmons, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 December 2023
Vale Tim Dorsey
His novel “Atomic Lobster” (2008), Mr. Dorsey said in an interview with Powell’s Books, was “the dissection of a Florida neighborhood populated almost entirely by degenerates, con men, the terminally dysfunctional, golf freaks, trophy wives, and prescription-abusing retirees in Buicks tying up traffic. In other words, a documentary.”
— Tim Dorsey (1961-2023)
No Hard Feelings
The movie makes much of the generational divide between Maddie [Jennifer Lawrence] and her Zoomer quarry, and its best joke happens when she crashes a teen house party and finds bedroom after bedroom full of kids staring at their phones. Like a time-traveller from the raunchfests of yore, she yells, “Doesn’t anyone fuck anymore?”
— Ian Crouch, The Best Jokes of 2023
Yes, despite popular sentiments, Wes Anderson has directed one of the worst films of the year with his latest overstuffed trinket, Asteroid City. An ensemble of notables are paraded around in this soulless period piece about a 1950s junior stargazing contest with metatextual asides. A deliriously twee score from Alexandre Desplat only assists in driving home its cloying self-reflexivity from a filmmaker lodged deeply in endless Russian-nesting-doll excessiveness. Robert D. Yeoman’s vibrant cinematography aside, Anderson continues to reveal narrative limitations thanks to an overwhelmingly exuberant flattery accompanying his films, where charges of verbosity are somehow dodged in superficial, eternally fussy passages hiding a desolate void for any who dare to look past its cheerily droll curtain.
— Nicholas Bell, The Worst Films of 2023, SPIN, 5 December 2023
Who’s the worst pop star of modern times? Some might say that Adele sounds like a moose with PMT – and Sam Smith certainly has his knockers. But I’d be tempted to plump for Ed Sheeran.
The 32-year-old is the most successful pop star of our time, with a voice best described as pasteurised ‘urban’ delivered with an insistent, hollow enthusiasm. Sheeran makes background music which has been inexplicably pushed to the foreground, elevator music elevated to a ludicrous degree.
— Julie Burchill, Ed Sheeran’s time is up, The Spectator, 25 November 2023
The funniest real trial this year took place in Utah, where the actor Gwyneth Paltrow faced allegations that she had committed a “hit and run” on the slopes of Deer Valley in 2016, injuring a fellow-skier. Rather than settle, Paltrow countersued for one dollar, went to court, and won, and in the process inhabited what Naomi Fry called her best role in years. Paltrow wowed style-watchers with her courtroom outfits and seemed to melt one of the plaintiff’s lawyers into a fangirl puddle. During her testimony, when asked how the accident affected her, Paltrow said, “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.”
— Ian Crouch, The Best Jokes of 2023
Hollywood Actor’s Strike
One protester held a sign that read: “The only part of my body the studios can scan for $100 is my middle finger.”
My favorite “Twilight Zone” episode is the one where aliens land and, in a sign of their peaceful intentions, give world leaders a book. Government cryptographers work to translate the alien language. They decipher the title — “To Serve Man” — and that’s reassuring, so interplanetary shuttles are set up.
But as the cryptographers proceed, they realize — too late — that it’s a cookbook.
That, dear reader, is the story of OpenAI.
— Maureen Dowd, Sam Altman, Sugarcoating the Apocalypse, 2 December 2023
Id, ego and super-ego
Billionaires, or their equivalents, have been around a long time, but there’s something different about today’s tech titans, as evidenced by a rash of recent books. Reading about their apocalypse bunkers, vampiric longevity strategies, outlandish social media pronouncements, private space programmes and virtual world-building ambitions, it’s hard to remember they’re not actors in a reality series or characters from a new Avengers movie.
Unlike their forebears, contemporary billionaires do not hope to build the biggest house in town, but the biggest colony on the moon. In contrast, however avaricious, the titans of past gilded eras still saw themselves as human members of civil society. Contemporary billionaires appear to understand civics and civilians as impediments to their progress, necessary victims of the externalities of their companies’ growth, sad artefacts of the civilisation they will leave behind in their inexorable colonisation of the next dimension. Unlike their forebears, they do not hope to build the biggest house in town, but the biggest underground lair in New Zealand, colony on the moon or Mars or virtual reality server in the cloud.
— Douglas Rushkoff, ‘We will coup whoever we want!’, 25 November 2023
“He was able to give a conspiratorial air to even the most minor of things,” Mr. Eagleburger, who admired him, said before his death in 2011.
— sextina acab-fina, @giltcomplex, 30 November 2023
Even before 7 October and Gaza 2023
The complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult discussions. Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise.
— Kenneth Stern, The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, 2020
Hope and Promise
Sitting in the audience of a children’s voice recital, fortysomething Sam (Bridget Everett) asks her best friend Joel (Jeff Hiller), jokingly but not, “Is that what hope and promise looks like?”
In the words of Bianca Bernardo, a 23-year-old content creator in Los Angeles: “May all your delulu come trululu, because being delulu is the solulu.”