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 complied 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.
Quotations suggested by members of the Academy and friends are acknowledged by providing their initials in square brackets at the end of the relevant quotation. Thus, Jamil Anderlini is marked as [JA]; Gloria Davies is [GD]; John Minford is [JM]; Richard Rigby [RR]; and, Jeffrey Wasserstrom [JW]. My selections are unmarked.
Other People’s Thoughts Index
- Introducing Other People’s Thoughts, 14 February 2017
- More Other People’s Thoughts, 8 May 2017
- Even More Other People’s Thoughts, 15 June 2017
- Other People’s Thoughts, IV, 6 August 2017
- Other People’s Thoughts, V, 22 September 2017
- Other People’s Thoughts, VI, 16 November 2017
- Other People’s Thoughts, VII, 20 December 2017
- Other People’s Thoughts, VIII, 9 March 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, IX, 16 April 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, X, 28 May 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XI, 28 June 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XII, 29 July 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XIII, 22 August 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XIV, 28 September 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XV, 31 October 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XVI, 4 December 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XVII, 28 December 2018
- Other People’s Thoughts, XVIII, 20 November 2020
- Other People’s Thoughts, XIX, 25 January 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XX, 19 March 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXI, 10 April 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXII, 4 May 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXIII, 20 May 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXIV, 18 June 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXV, 4 July 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXVI, 24 July 2021
- Other People’s Thoughts, XXVII, 14 August 2021
If one opens a book, one meets the men of old;
If one goes into the street, one meets the people of today.
The men of old! Their bones are turned to dust;
It can only be with their feelings that one makes friends.
The people of today are of one’s own kind,
But to hear their talk is like chewing a candle!
I had far rather live with sticks and stones
Than spend my time with ordinary people.
Fortunately one need not belong to one’s own time;
One’s real date is the date of the books one reads.
[Yuan Mei, ‘Chance Stanzas, seven of thirteen’, in Arthur Waley, Yuan Mei, 1956, p.85]
The Land of Illusion
Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.
(The Story of the Stone, Vol.I, p.55)
The past is not dead, it isn’t even past. (William Faulkner quoted by Simon Leys)
Tyranny does not begin with violence; it begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into it siege of truth. (Evan Osnos, When Tyranny Takes Hold, The New Yorker, 19 December 2016)
Demagogic language is reductionist language. It draws its power from its lack of proximity to soaring oratory. It can be quaint and even clumsy, all of which can give idiocy, incomprehensibility and untruth a false air of authenticity. (Charles M. Blow, The New York Times, 27 February 2017)
The Noise of Time
What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves — the music of our being — which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. (Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, London: Jonathan Cape, 2016, p.125)
Learned books are published by the thousand, yet learning was never less trusted as something to be pursued for its own sake. Too often used for ill, it is now asked about its uses for good, and usually on the assumption that any goodwill be measured on a market, like a commodity. The idea that humanism has no immediate ascertainable use at all, and is invaluable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell in an age when the word ‘invaluable,’ simply by the way it looks, is begging to be construed as ‘valueless’ even by the sophisticated. In fact, especially by them. If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive. (Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, pp.xvii-xviii)
The Tao Teh Ching is a series of insights into life and nature; it is suggestion rather than statement… . It was written in the morning of the human race, and still bears the freshness of the morning upon it. It exhibits a rush of language, a boldness and exuberance of expression, for which paradox is the only adequate form… . For the Taoists, reality was beyond measurement, but not beyond apprehension by a mind that is still. The Book’s greatest gift, in my view, is its mind-stretching quality; it challenges us at every turn to expand our view of life’s possibilities… . It proclaims those ‘Waldens of the mind’ that Dialectical Man needs to restore his sense of wonder and repose.
Only the free, unfettered Taoist mind, bent on enjoying nature as well as conquering her, was able to engender in China a pure landscape art… .
He who views with distrust excessive organization and mechanization, will find in the Tao Teh Ching man’s first articulate protest against them. If he has misgivings about the notion of ‘inevitable progress’ he is reminded by Lao Tzu that ‘all things come back to their roots’, that ‘to go far is to return’. The heavy blow, says Taoism, often fails where the light touch succeeds. The world has a place for humility, yielding, gentleness, and serenity. But to enjoy these benefits one must ‘Learn to unlearn one’s learning’. (Arthur W. Hummel Sr [1884-1975] in his 1962 Foreword to the translation of the Tao Teh Ching by John C. Wu 吳經熊 [1899-1986].) [JM]
A person can go on living fairly well, seem to be a human being, be occupied with temporal matters, marry, have children, be honoured and esteemed — and it may not be detected that in a deeper sense this person lacks a self. Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss occurs so quietly, any other loss — an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. — is bound to be noticed. (Søren Kierkegaard, translation in Arnold B. Come, Kierkegaard as Humanist: Discovering My Self, a modified version of Alastair Hannay’s in The Sickness Unto Death) [GD]
On the Road
To reread On the Road now is to be struck, first of all, by how well it has lasted: its prose sprightly, leaner and less prolix than expected, its intense vision still bright. It’s a celebration of the open road, and of the open frontier as well. To cross into another language, another way of being, is a step towards beatitude, the worldly blessedness to which all dharma bums aspire. (Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 2002)
Only those who take idly what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take idly. 能閒世人之所忙者方能忙世人之所閒。
Of all things, one enjoys idleness most, but not because one does nothing. Idleness confers upon one the freedom to read, to travel, to make friends, to drink, and to write. Where is there a greater pleasure than this? 人莫樂於閒，非為所事事之謂也。閒則能讀書。閒則能遊名勝。閒則能交益友。閒則能飲酒。閒則能著書。天下之樂孰大於是。(Zhang Chao 張潮, Shadows of Secluded Dreams 幽夢影, quoted in Duncan Campbell, On Idleness)
In these last, feeble days I find it hard
To fix a detail of the way things were
And set it in its time. Soon there will be
Only one final thing left to occur,
One little thing. You need not fear for me:
It can’t hurt. Of that much I can be sure.
I know this place. I have been here before. (From Clive James, ‘Anchorage International’, 2017)
Difficile est proprie communia dicere (Horace)
’Tis hard to venture where our betters fail, / Or lend fresh interest to a twice-told tale
(as translated by Byron, who used the Latin original in the dedication to Don Juan, 1818) [JA]
Stories are not mere flights of fantasy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi once said, ‘I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.’ Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time. (Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction, London: Windmill Books, 2014, p.5)
I object to the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more ‘useful’ fields. In fact, imaginative knowledge is pragmatic: it helps shape our attitude to the world and our place in it and influences our capacity to make decisions. Politicians, educators, businessmen — we are all affected by this vision or its lack. If it is true that in a democracy, imagination and ideas are secondary, a sort of luxury, then what is the purpose of life in such a society? (Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination, pp.11-12)
Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third. As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who possessed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means. We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it in any other way. If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state or a traitor to the faith. You have no rights. Woe betide you! We will come after you and teach you the meaning of your refusal. (Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape, 2012, pp.360-361)
‘Just remember,’ I told them [the students], ‘the word “civilization” is transformed on the very first page by Huck into “sivilization”. That is a clue to the whole book — that slight change in spelling subverts the word’s meaning and implications. …
… One day a student brought in the Persian translation of Huck Finn and showed me how the well-meaning translator had simplified matters for his readers by rendering “sivilization” in its correct Farsi spelling. This had led to a long discussion in class about the issue of integrity and the fact that in every novel, including this one — indeed, perhaps especially in this one — words were flesh, blood and bones, as well as soul and spirit. You have a right to interpret them however you wish, but no right — no right — to mutilate them or to perform plastic surgery on the text for your own comfort and pleasure. (Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination, pp.67-68)
I met Andy Warhol only once, and I wasn’t sure it was happening even then. Theoretically he was still alive at the time, but he had the handshake of a ghost. It was beyond limp – just a cellophane sack full of liquid, like the water bombs we made in school. But the hand was a miracle of vitality compared to his face. Transparent of skin and with the eyes of a salmon on a marble slab, he would have made Lazarus, emerging from the family vault, look more animated than Billy Crystal. Our encounter happened in London, not Palestine, but there was something biblical about the features thinly painted on the front of that balsa skull, under the canopy of stark white fibre-optic hair. There was a post mortem solemnity there, an intimate knowledge of the world beyond the tomb. Perhaps, after he had been shot a few years earlier by one of his bedraggled platoon of untalented actresses, he had journeyed through the netherworld while on life support. His smile — a computer-generated rearrangement of crumbling tissue — seemed to suggest that he had met me down there, and was as glad as a zombie could be to see me again. It was kind of him, because he had no idea who I was. And of course I wasn’t anybody. Everybody Warhol knew was a celebrity. Therefore he did not know me.
For a fleeting moment I felt bad about that. I didn’t want it to be such a comedown for the man who had lunch with Jackie O to be having his hand squeezed by Clive Zero. Besides, I quite admired him. I didn’t think much of his paintings, which struck me as sheets of stamps designed by the semi-gifted daughter of a Third World despot. I couldn’t see why a silk-screen photograph of the electric chair should be more interesting than the actual electric chair, which at least transmits some kind of thrill, even if fatal. But I had been impressed by his much-quoted prediction that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes. The prediction was so obviously already coming true. And he had said it well, and saying something well is almost as good as doing something. Somewhere in what passed for my brain in those days, I was already struggling towards the conclusion that if somebody did something they had a right to be somebody, but merely being somebody meant nothing if being somebody was the only thing that somebody did. (Clive James, Save Us from Celebrity, A speech delivered at the Australian Commercial Radio Conference, 16 October 2004)
Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practised at spare moments; it is a whole-time job. (Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1930) [RR]
A Writing Life
The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition — in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong to this class. (George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, 1946) [RR]
Once, when Chuang Tzu was fishing in the P’u River, the king of Ch’u sent two officials to go and announce to him: ‘I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.’ 莊子釣於濮水，楚王使大夫二人往先焉，曰：願以境內累矣！
Chuang Tzu held on to the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, ‘I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Ch’u that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?’ 莊子持竿不顧，曰：吾聞楚有神龜，死已三千歲矣，王巾笥而藏之廟堂之上。此龜者，寧其死為留骨而貴乎，寧其生而曳尾塗中乎？
‘It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,’ said the two officials. 二大夫曰：寧生而曳尾塗中。
Chuang Tzu said, ‘Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!’ 莊子曰：往矣！吾將曳尾於塗中。 (From ‘Autumn Waters’, Zhuangzi 莊子秋水, translated by Burton Watson)
This must be none other than that crafty hypocrite Kung Ch’iu from the state of Lu! Well, tell him this for me. You make up your stories, invent your phrases, babbling absurd eulogies of kings Wen and Wu. Topped with a cap like a branching tree, wearing a girdle made from the ribs of a dead cow, you pour out your flood of words, your fallacious theories. You eat without ever plowing, clothe yourself without ever weaving. Wagging your lips, clacking your tongue, you invent any kind of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that suits you, leading astray the rulers of the world, keeping the scholars of the world from returning to the Source, capriciously setting up ideals of ‘filial piety’ and ‘brotherliness,’ all the time hoping to worm your way into favor with the lords of the fiefs or the rich and eminent! Your crimes are huge, your offenses grave. You had better run home as fast as you can, because if you don’t, I will take your liver and add it to this afternoon’s menu! 此夫魯國之巧偽人孔丘非邪？為我告之：爾作言造語，妄稱文武，冠枝木之冠，帶死牛之脅，多辭繆說，不耕而食，不織而衣，搖唇鼓舌，擅生是非，以迷天下之主，使天下學士不反其本，妄作孝弟而僥倖於封侯富貴者也。子之罪大極重，疾走歸！不然，我將以子肝益晝之膳！(From ‘Robber Zhi’, Zhuangzi 莊子盜跖, translated by Burton Watson)
He had also learnt about the destruction of the human soul. Well, life is not a walk across a field, as the saying goes. A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself. Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible. (Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, p.166)
On the People
In the forty-odd years from the start of the Cultural Revolution to the present, the expression ‘the people’ has been denuded of meaning by Chinese realities. To use a current buzzword, ‘the people’ has become nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace. 从文革开始到今天的四十多年,「人民」这个词汇在中国的现实里好像是空的。用现在中国流行的经济术语来说,「人民」只是一个壳资源,不同的时代以不同的内容用它借壳上市。(Yu Hua, China in Ten Words, 2011) [JW]
Traihson de clercs
But what is sinister…is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most. The big public do not care about the matter one way or the other. They are not in favour of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him. They are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook. The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves. (George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature’, 1946) [RR]
Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. (Susan Sontag, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, 1965)
One of the things that make great artists great is their capacity to escape the confines of their personal lives and speak for us all. (Clive James, ‘Carry on Creating’, 23 July 1978)
O: ‘The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.’ (Bill Hayes quoting Oliver Sacks in Insomniac City — New York, Oliver, and Me, 2017)
Insensibly, he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment. (Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915) [RR]
Among artists without talent Marxism will always be popular, since it enables them to blame society for the fact nobody wants to hear what they have to say. (Clive James, ‘Wuthering Depths’, 8 October 1978)
The Self-silenced Majority
Life in China is saturated with pretense. People feign ignorance and speak in ambiguities. Everyone in China knows that a censorship system exists, but there is very little discussion of why it exists. …
The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness. …
The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-censorship. It is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.
For people who accept this passive position toward authority, ‘getting by’ becomes the supreme value. They smile, bow and nod their heads, and such behavior usually leads to lifestyles that are comfortable, trouble free and even cushy. This attitude is essentially defensive on their part. It is obvious that in any dispute, if one side is silenced, the words of the other side will go unquestioned.
That’s what we have here in China: The self-silenced majority, sycophants of a powerful regime, resentful of people like me who speak out, are doubly bitter because they know that their debasement comes by their own hand. Thus self-defense also becomes self-comfort. (Ai Weiwei, ‘How Censorship Works’, 8 May 2017)
O, as he goes over final galleys for his book:
He insists on crossing out clauses suggested by a copy editor that define or explain an unusual word or term he has used: ‘Let them find out!’ he says, meaning — make the reader work a little. Go look it up in a dictionary, or go to the library! (Bill Hayes, Insomniac City — New York, Oliver and Me, 2017 [‘O’ is Oliver Sacks])
When I met McCarthy, he implied that the unconscious played a role in his own writing. I asked him for his views on the source and power of his own novels, and, seated on a leather couch in the Santa Fe Institute library, he responded with a kind of parable: ‘There was a guy who was a great wingshot on a quail hunt in Georgia. He killed everything he saw, he dropped ’em all morning. One of the other guys said, “You’re the best wingshot I’ve ever seen.” At lunch the guy asked him, “Do you shoot with one eye open or both?” He paused and thought about it. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.” ‘ (Nick Romeo, ‘Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious’, 2017)
People-smugglers of the Intellect
Liberal humanism does not have a geographic home; it is not fixed in space, does not emerge from a single source. Rather its fragile decencies are founded on connections between disparate individuals, creative artists and people-smugglers of the intellect who carry other people’s words around inside their heads. (Geordie Williamson, ‘The Cosmopolitan Shirley Hazzard’, 2012)
Mandarin in Extremis
There’s an absolutely wonderful story, I don’t know where I read it, perhaps in Plato, which recounts how when they brought the poison to Socrates, they found him studying Persian. ‘But why are you studying Persian?’, they asked. Socrates replied, ‘Simply because I want to learn Persian. Ah — so I have to take the hemlock now? Then I’ll take it.’ This strikes me as absolutely marvellous. God grant that Death finds me thus, trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. (Mario Vargas Llosa, interview with María Luisa Blanco, Babelia, 20 May 2006, translated by Richard Rigby)
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes. (Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, 1844) [JM]
Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of those who fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ At which point an old woman puts up her hand and says ‘But Rector, I have no teeth’, to which the hell-fire preacher replies ‘Madam, teeth will be provided.’
Inviting the Gods
To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories. (Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1988) [GD]
Editing and Reviewing
We do what we want and don’t try to figure out what the public wants. (Robert B. Silvers, Editor, The New York Review of Books)
Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art — not speaking about it, not writing about it — is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist’s intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it — which doesn’t prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all. (Adrian Searle, art critic)
Education Under the Wheel
There was something wild, untamed, uncultured in him that must first be broken, a dangerous flame that must be extinguished and stamped out. Man as Nature created him is a dark, incalculable and dangerous creature — a spring that bursts forth from an unknown mountain, an ancient forest without path or clearing. An ancient forest must be cleared and tidied up and greatly reduced in area; it is the school’s job to break in the natural man, subdue and greatly reduce him; in accordance with principles sanctioned by authority it is its task to make him a useful member of the community and awake in him those qualities, the complete development of which is brought to a triumphant conclusion by the well-calculated disciple of the barrack square. (Hermann Hesse, Unterm Rad, translated as The Prodigal)
It must however always be borne in mind that translators are but traitors at the best, and that translations may be moonlight and water while the originals are sunlight and wine. (Herbert Giles, 16 October 1883)
The Power of Lies
Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble — that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars — and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. (Rebecca Solnit, The Loneliness of Donald Trump)
Unity at All Costs
On 7 November 1937, the anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin gave a toast at a meeting of Politburo leaders that was recorded by the Bulgarian Communist and leader of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov, in his published diary.
I would like to say some words, perhaps not festive ones … The Russian czars did a great deal that was bad. They robbed and enslaved the people. But they did one thing that was good. They amassed an enormous state, all the way to Kamchatka. We have inherited that state.
He went on:
We have united the state in such a way that if any part were isolated from the common socialist state, it would not only inflict harm on the latter but would be unable to exist independently and would inevitably fall under foreign subjugation. Therefore, whoever attempts to destroy that unity of the socialist state, whoever seeks the separation of any of its parts or nationalities — that man is an enemy, a sworn enemy of the state and of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. And we will destroy each and every such enemy, even if he was an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts — yes, his thoughts — threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!
At which Politburo members voiced their approval: ‘To the great Stalin!’ (Jonathan Brent, The Order of Lenin: Find Some Truly Hard People)
Dying for a Job
If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living. (Yiddish proverb)
Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail. (Denis Johnson)
The Classics and Us
I often find my mind goes where another mind has been. (May Swenson in US Veterans Use Greek Tragedy to Tell Us About War) [See also Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1995) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2003).
His duty, the task with which the State has entrusted him requires that he shall subdue and extirpate untutored energy and natural appetites and plant in their place the quiet, temperate ideas recognised by the State. Many a person who is at present a contented citizen and persevering official might have become an undisciplined innovator or futile dreamer but for these efforts on the part of the school. (Hermann Hesse, Unterm Rad, translated as The Prodigal)