Like all true prophets, William Empson (1906–1984) compensated for his freakish abilities as a seer with a total lack of common sense. He rivals the playwright George Bernard Shaw as one of the twentieth century’s most brilliantly articulate cranks; though unlike Shaw Empson was never a bore. He had no taste for long-winded rambling; instead there was a mystical, enigmatic, lapidary quality to his style. Empson published a few slim volumes of poetry; his verses are dry, clever and demanding (not to mention technically impressive); but his real genius was as a literary critic. He developed a technique of scrutinising poems that is at once elegantly simple and impossible, the requirements of this critical method being a sharp eye, a wide reading and a brain as powerful as William Empson’s. His criticism, even when completely absurd, is intoxicating to read; part of the attraction lies in the fact that the writer is clearly spider-eating mad.
Empson wrote so well about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because he himself looked like a hookah-smoking caterpillar. His moustache had gone out of fashion in around 1860; cameras rarely caught him smiling; overall he had the head of a Victorian judge who enjoyed condemning men to death. Only his horn-rimmed spectacles were vaguely contemporary. But his most notable feature was his beard, which remains the silliest mass of facial hair in modern English literature; even the ridiculous goatee sported by the poet Basil Bunting in the 1930s flattered its wearer more. Empson’s neckbeard was really more of a growth than a beard; unlike most facial hair it avoided his face entirely: it began well below his chin and jawline, and hung from his neck like Spanish moss draping over a tree branch (except that the effect was rather less romantic). It made him seem as though he spent most of his time underwater waiting for plankton to float into his mouth.
Empson’s academic career was not straightforward. He had started at Magdalene College, Cambridge as a mathematician, but switched to studying English literature. His Director of Studies, I. A. Richards (1893–1979) whilst distinguished, never wrote anything as influential as Seven Types of Ambiguity, which Empson published in 1930, having composed most of it in three weeks during his first year (his first term, indeed) as an English student. There was no second year: a college servant found contraceptives in Empson’s rooms; Richards was unable to save his best pupil from being stripped of a scholarship, banned from a fellowship, stricken from college records and banished from the city of Cambridge. He was officially welcomed back to his old college in 1979, having been knighted by the Queen earlier that year.
Empson taught in Tokyo from 1931 to 1934, and joined the English faculty of Peking National University in 1937, just as the Sino-Japanese War broke out. He spent the subsequent two years teaching 17th century poetry from memory: on account of territorial advances and/or occasional bombing campaigns by the Imperial Japanese forces books were relatively scarce. The university was forced to relocate at least twice during the war, first to Changsha, then to Kunming when Changsha was bombed. Under these conditions Empson managed to complete his second book of poetry (The Gathering Storm, published in 1940), and also refined his connoisseurship in ancient Buddhist sculpture.
During the Second World War, Empson, employed as the BBC’s China editor, produced such effective radio programs that he was accused by the Nazi propagandist Hans Fritzsche of being a “curly-headed Jew”. After the war he spent another five years (1947–1952) in Peking, leaving only when more or less forced to flee from the threat of purges in the wake of Chairman Mao’s ‘Three-Anti’ and ‘Five-Anti’ campaigns. Whilst there he managed to complete his most ambitious critical study, The Structure of Complex Words (published in 1951), despite the Chinese Civil War and the sometimes bloody aftermath of the Communist Revolution. Stopping in Hong Kong on his way back to England in 1953, he absent-mindedly set his beard on fire during dinner at the Peninsula Hotel. He often did this whilst smoking.
Empson’s post as Professor of English at the University of Sheffield (1953–1972) was comparatively uneventful, though his personal life remained chaotic and his wife Hetta at one point bore a son with the radio producer Peter Duval Smith (1926–1969) (another with Duval Smith had been stillborn); this complicated the Empsons’ usually enthusiastic sharing of lovers, and increased tensions with their own sons Jacob and Mogador, who did not like Duval Smith at all (young Jacob once cracked a hockey stick over his head). In 1961 Empson published Milton’s God, an irredeemably terrible piece of work. That year he turned up to a party wearing two ties around his neck; when asked why he explained that he couldn’t find his belt.
Empson maintained that evaluating texts was “merely irrelevant” to his critical work: his basic method involved selecting a brief passage of verse or prose, reading it closely, patiently looking up important words in the dictionary and then presenting alternative meanings for each term wherever he found them. From here he let his mind play freely over and through his findings, producing alternative paraphrases of what he was examining if it suited him to suggest a range of possible meanings. He once claimed his criticism to be purely expository:
There is room for a great deal of exposition, in which the business of the critic is simply to show how the machine is meant to work, and therefore to show all its working parts in turn. This is the kind of criticism I am especially interested in, and I think it is often really needed.
Empson’s real purpose was always to shake the reader awake and force him to pay attention. During his time in Tokyo Empson discovered Buddhist art. He had little sympathy for classical or Renaissance paintings or sculpture, and was fast developing a prejudice against Hinduism; but ancient sculptures of the Buddha in particular moved him deeply and he wanted other Europeans to share his appreciation. In a letter to I. A. Richards (2nd April 1933) he declared: “The Buddhas are the only accessible art I find myself able to care about.” He began to write a book about Japanese Buddha sculptures as early as 1932, before he even knew very much about the subject; by 1939 he had travelled to Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, India, Sri Lanka and various parts of China, and even visited major museums in the United States, in order to study Buddhist art up close. It took Empson fifteen years to finish his first draft.
In 1947 Empson entrusted the sole copy of his manuscript to his friend John Davenport (1908–1966), now best known as an alcoholic who used to drink with the poet Dylan Thomas. In 1952 Davenport finally confessed to Empson that
he’d left it in the back seat of a taxi whilst drunk in 1949; it was lost forever.
In fact, Davenport had drunkenly handed Empson’s manuscript to Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu (1915–1983), a noted Tamil poet who just been fired as editor of Poetry London. Tambimuttu was going back home to Sri Lanka, so he gave the manuscript to his ex-colleague Richard March (1905–1955), who fell ill and died before looking at it. The British Library acquired March’s literary archives in 2003; in 2005 a curator was browsing idly through the papers when he spotted Empson’s long-lost manuscript.
The Face of the Buddha is at once a brief introduction to Buddhist art, an amateur’s survey of the subject, and an attempt to develop an unusual theory. In spring 1932 Empson visited the ancient Japanese village of Ikaruga, where Prince Shotoku, one of the earliest Japanese patrons of Buddhism, founded a temple complex that had burnt to the ground in the eighth century. Empson was instantly smitten with the remaining Buddha statues. He also spotted that the faces were all asymmetrical. Back in Tokyo he noticed this asymmetry in the faces of ancient Buddhas everywhere; on subsequent travels through southeast Asia he saw that he was definitely on to something that the experts had missed, or else dismissed:
I have been told that these effects of asymmetry must be imaginary, accidental, or anyway can have no meaning of any importance, because the statues were made to order by simple masons who would often not understand the religion at all. You can read things ‘into’ a Far Eastern painting because it was made by a cultivated gentleman, but not into a statue, because it was not. This makes me impatient; I do not understand why a man troubles to become an expert on these things if he thinks they were made by dolts.
This sounds sensible; then Empson notes, a few pages later: “the argument would be on a stronger footing if one could get evidence about fortune-tellers of the Northern Wei period”.
The Face of the Buddha, like everything Empson wrote, is wildly uneven. Empson was impatient with details that did not bear directly on his arguments. On the other hand he had no talent for stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. Luckily his eye missed nothing. The Face of the Buddha features descriptions of statues that are not merely lively and witty, but precise, accurate and evocative. Chapters 2, 4 and 6 of this book (“Iconography”, “Expression” and “Theology”) may be skipped; passages where Empson summarises historical information or other people’s scholarship are invariably tedious. Yet where he simply observes individual statues and discusses what he sees, Empson is without peer. He is unafraid of mischief, prejudice or simple bitchiness, as in a spectacular rant against Tibetan artistic traditions that begins:
It was bad luck to get Buddhism so late. But in the case of Tibet, whatever you think about India, it would be hard to deny that the appalling character of the climate has affected the religion and customs of the country, and much Tibetan art is simply nightmarish… (p. 34).
Whole sections of chapter 3 (“Survey”) and 5 (“Asymmetry”) demand to be copied out and committed to memory.
Empson’s central observation about asymmetrical faces in Buddhist sculptures is surely correct. His attempts to explain the phenomenon seem underdeveloped; but then The Face of the Buddha in its current form is only a first draft. Much of Empson’s exposition seems shrewd and convincing; yet as with all this great man’s work the fundamental question remains: is he right, or is he just a drunken, goat-bearded crank? Both may be true; to settle the question certainly we need more information about fortune-telling practices in rural China in the 8th century.