The Face of the Buddha by William Empson (Edited by Rupert Arrowsmith) - review by Kevin Jackson

Kevin Jackson

In Praise of Asymmetry

The Face of the Buddha


Oxford University Press 208pp £30 order from our bookshop

The publication of this wonderful book is not far short of a miracle – a corny word that would have made Sir William Empson harrumph, irritable scientific rationalist that he was. Until about ten years ago, Empson’s admirers (our name is Legion, for we are many) had assumed that the only manuscript of The Face of the Buddha had vanished forever – it was often rumoured to have been destroyed in the Blitz, until the first volume of John Haffenden’s invaluable Empson biography (published in 2005) established that it was in fact the man of letters John Davenport who had left it in a taxi when very, very drunk, circa 1947.

Davenport was so embarrassed by his bungle that he did not confess to Empson until 1952. But his apology was far from accurate. Thanks to an inspired curator at the British Library (let his name be honoured: Jamie Andrews), we now know the full story. What actually happened is that Davenport, still three sheets to the wind, handed the manuscript and its photographic illustrations over to that most colourful figure of 1940s literary bohemia, the Tamil poet and editor of Poetry London, Tambimuttu. Shortly afterwards, Tambimuttu quit London and returned to his native Ceylon, leaving The Face of the Buddha in the hands of his coeditor, Edward Marsh. And shortly after the handover, Marsh took ill and died. His papers remained unexamined until they were bought by the British Library in 2003. Andrews discovered Empson’s material two years later.

To Empsonians, this happy find was as exciting as, say, the discovery of an authenticated text of Cardenio would be to Shakespeareans. Empson published only four major prose works in his lifetime and completed his fifth, Using Biography, just a matter of weeks before his death in 1984. His posthumous publications, many of them edited by Haffenden, have been a glorious addition to the canon – Argufying, The Royal Beasts, Essays on Shakespeare, Essays on Renaissance Literature and so on – but they have for the most part been collections of short articles or reconstructions of unfinished longer essays. In The Face of the Buddha we have a completed work, ready in 1947 for Empson to hawk around publishers.

What led Empson, best known then as now as a prodigiously gifted critic and scholar of English literature, to tackle a subject so far from his own turf? Though he was interested in pretty much everything from modern biology to Soviet propaganda, he did not often write about the visual arts of Europe, let alone Asia. (One can sometimes catch glimpses of Empson the closet art historian: in The Face of the Buddha he notes that ‘Christian painting hardly ever makes a deity appear behind a skyline, though Botticelli does it once…’) There are two simple answers. The first is that Empson, who had far and away the most action-packed life of any modern critic, was a pugnacious, swashbuckling soul, unafraid of raiding alien territories and confronting the resident experts. The second is even simpler. He loved representations of the Buddha, found them intensely moving and thought-provoking, and wanted to explain to himself and others why they felt so potent.

He began work on the book as early as 1932, when he was teaching in Tokyo. (One of the few facts most people still know about Empson is that he was thrown out of his Cambridge college for being caught owning condoms. His mentor, I A Richards, wangled him the Japanese job.) He took a rail trip to the ancient city of Nara and was ‘bowled over’ by the sheer beauty and power of a few Buddhist statues he saw there. The thrill of the encounter enriched the rest of his life. He swiftly grew obsessed, though it was a joyous obsession.

During the next decade or so, his quest for images of Buddha led him to visit Korea, French Indochina, Cambodia, Burma, India, Ceylon, various parts of China, museums in the United States and a major exhibition of Chinese art in London. In the last place, he saw a life-size statue of a lohan (saint) that he said ‘seemed to me so much alive that it turned the people looking at it … into twittering ghosts’. These were the days before air conditioning and cheap jet flight, and his travels were often travails, rendered miserable and even dangerous by potentially lethal summer heat, trains like mobile latrines, bandits and bedbugs. Few works of scholarship have involved so many years of stoical foot-slogging.

The conclusions to which he was led about the cultural transmission of artistic conventions are too complex for brisk summary, but his central idea about Buddhist aesthetics is not merely simple, but potentially predictable to anyone who has read his precocious work Seven Types of Ambiguity. Like certain words in English poetry, he came to believe, Buddha faces could be regarded as expressing at least two and sometimes many different meanings at the same time; and the sculptural convention that allowed this was asymmetry, with the left and right sides of the Buddha’s face showing different emotions or spiritual states. ‘The point is important, I think, because the faces all seem to be asymmetrical in the same way, as if the artists were working on a theory.’ (One of the titles he considered and rejected for his book was Asymmetry in Buddha Faces.)

To test his theory in practical ways, Empson learned how to draw and paint, and made experiments with photographs, to find out what would happen if you printed one side of a face and matched it with itself so as to be perfectly symmetrical: the effects, reproduced as plates in this edition, are striking. A typical Empson touch here is that he bolsters his arguments by raiding the work of scientists, from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (‘a very fine book’) to the pioneering work of his day on left- and right-brain dominance. He also applies his asymmetry theory to public figures, dead and living. Of Winston Churchill’s face, he says: ‘The administrator is on the right … and on the left are the petulance, the rancour, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power. The bust by Epstein of him uses the same asymmetry.’

Was Empson right or wrong? According to Rupert Arrowsmith, many experts in the field say definitely wrong, and some say absolutely right. In this matter, Empson was gloriously scornful: ‘I have been told that these effects of asymmetry must be imaginary or accidental, or can anyway have no meaning of any importance, because the statues were made to order by simple masons who would not understand the religion at all … That 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.’

Only ‘experts’ in Asian sculpture will be greatly agitated by the question of whether Empson had got to the heart of the matter; the arguments seem pretty solid to me, but then I bring to it about four decades of being stimulated, baffled, enlightened, challenged and vastly entertained by his incomparable mind and far-flung learning. Quite a few thoughtful souls consider that Empson was not just the most important Anglophone literary critic of the 20th century, but the best example for critics of the 21st. Here is a great mind pondering a great subject. We are very lucky.

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