William Empson: Against the Christians by John Haffenden - review by Peter McDonald

Peter McDonald

Types of Truth

William Empson: Against the Christians


Oxford University Press 797pp £30

‘Personally,’ the young William Empson wrote in 1930, ‘I am attracted to the notion of a hearty indifference to one’s own and other people’s feelings, when a fragment of the truth is in question.’ That particular ‘notion’ is, of course, easier to formulate in youth than it is to maintain in the course of a full life; yet Empson did manage to live up to the principle until his death in 1984. By then, he was acknowledged internationally as the most brilliant literary critic of his generation, as well as one of its best poets, cherished by his friends and admirers, and respected (or feared) by those all too numerous lesser writers and critics who had had occasion to experience the force of his hearty indifference to their feelings.

And no one could – no one can – convey intellectual scorn like Empson. In a sense, this is simply because he was a one-off; but it is also true that the rules about ‘fighting for the truth’ in matters of intellectual or cultural discussion have changed since his time.

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