The Face of the Buddha
by william empson
edited by rupert arrowsmith
oxford, 208 pages, $49.95

William Empson (1906–1984) was not, as he is frequently said to have been, an “important critic,” but only because there is no such thing. By the same token, neither was he a unicorn, a square circle, or a decent impulse in the heart of Donald Trump. What he was, however, was a thinker with an incisively original mind and a fine, lucid, and always lively prose style, and the exquisitely inconclusive analysis of great works of literature, at which he so excelled, provided him with endless occasions for displaying both. He was also a talented mathematician and a remarkable poet, though he largely abandoned mathematics after his undergraduate studies at Cambridge and stopped writing much poetry in his mid-thirties. He probably possessed most of the natural intellectual gifts of a good philosopher, if little of the temperament. His first and still most influential book, for instance, Seven Types of Ambiguity—which he wrote when he was twenty-one and published when he was twenty-four—exhibits a subtler and more penetrating understanding of language and its limits than does, say, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published eight years before. (Not to worry: Over the next several decades, Wittgenstein would grope his way toward a level of sophistication comparable to Empson’s.)

By all rights, the publication of Seven Types should have secured Empson’s future. It nearly did, in fact. While still in manuscript, it was enough to confirm the brilliance he had exhibited as a student and to win him a fellow’s perch at his college, Magdalene, from which he could have looked forward to decades of long strolls along the Backs, long afternoons in the Pepys Library, long conversations in the upper combination room. . . . But all of it was, in fact, cut very short when a college porter discovered a package of condoms in his rooms. Today that would merely earn him plaudits for social conscientiousness, but Cambridge in 1929 was a very different world; the porter dutifully reported the abomination and Empson was expelled from his college and the university, his name literally expunged from its records. Any real employment, apart from some freelance cultural journalism, became all at once impossible for him in England.

So, with the aid of his old tutor I. A. Richards, Empson departed for the Far East in 1931: first to a teachers’ training college in Japan and then, after a brief return to England mid-decade, to China to take up an appointment at Peking University—which instead became an absurdly austere teaching post in Kunming, among other refugee scholars, because the Japanese had arrived in China at about the same time as Empson had. From 1939 to 1947 he was back in England, spending the war years working at the BBC alongside Louis MacNeice and George Orwell, and then was off again for another brief stint in China. By that time he had acquired a South African wife, Hetta, who was, like him, an unrepentantly lubricious Bohemian, and with whom he had entered into a very “open” marriage. By the late 1940s, time and social change had scoured away the stain from his reputation, and he returned to higher education in the West: first at Kenyon College in Ohio, then at Gresham College in London, and finally, in 1953, at the University of Sheffield, where he remained till he retired in 1972. He was knighted in 1979.

However much of a professional calamity it may have been at the time, the episode that sent Empson scurrying eastward proved in many ways very fortunate for him. It exposed him to a whole new world of artistic sensibility that he otherwise might never have discovered, but that naturally appealed to some of his deepest imaginative and aesthetic impulses. He had never been much drawn to most of the plastic high arts of Christendom; Renaissance sculpture for the most part left him cold. But in 1932, in the ancient city of Nara, he came upon some of the most famous of Japanese Buddhist statues and was awestruck—by their serenity and beauty, but chiefly by their deep humanity. Among the pieces that awakened him to the more refined conventions of Buddhist statuary, and to their mysterious attraction, was the great seventh-century Kudara Kannon at Nara’s Hōryūji Temple; in her expression he thought he caught a glimpse not just of the bodhisattva’s celebrated tenderness, but of a range of subtle emotions, somehow mysteriously captured by the stylized abstractions and artistic tact of an extremely sophisticated iconographic tradition that he did not yet understand. That same year, he began to write the first version of The Face of the Buddha, which he would continue to redact and polish for the next seventeen years.

Over the next several decades, Empson’s fascination with the history and significance of Buddhist sculpture grew and deepened, along with a profound if diffident admiration for the religion itself (at least as a cultural and moral force). In pursuit of his obsession (which is not too strong a word), he made numerous journeys, often of the most arduous kind, to famous devotional sites throughout Buddhist East Asia, in the days when there were no air-conditioned railway carriages to bear him through the sweltering malarial latitudes of Korea, French Indochina, Cambodia, Burma, China, Ceylon, and India. He absorbed everything he could, from Yungang in China to Theravadin Angkor in Cambodia to India’s Ajanta Caves.

His studies led him to the conclusion that the Buddhist sensibility excelled at striking a harmonious balance between contending impulses of human will, thought, and emotion. He also came to believe that, whereas the typical depictions of Buddhas and bodhisattvas in India tended to emphasize only the detachment and divine remoteness of the enlightened ones, the Chinese model had from very early on placed as great an emphasis on their humanity; in fact, even that remoteness had been elegantly transformed from the otherworldliness of the Indian religious imagination to something more like the dignified patrician reserve of the Chinese gentry. Above all, he came to believe that at some point, probably originally in Yungang, a set of sculptural conventions had evolved—and had then become the governing standard for devotional statuary throughout much of East Asia—which had achieved this humanization through an intentional practice of facial asymmetry.

Here, it seemed, Empson had again discovered a form of art whose most enchanting and powerful effects lay precisely in its ambiguity. Somehow, by the subtlest of depictive gestures—a slight but clear variance, say, in the slant of the eyes, the arch of the eyebrows, the curve of the lips—the sculptors in this tradition had perfected a means of integrating two different expressions in a single visage, one of perfect imperturbable repose and one of active power (exerted on behalf of the devotee), thus producing an image of the Buddha nature as at once both saved and saving, both detached and compassionate. And they had done this by making each side of the sculpture’s face embody one of these aspects, while still not allowing the total effect to become jarring or incoherent. He began illustrating his manuscript with numerous photographic studies, and in some plates he created mirror images of the separate sides of certain sculptures, dividing each face vertically and juxtaposing each half with its own inversion. In two cases, the effect is quite striking, and does seem to result in two almost contrary expressions (in others, however, the effect is scarcely visible at all).

To give his theory some sort of broader conceptual basis, moreover, Empson began flirting with ideas current in his day about a natural distinction between the human face’s left and right sides, and with emerging discoveries about the different roles of the brain’s two hemispheres, and with the psychologist Werner Wolff’s notion that in every human face the left side expresses one’s “wish-image” of oneself and the right the conventional visage one wants to show the world (and so forth). In photographs of Churchill, Empson believed he could discern on the right side the demeanor of “the administrator” and on the left “the petulance, the rancour, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.” He considered the techniques of asymmetry used in carving Japanese Noh masks (where, in fact, he could have made a stronger case had he known more). Finally he came to suspect that the sculptural techniques he thought he had discovered may have been inspired by an ancient style of fortune-telling that interpreted the two sides of the head separately. In the end, though, his true interest was not in the ways in which East Asian Buddhist sculptural tradition might have reflected some set of psychological or physiological constants about human beings, but in its unique genius in embodying the contradictions of personality; and ultimately he decided that the richness he saw in these images was to a great degree the effect of Buddhism itself.

If, for instance, one really could look at two different and historically removed images of Guanyin (or Kannon), and see in them the same subtle difference between a slanting right eye and a level left—the former expressing “the dignity of the aristocrat” and the latter “a gentle placid humanity”—and if again and again one could find the same pattern repeated and the same absorbing ambiguity embodied, perhaps this was on account of a particularly enchanting and suggestive paradox. In Buddhism, after all, Empson claimed, the principal religious impulse is the flight from personality, and the principal philosophical conviction personality’s essential nonexistence. Each of us is a confluence of multiple causal currents and elementary forces, without a substantial and stable identity; each self is only a perception, a momentary coalescence and dispersal of disparate streams of becoming, the phenomenal residue of a ceaseless process of change. For precisely this reason, however, it is perhaps a creed that allows for inordinate sensitivity to the complexity and (again) ambiguity of the self. “It would be an odd, but not an unreasonable, thing,” writes Empson, “if the profoundest studies of character in all sculptures have proceeded from a painstaking application in detail of the doctrine there is no such thing as character at all.” This, as it happens, is the text’s most brilliantly provocative proposal.

In 1949, then, the text was for all intents and purposes ready for publication. And yet it is appearing only now for the first time.

The story of the fate of The Face of the Buddha is even more farcical than the Cambridge prophylactics episode, and was certainly a source of deeper grief for Empson—though the full story was unknown for six decades. In the meantime, the book became a legend: the lost masterpiece by a revered writer, gone missing (so it was believed) in a London taxi. In reality, its disappearance was the result of a much more comical concatenation of mishaps. For some reason, when Empson went on one of his trips abroad in 1949, he gave the sole typed copy of the manuscript, along with all its photographic plates, to the more or less perpetually inebriated John Davenport. Davenport, in turn, in a haze of chemical enthusiasm, staggered over to the offices of M. J. T. Tambimuttu, the wildly eccentric Tamil poet and editor who lived in a book-gorged apartment famed for its disorder and its copious vermin, and presented him with the manuscript as a work demanding immediate publication. When Davenport briefly emerged from his dipsomaniacal stupor the next day, he had lost all memory of the event. Shortly thereafter, Tambimuttu abruptly returned to Ceylon, entrusting Empson’s book to his fellow editor Richard March, who then even more abruptly (and very inconsiderately) dropped dead. The manuscript at that point simply sank into the abyss of March’s immense archive of personal papers, where no one knew to look for it. When Davenport had to account for the loss to Empson in 1952, the taxi story was either his best guess or the most plausible lie he could devise. And Empson knew he could never recreate the work he had so lovingly labored over all those years.

In 2003, however, March’s papers were acquired by the British Museum, and two years later Empson’s manuscript was discovered among them. Then, for no reason I can quite fathom, it took another eleven years for it to be published. Perhaps that is for the best, because this edition has been marvelously edited and introduced by Rupert Arrowsmith. And Oxford has abundantly illustrated the text with Empson’s original photographs, as well as several lovely newer images of the statuary Empson discusses. Physically and as a work of critical reconstruction, it is a handsome and deeply satisfying volume. And it has all the charm one might expect of its author: the taut, disciplined, beguilingly limpid prose, the fine descriptive passages, the originality of perspective, the impatiently opinionated voice, the glittering aperçus. Empsonians should rejoice. It is not, however, a masterpiece. For one thing, his theory of asymmetry is probably false, and I am not sure that one could not produce effects similar to his mirror-studies of bisected faces of the Buddha by doing the same thing to photographs of pieces by Donatello or Rodin. Symmetry is hard to achieve, and among thousands of sculptural exemplars, similar instances of asymmetry will frequently be found. Most importantly, the absence of any written record whatsoever of the technique, even in a culture as insatiably aestheticizing and precise as Japan’s, is really quite devastating for the thesis. And this makes The Face of the Buddha a book of less theoretical consequence than Empson imagined—though perhaps, for that reason, one of greater literary charm. Like many works of art criticism, much of it is reducible to a catalogue of personal impressions, but Empson’s descriptive gifts and the poignant uniqueness of his voice make that catalogue also one full of rare delights.

For me, I should note, perhaps the book’s most revealing chapter is the last, entitled simply “Theology.” As an account of Buddhism, it is too brief to be of any significance, and in several places verges on guidebook banality. But it affords an excellent view of what fascinated Empson about Buddhism: its singular and counterintuitive ability to produce a compassionate, temperate, and contented form of life out of what looks very much like a system of metaphysical and religious despair; its cultivation of a moral grandeur uncontaminated by the tragic anxieties and morbidities he associated with much of Western religion; its remarkably civilizing influence on Eastern societies; and its serene skepticism regarding the grand metaphysical claims of the individual self. Above all, he admired all the ways in which it was unlike Christianity, which he utterly loathed. In later years, after all, he would write Milton’s God, one of the most ferocious attacks on Christian beliefs written after Nietzsche. “The Christian God the Father,” he wrote there, “the God of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas, is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man.” “Christianity has always had to be kept at bay by civilized consciences,” for it is simply “a system of torture-worship,” a degrading blood-steeped cult appealing to a neolithic appetite for human sacrifice, inspiring craven adoration of an infinitely sadistic God, and in its early days embracing a “sex-horror” inimical to life. And so on. (For all his celebrated urbanity, Empson could occasionally slip away into adolescent tirades, and those pages in particular are quaintly colored by rhetoric worthy of Havelock Ellis and Algernon Swinburne at their most bilious.) In Buddhism, however, despite its disenchantment with this world—which Empson also found troubling—he thought he had discovered an elevating and civilizing ethos that had escaped these primitive fervors and cruelties.

It seems to me one has to pause here, if one wants to understand the peculiar passion that animated Empson’s constant labor over this text. I sincerely doubt that Empson’s guarded preference for the East over the West in so many areas of sensibility, intellectual and aesthetic, rested on quite the firm intellectual and moral basis that he imagined it did. At times, it looks suspiciously more like an emotional need than a calm personal appreciation. Empson was a materialist by conviction, though not on account of any particularly refined set of philosophical arguments. As a rule, his writing on issues of ultimate reality was curiously devoid of the searching subtlety he poured into his literary investigations. Too often, the rhetoric became hyperbolic and callow, intuitions overwhelmed observations, argument began to dissolve into denunciation, and fine distinctions disappeared altogether.

In the end, it was certainly not a religious impulse that turned him eastward; he was as insensible to the religious grandeur of Buddhism as he was to any other form of spiritual devotion. Whatever he loved about it he loved at an uncrossable distance. To Empson, all religious belief was still just so much myth and masquerade when evening came, incorrigibly hostile to the senses and the flesh, and he himself continued to cling to a rather sullen and sometimes embarrassingly peevish faith in the priority of sensual life and individual desire and genital liberty as the only sources of real human happiness. He resented transcendence on principle. Admittedly, the Christianity he detested was often genuinely detestable—a creed of substitutionary atonement, of the Father pouring out his wrath on Christ on the cross, of original guilt, of a hell of eternal torments prepared by a pitiless judge, and so on—but I also think he made a conscious effort to know of no other. It is clear that he associated Christianity with all the forces that his nature rebelled against, and also I think with all the forces that had caused him disappointment and pain and repressed desire over the years (he was, for instance, exuberantly bisexual). In the serenity of Buddhism, he believed he had found something more forgiving, more tolerant, and lacking in wrath. And by his lights he was quite right to do so. But, while he was not guilty of the worst kind of ingenuous Western romanticization of Buddhism, he was nevertheless not a Buddhist, and could not have lived by its genuinely austere ethos if he had tried to do so. Ultimately, much of its appeal for him was possible, I suspect, because it made no demands upon him. And, for this reason, I am not sure he honored Buddhism any more by his admiration than he did Christianity by his enmity. He really understood Buddhism largely as a negation of something else, and so probably understood it very little, if at all.

David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things and a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.