The Face of the Buddha

William Empson. Edited by Rupert Arrowsmith. Oxford University Press, 2016. 208 pages. $49.95.

By Svetlana Alpers

This publication is by way of being a miracle. William Empson (1906-1984), the greatest critic of English literature of the 20th century, spent three years in the 1930s teaching in Japan, followed by a break back home, then three years in China, finally returning to England in 1939. A trip to Nara, Japan in 1932 found Empson overwhelmed by statues of the Buddha. He devoted much travel (Korea, French Indochina, Cambodia, Burma, India, Ceylon, Chinese and American Museums) and much photographic film, and finally a text to his understanding of his discovery. He began writing the text in Japan and China and completed it in the ‘40s when he was back in England. But in the event, the manuscript with all his photographic illustrations went missing on its way to publication. It was left in a London cab, so it was believed, by a drunken man of letters in 1947. But then it was found in 2005 (this is the miracle), in the papers of an English editor (to whom it had actually been handed by a Tamil writer early on by the drunk man in the cab) who left it among his papers to the British Library. The manuscript was identified there by a smart cataloger. The entire episode reminds us that what today is known as global is nothing new.

Empson’s genius was first demonstrated in Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book written when he was a still an undergraduate at Cambridge and published in 1930 when he was 24. The book essentially disputes his great mentor, I.A. Richards, who had produced an emotive theory of poetic value proposing that poetry ends in resolution, in pleasure. To this Empson essentially responded, no, poetry addresses the mind not just the feelings, and it leaves us not with resolution but with contradictions—put simply with more meanings than one. For Empson that was true of language, the mind, and life. He shows it also in the small, remarkable body of poetry he published. Exemplifying those contradictions in lines of poetry was the subject of his marvelous Seven Types (read it if you haven’t).

And it seems that that is what first drew him to the Buddha statues—for his immediate insight was that the statues have asymmetrical or divided faces. In other words, he saw in these faces a contradiction—they convey conflicting meanings. When in Japan, he once remarked that, the Buddhas are the only accessible art I find myself able to care about. Empson was a relentless critic of Christianity, which he described on occasion as “torture worship.” And he hated the social smugness of the church in England. Buddhism is a religion where the Supreme God is not a person. The impersonality of the godhead attracted him. As someone once wrote, there was something of a notional Buddhism lurking in Empson’s rational humanism.

So with that by way of introduction, let’s look at the miraculously arrived book. It is a complex assemblage. A prefatory piece by the art historian Partha Mitter, once a student of E.H. Gombrich, now retired from a professorship at Essex, one of whose specialties is the reception of Indian Art in the West. His role is to weigh in on the legitimacy of Empson’s claims about asymmetry. He agrees with Empson, but other specialists in Indian Art do not. Following that there is an introduction by one Rupert Arrowsmith, a specialist in Buddhism living in Myanmar, who takes us in detail through Empson’s original quest—including the fact that, for example, during his Chinese university’s spring vacation in 1936 he travelled 1700 kilometers by train to Angkor. Or that he visited Tokyo Imperial University to speak to a great scholar who believed in what Empson saw and pointed to the fact that facial asymmetry was characteristic of the masks used in Noh theater. A good illustration lets you see that for yourself.

The book has been edited with care. Empson’s own original black and white photos are supplemented, sometimes in color, and everything is carefully annotated as to its source. The text itself is prefaced, as his sons wished, by Empson’s translation of the Buddhist Fire Sermon—which he used also to preface a book of his poems, and which was read at his funeral. It puts you in mind of his deep commitment to the culture to which the sculpture belongs.

But when you read Empson’s text and look at sculpted face after sculpted face as he did in person and we can now do with his photographs, you are drawn into looking even as he looked. It is a gripping experience to test his notion that the left side (the right as we look) of the faces are normal, uninflected, while the right side (our left) dips upwards—the eyes and mouth in a kind of distorting activity. Power and action on the right, passivity on the left. Empson pressed his case by using the trick of combining together photos of one side of a sculpted face—so two lefts and then two rights. There is no question that the effect is to form two differently inflected faces. The manipulated photographs you see here make for an abstract pattern. They are the constituent elements of a geometric puzzle, which must have delighted Empson. He had been a hugely promising mathematician at Cambridge (getting a First Class result in Part I of the tripos) before his turn to literature. 

Certain things are surprising and not remarked—that the Nara sculpture that gripped him first is not a head but a sinuous, standing Buddha. Yet Empson was attracted to the face. There is an obsessiveness to Empson’s quest after the Buddhas, and a specificity to his attention to each one. But there is a human generosity about it all. Arguing with reference to similar eyes in medieval sculpture at Chartres, Empson sees the characteristic slit eyes of the Buddhas as not racially determined, but indeed possible anywhere, and he thinks, not wrongly it would seem, of the Buddha as Aryan. In some ways as English as a man could be, Empson was also truly a man in and of the greater world.

Svetlana Alpers, an artist, critic and renowned art historian, is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting scholar in the Department of Art History at New York University.