One of the finest works of literary criticism produced in the first half of the 20th century—and among the handful that can still be read with both pleasure and profit today—is William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Anyone would be immensely proud of such an achievement, which makes it rather remarkable that Empson wrote the book when still an undergraduate, pursuing, at Cambridge, a second B.A. in English after he had already completed one in mathematics. He had thus laid the foundation for a notable academic career. However, in 1929, between his graduation and the publication of his book, he was discovered to be keeping a package of condoms in his college rooms, which led to the stripping of his fellowship and his dismissal from the University. (His biographers also record that he was banished from the city of Cambridge, though I do not believe that that was legally possible.)
Empson’s academic career in England was over, at least for the time being, and the best job he could find—or the best job his mentor, I. A. Richards, could find for him—was a teaching position in the booming city of Tokyo. And it was while teaching there, in 1932, that he visited the old city of Nara, where, as Rupert Arrowsmith says in his introduction to The Face of the Buddha, “the beauty of a particular set of Buddhist sculptures struck Empson with a revelatory force.” And thus began a curious detour in his career, a project that occupied him off and on for more than a decade before it eventuated in a book whose manuscript was promptly lost, by a drunkenly careless friend, and only recovered twenty years after Empson’s death.
That’s a wonderful story in itself, and well told by Arrowsmith in this volume, but the book itself is quite fascinating, though not always in ways that lend credit to Empson. As Arrowsmith notes, it is unclear why this mathematician-turned-poet-and-critic “would have wanted to try his hand at a book on Asian art in the first place.” Empson said himself that he had never been interested in European sculptural traditions, and that Asian sculptures of the Buddha and related figures “are the only accessible Art”—accessible in the sense of “viewable in person,” I think he means—“I find myself able to care about.” But those he cared about greatly.
Why did he care about them so greatly
It seems, to me anyway, that his interest effectively marked a continuation of the themes of Seven Types of Ambiguity. The more Buddhist sculptures he viewed the more convinced he became that their faces were almost always asymmetrical, and “asymmetrical in the same way, as if the artists were working on a theory”: a theory of doubleness that, systematically applied to sculpture, produces an effect of irresolvable ambiguity. Early in his investigation of this (apparent) phenomenon, Empson says, he shared his inchoate thoughts with a Japanese scholar, one Anasazi Masaharu, who informed him that a similar trait could be found in the masks worn by actors in Noh theater, which present very different expressions according to the angle at which they are viewed; the actors of course take advantage of this by angling their heads differently at certain stages of the play. Empson thinks that the asymmetry of the masks and the asymmetry of the sculpted Buddha faces alike tend to humanize and vivify : “The two moods [on the Noh masks] are combined, just as the two moods of the character in the play are combined, into one person or one attitude to the world; just as the two halves of the Buddha head affect you as one live god in the room.”
It seems clear that, though he introduces his thesis about asymmetry only near the end of the book, Empson produced his whole survey of Buddhist sculpture primarily in order to make room for that thesis. Empson knew that he was rather obsessive on this point, and in the first essay he wrote about these asymmetrical faces (a kind of trial run for the book, presented here as an appendix) he concludes his discourse by mentioning a statue called the Yumedono Kwannon. (Kwannon, now more often Guanyin, is a Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy.) Why that particular statue
In order “not to appear crazy over the split-face theory; because the face seemed to be completely symmetrical on the two occasions that I saw it.” Nevertheless, he really does appear crazy over the split-face theory.
When he first introduces it, he is content to say that the sculptures’ left sides are characteristically placid or calm, while the right sides tend to be more agitated: sardonic or even angry. Empson thinks this doubleness is necessary in order to combine “a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Without this nonattachment, or what Buddhism calls nekkhamma, no one can achieve true enlightenment; but a being who is utterly or absolutely separated from the world will not even be aware of the sufferings of those still laboring in this vale of tears, much less be inclined to help them. Thus, says Empson, the need for the doubleness.
But the more deeply he goes into these matters the more detailed his analysis becomes, and the more confident grow his pronouncements. Of one Chinese statue he says that if you look at the left side of its face, you’ll see that “the eye and mouth are level and the face is calm and still. On the right the eye and mouth slant, and this gives the sardonic quality; in fact if you take the right twice over”—inverting the photographic image of the right side and then reconstructing the face with the original image plus the inversion—“the thing approaches the standard European head of Satan.” I looked carefully at the image Empson helpfully provides and then wrote in the margin of this passage: “No it doesn’t.”
Of another sculpture he writes, “It is a steady, mild humanity that you get on the left, and the right has the pride and power of organisation.” I have no idea what “the pride and power of organisation” means in itself, much less as applied to the face of a sculpture. As the chapter moves along Empson’s readings of the faces become more comprehensive and specific:
The Chuguji Maitreya does not take this active interest in politics. The right is still the more aquiline and active but the calm left is now the more mature. With different angles and lighting you can extract from the right a heavy maternal brooding, a Peter Pan daydream, or a solemn, judging child.
I look at the images provided here and am at a complete loss to understand what prompted such an interpretative fantasia. I am almost wholly unconvinced by Empson’s thesis, but find myself wishing that he could have been presented with a series of Rorschach blots and written poems about what he saw.
In a preface to The Face of the Buddha, Partha Mitter suggests that Empson’s theory “holds water,” though Mitter hedges that claim about with multiple reservations that virtually undo the approbation. In his introduction, Arrowsmith asks whether Empson’s ideas “make any sense to contemporary scholars of Buddhist art,” and concludes that “to many they do not, but . . . the camp is divided.” He then quotes three scholars who think Empson is wholly wrong and one who is convinced by him.
As I have said, I am not convinced, but my failure to see what Empson saw could certainly be a function of my limited powers of observation. All I can say is that this book—with its extremely detailed interpretations presented as almost self-evident facts—strikes me as the product of a mind with a limited knowledge of its subject and unlimited confidence in its own intelligence. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help enjoying the adventure Empson takes his reader on.