‘There is​ something very Far Eastern about this,’ William Empson says in Some Versions of Pastoral, meaning the manner of Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’. The remark is mildly intriguing but pretty loose, and even if we think of Empson as having the thought while he lectured to his Japanese students before he wrote it down, the Orient still seems stereotyped and far away. We lose this impression if we keep reading, because we soon learn that Empson has in mind ‘the seventh Buddhist state of enlightenment’, in which a person is ‘neither conscious nor not conscious’. We can’t know from his criticism or his poems, though, that while in the East he chased up images of Buddha with what his biographer John Haffenden calls ‘a learned amateur interest amounting to an obsession’. The offhand phrase about Marvell is a bit of English disguise: camouflaged passion rather than easy generality.

Empson taught literature in Japan from 1931 to 1934, and in China from 1937 to 1939. After the war he returned to China for five years before settling into a life divided between Sheffield and London. In 1932 he fell in love with some eighth-century Buddhist statues in temples near Nara in Japan, ‘the only accessible Art I find myself able to care about’, he told a friend. For several years he spent much of his spare time travelling to look at famous images, taking in, as he himself reported, ‘Japan, Korea, China, Indochina, Burma, India, Ceylon and the United States’. He said that although he was ‘in no way an expert in this very technical field’ he had ‘looked at Buddha all right’, and seen in situ all the statues or carvings he talked about.

Talked about where? Well, in The Face of the Buddha (Oxford, £30), the book he finished in 1947 and gave to his friend John Davenport, who left it in a taxi. Davenport really thought this was what happened, and told Empson so. Empson died in 1984 believing the work was gone for ever. Then the typescript surfaced in 2003 among some papers that had been acquired by the British Library. This is the book we can now read, in an attentive and intelligent edition by Rupert Arrowsmith.

For Empson the two chief Western assumptions about Buddhist sculpture – ‘the faces have no expression at all … or else they all sneer’ – are about as far from the truth as they could be. ‘The drooping eyelids of the great creatures are heavy with patience and suffering,’ he writes, ‘and the subtle irony which offends us in their raised eyebrows … is in effect an appeal to us to feel, as they do, that it is odd that we let our desires subject us to so much torment in the world.’

Empson liked the mixture of otherworldliness and humanity in so many of the Buddha figures he saw. Of a sixth-century statue in Seoul that represents ‘the coming Buddha not yet born’ he writes: ‘It is in a subtle way not so much childish as casual; in its dream it is skimming the surface of human affairs just as the right hand is just brushing the cheek.’ Some of the images were too spiritualised or smug for him, too remote from the earthly sorrows they invite us to overcome – this was when they assumed what he calls ‘a sort of transcendental pout’. But most of them managed to suggest a deep engagement with a creaturely world they have left behind or not yet entered. He liked the philosophy behind the faces too. There was sacrifice in it as there is in Christianity, but the Bodhisattva ‘gives up not this life but (broadly speaking) his death’. This formulation is rather obscure, but seems to rest on Empson’s admiration for a stance that includes death in life rather than making it into a platform for a segregated eternity.

Empson’s writing on the images is lively and quirky, and at first sight seems a little provincial, tucked away in a narrow corner of time and space and class. One statue looks ‘comically’ young, ‘like a Mabel Lucie Attwell baby’. Another appears ‘beefy’, and on still another ‘the straight sag of the jowl gives a Mussolini effect.’ Many of them have slit eyes because round eyes ‘would give the coy surprise of George Robey’. The cross-cultural juggling here is pretty amazing: ancient Eastern artists are said to be avoiding an effect a 20th-century English comedian made famous. ‘I always expected surprise’ was Robey’s verbal version of what his face said.

But Empson is not universalising Robey, he is localising coyness, of which he thinks the East must have had its share. The principle – cultures are different but not always or only different – is precisely what allows him to say what he sees in the faces: ‘a gentle placid humanity and … the dignity of the aristocrat’; ‘pride and suffering and … a certain cunning’; a mouth that ‘is plaintive and even ready to squall’, an expression of ‘refined, coy distaste’, a look that ‘is masculine and foxy’. Of course these readings are personal, but so are different photographs of the same object, and as Empson says ‘photography … should not be blamed for being a branch of interpretative criticism.’ Nor should descriptive prose, and Empson remarked in a draft for his book that ‘the faces are magnificent; it is a strange confession of helplessness if we have to keep mum for fear of talking nonsense.’ Not that he was ever afraid of that, although he talked very little nonsense considering the risks he took.

The controversial claim in the book – it wouldn’t be a work by Empson if it wasn’t both making an argument and looking for one – is that many (not all) faces of Buddha are asymmetrical, and that their two halves tell different stories. ‘It seems to me,’ he writes, ‘that the chief novelty of the Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture, beyond what had already been done in India and central Asia, is the use of asymmetry to make the face more human.’ ‘More human’ for Empson means more complex, even conflicted: ‘The asymmetrical face demands a certain humanising of the god, an attempt to get under his skin.’ At such moments the Buddha’s face ‘is at once blind and all-seeing … so at once sufficient to itself and of universal charity’. As Sharon Cameron shrewdly says in her study of impersonality, Empson doesn’t distinguish between a contradiction or paradox of this last kind and other interesting modes of difference and connection (oppositions, incongruities, incompatibilities). But that is his point: the faces both bring together and separate many attitudes and forms of thought.

Is he right? Arrowsmith tells us that the ‘camp’ of contemporary scholars ‘is divided’. Some express no interest (or belief) in Empson’s asymmetries, another finds Empson’s ideas about their use ‘entirely convincing’, and Arrowsmith, while not really concealing his fondness for Empson’s view, says ‘it is up to the reader to decide.’ It is hard to see how the reader could do this, but one thing is clear from the illustrations in the book, many of which Empson collected himself. The asymmetries in the faces are real, however they got there and whatever they mean. It’s not quite enough to say that all human faces are asymmetrical, that we all look different when seen from different angles. The sculptors wouldn’t have to copy this fact – supposing it is a fact – if they didn’t want to, or didn’t see some sense in it. Indeed it might be, from a religious point of view, a fine fact to rectify in art. But from the actual existence of asymmetry of human faces to believing all the talk, very common in the 1930s, about the meanings of their right and left sides (power to help on the right, detachment on the left) is a large step. Empson, characteristically, was sceptical about that scheme but uses it anyway, taking a photograph of Churchill as an example that will lead him back to Buddha: ‘The administrator is on the right … and on the left are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.’ I don’t see why the descriptions wouldn’t work just as well if they were reversed, and the idea of dividing everything by two offers a rather impoverished idea of ambiguity, especially coming from Empson. But are we going to say instead that faces don’t mean anything, and just keep quiet for fear of talking nonsense?

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