Category Archives: Scholarship

Several Types of William Empson

A lost study of Buddhist art reveals a hidden side of a great literary critic.

The Nation

By Chenxin Jiang

When William Empson took a job as a university lecturer in Tokyo in 1931, his star was rising. The previous year he had published his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. A guide to the close analysis of poems, the book upended literary criticism in Britain and would soon do so in the United States. In Japan, Empson developed a fascination with Buddhist art that grew into a monograph, The Face of the Buddha; this book, too, became famous, but for entirely different reasons. Empson worked on the project intermittently for a decade, only to discover that his sole copy of the manuscript had mysteriously disappeared, along with a collection of irreplaceable photographs assembled throughout his travels. His friend John Davenport eventually admitted to having left it in a cab.

Critics have long known of the lost manuscript, but its rediscovery a few years ago was wholly unanticipated. Happily for Empson’s readers, Davenport was mistaken about what he did with the manuscript: It turns out that he gave it to the Tamil poet M.J. Tambimuttu, who in turn gave it to Richard March, his coeditor at Poetry London. March died shortly thereafter, in 1955, and the British Library didn’t purchase his papers until decades later. In 2005, a half-century after Empson had given up the manuscript for lost, a watchful curator named Jamie Andrews came across it in March’s papers and identified it as the mislaid book.

The Face of the Buddha may not rewrite the study of Buddhist art the way that Empson and other New Critics rewrote 20th-century literary analysis, but for Empson’s many readers, it will go some way toward revising their view of him. In the book, judiciously edited by Rupert Arrowsmith, Empson notices a peculiarity of Buddhist sculptures—that the left and right sides of the face are sometimes asymmetrical, showing two different expressions—and attempts to explain why this deliberate asymmetry exists. Empson collected instances of it over many years, surveying statues throughout Asia. Maybe, he speculated, the asymmetrical faces made the Buddha seem more realistically human, so that practitioners would find it easier to relate to him. By comparing the expressions on each side of a statue’s face, Empson came to believe that the two sides embodied different aspects of the Buddha’s nature: The left-hand side typically expresses the Buddha’s “detachment from the world after achieving peace,” while the right-hand side conveys “power to help the worshipper.”

Empson never claimed to have more than a serious amateur’s interest in Eastern art, but he wasn’t the sort to be deterred by a lack of expertise, having launched his career in literary criticism as the kind of amateur who gives professionals a run for their money. When he began studying 17th-century English literature at Cambridge after completing a degree in mathematics, his tutor, the formidable I.A. Richards, wrote that Empson “seemed to have read more English Literature than I had…so our roles were soon in some danger of being reversed.” The essays that Empson wrote for his undergraduate tutorials with Richards provided the kernel for Seven Types of Ambiguity, which quickly became a cornerstone of the New Criticism.

In Japan, Empson didn’t waste any time acquainting himself with Buddhist teachings and iconography, studying the origins of Buddhist art in India and tracing its spread throughout East and Southeast Asia. He borrowed the technique, then favored by psychologists studying facial expressions, of creating “split photographs”—images with a reverse-symmetrical version of the right half of a face appearing on the left side, and vice versa. He took drawing lessons to be able to make accurate sketches of the Buddhas he saw. He even developed a habit of doodling Buddhas in notebooks, perhaps in a nod to the Buddhist practice of drawing as a meditative discipline. “Even boys in their play who draw the Blessed One with their fingernails are gradually acquiring merit and becoming pitiful in heart,” reads the Lotus Sutra, in Empson’s paraphrase. Continue reading

M S University faculty member to study Buddhist art of Gujarat and Paris

Times of India
13 October, 2013

VADODARA: A faculty member of M S University will draw parallels between Buddhist art and architecture of Gujarat with that in Paris.

Dr Ambika Patel, curator and assistant professor with department of archaeology and ancient history at faculty of arts, has been selected for Indo French Social Science Exchange Fellowship 2013 for the project. Dr Patel has received the combined fellowship from the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’homme (FMSH) of Paris.

She is associated with the Centre de Recherche sur I’Extreme-Orient de Paris-Sorbonne (CREOPS) at University of Paris for a pilot research project on Buddhist art and architecture of Gujarat and its parallels. Continue reading

[Seattle, WA, U.S. Talk] A Remarkable Set of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures [October 3, 2013]

Seattle Art Museum Talks

A Remarkable Set of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures
Derek Gillman
October 3, 2013
7–9 pm
Stimson Auditorium

Since their rediscovery in caves south of Beijing in 1912, there has been much debate about the age and origin of a major set of over-life-size glazed ceramic figures of luohans (enlightened disciples of the Buddha) with superb portrait-like faces.

Derek Gillman, Executive Director of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and a scholar of Chinese sculpture, will locate these unique figures within the context of Chan (Zen) Buddhist practice in the 11th and 12th centuries, and argue that they were made for an imperially commissioned temple within the Jin empire (1115-1234).

Free, but registration required. Continue reading

Research on to trace journey of Buddhist monks in country

Times of India
V Kamalakara Rao
27 September, 2013

VISAKHAPATNAM: At a time when technology has literally turned into a religion for many, a Vizag-based research scholar has taken up a scientific study using nuclear analytical techniques (NAT) to trace the route taken by Buddhist monks in the country centuries ago to spread the word of Gautam Buddha.

Using historical artefacts such as clay inscriptions, bricks, roof tiles, coins, stones and paintings recovered from Buddhist sites, the study will try to discover the route traversed by these monks centuries ago across the country, including Andhra Pradesh.

The study has started with the analysis of a collection of pottery and bricks at the 25 Buddhist sites out of 140 in Andhra Pradesh. The 25 sites include Pavuralakonda, Simhachalam, Thotlakonda and Bavikonda in Visakhapatnam, Jagathipadu, Dantapuram and Salihunda in Srikakulam as well as Neelavathi and Ramatheertham in Vizianagaram district, besides some areas in Telangana region. Continue reading

Film on Buddhism’s journey across Asia to be screened in Delhi [on Sept 23, 2013]

The Hindu
Madhur Tankha
22 September, 2013

A Buddhist temple in Thailand, where Benoy K. Behl visited for his new documentary.

A new film traces the spread of Buddhism from India to ASEAN countries.

Noted art historian Benoy K. Behl will screen a documentary titled Culture of Compassion: Buddhism in India and ASEAN countries at India Habitat Centre in Delhi on Sunday. The film shows the spread of Buddhism from India to other South Asian countries. Mr. Behl travelled to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Continue reading

Lilly scholarships for journalists to study religion
3 Sep 2013

Religion | Newswriters in the USA is inviting journalists in the United States to apply to its Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program. The scholarships give full-time journalists up to $5,000 to take any college religion courses at any accredited institution at any time.

Religion headlines are dominating news coverage—politics, religion, Islam in America — now is the perfect time to dig deeper into today’s hottest stories. More than 280 people have already taken advantage of Religion | Newswriters’ Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program for Journalists.

Topics reporters have studied include: Islamic Movements, God & Politics, Religion & Conflict Resolution, Politics of International Religious Freedom, Buddhism in the West, Violence and Liberation, Muslim-Christian Relations in World History and many more. Continue reading