A lost study of Buddhist art reveals a hidden side of a great literary critic.
By Chenxin Jiang
SEPTEMBER 6, 2016
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