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The Face of the Buddha by William Empson

The Face of the Buddha. William Empson. Edited by Rupert Arrowsmith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 208 pp. + lxiii. $49.95 (cloth).

However much we may agree or disagree with the modernist English literary critic, William Empson—or, at times, even scratch our heads at him—it is generally accepted that he was a marvel. He possessed a decidedly unbridled critical talent, one that emerged fully only once the globalization of modernist literary production and art intersected with a corresponding epistemological demand: that the creation of world knowledge transcend specific (often nationalist) coordinates in thought and culture. Across several different periods living and working in Asia, Empson constructed an alternative nexus for global modernism distinct from imperialism, inspired in part by an unusual theory about the asymmetry found on faces of Buddhist statuary.

That Empson absented himself from the English scene was not an act of superciliousness. Out of work by 1930, and lacking a university degree, he relied upon connections made available to him by I. A. Richards in order to earn his keep lecturing in Tokyo (1931-1934), and subsequently, in Beijing (1936-1939). Once there, he catalogued diverse artifacts found throughout the region, inventoried its art objects, and attending imaginaries; and, in particular, local varieties of Buddhist thought, its traditions, and more notable monuments. He began this undertaking out of sincere interest, and yet with very little in the way of indigenous help or resources.

But this was, as it turned out, a very fine place to begin. Much as a well-informed tourist might, Empson commenced (rather cheerfully) an exegesis of his theory, with precious little prior knowledge about Buddhist art and its subcultures apart from the museums he had visited along the Strand and an attending love of photography. His background reading encompassed, and only very loosely, the English translations (and other scholarship) found in works by Arthur Waley, Lafcadio Hearn, and Langdon Warner. Subsequently, when making extensive travels throughout China, Japan, and Korea Empson operated comfortably and safely within the perimeter of popular and metropolitan ignorance about local Asian cultures experienced and enjoyed on their own terms. Yet, unfettered by strident intellectual prejudices or the scholarly sedimentations of a far older tradition of European orientalism, Empson learned a tremendous amount, intent upon testing the validity of his unscholarly suppositions.  He was a factotum, an amateur of broad range, who lacked depth in any one discipline.

If Empson was ignorant, his ensuing study in The Face of the Buddha makes a truly remarkable wonder out of ignorance. That we now know the fuller extent of his achievement at all is thanks to Rupert Arrowsmith’s recently published edition, which capably documents for the very first time the magnitude and scale of Empson’s curiosity. Arrowsmith was asked by Empson’s sons, Mogador and Jacob, to introduce, annotate, and provide carefully researched endnotes for a typescript thought for over seventy years to have been lost forever. (The manuscript was fished miraculously out of a box found in the British Library archives in 2005.) Beyond its remarkable history as a rediscovered artifact, The Face of the Buddha is also the latest, and probably most compelling, evidence suggesting that Empson may have pioneered what one thinks of today as cross-disciplinary, “area” studies on a transnational scale. (If so, it is all the more remarkable because his inventory of the Buddha’s faces was occurring on the other side of the world at approximately the same time as the New Critics in the southern U.S., and F. R. Leavis in England, were zipping up the nationalist bases of literary-regional traditions.) Empson’s critical dissonance athwart insularity, alongside the breadth of his interests, remains arresting.

In a remarkably apposite tandem, Arrowsmith’s erudition serves readily when making manifest Empson’s own. (Like the lovers in Donne’s “The Canonization” poem, the capacity of each enlarges and magnifies the other.) If Empson’s largely intuitive grasp of world letters in the “Asian” context was always highly regarded by literary critics, his achievement was also ill-defined prior to Arrowsmith’s great recovery. One had a difficult time attributing specifics as to the wheres, whys, and hows of Empson’s globalizing moves. No longer.

Having been so long on the shelf, or in the box, Empson’s analysis of the Buddha’s faces benefits from the unanticipated thrill of an attending discovery. (The anecdotal lost manuscript emerges as the real deal; Shangri-La squares off against an actual Bhutan.) Admittedly, the temptation to mythologize Empson’s work, whatever its actual properties, lurks throughout the reading—including the dangers of an homology about which Robert Young has warned us, one that links Western domination over the colonized to persisting and ethnocentric forms of writing history about far-away places.[1] Yet, once on the ground in Asia, Empson found himself in a very different place than that Sartre or Althusser might have imagined in their all-encompassing polemics “about” Asia: upon the threshold imposed through his own ignorance, without language skills, insider friends, or a specialist’s knowledge. In this highly liminal context—to call it marginal diminishes the extent to which Empson sought to discover truths meaningful and accessible to a wider audience—it is at once tempting, and probably wrong, to try to make mannerism or peculiarity out of his admittedly anti-disciplinary genius.

As Arrowsmith presents it to us, Empson worked particular foreign objects imaginatively, but always generously: “[I] want here to praise [the Buddha statues’] freedom, tenderness, and power and the universality which makes them citizens of the high art” (51). Here Empson’s rhetoric embraces abstraction in the direction of the contrastive and paradigmatic, firm in the conviction that revisionism in Buddhist thought (he cites Mrs. Rhys Davids appreciatively but glancingly) is not nearly so important as that any system of faith, any religion, should “do practical good” (107; 110). That Empson’s ethical turn should occur upon Asian ground is decisive, and goes a long way in explaining his appreciation of Buddhism as a more palpably intersectional world-view than other world religions, such as Christianity or Islam, that had wed themselves to modernizing national projects.

Had the manuscript of The Face of the Buddha not been lost, critics of Empson’s own generation would not likely have seen it as measuring up meaningfully to then-prevailing metropolitan demands for disciplinarity. Established orientalists in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin sought to measure Asian art and culture using universalizing heuristics, such as depth psychology and philology, inherited from the nineteenth century. In fact, Empson’s orientalism fails (honorably, in my view) precisely because it is unlettered. If it is the lack of literacy in any Asian language that dooms Empson for specialists, then illiteracy also motivated the “practical criticism” that resulted when he “read” the Buddha’s faces for meaning askance professionalized discourses (including his search for what John Berger terms “compositional” productivity and conflict, for disunities against mystification).[2] Semiotic bounce occurs for the reader of The Face of the Buddha precisely because Empson cannot (at least not technically) propound, impose, or verify linguistically specific verities and orthodoxies about the motifs and gestures in the statuary he is observing. Empson’s necessary reserve toward writing—when contrasted, say, with Ezra Pound’s more totalizing ideogrammatic moves with only a dictionary in hand—betokens a laudatory humility. Professional ignorance accorded Empson great freedom not to know, and to imagine “Asia” otherwise: his was a wondrous “way of seeing”, as Berger would have it, preceding and yet begging for elaborative signification in different languages and from more cogent perspectives. There are erroneous thuds in the resulting analysis, but also some truly scintillating flights.

At the level of method, Empson halves the Buddha’s face, only to recombine its features in a series of unifying oppositions. Arrowsmith provides detail about Empson’s crude, yet nevertheless fascinating, process: how he recomposed his own photos taken of the Buddha’s faces, first, by sectioning right from left aspects; then creating newly sutured pairings (using “right-right” and “left-left” combinations) contrasted with the asymmetries (“left-right”) found on the original object. Such compositional fancies are not nearly as idiosyncratic as, upon first reading, one might suppose. (In 1938, Empson’s contemporary, the Viennese art historian, Ernst Gombrich, was also jettisoning psychological universals in the interests of caricature as it applied to the plastic arts.[3])  And, for all his ubiquitous use of the term, Empson’s theory of “asymmetry” is remarkably integrative of competing value systems, which is why Arrowsmith’s re-minting of such a seemingly esoteric topic retains such interest for us today. Empson’s descriptive language consistently attempts to tug far away values and ideas closer with one imaginary pull and, long before Casanova or Damrosch, he does so with gusto.

More specifically, Empson’s many observed “parallels” (69) draw upon a unique synthesis of enthusiastic supposition and an array of period tropes that alternate between scholarly and non-scholarly attestation. On the one hand he is eager to establish patterns of artistic and historical confluence as an orientalist might, for example, by linking Greco-Roman art to the Ghandara [Pakistan] Buddhas and the Kushan Empire in Central Asia and beyond. (In one striking instance, Empson is even inspired to superimpose five-headed [animist] cobras at Angkor upon “the abhaya mudra [the palm placed forward] of the Buddha” [33]). On the other hand, Empson gleefully links the visages of the Mathura Buddhas to the mug of the British comedian, George Robey, and the interwar Kruschen advert for laxatives (70-71). Such east-west integration becomes a kind of soft-shoe tap dance in his ensuing exposition: the Kudara frescoes [Nara, Japan] invoke Michelangelo (53); citing Fenellosa, the Yumedono Kwannon, again at Nara, beckons the Mona Lisa (47); Winston Churchill’s asymmetric pug begs comparison with Edo-period dramaturgy (119-20). Overall, Empson’s use of integrative imagery imports a wide range of vocabulary peculiar to his culture and applies it, precociously, to far-away objects and locales. The effect is at once distancing and focusing.      

Clearly, such superimposing parallels are achieved by means of foreshortened, or proximal, similes that are hardly plausible. Nor are they always successful. One also recognizes, however, that Empson does not require his far-flung comparisons to be substantively true or false. Like the Bering land-bridge claim, or the hellenocentric theory of Buddhist art Empson references, whereby Indian art becomes subordinated to a diffiusionist aesthetics of Greek origin, The Face of the Buddha offers interpretive asymptotes of a consistently brilliant and yet uneven kind, meridians along which cross-cultural encounters of a highly interactive nature might have occurred regardless of their truth value. Even when attempting to describe the frictions attending such cross-cultural tectonics (on behalf of a shifting global culture very shortly to embark upon a programme of sustained collective destruction), Empson redraws conventional latitudes and longitudes otherwise.

Admittedly, at times his theory too capably occupies the verges of credulity. It constructs an imaginary “Asia” out of an assembly of palpably bogus, period generalizations and pseudo-scientific discourses concerning Indian “tendencies” and Chinese “temperament”, “Mongol folds” and  “Indian eye-shapes”. And yet Empson’s generosity manages to achieve the separation of his thinking from the dross:

The essential formula for the [Buddha’s] face allows of so much variety; it is hardly more than a blank cheque, but one on a strong bank, so to speak, and I feel that even an unrealistic Buddha does more than a head of Christ to impose itself as a real person in the room. (6)

“Blank cheque” indeed: thankfully, Empson’s various interpretations of the Buddhist “blank” seldom, if ever, harden into attitudes susceptible to the charge of Saidian orientalism; although he does strive, at times unconvincingly, to strike the pose of Said’s great animus. (Arrowsmith’s introduction does a terrific job of clarifying just what those original sources and influences were.)  

As if to check his own baser tendencies, Empson sounds warnings throughout The Face of the Buddha about the dangers of racialist reductionism. He strains to make the argument that the desideratum of intercultural analogy does not in and of itself require “race”: “[T]he parallel seemed worth making, if only to suggest that even the subtle uses of the Buddha eye do not depend on a peculiarity of race” (69); or, again, that the Buddha face may be ”expressive on non-racial grounds” (67). Nevertheless, Empson does occasionally resort to idiolects of racialism, if only at a high degree of refinement:

The sculptured nose [of the Korean buddha] is very distinctive; it is the straight sharp nose of intelligence . . . perked out at the end so as to imply a refined inquisitive sensuality. It seems really connected with the Han one.  I have included a row of Korean Buddhas (around 600 [AD]) who have become absurdly rigid and mousey in their efforts to combine it with the Greek straight line from nose to brow. (43)

More problematically, Empson’s critiques of racialism occasionally turn back upon themselves:

I do not want to pretend that racial differences do not exist, a fashion which I think has been carried to rather absurd lengths recently among high-minded people; it would be fussy to deny that Mongols often do have half-shut eyes, that the Ghandara sculptors had opportunities to see people with eyes like that, and that it may have given them the idea for their peculiar Buddha eye. (21)

This is a bit tricky, actually, especially since Empson did not have the tradition of social constructionism (as we do) to fall back on. One has the sense of his having a dig at racialism and yet also owning its artisanal immediacy, tractability, and adequacy as art. Fortunately, there is no despairing naturalism attending Empson’s overall exercise, or any reference to some diminished capacity of humanity in the face of a hostile universe. There is, rather, a tone of gentle humanity throughout, as when introducing the Buddha “type”:

An idea that you must be somehow satisfied as well as mortified before entering repose goes deep into the system, and perhaps into human life. . . . The drooping eyelids of the great creatures are heavy with patience and suffering, and the subtle irony which offends 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. (5)  

Here we encounter Empson’s characteristic diffidence when it came to viewing torment and torture as necessary by-products of human history, a tack he would take more firmly when, after 1960, he set his sights on the (American) neo-Christians.

It follows that, when taking the Empson corpus as a whole, The Face of the Buddha is not likely to be regarded as displacing, at the level of impact and virtuosity, Seven Types of Ambiguity or Milton’s God. It serves, rather, as a remarkably good beginning when considering how Empson sorted out the marvels of a global existence. And the work serves the ensuing tradition much as I suspect Empson would have wanted it to: as the filigree upon a broader geopolitical ornament of modernist design; and, to turn the metaphor, the pocketing of epic, modernist claims originating in the West within an even larger, cosmological reckoning the Buddhas provide.

It is likely that Empson eventually forgot that he had ever cared about—or perhaps even loved—this lost project from a far-away time and a far-away place. Still, as we read it today, The Face of the Buddha withstands inquiry when rejoining the body of knowledge from which it has been so decisively separated, the curio superseded by subsequent academic discoveries and movements. It also shimmers brightly with reference to its own highly stylized gestures, and as the product of a remarkable mind who dared to theorize Western isolation on Asian ground and, in the guise of Buddhist renunciation, to render it beautiful for outsiders everywhere.

Following upon Empson’s, Arrowsmith’s achievement is therefore a doubled recovery: the return of a famously lost manuscript to the light of critical scrutiny; and, beyond this, a generous and even caring exegesis by way of keen editorial craft. What The Face of the Buddha provides, in essence, is the fretwork—a sturdy scaffolding—for a project Empson left unfinished.  And yet it comes tantalizingly close to achieving a long sought-after synthesis about world artistic production in an era when the lines of nation and “race” remained taut and constraining. By contrast, the relations across cultures, world religions, and regions Empson attempted to map onto the “complex” (116) found in any singular Buddha’s face are manifold, and required vocabulary which then, as now, did not even exist. Empson’s open-ended stance remains plurispectival, historically rich, and yet also resistant to any geographically reductive or isolating localism. Arrowsmith’s recovery of Empson’s remarkable manuscript is, thankfully, a discovery for the rest of us.


[1] Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 53.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), 11-13.

[3] Ernst Gombrich, “The Principles of Caricature” (With Ernst Kris), British Journal of Medical Psychology,

17 (1938): 319-342.