In the Critics this week

Alwyn W Turner on Daleks, Fiona Sampson on British poetry and poems by John Burnside and Samuel Beckett.

“Running through every fascist movement is a thread of comic absurdity, providing a counter-point to the violence and hatred that predominate,” writes David Shariatmadari in his review of Daniel Pick’s The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts. “Hess’s treatment by British doctors after an extraordinary solo flight from Germany in 1941 forms the kernel of Daniel Pick’s study of attempts to apply psychoanalytic theory to the phenomenon of Nazism.” “Here was no great supply of military intelligence but a man beset by delusions and hypochondria” who offered “the chance to explore the psychological underpinnings of the movement.” Yet these attempts to “analyse the German people as a whole did little further the Allies’ understanding of their enemy and less to affect the course of conflict. They contributed far more to intellectual debates about the limits of psychoanalysis and its proper applications.” “The question of whether psychoanalysis at a distance can ever be meaningful is a fascinating one” and Shariatmadari finds “Pick’s description of this reckoning the most interesting part of the book after the sections on Hess.” He concludes that this is “a meticulous work of history and an impressive achievement”, though it’s “hard not to feel disappointment that, for the layperson at least, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind makes for a rather desiccated read.”

The comic absurdity of fascism can also be detected in Doctor Who baddies the Daleks. In his "Critic at large" essay, Alwyn W Turner traces the roots of the Daleks to the Cardiff air raids of 1941m during which a young Terry Nation spent many nights “sheltering from the Luffwaffe’s bombs on his own, reading adventure stories.” Twenty-three years later he was commissioned to write a script for the nascent Doctor Who. “Perhaps it was the pace of the writing that enabled him so effectively to tap into subconscious fears,” Turner writes, and to create in the Daleks “a science-fiction incarnation of the Nazis”. By 1964 “Dalekmania was the only serious rival to Beatlemania”, and “as Doctor Who starts gearing up for its 50th anniversary year, it’s no great shock to find the Daleks revived once more to launch the new series.” By Doctor Who’s revival in 2005,  “the Daleks fed a new nostalgia”; “in 1964, the sight of Daleks in London had drawn on fears of Nazi occupation; now it evoked the swinging Sixties”. Stripped of the “doom-laden associations” of the Nazis and neutron bombs, the “Daleks have fallen out of favour . . . seen by some as limited and simplistic . . .  they’re also a bit embarrassing.” Yet “still they can’t be written out of Dr Who, because children continue to fall for them.”

The curious absence of the Nazis also figure in the life of Miriam Gross, whose memoir, An Almost English Life, John Sutherland finds to be a “short book” that “has the quality of a long conversation with a very interesting woman.” As a child, Gross's family “barely escaped the clutches of Hitler”. Yet “her parents were determined their daughter should not be brought up a ‘German’” and “was in her late teens before she was aware that something called the Holocaust had even happened.” She grew up anglicised by her education at Dartington, “a rather zany commune devoted to art, beauty and spiritual freedom” and graduated “a sophisticated adolescent, adept at French kissing (and French)” and “formidably well read”. After studying at Oxford she “drifted into the London literary world”, which “was not at the time open to all talents – particularly female talent”. Sutherland finds “Gross is better at demonstrating her qualities as a higher journalist than describing them. Pride of place goes to the literary interviews she did for the Observer.” “These interviews would adapt into wonderful radio plays. One would be tempted to say that they, alone, make the book worth buying – if it weren’t that the rest of it is.”

The examination of life stories is continued in Daniel Swift's review of D T Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, which he finds to be “a model biography, traditionally conceived.” “Wallace is almost as entertaining and moving to read about as he is to read. Yet it is precisely because this biography is so good at what it narrowly does that it is also an oddly misguided project, missing the point of the writer it so diligently tracks.” “Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life. He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life.” Now that Wallace is dead, “what remains – and what remains most moving – is the spectacle of care. 'It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies,' he told an interviewer, 'in be[ing] willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow.'" “In the end, he arranged the pages of his final novel into neat piles in his office, so that his wife would find them and so that others might be able to make sense of them, and he hanged himself.”

The suicide of another influential literary figure, in this case Slyvia Plath, is subject of Last Letter by Ted Hughes which the New Statesman published “to immense international interest” in 2010. In her introduction to our poetry special, Sophie Elmhirst shows how, since its earliest days, the New Statesman has been a staunch supporter of poetry, leading Edward Hyams, editor of a 1963 anthology of writing in the NS, to claim that its pages has been the home to “the early work of almost every poet to make a name since 1913”.

In an accompanying opinion piece, Fiona Sampson explains how her book Beyond the Lyric was driven by her dismay that “even arts journalists scarcely seemed aware that today’s British poetry is world-class.” “Poetry is flowering and expanding . . . yet it receives strangely little attention.” “So what is it that comes between today’s British poetry and its readers? One reason our verse is such a well-kept secret is that we lack robust, engaged critical practise.” So Sampson wrote Beyond the Lyric, in which she “set out to map the main poem-making strategies available to poets today. I found 13 fundamental visions of what a poem is and how it works. These range from using strict metre as a poetic motor to building verse on myth, from dandified re-workings of realism to postmodernity’s exploded lyricism.” “This way of mapping suggests how wide-ranging British poetry is.”

Sampson's piece is followed by poems by Samuel Beckett, James Lasdun, Rachael Boast, Azfa Ali and John Burnside.

Laugh if you like, but in 1963 Daleks channelled subconscious fears as SF incarnations of the Nazis (Image: Getty)
MARK GERSON
Show Hide image

It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain