Snubs, surprises and Ben Affleck

And why the Baftas will always be the Oscars' too keen little brother

The 2013 Bafta nominations, which were announced yesterday, got to enjoy just over 24 hours of luxurious newsworthiness before being eclipsed today by the Oscar roll-call. The Oscars are putting out their bunting earlier than usual this year in order to take some of the dubious shine off this Sunday’s ceremony for the Golden Globes. (The Globes, for those who just tuned in, are voted for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association; in any reasonable person’s evaluation, they rate slightly lower than a rancid cuddly toy won at a fairground hoopla stall.) Any griping about the contenders proposed by an awards body amounts to nothing more dignified than playground name-calling. So join me now as I venture back into the school-yard to call someone else’s mum “ugly” and to brag that my dad could beat the crap out of yours (which is actually true).

Most Ridiculous Nomination

Bafta doesn’t have much going for it — the awards arm likes to think of itself as Oscar’s little brother, but you just know that if the two of them met at a party, Bafta would be all “Bro!” and Oscar would be, like, “Er, do I know you? Sorry, you’ll have to speak to my press agent if you want a signed photograph” before getting fist-bumped by Tom Cruise and Jay-Z while Bafta is grabbed in a headlock by security. But Bafta can stand tall this year and boast that it has waltzed off with the title of Most Ridiculous Nomination. Workaday awards bodies are content merely to snub and overlook, but it takes a unique brand of idiocy to amass the votes necessary to propose as a Best Actor contender Ben Affleck in Argo. It’s the perfect nomination for when you want to say: “Screw you, Jean-Louis Trintignant and your tremendous work in Amour!”

Most Pleasantly Surprising Nomination

The two Screenplay awards (Adapted and Original) traditionally offer slightly more space for innovation and daring than the other categories, so it’s perhaps to be expected that the two (unrelated) Andersons—Wes for Moonrise Kingdom (co-written by Roman Coppola) and Paul Thomas for The Master—get the nod from Bafta, with only Moonrise making it into the same Oscar category. For a true surprise we must look to the Animated Film category, where justifiable love has been expressed by both Bafta and Oscar for the marvellous stop-motion comedy-chiller ParaNorman (and, more predictably, the very good and tonally similar Frankenweenie).

The Tom Hooper/The King’s Speech Award (formerly known as The Ron Howard D’Or and The “Just Because You Liked the Film, Did You Have to Nominate the Bloody Director?” Prize).

Bafta makes it two in a row for Ben Affleck by suggesting implicitly in its nomination for him as Best Director for Argo that he is a more accomplished filmmaker than either of the Andersons (see above) or Steven Spielberg. In the case of the Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow, a previous Best Director winner (for The Hurt Locker), has lost out in that field even though her hunt-for-Osama-bin-Laden film, Zero Dark Thirty, is a Best Picture nominee. I’m a huge admirer of Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, but the idea of him competing for a directing prize with Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Quentin Tarantino (the slavery revenge western Django Unchained), let alone Michael Haneke (Amour), is positively surreal, like seeing Bernie Clifton and his London Marathon Ostrich challenging Usain Bolt in the 200m.

The “Can’t We Make It a Tie-Breaker?” Award (coupled this year with the “Best Off-screen PR Angle” Award).

Squaring up to one another this year at the Oscars will be Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), who at 85 is the oldest Best Actress nominee in history, and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), who at 9 is the youngest. Now I like Riva’s performance very much. But I also think that Wallis’s is the best part of Beasts. So which one is better? There’s only one way to find out.

The Most Egregious Snub Award

You might say this should go to Bigelow at the Oscars. For me it’s the minor scandal of Steven Spielberg being ignored by Bafta. Yes, Lincoln is Tony Kushner’s baby (as I’ve suggested in the latest issue of the NS), so it’s only right that he has been nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category. But what a crime to overlook Spielberg in the Director category for his mastery of tone, his faultless pacing and the way he keeps the film balanced between human detail and historical sweep. I fantasise about a recount in which Affleck’s Bafta nomination is turned over to Wes Anderson while voters give Quentin Tarantino’s one to Spielberg instead, confessing that in all the hubbub they got their slavery films muddled up.

The “Even a Stopped Clock Tells the Right Time Twice a Day” Award For Good Sense Accidental or Otherwise.

A big hooray for the following at the Baftas: Bart Layton and his producer Dmitri Doganis nominated for their wily and gripping documentary The Imposter (Outstanding Debut By a British Writer, Director or Producer and Best Documentary); the smattering of amour for Amour (Film Not in the English Language, Director, Leading Actress, Original Screenplay); recognition for Lynne Ramsey’s vaguely Olympics-related Swimmer (Short Film). There are also some deserving names in the Bafta Rising Star category voted for by the public; these include Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Juno Temple (last seen in Killer Joe and The Dark Knight Rises—but check out Kaboom for her best work) and Andrea Riseborough, who was nominated either for her tremendous work in Shadow Dancer or for surviving Madonna’s W.E. The Oscars also get it right with their enthusiasm for Amour, which breaks out of the Foreign Language ghetto and into the list of Best Picture nominees. But it’s the title of an earlier Haneke film which sums up nicely this whole awards business: Funny Games.

The Bafta ceremony is on 10 February, the Oscars on 24 February

Ben Affleck, director of Argo (Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

MARK GERSON
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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