When the NS met Malcolm X

12 June 1964.

At the recent New Statesman debate on the motion "Did the Left Win the 20th Century", one of the strongest arguments in favour was the improvement in global race relations. 50 years ago Brian Glanville interviewed Malcolm X shortly before his assassination in 1965. The article was written three months after his exclusion from the Nation of Islam and his founding of the Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm had recently returned from Mecca and was rethinking many of his views and the direction of his racial relations campaigns. Having become a Sunni Muslim and distanced himself from many of his earlier standpoints, Malcolm toned down his aggression, but not his passion.

He focused less on racism and black supremacy and more on equal rights from a Pan-African standpoint. He also became more willing to give interviews and work with other civil rights movements and leaders. In april 1964, two months before the article below was published, Malcolm gave his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, in which he urged all African-Americans to exercise their right to vote. They should tone down the violence, but not forget it was an option should their rights be ignored in the future.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr, whom Malcolm met briefly only once, their speeches in the early 60s became one of the turning points in global race relations. Half a year after this article was published, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.

Introduction by Christian Jensen

Malcolm X

"I don't think we’re outnumbered. We’re part of the Afro-Asian world, and that means that we're in the majority. White America is in the minority." The speaker was Malcolm X, the most powerful and eloquent figure in the American 'Black Muslim' movement. The origins of the movement are a little obscure. Probably it began in Detroit some 30 years ago, founded by a man called Wallace Fard about whom very little is known. His followers were poor, humble and largely illiterate. Not long ago, a Hearst newspaper carried the story that Fard was actually a white man, an allegation strongly denied by Elijah Muhammad, the sanctioned leader of the Muslims, who offered a large reward to anybody who could prove that Fard was white.

The question, "Why Muslims?" is one which Malcolm X-brushes quickly aside. "Our people are from Nigeria and Ghana. They tell us we're from West Africa, and I think historically that's sound doctrine. The Mali empire stretched through Ghana, Guinea, Senegal." When the Negroes were imported as slaves, he believes, they "had to be cut off from Islam; Islam does not say turn the other cheek; it says fight those who fight you. If you turn the other cheek, you can be enslaved for 1,000 years."

One can quarrel with his analysis here; white American motives for weaning their Negroes from Islam — if they did — were probably less devious and more evangelic. What the embracing of Islam does represent is a deliberate taking of position against Christianity as a white religion, which has been used to seduce and exploit the Negro. Malcolm X talks of Christianity with hatred. "I went to prison" (he served a seven-year term, during which he was converted to Islam) "as a Christian. and while I was a Christian, I did what most Christians in this country do. Which means I engaged in many vices. That's the Christian way. Christians are drunk. Christians are dope addicts. Christians rob banks. In fact you ask any drunk, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian?' When you find him robbing a bank, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian.' But when I became a Muslim, I put that life behind me."

Elijah Muhammad, the father of the movement, with whom Malcolm X has now effectively split, was born Elijah Poole in Georgia, 67 years ago. The story goes that the 'prophet' who appeared in Detroit — presumably Fard — appointed Elijah his Messenger. At the time he was without formal education, the son of a Baptist minister, who had little to recommend him but his dynamism.

It was not until the Fifties, and the national growth of the civil rights movement for Negroes, that the Muslim religion began to flourish. Muhammad ran it in authoritarian manner with his sons and his son-in-law as his deputies. The doctrine preached was one of absolute separation between the races. If white wanted nothing to do with black, here was black saying it wanted nothing to do with white; merely the right to set up its own autonomous state within America.

Given the structure of the movement, it was perhaps inevitable that the rise of a forceful young leader outside the family circle of the Muhammads would lead to tension. Malcolm Little, otherwise Malcolm X, a tall, dignified, handsome Negro, born 38 years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, grew quickly in power and popularity. He might profess the doctrine of separatism, but there was no doubt that he could meet the white man on his own ground, and, with his lucid eloquence, fascinate him as well as frighten him. After the murder of Kennedy, a tactless statement about chickens having come home to roost gave Muhammad the opportunity to ban Malcolm from public speaking. Malcolm proceeded to form, in New York, his splinter group, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and to trot around with him his own particular trump card and convert, the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay.

"When we say South," says Malcolm X, "we mean south of the Canadian border. America in its entirety is segregationist and is racist. It's more camouflaged in the north, but it's the same thing." His bitterness is not difficult to understand. When he was a child, his father died in ambiguous circumstances. "They found him one night underneath a street car, dying. They called it an accident, but he was run over by the rear wheels of a street car, which means he was thrown under after the front wheels went by. This wasn't in the South. This was in Michigan."

Malcolm X has taken up his headquarters in Harlem's Theresa Hotel, where Joe Louis used to stay after his fights and where Cassius Clay stays now, making periodic excursions to the street, to be acclaimed by his joyful admirers. The heavy, painted glass doors of the Muslims' offices are inscribed Eve Nelson Cosmetics. Inside, several Negroes work diligently at a table in a long, light room, with green and white checked linoleum. Their courtesy, in a country where courtesy is so often the thin shell over violence, is immense. On a green, slatted blackboard, words are chalked up, as if in some strange free association: Fuzzy Wuzzy . . . Office schedule . . . Physical fit. . . There is a tide . . . Cowards die many . . . Red letter.. Eyes of the world on you.

The question of violence, how far the movement's aims make it inevitable, is one which increasingly perturbs white Americans. "All I've said," explains Malcolm, "is that if the government is unable or unwilling to defend Negroes, Negroes should defend themselves by whatever means are necessary. If it's lawful to have a rifle club to kill pheasants, it should be just as lawful to have one to kill wolves or dogs that are being sicked on little black babies. In fact it's constitutional. Article Number Two of the constitution" — he takes a handbook out of his inside pocket — "guarantees the right of every citizen to own a rifle or a shot gun."

'We're not opposed to violence, we're opposed to brutality. We're opposed to being the victims of violence. Non-violence didn't even work in India. The Indians are still subservient to the West, whereas the Chinese aren't. I think India and China are the two best examples we can look to, to see the result of these so-called negotiated freedoms. The people of India have gone from physical colonialism to economic colonialism."

As for the American Negro, "we're just as thoroughly colonialised as Angola, Mozambique. This is not a democracy. I don't think any man has exploited, has oppressed and degraded, just based on the colour of another man's skin, as western man has done. And the American segment of western man has done it more evilly than any other man, because they've done it hypocritically. They've condemned the colonial practices of the western European nations, while they're practising colonialism here. Texas is the same as Mississippi, and that's the state from which the present President comes. Now, how can he straighten out the national mess when he can't even straighten out what's going on in his own state?"

When he speaks, the pain is evident, almost palpable, the analysis hard to refute. But the solution, the all-Negro state, seems chimerical, mere pie in the sky. Malcolm X won't have it; when Washington began, he says — a little ingenuously — his task seemed harder still, and he accomplished it. One asks him how long he thinks it will take, a decade? And he answers : "There's not a black man in this country will wait a decade to get this problem solved. This generation wants a solution now." But it will clearly take a long time for the Black Muslims to organise; even those sympathetic to them feel that their cohorts are at best disciplined, rather than trained. Nor is their fundamentalism, their aggressive brand of Islam, carrying the intellectuals; the Baldwins and the Ellisons, men too sophisticated for such easy dichotomies. This is not to say that they are not sympathetic.

When I spoke to James Baldwin — that tiny, endearing figure, now as hotly besieged as any film star, he showed this clearly. "It's impossible to argue with facts. Facts are facts. But obviously I'm not going to teach my children or anybody I know that they're better because they're black; it seems to me it's a repetition, let's say, of the whole doctrine of white supremacy." He feels, though, that "this is the first time in the history of this country where people . . . are forced to recognise some of the facts of Negro life. It's no longer possible for them to contain it and pretend it isn't true. A man like Malcolm X has this utility, that he frightens people so much that finally they'd rather talk even to me than to him." As for the labelling of the Black Muslims as extremists, "there's no great hue and cry as far as I know, calling some of the Senator Eastlands extremists. What they mean is that Malcolm is an extremist because he makes them uncomfortable and because he argues that not all Negroes are non-violent, which happens to be true."

Indeed, a point which has been widely made is that the rousing of the Negro masses must inevitably lead to violence, precisely because protest action so far has been largely in the hands of those diligently trained in nonviolence. "There's another point which is very important," Baldwin continued. "We are one tenth, and it is true that we couldn't hope to win let's call it a shooting war, but it is also true that we're very well placed to bring this economy to its knees."

Where Baldwin and the Muslims differ most profoundly is in the concept of difference through race. "As long as you think people are white or black," said Baldwin, "you fall into the same traps. I'm not a Negro, I'm a man." To which Malcolm X replies, "I don't have to say I'm a man; my actions will speak for me; and if my behaviour doesn't reflect masculinity, then I shouldn't seek to be referred to as a man. And in America the Negro has been robbed of his masculinity and he doesn't get it back by saying 'I'm a man'; he gets it back by deeds. To say 'I'm a man' is not sufficient."

Malcolm X in Oxford before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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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