On Empson, by Michael Wood, Princeton University Press, 224 pp, £18.95, ISBN: 978-0691163765
In a good dream of the best of all possible worlds, William Empson does not get banished from Magdalen College in 1929, and instead emerges as the most brilliant and effective public figure of the 1930s and 1940s, at some stage becoming British prime minister and negotiating an intelligent path for the world out of the catastrophe of conflict and colonialism. It is a dream now, but it was a possibility just prior to that punishment, which was administered when a zealous college bedmaker discovered a pack of prophylactics in the young scholar’s chest of drawers. Empson could have been anything, such was his intelligence; but beyond that he also had his nerve, which was colossal. That confidence made him the most phenomenally original reader of the twentieth century, and he is still as good a guide as anyone for how to make your way round a text, thinking and counter-thinking as you go.
It is such counter-thinking which makes him so hilarious and vital. To adapt Eliot’s epigrammatic capture of Andrew Marvell (both of whom Empson read with inexhaustible resourcefulness), Empson identifies and understands “slight lyric grace” in combination with “tough reasonableness”; but even then, he reads that tough reasonableness with yet more of the same temper. That toughness was not a kind of Desperate Dan bravado; rather it manifested as an anti-posturing, a form of diligence and good practice that carried a moral force. To read and then commit to reading again, to be open to all of the forms of ambiguity that you might realise, was in itself a commitment to hard truth over glib paraphrase. Empson frequently describes himself and his practice in terms of modesty, but reading him would be nothing if it did not carry the pressure of outrageousness, the feeling that you are being propelled into a new understanding. In the same way that Donne can make his reader feel enthralled at the violent new feeling which his poems announce, so Empson brings about realisation as a kind of comic whiplash. So when he reads “Ode on Melancholy” in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Empson points out how Keats’s insistent negatives speak of something urgent and progressive. He begins with abstraction, but makes his irresistible proof with comedy. Without the gag, nobody would learn anything:
Evidently the simplest way for the two opposites defined by the context to be suggested by the reader is by some disorder in the action of the negative; as by its being easily passed over or too much insisted upon. Thus in the Keats “Ode on Melancholy”
No, no, go not to Lethe; neither twist
tells you that somebody, or some force in the poet’s mind, must have wanted to go to Lethe very much, if it took four negatives in the first line to stop them.
So not only does no mean yes, it means a thorough yes to no.
Empson is always particularly good on the wrongness of something, which was what informed his late-career resistance to deconstruction, a field of critical operation that he, superficially can be said to have anticipated if you regard it as producing the generation of ambiguity above all else. Empson’s method, however, differed in that he wanted his readings to remain accountable to the idea of agency and intention, even as ambiguities proliferated. To abolish the author and the idea of intentionality was equally tyrannous as insisting on its absolute priority; poetry had to hang on to its poeticity, no matter what. Whatever the dogma, Empson was against it.
Most famously, he showed this in Milton’s God (1961), where he called out the tyranny inherent in that deity, but more pointedly in the iron rule that had been exerted upon the reading of Paradise Lost by critics determined to stress the orthodoxy of its Christianity. The life of the poem had been throttled by this, because what Empson understood very well was that there is nothing orthodox at all in Milton’s imagining; there was nothing to be reconciled to, and nothing to inspire in it, other than terror. This makes it a terrible thing to contemplate, but it is also exactly what makes it worthy of contemplation. It is hard to dismiss the sense that Empson’s impulse was corrective, or more correctly, disputatiously corrective. He would not have needed to make a reading like that of Milton’s God had he not felt that Christian critics had made it necessary to do so. Similarly, when he contemplates the end of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, he comes up with a reading so outrageously funny that yet again it must have come from a sense that something or someone needed to be outraged. In this way, it is worth considering how Empson resembles Milton, an outrageously gifted scholar with a genius for generating havoc.
Just as he had a sharp eye for wrongness in others, he understood the value of being wrong himself. It is practically impossible to imagine anyone staging Doctor Faustus precisely in terms of Empson’s reading in Faustus and the Censor, with Faustus’s last utterance “Ah, Mephistophilis!” understood as a dying cry of pleasure at re-encountering an old friend. He does this, rather than utter a hellbound yell of anguish, because what is realised by Faustus and the spirit is that they all belong to a pre-Christian domain of folklore; Hell, indeed, was a fable, and Mephistophilis a Middle Spirit only pretending to be a devil. Audiences have typically preferred their infernos to be painful rather than fictive, sadistically preferring to see sinners in the hands of an angry God, even if (or because) they do not believe in him. Empson’s way would require more material, perhaps a what-ho Wodehousian musical number to work. Half his argument is that the censor had butchered the text to achieve an arbitrarily tragic shaping, so Empson has to provide the necessary supplement. What he does more than enough to achieve is to affront the dominance of the Christian reading that insists upon the end of the play as a pageant-punishment (with a cold eye, Faustus is hardly tragic, wherever or whatever way you look at it). Empson’s wilful lightening of the play’s conclusion generates a sense of query that offers a way into its real complexity and weirdness. Contemporary performances have in fact managed more and more to incorporate; Jan Swankemajer’s semi-animated version from 1994 (Faust) is a fine example of a post-Empsonian acting-out of this necessary silliness. Its puppetry and claymationed larking-about is as infernal as hellfire to endure; Empson showed the way to understand such happy torment.
This pleasure-pain duality is never far away in Empson, and it might be argued that that was what more or less constituted reality for him. Ambiguity was not uniquely intellectual puzzling, but an affective experience, a way of being-in-the-world. Ambiguity could allow you to be both forgiving and daring, as when he indicated that Eliot could be stupid, and that stupidity could be sinister (as in his temptations to anti-semitism), but there was nothing strategic about it:
I was asked to reflect about the politics of Eliot, and after making the attempt felt rather surprised to conclude that he hadn’t got any. He was not (so to speak) brought up to have any, because an aesthete rather boasted of having none; he inherited a healthy crop of family prejudices, but did not feel committed to them. His loyalty to old friends, a very attractive trait, was carried almost to the point of indifference to their opinions. When he became eminent he was expected to have world views, and showed himself willing and conscientious there; but it all feels overshadowed by a placid remark, which he once let drop by way of apology, that poetry has an urgent need to deal with reality, but in prose a man may allow himself to entertain ideals. When he wrote that a truly cultured society would only have a reasonable proportion of free-thinking Jews in it, he had no idea of planning how to bring this situation about. He would try at times to keep some particular thing from being destroyed, but that is as near to politics as he got. I think indeed one can find cases where the blind spot about politics entailed a minor weakness of judgement.
Finding Eliot less interesting than he was supposed to be at politics, Empson at the same time finds nuance and fascination in multiple rationalisations of that nullity. This is precisely why he always refuses the comfort of the condemnatory, just as he abhorred claims on rightness at all costs; it was better to be smart about things, in the fullest sense of the term. It was better to be aware and painfully bright. To be right was merely to be right. Playing God.
Michael Wood is a fascinating choice of critic to address Empson, not least because his own work is so capably diverse in its interests, even as it is executed so precisely, with scholarly determination. He comes up with continually interesting angles on all of Empson’s achievement, bravely de-emphasising some rightly-cherished poems such as “Missing Dates”, then refocusing attention on some of the very fine but obscure material only to be found in collections like Argufying. Wood also makes unexpectedly useful play in relating Empson’s work to that of Roland Barthes, identifying the ability of both to work words in singular ways, but also their subtle sense of how their readings still had to account to materiality and the demands of the real. Barthes may have written of the death of the author, but for him the writer still existed, albeit in the troublesome company of the newly-empowered reader. Empson and Wood are also this kind of critic, not consumed by their own cleverness, but happiest in giving it over entirely to the things they read and see. In this, they come to recognise the fullest dimensions of the theatricality and performativity of language: “we do see what happens when puns take the stage, and language is recognised as the consummate performance artist that it is.” Wood writes this in reference to Empson’s intensely brilliant and maddening reading of Shakespeare’s tragedies in The Structure of Complex Words, a book with an intimidating title but at the same time a very peculiar sense of comedy. Against what might be held to be the official complexity of a “word” (where its conventional relationship to power might be discovered), Empson says that there is another form of complexity that words generate in social and/or unconscious action, which he describes as a kind of “shrubbery” that represents the secret life of words, something that cannot be disentangled from reality. This messiness of language represents real strength and necessity: “This may be an important matter for a society, because its accepted official beliefs may be things that would be fatal unless in some degree kept at bay.”
This last remark reminds us of how Empson was thinking his way through the canon of English literature in the most stressful of circumstances, arriving to assume his post at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1931, a month after the Manchurian Incident. In a militarised country setting out on a fifteen-year campaign of aggression, where you did not speak more than a word or two of the language, officialdom must have appeared pretty terrifying. Looking inward and askance, Empson began remarking all sorts of new energies in language, life and art, finding things to live by and to live for. Criticism became a life-and-death business, a way of dealing with everything. In Behave, his evolutionary account of animal behaviours, the neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky describes biology as “potentials, vulnerabilities, predispositions, proclivities, interactions”. The real action of these dynamic words is precisely what we get from reading Empson, the deep reward you get for hunkering down in the shrubbery.
Michael Hinds is an associate professor in the School of English at Dublin City University.