It is also, as William Empson argues in his posthumously published The Face of the Buddha, a locus of artistic and cultural meaning. “The art of a given culture and period commonly has a favourite facial type,” Empson notes, “and if the later expert is content to have no idea why this face was found satisfying there is not much reason to suppose that his reaction to the work of art is even similar to what the artist intended. Indeed the human face itself is little known.”
The very belated appearance of The Face of the Buddha — which arrives, thanks to a painstaking job of archaeology and editing by Rupert Arrowsmith, 70 years after Empson completed the manuscript, and more than 30 after his death — delivers to us a characteristically brilliant and heterodox work which is as much a plunge into the philosophy of the face as it is a work of art history. While Empson is most famous as a poet and literary critic, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find him straying into other disciplines. Empson had been a mathematical prodigy who turned his hand to literary criticism and produced the seminal Seven Types of Ambiguity in his early 20s. Seven Types, which remains one of the great critical texts of the 20th century, ought to have immediately launched him on an illustrious academic career in England.
By the time of the book’s publication in 1930, however, the bisexual and fiercely nonconformist Empson had been booted from his Cambridge teaching appointment after condoms were found in his room. He then traveled to East Asia, teaching C. K. Ogden’s Basic English in China and beginning the manuscript of The Face of the Buddha after being captivated by a handful of Buddhist sculptures. Empson worked on the manuscript on and off until long after his return to England in 1939, but he made the mistake of entrusting the manuscript to a dissolute companion, who left it in a taxi. Or so his friend told him; in fact, he had passed it on to an editor at Poetry London, who in turn passed it on to another, Richard March. March died shortly thereafter, and the manuscript lay undiscovered until the British Museum acquired March’s papers in 2003.
The Face of the Buddha is certainly an odd piece of work, a work of personal appreciation as much as scholarship. Empson himself does not make great claims to scholarly authority, but rather positions himself as a (very) inspired amateur, devouring every bit of information he can find in pursuit of his particular enthusiasms, which include a cautious interest in Buddhism in general and a particular interest in early Japanese and Korean Buddhist iconography.
Empson concerns himself primarily with the figure of the Bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition, those worshipped individuals who achieve enlightenment but postpone nirvana in order to help others toward the end of suffering. In particular, he examines East Asian sculptures of Maitreya, the future Buddha, and Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Avalokitesvara came to be known as Guanyin in East Asia, and at some point around the 10th century in China began to be portrayed as female rather than male. (Empson refers to Guanyin as “she,” but the sculptures he treats all date from centuries before the transition. He appears to have inherited this error from one of his main sources, the diplomat and scholar Charles Eliot.)
The core thesis of Empson’s book is that Far Eastern Buddhist sculptors intentionally deployed facial asymmetry to portray dual aspects of the Bodhisattvas. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from their combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes,
especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper. Now of course these qualities must somehow be diffused through the whole face, indeed the whole figure, or it will have no unity. But I believe there was a standard way of getting them in, one which put a strain on the unity; the two qualities were largely separated onto the two sides of the face.
Such dualism, Empson argues, serves two functions: “it has to convey his detachment from the world after achieving peace, and yet this figure is expected to help the worshipper […] For early Buddhist sculpture, the power to help the worshipper is on the right, and the calm, or in later examples, more generally, the inherent nature of the personage, is on the left.”
In making the right side active and worldly and the left side transcendent and remote, Empson prefigures the similar distribution described by Julian Jaynes in his masterpiece of groundless speculation, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes, whose work recently furnished a key plot device in the television series Westworld, posited that, prior to the dawn of history, humans literally heard god-voices in their heads, dictated to the left brain (right face) by the right brain (left face). But while Jaynes pursued his thesis in an attempt to explain our conception of reason and consciousness, Empson examines these sculptures in order to reconstruct the messages and emotional cues they imparted to devotees, using a speculative method not far from his close reading of poetry. “The mouths of the early Chinese and Japanese Buddhas […] have been much affected by muscular action,” he writes. “[The expression] is produced on a living face by a willful or hysterical pull on the main zygomatic muscle (lip-end to cheekbone) a uniform pressure from the others simply to keep the mouth shut […] This use of it tells the spectator that a condition of nervous or mental strain is being faced with stoical irony.”
Empson was not a Buddhist, though he was fascinated by the faith. (His translation of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon serves as an epigraph for his Collected Poems.) “One should rid oneself of the common idea that Buddhism is essentially a passive, pessimistic and indeed reactionary creed,” he writes in The Face of the Buddha. “It has been a civilizing force in wide areas of the world, and there is nothing less reactionary than the idea that ‘all this misery is unnecessary: if you renounce selfishness you can free yourself from your chains.’”
What Empson found most attractive across various Buddhist traditions was the comparative absence of the doctrinal sadism and moral blackmail that he perceived and loathed in Christianity. As John Haffenden’s biography chronicles, Empson had had a mild Anglican upbringing which did not take in the slightest, as the Christ-story repulsed him from an early age. “The doctrine of the Trinity is necessary, or the Father appears too evil in his ‘satisfaction’ at the crucifixion of his Son,” he later wrote:
But to present Jesus as one with the Father only turns him into a hypocrite; when he prays for his enemies to be forgiven, he knows under his other title he will take revenge […] It is hard to envisage God as driving a hard bargain with himself before he agrees to torture himself to death out of love for mankind […] Only if this God had a craving to torture his Son could the Son bargain with him about it. In return for those three hours of ecstasy, the Father would give up the pleasure of torturing for all eternity a small proportion of mankind.
Empson’s distaste for Christianity does not come through anywhere near this vividly in The Face of the Buddha, though he would later give it free rein years later in Milton’s God, his scorchingly polemical interpretation of Paradise Lost. But an implicit contrast between the Buddha and Jesus pervades the book, which frames Buddhism as a more humane alternative to Christianity: evidence that a devotional system of ethics can exist in the absence of final judgment and vengeance. Ironically, Empson provides Buddhism with a Christological structure, replacing the impersonal, celestial Father with Gautama Buddha, and the earthly, personal Jesus with the Bodhisattvas. In this context, the identification of Guanyin as female also provides a corrective to the wholly masculine Christianity.
One can broadly agree with Empson’s anti-Christian stance while still maintaining that Buddhism, like any doctrinal system of devotion, can be skewed toward uses both benevolent and malignant. Buddhism, too, has produced its doomsday cults: China’s 18th-century White Lotus rebellions do not seem substantively different in structure from Western religious revolts. And there is, as with any major religion, great variation between sects; the Mahayanist and particularly Chan devotional traditions Empson discusses are quite far from the Indian and Tibetan scholastic traditions of Buddhism with which I am most familiar.
Moreover, at the time Empson wrote The Face of the Buddha, the historical resources on Buddhism accessible to him were sparse and unreliable. His focus on the cultural commonalities of faces and facial expressions steered him away from the thorny problems of interpretation of texts and of visual symbols. Not that the labyrinthine and many-tendrilled spread of Buddhism doesn’t cause problems: Empson dismisses Tibetan Buddhism’s Vajrayana tradition in a paragraph, thinking it vulgar and undeveloped, out of sheer lack of information to the contrary. (For a corrective, I advise reading Georges Dreyfus’s remarkable philosophical memoir The Sound of Two Hands Clapping.) But Empson’s instincts are generally sure-footed enough that he manages a respectable comparative study even in the face of large knowledge gaps. His analysis of facial musculature and his particular attention to the stoical smile produced by sole exercise of the zygomatic muscle merit attention by those more knowledgeable in art history and anatomy than myself, as Empson claims that this smile arose independently in both Buddhist sculpture and classical Greece.
As Wittgenstein suggests, the interpretation of a face is no less difficult a task than the interpretation of a human soul. Whatever its shortcomings as a piece of historical scholarship, The Face of the Buddha is a true work of the humanities, a prodigious feat of aesthetic interpretation worthy of a place alongside Empson’s thorny, incisive literary criticism.
David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer. His book Illogical Operator: A Life in Code is forthcoming from Pantheon.