Daily Archives: December 1, 2006

William Empson, Hero of Modern Criticism

Courtesy of those mannish men who populate the Valve, I’m passing along two good LRB reviews of William Empson’s recently published letters and biography, edited and written, respectively, by John Haffenden. The first is a memoir/review by Frank Kermode, the second an essay by Adam Phillips.



Kermode talks from personal experience, and gives us his own insights into Empson’s truly appalling personal hygiene, along with a few unappealing details from Empson’s love life. Phillips’ essay seems to me to be the more insightful, and I appreciated this description of E’s non-method:

He was a critic with an idiosyncratic intelligence and without a method – so he could be admired but not followed. He didn’t want to gang up to bully the bullies; what he was after was piecemeal refutation of unacceptable arguments whenever they occurred. Letters were one of the ways in which he could do this. ‘What else does one write criticism for except to win agreement?’ he asks in a letter to Christopher Ricks, and yet the winning of agreement – or perhaps the winning of too much agreement, the way literature coerced assent instead of opening argument – was the very thing that troubled Empson.

. . . .

‘The more one understands one’s own reactions,’ Empson wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, ‘the less one is at their mercy.’ The possibility of disagreement was, I think, mostly evidence for Empson that one was not at anyone’s mercy. The writer could be at the mercy of his conflicts, just as the critic could be at the mercy of the text, or the institution that employed him. So the Empson who believed that the most morally disreputable thing a writer could do was suppress the conflicts that animated him, the Empson who preferred a clash to a consensus, could also write in a letter when he was in his sixties that ‘poetry is insincere unless it is clinical, resolving conflicts in the author and thus preventing him from going mad; to do this it must satisfy himself as completely unconfused and indeed bare; and if the effects of doing this were trying for the reader, that was nothing to worry about – he could have the pleasure of doing a puzzle.

A similar, ultimately rationalistic tactic characterizes his Structure of Complex Words, I’d argue, whereby we learn very patiently to unfold the “doctrines” contained within Complex Words so that they lose their force over us.

And yet alongside the Structures, my personal favorite, we have to consider Milton’s God, which has a passage that Kermode points out as one of the best, most thoroughgoing responses to Pascal’s Wager he knows of:

[Pascal] argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability, however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. A man ought therefore to reject such a calculation; and I feel there has been a strange and unpleasant moral collapse during my own lifetime, because so many of our present literary mentors not only accept it but talk as if that was a moral thing to do. Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good.

Whatever one thinks[writes Kermode], whatever Pascal might have said about this, it is rather thrilling to have Christian doctrine lined up against ‘personal honour’ and ‘the public good’, and in such strong Johnsonian prose. But the voice is the true voice of Empson. He even calls Pascal ‘neo-Christian’, thus grouping him with his own craven and shameless contemporaries who don’t even pretend to believe in their religion; ‘they regard it as a general moral truth that one ought to tell lies in favour of the side which is sure to win.’

This “political” reading of Pascal’s authoritarian forms of prediction fascinatingly anticipates views like those found in Suskind’s One-Percent Doctrine, transforming the ascetic Pascal into a repulsive, Cheneyesque figure.

I have always felt there was some affinity between Johnson and Empson, apart from their views on the deity, and I think we may have found it here on Pascal. There is, certainly, a willingness to label others not just immoral but disgusting. But somehow, in the course of making those judgments, and even while arguing for them, Empson never loses sight of the conflicts that motivated those judgments in the first place.