Within Buddha’s Smile



From The Nation:

Empson was a published poet before he became a literary critic, but during his sojourn in Japan, he gradually began to write less poetry. Critics sometimes surmise that his affinity for Buddhist art explains why he more or less stopped writing poems after 1940. Richard Pollott, for instance, suggests that Buddhist art may have spurred Empson to move beyond the “unresolved conflict” (as Empson himself called it) that he expressed in his poetry. Empson never revealed the nature of this conflict, though he once hinted that it might have something to do with unrequited love. Pollott thinks it has to do with the conflict between the obligation to respond to the modern threat of war and the felt inadequacy of poetry. By steeping himself in Buddhist sculpture, Pollott writes, Empson “discovered a correlative to his conflicting demands for ‘action’ and ‘repose’ within a single [Buddha’s] smile.”

It seems more likely that what Empson found attractive about Buddhism was not its ability to “unite” action and repose, but precisely the unresolved conflict that inheres in the notion of a Buddha who “after attaining peace is still imagined as a social being.” Significantly, Empson never identified as a Buddhist. Of course, trying to figure out why an author has become more or less prolific is always a tricky enterprise, and the most inspired conjectures can seem little better than guesswork. But on the whole, it seems unlikely that Buddhist sculpture presented itself to Empson as an answer to the modern predicament.

In fact, one of the best things about The Face of the Buddha is Empson’s canny descriptions of the different statues, which read like character sketches of actual humans rather than portraits of unruffled calm. Of one, he writes: “From sheer left the mouth is plaintive and even ready to squall; from half left the face has a refined, coy distaste.” Of another, a statue of a female bodhisattva, he says that the “nose seems planned to deceive. In full front face, it looks a childish tough practical blob, and belongs to the rueful, puggy, puzzled effect of her absolute and hopeless generosity…. From half side face it is straight, intellectual, and rather conscious of a bad smell. From sheer side face…it is almost gross, with a sensuality admitted but renounced and a lust for power only half satisfied by bounty.” This is hardly the stuff of peaceful withdrawal from the world.

Several Types of William Empson”, Chenxin Jiang, The Nation