THE FACES OF BUDDHA

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We see faces differently than we see anything else. The face is the locus of communication, recognition, and empathy, the seat of the human — and the source of scores of misunderstandings.

The Many Faces of Buddha - OUMA

It is also, as William Empson argues in his posthumously published The Face of the Buddha , a locus of artistic and cultural meaning. 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.

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.

He then traveled to East Asia, teaching C. Empson worked on the manuscript on and off until long after his return to England in , 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. 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.

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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. But his apology was far from accurate.

Thanks to an inspired curator at the British Library let his name be honoured: Jamie Andrews , we now know the full story. What actually happened is that Davenport, still three sheets to the wind, handed the manuscript and its photographic illustrations over to that most colourful figure of s literary bohemia, the Tamil poet and editor of Poetry London , Tambimuttu. Shortly afterwards, Tambimuttu quit London and returned to his native Ceylon, leaving The Face of the Buddha in the hands of his coeditor, Edward Marsh.


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And shortly after the handover, Marsh took ill and died. His papers remained unexamined until they were bought by the British Library in To Empsonians, this happy find was as exciting as, say, the discovery of an authenticated text of Cardenio would be to Shakespeareans. Empson published only four major prose works in his lifetime and completed his fifth, Using Biography , just a matter of weeks before his death in His posthumous publications, many of them edited by Haffenden, have been a glorious addition to the canon — Argufying , The Royal Beasts , Essays on Shakespeare , Essays on Renaissance Literature and so on — but they have for the most part been collections of short articles or reconstructions of unfinished longer essays.


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  5. In The Face of the Buddha we have a completed work, ready in for Empson to hawk around publishers. What led Empson, best known then as now as a prodigiously gifted critic and scholar of English literature, to tackle a subject so far from his own turf?

    Empson’s Buddha

    Though he was interested in pretty much everything from modern biology to Soviet propaganda, he did not often write about the visual arts of Europe, let alone Asia. Upload Log in.

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