Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 14, 2007


Volume II: Against the Christians

By John Haffenden

Oxford Univ. 824 pp. $65

This is the second, and final, volume of John Haffenden's monumental biography of the 20th century's most dazzling and original literary critic. In his early 20s, William Empson (1906-84) produced Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), which revealed hitherto unsuspected tensions and dynamics giving life to some of our greatest English poems. About the same time, this prodigy -- who had spent much of his Cambridge University career studying mathematics -- began to publish a series of poems so dense and hieratic that they have fascinated readers ever since. Whether describing old ladies, earthquakes, love affairs, the sense of waste in life, metaphysics or anything else, Empson's poetry seems initially impenetrable, yet hauntingly suffused with his distinctive word-music: "Not but they die, the teasers and the dream/ Not but they die." "Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills." "Law makes long spokes of the short stakes of men."

Expected to go on to a brilliant career at Cambridge, Empson was instead forced out of the university for violating its Victorian social rules: He was accused (correctly) of having passed the night alone with a woman in his rooms. Despite the efforts of his eminent mentor I.A. Richards, nothing could be done, and a downcast Empson turned to the East for employment. He spent much of the 1930s teaching in Japan and China, while also bringing out his second book of criticism, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), best known for its superb chapter on "double plots" and an astonishing Freudian analysis of Alice in Wonderland. Just as important to his later career, Empson discovered that he enjoyed his work abroad, and he would teach in China off and on until the early 1950s. Only during World War II did he return to England to help fight fascism, and it is here that this installment of his biography opens.

Because Haffenden subtitled his first volume "Among the Mandarins," it's easy to understand why he chose the homologous "Against the Christians" for his second. Empson's later work, especially Milton's God (1961), repeatedly attacked what he called the neo-Christian interpretation of literature. It was utterly repugnant to Empson that a religion could be founded on what he regarded as a father's deliberate torture of his son. (He tended toward a kind of Buddhist or Spinozaist pantheism, in which all nature is holy and there is no personal immortality.) Nonetheless, a more accurate subtitle for this volume might have been "Life With Hetta."

While working in radio propaganda during the war, Empson was noticed by a colleague, a young South African named Hetta Crouse, and within a few weeks the two were married. Frequently compared to a Valkyrie in stature, likened to Ingrid Bergman in beauty, charismatic, highly sexed and aggressive, Hetta Empson was nearly as remarkable as her husband. A card-carrying Communist, she was more than happy to accompany him back to China in 1947. There, the striking Mrs. Empson learned Chinese, carried on passionate and public love affairs (with the consent of her complaisant bisexual husband) and ardently supported the Maoist revolution. Meanwhile, Empson taught English language courses as well as literature at Peking University. He, too, was largely sympathetic to early Maoist reforms, and after his final return to England in the 1950s spoke out loudly and frequently for the new China, even in McCarthyite America, when he would teach summer school at Kenyon College or Indiana University.

From 1953 to 1971, Empson worked at the University of Sheffield, overseeing its English department and a broad range of courses. Though rather distracted as a lecturer, he was strongly devoted to his students, marking their essays with the same critical zeal and insight he might bring to analyzing a poem by Donne. On the weekends and holidays, though, he would travel back to London, where Hetta looked after their two sons and cavorted with a series of lovers in their big house near Hampstead Heath. The couple's weekend parties have passed into legend, for drunkenness, brawls, sexual shenanigans and guests who might include T.S. Eliot, Chinese exiles and male models.

But during the week Empson stayed in Sheffield. There, to save money, he lived alone in a small basement room, off an alley, in a rundown neighborhood. The "Burrow," as he called it, was dank, illuminated by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and furnished like a (very dirty) monastic cell with a simple bed, chair and table. In the evenings, Empson would pound away on his Remington typewriter, drink steadily, do crosswords or read mysteries and generally forget to eat -- he was once hospitalized for malnutrition. Rather than go upstairs to urinate, he simply stepped outside to the backyard; he took the occasional bath at a friend's house and wore the same brown suit year after year. On top of this, he sported a rather hideous neck-beard, which grew from below his jawline and was supposed to look vaguely "Oriental."

Besides chronicling the bohemian life of the Empsons -- Hetta bore two further children out of wedlock, a girl who died at birth and a boy who grew up as part of the extended household -- this engrossing biography offers extended discussion of Empson's postwar books and ideas. The Structure of Complex Words (1951) examines, with great acuity, the psychological and social implications of key words, such as "fool" in Shakespeare and "wit" in Pope. Milton's God builds on William Blake's proposal that the author of Paradise Lost was of the Devil's party without knowing it. Other essays take up the text of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" (in the hopes of rescuing them from Christian accretions) or argue that Donne was obsessed with space travel and may even have set one of his love poems on Venus.

Most notoriously of all, in his later years Empson repeatedly argued that Joyce's Ulysses offers a covert argument for the establishment of a ménage a trois: Bloom wants Stephen to sleep with Molly, partly in the hope of restoring his own sexual powers so that he can beget a son. This bizarre theory might well have originated in the critic's own interest in both men and women. A manuscript poem titled "The Wife Is Praised" -- reproduced here as an appendix -- even argues for the threesome as love's highest ideal.

Considering Empson's leftist political sympathies, often intemperate critical polemics, and a lifestyle so unlike that of England's own dear queen, it's somewhat surprising that he was knighted in 1979 for his services to literature. He enjoyed the honor for five years, dying at 77 from liver failure. Since then, at least eight books of Empson's then-uncollected writings have been published, most notably a fat gathering of essays called Argufying and Haffenden's sumptuously annotated edition of the collected poems.

William Empson: Against the Christians is even better than Haffenden's first volume, rich in anecdote and scandal, with superb summaries of the difficult later criticism, and honestly affectionate. Despite the aged eagle's perennial cheerfulness and stoicism, by the end of his life Empson was widely regarded as a dithering crackpot. He hardly seemed to care, for he was never a man to play it safe, and he followed his ideas to their logical conclusions, no matter how absurd they might seem. Like Wittgenstein, whom he sometimes resembles, William Empson strikes me as an almost saintly icon of intellectual probity and conviction. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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