The Face of the Buddha, by William Empson, edited by Rupert ArrowsmithWilliam Empson (1906–1984) was not, as he is frequently said to have been, an “important critic,” but only because there is no such thing. By the same token, neither was he a unicorn, a square circle, or a decent impulse in the heart of Donald Trump. What he was, however, was a thinker with an incisively original mind and a fine, lucid, and always lively prose style, and the exquisitely inconclusive analysis of great works of literature, at which he so excelled, provided him with endless occasions for displaying both. He was also a talented mathematician and a remarkable poet, though he largely abandoned mathematics after his undergraduate studies at Cambridge and stopped writing much poetry in his mid-thirties. He probably possessed most of the natural intellectual gifts of a good philosopher, if little of the temperament. His first and still most influential book, for instance, Seven Types of Ambiguity—which he wrote when he was twenty-one and published when he was twenty-four—exhibits a subtler and more penetrating understanding of language and its limits than does, say, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published eight years before. (Not to worry: Over the next several decades, Wittgenstein would grope his way toward a level of sophistication comparable to Empson’s.)
By all rights, the publication of Seven Types should have secured Empson’s future. It nearly did, in fact. While still in manuscript, it was enough to confirm the brilliance he had exhibited as a student and to win him a fellow’s perch at his college, Magdalene, from which he could have looked forward to decades of long strolls along the Backs, long afternoons in the Pepys Library, long conversations in the upper combination room. . . . But all of it was, in fact, cut very short when a college porter discovered a package of condoms in his rooms. Today that would merely earn him plaudits for social conscientiousness, but Cambridge in 1929 was a very different world; the porter dutifully reported the abomination and Empson was expelled from his college and the university, his name literally expunged from its records. Any real employment, apart from some freelance cultural journalism, became all at once impossible for him in England.