Friday, May 20, 2005
William Empson: Among the Mandarins
No, “mandarins” is not a reference to stodgy Cambridge dons—Empson actually spent a couple of years in China right after the Japanese invasion (1937-1939). He also spent time, a little earlier, in Japan. And: Seven Types of Ambiguity was begun as a paper for his Magdalene supervisor, I.A. Richards. All stuff I did not know.
Kermode also recounts some of Empson’s “adventures” at Cambridge, leading to expulsion. It might have been the best thing for him.
Chungking (Chongqing), the Nationalist wartime capital where I presume Empson ended up. During WWII there, Hao Wang began his studies of formal logic (he ended up as the literary executor of Kurt Goedel), Ch’en K’ang translated Plato’s Parmenides into Chinese, and Fang Tung-mei wrote a lengthy work on the abstruse philosophy of Hua-yen Buddhism. And that’s just the ones I know about.
For Chinese literati, knowing how to deal with adversity and disaster (and to maintain the culture while doing so) has always been a necessary skill, and there are established patterns and procedures. And to the Chinese, Culture has always been thought to have political import, so the Communists and Nationalists did what they could to maintain control of the big names. (For a considerable group including T’ang Chun-yi, Hong Kong was a refuge saving them from the necessity of endorsing one side or the other.) The National Palace Museum in Taipei includes many of the most prized relics of ancient Chinese culture, and it is one of the issues tht will have to be dealt with if there’s ever going to be a settlement between the mainland and Taiwan.
James Wood loves it, but thinks it goes on a little.
The Economist (subscription only til next Thursday, but hardly worth waiting for given fair use of unfair usage) is less charitable:
“There seems to be no evidence that Mr Haffenden’s affection for or admiration of Empson is any way on the descendent. On the contrary. If anything, he loves his subject too much. He quotes from him at tedious length; no subject is too small for his attention. There is always more to be said, and Mr Haffenden usually finds it in his heart to say it. We should have guessed that this might happen from his edition of the complete poems; of its several hundred pages, 130 contained poetry. The rest was technical apparatus of various kinds: a substantial introduction of 50-odd pages, various appendices, a truly exhaustive bibliography, and 250 pages of notes to the poems themselves.”
Perhaps he’s worth it.