On reading Colin Burrow on William Empson. Philosophical Apprentice presents some thoughts.

Colin Burrow’s essay on Empson’s ‘Some Versions of the Pastoral’ and ‘The Structures of Complex Words’ was unexpected in its lack of reverence for Empson. Having read Michael Wood’s ‘On Empson’ as my introduction to this writer: this led me to read ‘7 Types of Ambiguity’ ,and to my surprise I found it to be enjoyable reading. These two books led me to C.C. Norris’s ‘William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism’.

The title of Burrow’s essay is The Terrifying Vrooom , a surprising metaphor steeped in the mechanistic , but revelatory none the less. I had highlighted, in my print copy, some of the more telling, not to speak of revelatory, portions of Burrow’s essay:

Those flashes of strategic vagueness are vital elements in Empson’s style. They encourage his readers to believe that literary texts can take them beyond the limits of their own perceptions, and that, although generating lists of variant senses is one aspect of reading, jumping across a void is what it’s really all about. Empson described his own practice when he said Pope’s Essay in Criticism implied ‘that all a critic can do is to suggest a hierarchy with inadequate language; that to do it so well with such very inadequate language is to offer a kind of diagram of how it must always be done’. This can certainly generate frustrations, since he was quite capable of creating an interminable taxonomy of interpretative possibilities and then throwing it up in the air as inadequate in a way that would drive a philosopher nuts. He could even do that with entire books. The Structure of Complex Words (1951) concludes with the sentence: ‘All I should claim for this chapter is that it gives a sort of final canter round the field’ – as though he is no more than a stable lad giving the horses a spin. But he was among other things a master of the critical blur. As he put it in an essay on Paradise Lost, ‘it is a delicate piece of brushwork such as seems blurred until you step back.’

Double plots, in which one group of people were thematically connected with another in a subplot, were also ‘pastoral’, because a plot that’s echoed in a subplot implicitly suggests that different social groups replicate or parody aspects of one another. The concern in metaphysical poetry with relationships between the ‘one and the many’ was ‘pastoral’ too, according to Empson, since here a single instance could stand for a range of examples and so bring the complexity of the whole into the single simple thing.

Plurality was the key concept in his critical thinking, and it was a kind of plurality that allowed for a range of different voices and attitudes to exist within a single society, a single text, a single mind, or a single word. ‘Once you break into the godlike unity of the appreciator you find a microcosm of which the theatre is the macrocosm,’ he wrote. ‘The mind is complex and ill-connected like an audience, and it is surprising in the one case as the other that a sort of unity can be produced by a play.’

That is, in Some Versions of Pastoral Empson managed to develop the linguistic concerns of Seven Types of Ambiguity into a social vision, in which a single text could register the shifting and multiple attitudes not just of one mind but of an entire age.
Empson’s own mind was complex and ill-connected, and contained many different voices: the poet, the patrician mathematician, the joker, the shocker, the drinker, the social critic, as well as the seraph of vagueness. At one point in his essay on Donne he offers a kind of parody mathematical definition of how Donne treats a single person or thing as an embodiment of a wider whole: ‘This member of the class is the whole class, or its defining property: this man has a magical importance to all men.’ He goes on to relate this use of the representative figure to his own concept of pastoral: ‘If you choose an important member the result is heroic; if you choose an unimportant one it is pastoral.’ That’s the Empson of Some Versions of Pastoral in a nutshell. You have the terrifying vrooom as his foot goes to the floor and your mind can’t quite keep up with where it’s being pulled, and then, perhaps, a slight sense that some kind of magic (or is it trickery?) has happened. And it probably has: the master of ambiguity uses ‘class’ here in a mathematical sense (of a particular category of entities) but with overtones of the social sense (of distinct social groups).


On the vexing question of Derrida for Empson :

British literary critics who wore the label ‘Empsonian’ with pride tended to follow their master in disliking the overtly theoretical forms that criticism took in the later 1970s and 1980s. In the lectures I went to in Cambridge in the 1980s by Ricks and some of his most brilliant pupils, Empsonising (maybe another one for the OED) was the establishment alternative to what we were taught to think of as the French disease of structuralism. Empson himself was no fan of Derrida, whom he referred to as ‘Nerrida’ in a letter. The principled reason for his hostility to structuralism and post-structuralism was his conviction that the meaning of words is both social and personal: words mean what they mean because this person is using this word in this way to or about this other person, and because this word has this particular history which may or may not complicate how this particular person uses it. That root interest in how people speak to people prejudiced Empson against any depersonalised account of language as a system. It also led to such work as Using Biography (1984), which starts from the sensible belief that people write in the way they do because of the experiences they have had, before travelling from there far into the realms of biographical fantasy.

After reading ‘The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968’ and the essays of Richard Rorty, like this Stanford essay titled ‘Richard Rorty: An appreciation of Jacques Derrida’, and his other essay on Derrida: there seems to me a very real propinquity, between Empson’s project, and Derrida’s, no matter the distance between these writers, and their utterly different world views and literary/philosophical traditions.

Philosophical Apprentice

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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