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John Haffenden. William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins

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John HAFFENDEN. William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins. Oxford University Press, 2005, xxi + 695 pp., €46.16, ISBN 0-19-927659-5

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1Professor Haffenden has treated us to what can be seen in many ways as an Empsonian monument to Empson himself — a stunning demonstration of the power of intellectual biography that possesses an energy and variety that the bard himself would have admired. This handsome first volume of the definitive biography of William Empson comes complete with an efficient system of abbreviations, a detailed and intelligent chronology, and a useful table of illustrations (though one hopes there will be a greater number of pictures in Volume Two). As always with this kind of study, excitement is generated simply by the vast number of celebrities and cultural heavyweights that crop up in the text. Aside from a few obvious names (G. E. Moore, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and other members or guests of the Cambridge Heretics), the reader encounters a wide variety of key figures of the 20th century, ranging from Max Black to Sir Michael Redgrave, all of whom are included in an index that is 22 pages long. The excitement of notoriety may be one reason that “the instinct for biographical enquiry proves irresistible,” to quote Haffenden's own confession from the introduction (2). But this apparently inevitable attraction to biography might be no more than a local phenomenon. The British taste for biography has no real equivalent here in France, for example. One doesn't see volumes narrating the lives and loves of similar French figures, except perhaps for those such as Foucault and Derrida who have been taken up by the international star system. Yet when this taste for biography produces such a useful study, one feels little impulse to criticise the genre.

2The one thing that is not at all Empsonian in this work is the scholarship; Empson was famous for his misquotes, but Haffenden is almost faultless. Perhaps some other specialist will come up with some other detail, but the only mistake I was able to dig up comes on page 137. Here Haffenden credits James Wood as a co-author of The Meaning of Meaning, whereas we all know — don't we? — that Wood only collaborated with Richards and Ogden in The Foundations of Aesthetics, published the year before in 1922. This seems a minor thing to quibble about when compared to the absolutely fascinating pages linking Empson's interest in Buddhism to the fundamental spirit and principles of his Seven Types of Ambiguity (317ff). Then there are a number of essential passages (63ff) going into the details of Empson's relation to Christianity, the role of religion in his family, his mother's attitude towards these values, and Empson's own reaction to it all. These are passages that would be useful to any exegetic undertaking except for the fact that Haffenden renders this exegesis superfluous with his own excellent readings of Empson's major poems. “Legal Fiction,” for example, is elegantly connected to the details of Empson family life and “Aubade” gets a wonderful treatment in the middle of Haffenden's exploration of Empson's years in Japan (327). It was also helpful to get information on Empson's early tastes in poetry in Chapter 4.

3Perhaps the most Empsonian element in this biography is its mischievous wit and good humour. The volume begins with a Pythonesque anecdote about Professor Haffenden discovering the ashes of Empson in a bottle as he sets out to begin his research one night in Hetta Empson's home. There is another wonderful account of a woman shouting out at Empson as he was mumbling his way through a public lecture: “Speak up, you silly old fool,” cried the lady, who turned out, indeed, to be Lady Empson herself (9). It is not difficult, of course, for Haffenden to sprinkle his texts with witticisms, since Empson provides a fair share. One of my favourites comes on page 147 where Empson ends up comparing Freud to a plumber. I get the feeling that Empson had some sort of obsession with plumbing, since in another famous quote, rejecting the intentional fallacy, he observed: “To say that you won't be bothered with anything but the words on the page... strikes me as petulant, like saying ‘of course I won't visit him unless he has first-class plumbing’” (See Argufying, 1987, 125). I also recommend the anecdote about Wittgenstein asking Leavis to explain Empson's poetry to him (173). All this may sound parenthetical, but one emerges from these accounts with a sharp grasp of the atmosphere and enthusiasm of Cambridge in the 20s. Chapter 5 deserves special mention — it can be read as a history of Cambridge English, showing just how invigorating things were. A warning though: Don't read these passages before going to your own classes — they may prove depressing. How many of our students today are writing plays and poems, joining salons or debating societies, listening in their spare time to private lectures given by Virginia Woolf or Bertrand Russell (or their current day equivalents, if such do indeed exist)? One comes away from some of these pages with a distinct yearning to go back in time.

4It would be wrong, however, to take Professor Haffenden's study as a nostalgic promenade for “old boys”. The heart of the volume is indeed intellectual history, and Haffenden is not only up to the task but well placed to give us the essence of Empson. We learn early on that it is axiomatic, for Empson, that a writer should be at odds with his society (5). This sounds a lot like Deleuze on écriture mineure, and there is much else that can — or could — be connected to current concerns. One might indeed regret slightly that, in this volume at least (though not in some of his other studies), Haffenden doesn't spend much time drawing out the wider connections and echoes between Empson and more recent luminaries of critical fashion. And, as a Richards specialist, I'm somewhat inclined to side with Professor John Paul Russo in the debate that starts roughly in Chapter 8 about how deep and lasting Richards' influence on Empson really was. One can agree that, in the long run, Empson probably influenced Richards as much as Richards influenced him (177). I'm not certain, however, that Haffenden is always perfectly fair to Richards's thought, and one could perhaps apply to Empson's biographer what Richards once wrote about Empson himself: “My feeling is that W.E. is almost always right in dissenting from what he takes I.A.R. to be saying, but nearly invariably wrong about that” (197).

5Still, this is a matter of theoretical debate and Haffenden carries this out with ease and efficiency. Fundamental questions of epistemology and psychology are no obstacle to him. But perhaps the one major problem of the volume is that those of us who have the inclination to work through these complex passages (on the theory of value, for example) may not have the patience to read through the somewhat chatty family anecdotes of certain chapters. The reverse, of course, is also true. Not having any illustrious forbearers of my own, perhaps I am simply jealous of the time devoted to the Empson family tree. Yet how useful is the speculation about whether or not the Empson family comes from the same line as the fabled (?) villain, the wicked Sir Richard Empson (17)? Will someone interested in literary criticism be truly impressed to learn how many shrubberies there were at Yokefleet Hall and how many hares had been bagged over a 5 year period? Details about Empson's father are obviously more relevant, since it is he who gave Empson his taste for nature, as is shown on page 35. But then we get back to comments on the “over-sized and shapeless double-breasted jacket” worn by one of Empson's Headmasters (77), and this continues throughout the volume, including (for one last example, 535) information on how Empson met a certain François Géoffroy-Dechaume (only 15 “hits” when I googled the poor fellow to find out more about him), later to become an Ambassador and later to die in a road accident (but we don't get the make of the car). The problem is that this kind of detail has a slight tendency to smother some of the best insights, such as the ground-breaking arguments that attempt to show that Robert Graves was a more important source of inspiration for Seven Types than Richards himself (229).

6Yet, to come back to this debate one final time, if Haffenden perhaps exaggerates the Richardsian emphasis on reconciliation, it may also be the case that the emphasis on conflict that Haffenden sees at the heart of Empson's thought needs to be put into perspective. Richards, we may recall, argued for poetry of inclusion, rather than exclusion, and this kind of inclusion does imply conflict. And, on the other hand, one doubts that the Empsonian ideals of ambiguity and conflict go as far as claiming that the best poetry would be pure schizophrenic delirium. Stepping back from the details of this minor difference of nuance, it seems clear that Empson and Richards were indeed part of a single and a relatively unified tradition. Haffenden himself mentions Empson's “earnest desire to reconcile the disciplines” (105) so perhaps Empson as well needs to be seen as a master of inclusion in the Richardsian sense. As we learn in another fascinating passage, the young Empson once wrote an essay on the great diversity of expressions to be found in representations of Buddha: “It will be agreed,” he observes, “that a good deal of the startling and compelling quality of these faces comes from their combining things that seem incompatible” (318). That is, perhaps, the essence of Empson, and it may also be an apt comment on this biography itself, since it manages to combine in a magisterial way seemingly incompatible interests. Among the Mandarins is thus Empsonian in its capacity to bring together successfully the diverse requirements of personal and intellectual history.

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Ronald SHUSTERMAN, « John Haffenden. William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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