Saturday, 14 November 2020

Michael Wood on William Empson

Some 4 years ago, Prof Michael Wood, of Princeton wrote an article on 'Empson's intentions' in the LRB. 

It is deflationary- not with any malign intention but in a judicious and reparative manner which is mindful of our ever mounting disdain for 'Theory' and the Academy's mindless enthusiasm for woke histrionics.

Wood's article begins with a quotation-  


‘What is a hesitation, if one removes it altogether from the psychological dimension?’

Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem

The answer, cosmologically speaking, is that either there is a 'katechon', an impeder at work- like Shani, Saturn, in Indian astrology- or, for secular philosophy, there is a concurrency deadlock or livelock. Djikstra's philosophers starve to death before their discipline can arrive at a rule for sharing cutlery. But this has nothing to do with Poetry though in poetastering there may be a hesitation between, not 'sense and sound', but sonorousness and sententiousness to the degree that the thing is crap. 

Unlike Philosophy, which loses itself in even a one dimensional maze, Psychology is an infinite dimensional configuration space with no Pauli Exclusion Principle. This is the unthought known which allows one to binge watch Netflix serials about time travelling werewolves while eating pizza and checking one's email. 

Agamben, poor fellow, was a victim of his education.  The cretin did not get that poetry predated theology. Or that Heidegger had shit for brains- German pedagogues, and all philosophers, generally do. To be fair, Agamben had little Maths background. But Empson did. That's why, his precocious, but meretricious, shite appeared authoritative to dimwits. 

Empson, when young, seems to have taken the Buddhist route of rejecting pratibha- imaginative genius of a harmonious type- for kshanikavada chetana- staccato intentionality only compossible with a momentary Universe. Thus, though teaching in China, he didn't get 'shenyun' (dhvani) whose ineluctable modality is Time- which can be Buddhist as in kshana sampatti- because the only unambiguous 'ganying' inter-subjective, Muth Rational, field-theory is objectively Kairotic- i.e. solves a concurrency & a coordination problem in a timely manner. 

Empson started off bright. He is a game-theoretic hermeneut avant la lettre. But his notion of intentionality- and therefore 'ambiguity'- is 'comparative statics'. Yet, Literature is a repeated game. Prof Wood should know. He has been playing it for longer than I have been alive. He writes-

There is a moment​ in William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity when he decides to linger in Macbeth’s mind. The future killer is trying to convince himself that murder might be not so bad a crime (for the criminal) if he could just get it over with.

Fuck off! This is a Cockney satire on the- canny-too-canny, and therefore so unspared by the uncanny as to become almost lovable for child-like- valorous, vainglorious, singular and unequivocal Scot!  

This is about as unreal as a thought could be,

Nonsense! It is as real, for arising out of an objective perturbation- a 'ganying' of the mimetic field- as any self-fulfilling prediction could be.  

coming from a man who seems to have been plotting murder even before he allowed himself consciously to think of it,

Coz of dem witches, dude!  

and whose whole frame of mind is haunted by what he calls consequence, the very effect he imagines it would be so nice to do without.

But the same shit goes down when you contemplate finishing off the bottle of Single Malt or ordering a phal curry. Why make such heavy weather of it?  

The speech begins

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well

It were done quickly:

this is the canting element to the canny Scotsman who, precisely because he is Scottish, has a conscience as funny, but functional, as his kilt 

if the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success ...

and this the declasse aspect to Scottish Paideia, the porridge of whose scandalously cheap Universities, would poison the long Eighteenth Century, which only ended, in the South, when Oxbridge started doling out degrees in Eng Lit. 


Empson takes us through the passage with great spirit,

but with the spirit of a Wykehamist gone to the bad 

commenting on every line and its spinning, hissing meanings, and then alights on a single word: 
And catch, the single little flat word among these monsters,

Fuck off! That's Ketch. The Devil. Sixty years later a hangman named Richard Jacquet was given the sobriquet Jack Ketch coz...Devil dun ketch u rite? Ah! but what if the fletch of your arrow repel that ketch? Won' Devil be vex? 

China, or Princeton, are bad places to philologize the work of a Grammar School Oik or an immigrant Curry & Chips Cockney poet like wot I iz. 

'Catch' was associated with both Legalistic fraud and the 'Wild Hunt' of the chase. It does not 'name an action' here. Rather it asks if, with Duncan's death, Devilry would cease to direct things. Could Ketch be caught out by a catch?

Empson, shithead that he was, says 'catch

names an action;

coz Macbeth was the Goalie of the Celtic Rangers right? Shakespeare was writing about a Soccer Match.  

it is a mark of human inadequacy to deal with these matters of statecraft,

fuck that's supposed to mean? Humans do statecraft. They may be inadequate in this respect, at least when compared to Unicorns or Dragons but- most of the time- they aint as fucking stupid as this Empson Salts of a diarrhoeac academic availability cascade.

Statecraft gets done by adult humans. Empson thought it had something to do with 

a child snatching at the moon as she rides thunderclouds.

How fucking stupid was that cunt? Why is Prof. Wood quoting this shite? Is it coz studying Eng Lit rots your brain?  

The meanings cannot all be remembered at once, however often you read them; it remains the incantation of a murderer, dishevelled and fumbling among the powers of darkness.

Nonsense! The meanings are remembered all at once by any fucking Londoner wot puts on a Scottish accent to recite these lines for the price of a pint.  

It is an act of alert critical reading

to fuck up so completely.  

to spot the action word

which is 'quickly'. Catching aint important. Stabbing the old geezer in an expeditious manner is what is of the essence.  

among the proliferating concepts;

there are no 'proliferating concepts'. There is a macho Scots guy fucking up in a stereotypical manner- at least as far as us Cockneys are concerned.  

and generous to suggest that Macbeth, crazed and ambitious as he is, even as he contemplates the killing of his king, can still represent a more ordinary human disarray among matters that are too large, too consequential for us.

Even in Shakespeare's time, there were neighbourhoods where every 'playa' was thinking, like Macbeth, about whether this was the right moment to stab the Boss. Does Prof. Wood not have HBO? Did he not, at least, when my age, watch the Godfather Movies? Empson may have been a Wykehamist shithead. But he lived in Warlord era China.

Alert too to see that Shakespeare represents this case not only dramatically but also through his character’s choice of an individual word. But then to call the other words ‘monsters’, to identify the small verb as a ‘child’, and to introduce the moon and the thunderclouds, is to create a whole separate piece of verbal theatre, and to create something scarcely recognisable as criticism. And when at the end of the passage Empson widens his frame, returns to Macbeth’s full, anxious meditation, he continues the same double practice. He sees our failure to grasp all the meanings as an achieved Shakespearean effect and not a readerly shortcoming; and he finds a figure of speech for the character and the situation. The word becomes a whole passage, the child becomes a fumbling and dishevelled magician, and the moon and thunderclouds become the powers of darkness.

So, Wood agrees that Empson wrote shite. But that was the nature of his discipline.  

What is happening here? Empson would say, too modestly, that this is descriptive criticism – as distinct from the analytic kind. But he is not describing anything.

But he is writing something which looks like the sort of shite you should put down to get a First in a joke of a subject. 

It is not impressionistic criticism either, an attempt to evoke the feelings the work arouses in the reader, although this is closer to the mark.

Because it is shite. 

Empson is tracing a pattern of thought, and finding metaphors for the behaviour of a piece of language.

Thoughts may have a pattern. But thought does not. 'A piece of language' is a metaphor. Finding another metaphor for the same thing won't make it any more or less real.  

Empson’s writing reminds us (we do forget such things) that characters in plays are made of words, they are what they say,

Nonsense! Even in Radio dramas, characters aren't what they say. They are what they are depicted as doing. 

or more precisely they are what we make of what they say,

This may be true of an orator, not an actor 

and his metaphors bring the life of these words incredibly close to us.

only in a manner of speaking. One could, with equal truth or greater impressiveness, say 'his metaphors bite like a zombie rendering homely words, humbly going about their business in neighborhood streets, into Hamlet's hordes of the dead from whom the English fled. '

The child snatches and Macbeth fumbles; but the child is herself a verb; and Macbeth is a man using words to keep his mind away from a deed.

Or a verb is itself a child which snatches. A Noun is itself a Man who fumbles to keep his mind away from a deed. Why drag Macbeth into a parade of pseudo-profundity of this sort? The fact is, Macbeth is gripping. It is good theater. There are Japanese and Bollywood adaptations of it. Why? Because it is psychological, not philosophical at all.  


William Empson was born in Yorkshire in 1906 and died in London in 1984. He studied mathematics then English at Cambridge, wrote poems and plays, acted, reviewed films and books. After leaving Cambridge he worked as a freelance writer in London for two years before going to Japan, in 1931, to teach at Tokyo University, where he stayed until 1934. He spent three years back in England before joining the exiled universities in China. During the war he worked in London for the BBC Overseas Service, returning to China for a few years after the war. In 1953, he became an English professor at the University of Sheffield, where he worked until his retirement in 1971.

He published a collection of verse simply called Poems in 1935; another called The Gathering Storm in 1940; and his Collected Poems in 1949. He also published several works of criticism: Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930); Some Versions of Pastoral (1935); The Structure of Complex Words (1951); and Milton’s God (1961). In both poetry and prose Empson has the attractive ability to make paradoxes sound as if they are not paradoxes at all, just bits of moderately complicated thinking of the sort anyone needs to do now and again.

But type theory can resolve any paradox. Kids learn this almost immediately. Parents say 'you're a kid. I'm an adult. Rules that apply to you don't apply to me. We belong to different types.' 

There was a minor vogue in the 1970s and early 1980s for associating Empson with French theory, with deconstruction specifically, but Empson himself would have none of it.

Few Englishmen of the period would give Heidegger the time of day. 

When Christopher Norris sent him some writings by Derrida and others, Empson said he thought ‘those horrible Frenchmen’ were ‘so very disgusting, in a simple moral or social way, that I cannot stomach them’. He also managed, perhaps unintentionally, to invent a new Frenchman: Jacques Nerrida. What Empson found disgusting was the quest, as he saw it, for complexity for complexity’s sake, a project that was ‘always pretending to be plumbing the very depths’ but in reality was only congratulating itself on its cleverness. Above all he took it – this was in 1971 – as just one more instance of what he saw as happening to the study of language and literature everywhere: the human stakes were being removed, words were playing among themselves, no agents or intentions were to be seen.

And yet it is the foul intentions of the fetid French which has dug the entrenchments of this no man's land where artillery shells mis-mate in flight.


And yet Empson’s work, for all his denials, connects him strongly to most major 20th-century movements of criticism and theory in English and other languages – not because of his influence on them or their influence on him, but because his preoccupations are central to any sort of ongoing thought about literature.

Or because this is a worthless subject adversely selective of cretinous pseuds. 

We can’t tie him securely to any style or approach, but we can’t get around him either: he will always be in the way.

Only if we study this shite or teach it for a living. 

Empson is often thought of, correctly, as one of the founders of the New Criticism, as it came to be called in the United States, and he is certainly the most brilliant close reader the movement produced.

But, as Wood has noted, still shit. 

But as close reading, a fabulous classroom device, became more and more of an established method, it turned less historical and less speculative, until finally it seemed unable to refer to anything other than the words on the page, or to allow the belief that anything existed beyond the page.

The exam existed beyond the page and beyond the exam a dissertation and beyond that a lifetime of writing and reading worthless shite.  

In​ 1946 W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote an important essay called ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, claiming among other things that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.’

True enough. The design and intention of my novels is fucking awesome. Sadly, I'm a terrible riter and can't spell gud. Also, I don't actually know anything about India. I just make all that Gunga Din stuff up.  

The piece was and remains enormously useful for the ways in which it helps us to resist lazy critical confusions of life and art, and reductive notions of causality.

But everybody else already does that!  

It also reminds us of an easily buried fact: the road to terrible work in literature or any other art is paved with excellent intentions. Intention may be where things begin – although accident too is a promising start – but the result includes quite a few other ingredients. But then the phrase ‘neither available nor desirable’, dogmatic as good polemical announcements need to be, doesn’t stand up to any sort of nuanced consideration. An author’s design or intention is sometimes completely known and quite enlightening; sometimes far too blunt and entirely distracting. In some cases we shall never know it but desperately wish we could. In others we are delighted that we don’t. Many authors are articulate but distinctly evasive about intention, and unconscious intentions lurk all over the place. There is no general rule here, one simply has to do the work of reading and thinking.

Intentions aren't knowable if we are speaking of Art as opposed to the literary equivalent of getting down on all fours and barking or purring. Why? Evolution has a good reason to deny us a 'Momus window' into the heart. To evade a predator or parasite we must be 'unhackable'.  

For Empson, though, the doctrine of the intentional fallacy, which he liked to call the Wimsatt Law, was a rule. It said we were not to think of authors at all, literature was to be cleanly separated from the messy world of appetite and argument and intended meaning. He thought the rule was the bane of literary studies in the second half of the 20th century, and he was almost as obsessed with its noxious effects as he was with what he saw as the invasion of English and American universities by hordes of Christian critics.

Invasion? The ancient Universities were set up to train Christian clerics. 

The Wimsatt Law, according to Empson, ‘lays down that no reader can grasp the intention of any author’, or with a slight variation, ‘says that no reader can ever grasp the intention of an author’. Since he thinks this proposition is both nonsensical and harmful, Empson is inclined to parody it as well as simplify it, as in ‘a reader must never understand the intention of an author’ or his sarcastic suggestion that a 17th-century audience ‘could not foresee that Mr Wimsatt was going to make a law forbidding them to grasp the intention of an author’.

But 17th century audiences were aware that a good Christian, intent on clarifying dogma, might be discovered, to his great chagrin, to have strayed into heresy. Indeed, this fear was ancient. To write things down in a book is not just to put a sword into the hands of a child, it is to put one's soul in jeopardy of the Sin against the Holy Ghost.

‘We must consider the experiences and convictions of the poet,’ Empson insists; follow ‘the main lines of interest of the author’; and to tell students of literature that they ‘cannot even partially succeed’ in doing this is ‘about the most harmful thing you could do’.

If you were doing something utterly useless. 

Going out on a rather strange limb, Empson is willing to say that faking biographical evidence is ‘more humane than the refusal to admit help from biography, or any intention in the author’. This parti pris allows Empson to indulge in the guessing logic of so many bad biographers. Marvell ‘would have remembered a similar occasion’, ‘would feel ashamed of what he had done’. Yeats ‘must have loved such a toy when he was about ten years old’. ‘It seems clear that [T.S. Eliot’s] mother had refused to sleep under the same roof as the wife.’ But the passion that tilts these arguments is interesting, and we need to look at a wider range of Empson’s views to understand its force.

Very true! The passion depicted by Mia Khalifa is interesting and we need to view more of her work on Pornhub to understand its force. Spoiler alert. She always keeps her glasses on- a sensible thing to do if your job involves getting jizzed upon incessantly. Interestingly, many Professors of Eng Lit wear glasses. 


The most blatant example of Empson’s breaking the Wimsatt Law is also the funniest and the most illuminating. To understand Hamlet, he thinks, we must go back to ‘the moment of discovery by Shakespeare’. This would have happened when Shakespeare’s company took on a Hamlet play by Thomas Kyd (or someone else), and didn’t know what to do with it because they were aware that this creaking old revenge stuff was desperately out of fashion. Shakespeare would have thought of the rewrite as ‘a pretty specialised assignment, a matter, indeed, of trying to satisfy audiences who demanded a Revenge play and then laughed when it was provided’. Still, he carried on.
I think he did not see how to resolve this problem at the committee meeting, when the agile Bard was voted to carry the weight, but already did see how when walking home ... He thought: ‘The only way to shut this hole is to make it big. I shall make Hamlet walk up to the audience and tell them, again and again, “I don’t know why I’m delaying any more than you do; the motivation of this play is just as blank to me as it is to you; but I can’t help it.” What is more, I shall make it impossible for them to blame him. And then they daren’t laugh.’ It turned out, of course, that this method, instead of reducing the old play to farce, made it thrillingly life-like and profound.

Empson’s idea of Shakespeare’s ‘method’ makes the film Shakespeare in Love look like a documentary, and the touch about walking home is marvellous. But is he serious? Yes and no, but I find it impossible to measure the respective doses. He is serious about considering the ‘moment of discovery’, and about the reading of the play involved in the fiction he creates. Hamlet does talk as if he knew he was caught up in a terrible old play. The rest, the committee meeting, the ventriloquised author’s soliloquy, is bravura filling-in of comic detail: critical theatre. I don’t know – our subject is guessed-at intention after all – how comic Empson meant the detail to be.

Empson was telling a story. It wasn't as good as Stephen Daedalus's story but Empson was no Joyce. Still, for a pedagogue, it was passable.  


In other moods, Empson was willing to admit that Wimsatt and Beardsley’s argument had ‘a kind of flat good sense about it, because it is hard to know how we do learn each other’s intentions’. But then he was adamant that this difficulty was no excuse for not trying to get into an author’s head. On the contrary, it means we have to try harder. ‘There is no metaphysical reason ... for treating the intentions of an author as inherently unknowable.’

Sure. The problem is that some people have the sort of theory of mind which means they can tell really good stories about storytellers and how they got the idea for the stories they told.  

The most important thing in these arguments is an element that is present everywhere in Empson but only occasionally stressed. Understanding literature is not different from understanding anything else: ‘We do it all the time.’

We turn on the tap all the time but when the water isn't flowing we have to call a plumber. Understanding plumbing is different from just turning a tap. Similarly, for any given level of linguistic competence, there is always someone who can help us plumb further depths in a text. 

Norris puts this very well when he says that ‘Empson’s books all seek, in different ways, to make terms between poetry and the normal conditions of language and commonsense discourse,’ and that ambiguity, for example, ‘belongs to a normal, not a uniquely poetic order of thought and language’. Making terms usually means making sense, and one of Empson’s rather tangled claims engages the Wimsatt Law in a truly intriguing way.

Any speaker, when a baby, wanted to understand what people meant, why mum was cross for example, and had enough partial success to go on trying; the effort is usually carried on into adult life, though not always into old age. Success, it may be argued, is never complete. But it is nearer completeness in a successful piece of literature than in any other use of language.

What people mean has to do with the means by which they stop wanting to mean that thing. Thus, the beautiful lady who pours me a pint means 'pay me five pounds when she says 'that will be five smackers luv'. I am completely successful in understanding what she means when I hand over a five pound note. She smiles and goes away. If I try planting five smackers on her luscious lips she beats me viciously. I have failed completely in understanding her. 

Literature, on the other hand, isn't meant to be understood with complete success. Indeed, it is at its best when, like love, it isn't understood at all but you like how it makes you feel. There are songs in a foreign language which enchant you. Then you learn the words and discover the thing is tawdry. The good news is it needn't be. There is poetry in that language which could have the same effect. What is surprising is that learning the aesthetic philosophy that informs that language may turn what once appeared tawdry into the thing which first you heard. 


‘Partial’ and ‘usually’ make clear the practice is common but not universal, and the remark about old age is a mildly mischievous joke. But the conclusion is startling. In the very region where we might think, from our own experience, from the long, conflictive history of literary criticism, and indeed from Empson’s own work, that it has always been hardest to ‘understand what people meant’, success is less partial than anywhere else. The author’s intention is closer than anyone else’s to being fully available.

Harry Frankfurt defined 'bullshit' as speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. In England we use the milder term 'waffle' for what is happening here. You could with equal impressiveness say Literature is where intention is most  transparent or where it is most occluded. Literature has no intentionality. It has nothing else. It is pure design. It is wholly aleatory. It is the prayer of the agnostic, the doubt that redeems Faith. It is my neighbor's cat. It is my cat's neighbor. Literary criticism is in the neighborhood of cattiness. Texts are the neighborliness of the cat, sunning itself on the roof of the garden shed across from your study window, which, for some reason, is always looking straight at you as, with increasing inebriation, you ring the changes on Saqi and Nadim, Li Po and the Moon.

The reason for literature’s success in this respect is everywhere in Empson’s writing, often lost in the noise he is making about what he doesn’t like in current literary study, but finally not at all far from Wimsatt and Beardsley’s claim, or that of most good criticism, new or old. The completed work is the test of intention, or as Empson says, ‘you must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good.’ If we combine this statement with his remark that ‘the judgment of the author may be wrong,’ it is hard to see what the quarrel is about. Hard, but not impossible. For the same reason that he would rather have a faked biography than no biography, Empson would rather guess at the contents of an author’s mind than leave the author out of the story. This is what he says in his quieter moments: ‘I would not mind agreeing, as a verbal formula, that the intention of an author can always only be guessed at, so long as it is also agreed that the guess ... should always be made.’ And rather more loudly: ‘If critics are not to put up some pretence of understanding the feelings of the author in hand they must condemn themselves to contempt.’

Or despise themselves the more for not being so condemned. The alternative is getting woke. One must seethe with indignation that texts exist at all and that pedagogues are chained to them like galley slaves. The literary canon is part and parcel of the Biblical katechon which restrains the lawless nature of Capitalist life from revealing itself in all its naked obscenity.  

If we borrow the figure of the death of the author, we could imagine Barthes and Empson staring at each other as if in a mirror, without either of them knowing who the mirrored figure is.

because people looking in a mirror seldom have any clue as to who it is they are seeing. I suppose a short sighted guy with books on his brain may think he is looking at some famous author. But if authors are dead, this can't be the case. So, contra Wood, we can't imagine Barthes and Empson looking at each other as if in a mirror rather than a bath-house.

Barthes thought the author had to be seen as dead so that writing could be rescued from the tyranny of gossip and academic pedantry,

Coz nobody gossips about the dead- right?  

and be properly read for its own sake – Calvino wanted to see writing as a machine for much the same reasons.

So he too did not know that people gossip a lot about the dead. Incidentally, writing may be done by a machine, it isn't itself a machine.

But then Barthes later came to see he couldn’t do without the author, that he ‘desired’ this figure, as he said, that he had to construct or imagine an author in order to trace out certain meanings – ironies, for example.

But one can also do this looking at clouds and the patterns they form and the stories they encode as light leaches from the sky.

This was a way of discreetly letting intention back into criticism – as an invited guest rather than a police presence.

So Literary Criticism is the same thing as seeing patterns in the clouds.  Intentions are invited to suffuse the sky-scape. Then Night falls. Netflix beckons.

Conversely, Empson never thought of intention as a police presence, only as the fallible but indispensable human source of any writing that matters.

Sadly, writing qua writing, whatever its intentions, does not matter at all. The machine grinds down its ghost. In the vast and echoing inedia of the Spirit, writing inscribes itself as a cheeky fart of which, invoking hauntology, only a Spivak would say 'Daramburam bhyam naasthi. Nishabdam prana sankatam'.


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