Conflict and Consensus

I like William Empson. Don’t try to talk me out of it.

As a poet who had written anti-Fascist propaganda for the BBC during the war and had taught ‘English literature’ in China both before and afterwards, he didn’t want writers or readers to trade in emotive, ineffable or overly abstract (i.e. religiose) language. Literature was there to alert us, to make us think rather than assent; close reading was the preferred antidote to indoctrination. The consequences of listening or reading inattentively, and of not seeing how language can be used to sustain inattention and sponsor cruelty, were Empson’s abiding preoccupations.

Well, you probably won’t bother trying to talk me out of it, because you can see right there why I would like him, and how futile such an attempt would be. Anyone who isn’t keen on ineffable or religiose language is going to be someone I am going to like. (Emotive language is a little different. I like emotive language [used sparingly] as long as it’s clear that everyone knows that’s what it is. It’s emotive language that’s smuggled in that I can’t stand; emotive language that pretends to be neutral. I don’t know what Empson would have thought of that.)

There were two related things that Empson as a literary critic could not abide. One was submission to authority, and the other was torment, both the wish to inflict it and the wish to suffer it. Empson was criticised and indeed ridiculed for this hatred, which was directed mostly against Christianity and ‘neo-Christian’ literary critics, but these are things one is unlikely to be casual about if they matter to one at all.

Well, yes. If you mind them at all you tend to mind them a lot. Thus the Rapture-fans, who revel in the thought of being snatched up into the clouds to watch the left behind be tortured, repel me and shock me quite intensely, just as the students at Patrick Henry who sign up (literally sign up, in writing) to the doctrine that the unsaved will be tormented in hell for eternity, and then go cheerily about their business, repel me and shock me. It’s bad stuff. I don’t see any way to get around that.

Empson, who believed in the ‘straddling’ of contraries rather than their resolution, who found ambiguity in literature more truthful than conviction, could not avoid unequivocally taking sides when it came to the Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, and what he took to be the virtual fascism of the Judeo-Christian God. His letters, like all his critical writings, show that he was as unambiguous as he could be in his hatred of the haters of variety. He wanted a variety of sorts of feeling and an unendable clash of different philosophies. So by his own lights he couldn’t and didn’t create his own orthodoxy…‘What else does one write criticism for except to win agreement?’ he asks in a letter to Christopher Ricks, and yet the winning of agreement – or perhaps the winning of too much agreement, the way literature coerced assent instead of opening argument – was the very thing that troubled Empson.

Which is very like a running argument (or discussion) that’s been going on around here about consensus. Very like it indeed. Suggestive stuff.

Indeed, the thing Empson seems to have been most at odds with himself about was conflict…Empson believed that disagreement was often the more adequate response; to say where you think someone is wrong is to be on the side of variety…The possibility of disagreement was, I think, mostly evidence for Empson that one was not at anyone’s mercy. The writer could be at the mercy of his conflicts, just as the critic could be at the mercy of the text, or the institution that employed him. So the Empson who believed that the most morally disreputable thing a writer could do was suppress the conflicts that animated him, the Empson who preferred a clash to a consensus…

Was a very interesting fella.

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