That great literature balances great forces judiciously, that it calms a turbulence of mind, and that it communicates truths that otherwise could not be communicated is never left in doubt by Empson’s criticism, but he is distinguished by never panting after the proof, by not worrying over ranking or finding the right terms of praise.
The puzzle for him is in working out what his tastes have communicated, and that he takes to be puzzles about both the techniques of poetry but also about the history and anthropology of knowledge: how can poetry communicate beliefs that are not our own, being from eras or cultures distant in time and place, and yet make these sufficiently general and palatable. And at the same time as the question is historical and anthropological, the answer depends upon a somewhat philosophical generalization, the thought that the beliefs must work out in practice, providing stability, but that the highest praise we can give them is not that they are solely practical, but that they are also capable of moral breadth, profound appreciation of the world. Such appreciation sets us squarely in the dilemma of humanism: how can we praise that which belongs to a world other than our own, when praise itself, as Aristotle remarks in the Rhetoric, is a temporally displaced form of advice, the suggestion implicit in praise being that we ought to act that way too, faced with similar circumstances.
That problem is profound, because the virtues we praise may be virtues of our culture, entirely foreign to those of the past, and because the virtues of the past may be unpalatable or incomprehensible to us. Here the temptation is to construct a full theory of understanding and ethics, and here Empson instead follows a line that might be called imaginative ethnography, seeking to make better sense, with radically charitable interpretation on his side, in the faith that what taste tells us is worthwhile will be both vindicated by analysis and also made more vividly accessible by analysis.
Literary criticism, then, comes to its seat at the table of the humanities, along with any form of criticism. But unlike the others seated there it is founded on tastes and the propensity to form tastes, the understanding of teachers being that taste itself is not always immediately within the reach of students, who may, like children, recoil from strange flavors or complain of too much mastication. For such students we might think we have no way forward, but Empson’s methods show such an assumption to be ill-founded: we must proceed in either case, whether or not we savor and taste, with the imaginative analysis that asks how various meanings get into a work and find balance and harmony there, or not.
Literary criticism is not founded solely on pleasure, but on the thought that there exists a class of objects whose intention is to communicate with us, and work on us, by way of pleasure, and that those objects are worthy to study because what they communicate can tell us about what it is to know the world, and because they can tell us something about what it is to know the world rightly, with a full demonstration of intelligence and sympathy. The necessity of pleasure is not unknown to Empson, and he addresses forthrightly at the start of (what I think now must be) his greatest work, The Structure of Complex Words, how teaching students must aim not to inculcate particular tastes, but to inculcate the capacity to have tastes, and at the very least to know that there are tastes worth having. Taste is a powerful metaphor because it depends on the senses, and the idea that works of art ought to be as immediately apprehensible as tables, scents, and screams, is not entirely deceptive; though taste is not first nature as the other senses are, it is nonetheless second nature.
Our capacity to form aesthetic tastes is the flip side of the urge to create something that will communicate by way of aesthetic tastes, so that the question of why any artist makes the work, or why any poet writes at all, is not really asked by those who can enjoy what they offer and feel, in that enjoyment, that something has been communicated and or participated within: a distinct mode of experiencing, and so knowing the world, that is not essential but that is nonetheless irreplaceable.
Empson was first and foremost, it occurs to me as I read him, a teacher of English, and not a teacher of tastes, and yet he took it as a basic truth that to learn a language ought to involve learning one of the chief ways that a language can be used to enrich what we know and understand, not only of the world, but of how other people have experienced the world: poetry and literature are such a form of understanding. At the same time, Empson does not think that the balanced, original, and harmonious understanding communicated by a work of literature is experienced in the same way as learning by argument or conversation; he uses the analogy of argumentation only to suggest that we might compare the two. One of the tasks of literary criticism is to facilitate such comparison. If we reflect on how we are tasting a literary work, and on what we are tasting there, Empson seems to be saying, then we ought to be doing it in a way that makes the understanding embodied in literature commensurate with argumentation in other forms; paraphrase cannot be the enemy any more than intentionality because both are essential for normal discourse that reflects upon what and how we understand.
Again, the taste metaphor is helpful: the immediacy of the experience includes within itself the possibility for further explication, just as the immediacy of a sensory experience includes with itself the possibility for inference. Immediacy might suffice, but it suffices by including its own incompletion, in the sense that in the moment we think, “Aha, this work is moving me and bringing me pleasure,” we are also thinking, “and that is because it is true in some way to me,” and that is itself asking us to consider why. Here the work of the historian, the linguist, and the anthropologist become invaluable, and so here the genuine work of the humanities, in conversation across specialties begins. At one end of the spectrum, the critic is asking what and how we know when we know a particular work; more generally, the critic is participating in a project by which we reflect on how variously people have known the world, and how knowledge itself may be constructed, compounded, and communicated in many forms of human behavior and life.
The refinement of critical taste is no longer an aesthete’s pursuit; nor does it possess pungent moral fervor, though it is based upon a recognition of virtues and value; instead it is the sense by which one experience of knowledge is better apprehended, and the sense by which the project in the humanities of understanding how others understand, and have understood, the world, can be furthered. Empson’s humanism is aesthetic in so far as the aesthetic is an element of human apprehension and cognition, which in themselves are always social, always historical, always individual.