265. (William Empson)

With each return to Empson’s criticism, a new fulcrum point on which it can be turned. The chapter on “Candid and Sensibility” in Structure of Complex Wordscontains an unassuming remark that ropes in the book as a whole. Writing about “Candid”: “The word offers a remarkably different ideal truth-teller from the fool as clown or the honest man or the wit or the man of sense.” From here, Empson’s greatest work can seem to prefigure not, as it is sometimes said, Derrida, but instead Foucault, with his late interest in regimes of avowal and functions of truth-telling; such an alignment would, I think, be truer to the historically-minded Empson. At that level, he is not a judge of the truth that literature tells, but instead wants to understand the various ways in which “truth” figures in and is figured by literature; literature is a mode of judgment about the world, usually resolving several judgments into some unity, and yet Empson is concerned in all of the studies, from the very start, with the evolution of what counts as satisfactory judgment, with the way in which literature, and hence judgment, can measure itself as true in so many ways, across time. As a critic, he is less concerned with the success or failure of a work of literature than he is with what it puts forward as its own standard of success or failure, what key words or key roles and figures (in Pastoral) or syntactical tricks are claimed as providing valid truth-telling functions; works of literature, in his readings, argue not just for something being true, but for what organizations and arrangements of human life, behavior, and language afford true judgments. For instance, the metaphysical conceit, or the Swain, or the Victorian decadence of similes, or single words that contain competing meanings. He is not alone, as a critic, in caring as much about what is true as about how something gets to be called true, how truth “is”; Foucault, in his introductory lecture to Truth-Telling and Wrong-Doingdefines his critical philosophy as starting not from the wonderment at Being, but from wonderment at truth itself: the fact that people can and do speak to, of, for, from “truth” is his starting point of astonishment. Empson would perhaps dramatize his astonishment less, but he nonetheless starts from a point not far distant: the wonderment at what has been imagined, invented, done to and through language, as a consequence of truth existing at all, and the need to speak to, for, and with truth existing at all. His literary criticism traces and sorts works of the imagination in so far as they arise out of an obligation to speak the truth that has itself changed over history. 


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