378. (William Empson)

Note: looking back at this post, it seems to show how “patterns” by being everything are also nothing—the paraphrases of Empson would stand without that word, or with another equivalent or better word.

I’m curious to know the extent to which, if at all, Empson was involved in deciding the cover of Some Versions of Pastoral (oh, here it goes, more on Empson), since the cover of the New Directions edition that has long been in print is a double image, one gray on black, the other black on gray, of loosely-cut geometric forms, somewhat we would find in late Matisse, nearly, but not quite, reflecting one another; each half seems patterned, or an arrangement of patterns (if we take each form to be cut according to a pattern), and the pieces of each half individually find reflection in the other, but taken together the halves are not reflections, as some parts are missing from the top that appear in the bottom.

This interest me because of my thinking about patterns and my wondering whether thinking through patterns can help explain not why Empson was as brilliant a critic as he was, but just what he is doing in the dizzying feat that is Some Versions of Pastoral which I think is the most wide-ranging and brilliant but also frustrating and unfortunately condensed of his books. The book is, I’d like for the cover to suggest, about patterns, and the relation of two patterns, one of which is “high,” and the other which is “low,” according to how each fits in with other patterns of life and society in a given civilization or era, which themselves are placed in a hierarchy. Pastoral is the pattern that relates the patterns of high and low, whatever they might be, into something that is not strictly hierarchical, but that suggests a third pattern, borrowing elements of the two and better than either alone, on a different axis entirely perhaps. A pattern depends on three; and pastoral, in Empson’s account, offers a third pattern that mediates between, and suspends itself between another two, either of which is “better in some ways, in other ways not so good” as the other. Empson is here, and always, centrally concerned with judgment, but judgment itself is an arrangement of instances and parts into larger patterns, a decision of what counts as a puzzle, and what patterns can resolve which puzzles; patterns provide a helpfully reductionist account of judgment, helpful because, in this book especially, Empson ranges so widely and so far.

The proof is in whether patterns can help me better understand Empson where he is at his most difficult—and they do. Though I do not think it always necessary to translate overtly into their terms, those terms provide a way of working through the knottiest passages. It’s difficult to decide which section or chapter of the book is hardest to grasp, but I ultimately would settle on The Beggar’s Opera chapter for that distinction, and the opening second section, with Empson’s anatomy of comic primness and irony, as what is, on its own terms, most difficult; it’s not just tough because of how well Empson assumes his reader knows Gay’s play, but because of the abstraction inherent in his topic. In what follows, I take on the key passage, testing whether I can translate or paraphrase its claims by means of the concept of patterns. The best way to do this seems to me to be a sort of editorial intrusion, my bold and bracketed commentary following what Empson writes. This is of course only one way of establishing, and hardly the only or best, of whether patterns are helpful:

The stock device of the play is a double irony like a Seidlitz powder, piling a dramatic irony onto what was already an irony [the double patterns that the character holds into perspective are themselves set within the pattern of the play, which cuts against them, so that even as the character’s words and perspective fit the pattern that is the plot of the play at that moment, we see a pattern in the play that shows us that they will eventually clash with what comes later, or that their place in the play’s pattern will be disrupted]. This forces one to read back a more complex irony onto the first one, and the composure of language of the characters makes us feel that the speaker took the whole sense for granted [maybe the character was already prepared for the future disruption that we take at that moment as a dramatic irony] . So he is a pastoral character; he moves among fundamental truths [the pattern of Pastoral lives is not the common low life and is more true than the common high life; it is deeper than either, reconciles elements of both to something greater]. The trick of style that makes this plausible is Comic Primness, the double irony in the acceptance of a convention [following the pattern of a convention, but also, simultaneously, following another pattern of conduct]. This is never meant by the speaker as a single critical irony (‘I pretend to agree with this only to make you use your judgment and see that it is wrong’) [The fact that my claiming to accord with this pattern ought to puzzle you enough to doubt the pattern]—if an irony does that it does not seem prim [primness does not want to draw attention to not fitting in the pattern, or to rejecting the pattern entirely; it wants to hold onto two patterns at once, or exist between two patterns at once, in a third pattern of life]—though the author may mean a critical irony when he suggests the character a primness [primness itself might not accord with the pattern of conduct that the author endorses]. No sentence of the play is quite free from this trick; one might only doubt over ‘bring those villains to the gallows before you and I am satisfied,’ but though there is plain indignation in both Gay and Macheath [the feeling that the wrongness of what is happening, in relation to a pattern, must be set right by forceful outcry], for Macheath to feel it is in a degree ‘rogue-become-judge,’  funny because self-righteous [“rogue” is a type, a pattern of character; judge another; and the two patterns are combined here]. One might divide Comic Primness with the usual divisions of comedy, according to the degree which inherent criticism I intended [according to the degree with which one finds the pattern being judged accords with or deviates from other patterned codes of conduct in one’s life, and according to the patterns of cosmology or culture that make such deviation tolerable or not].

It may assume that the conventions are right and that to be good is to keep them; by applying them unexpectedly a sense of relief is put into through tightness [sic; rightness?], though one is still good; they are made to seem deliberately assumed, so that the normal man is unchanged beneath them, and this gives a sense of power and freedom just as custard-pie farce does [there is something superficial how one accords with the pattern of conventions one accepts; one is also always patterning one’s actions according to other possibilities, free to pursue other conventions, and these other allegiances, to other patterns, are signaled enough to show them to be deliberately assumed]. You may say that this simple type assumes the others—‘What is an important truth for us would not be true on a higher level; it is good to see the superficiality of the rules we must none the less keep,’ [according to another pattern with which we fit, this pattern is not relevant, but within this moment, this superficial pattern is worth keeping; it is not a troubling deviation from that other higher pattern, just an insignificant one] But this type may be inherent and yet well out of sight. This type goes with ‘free’ comedy.

It may imply that the conventions are wrong, as a critical irony would, but if it is to remain Comic Primness then it must then also imply that the speaker does not feel strong enough, or much desire, perhaps for selfish reasons, to stand up against them [the presence of a second pattern of conduct is obvious, but this other pattern need not entail a rejection of convention, because, perhaps, the convention allows the character to fit within other social patterns that provide benefits]; he shelters behind them and feels cosy. One would use this in ‘critical’ comedy, but it would be hard to make a complete critical comedy without ever leaving comic primness [the break from the pattern must be more obvious than comic primness permits].

In full Comic Primness (an element of ‘full’ comedy) the enjoyer gets the joke at both levels—both that which accepts that which revolts against the convention that the speaker adopts primly. It is a play of judgment which implies not so much doubt as a full understanding of issues between which the enjoyer, with the humility of impertinence, does not propose to decide [the enjoyer can place himself into both modes of conduct at once]. For this pleasure of effective momentary simplification the arguments of the two sides must be pulling their weight on the ironist, and though he might be sincerely indignant if told so [because it might seem a charge of hypocrisy] it is fair to call him conscious of them. A character who accepts this way of thinking tends to be forced into isolation [the isolation of committing to one while also holding another dearer, but in so doing occupying a third position that must reconcile the two when they conflict, or by refusing to engage fully with the puzzles of either, as Empson explains below] by sheer strength of mind, and so into a philosophy of Independence [Independence as a relation to multiple patterns, the formation of an idiosyncratic fusion of patterns of conduct and expectation].

This may be used for Ironical Humility, whose simplest gambit is to say, ‘I am not clever, educated, well born,’ or what not (as if you had that low standard to judge by), and then to imply that your standards as so high in the matter that the person you are humbling yourself before in the matter is quite out of sight [to reject the pattern that orders the various patterns of conducts, accepting the terms of one, ‘educated, well born, and clever,’ but then to denote them and the pattern that signals these lower in the order, as if there were higher terms, and a higher pattern available to oneself; the rejection of the terms ‘educated, clever’ etc seems simplicity because we are not fully aware what the higher pattern is, or that there is one]. This has an amusing likeness to pastoral; the important man classes himself among low men, and the effect is to raise his standards, not to lower them [because the higher man sees that there is a more fundamental pattern traversing the elements of high and low, and by entering the pattern of low life, he can access them]. At the stage of ‘device prior to irony’ this is an essential weapon of pastoral. I shall try to show that Polly uses it in this way. Also there is a feeling of ironical humility diffused generally through the play, as if the characters knew they were really much better than heroes and prime ministers [both of which are ‘types,’ patterns of life and conduct and social interaction], not merely like them, though they do not choose to say so clearly [their patterns mirror in some respects, but are crucially different in others; once again, it is an appeal to a pattern that orders and patterns the other patterns that sets these people apart]; the reason for this, I think, is that the pretence that Macheath and Walpole are both heroes [both fit well enough with the pattern of heroes] is a sort of ironical humility in the author (‘I am easily impressed’) [my sense of what constitutes a hero, that pattern, is quite general or so loosely constellated that it can fit both, as well as many others, though it remains heroism], not so much a critical one as one implying a reserve of force—‘by this means I can understand them completely’ [but having so nicely placed both into the pattern of heroes, they seem less anomalous, and can be explained]. Such an ironical humility is in effect like the attitude of the scientist; the observer must not alter what he observes but shrink to a mere eye [the observer must not interfere with the pattern; the observer is a part of the pattern, but in such a fashion as to change nothing about it, or else the observer stands back, suggests that the proper pattern of scientific life is to establish a pattern of observation that changes nothing]. A man like Boswell writes of himself like this because he wants to keep himself out of the scene of which in fact he was the stage-manager. The richness of the ironical humility of Chaucer is that he combines the truth-seeking feeling in the trick [Chaucer seems to shrink so that he relates to the pattern without changing it]  with its poetical one of pastoral [this is tricky: but he also establishes a third pattern, constituted of elements of high and low, greater than either] (the notion that a rightly conducted love affair is a means of understanding the world seems to hold the two together [the greater pattern that makes sense of the scientific humility and the pastoral reconstitution is suggested by the pattern of a rightly conducted love affairs, somehow]). The ironical humility of Samuel Butler is a more curious matter. It aims at outflanking the official moralists, making their pomposity absurd by giving similar but different moral advice under cover of giving merely practical advice [the pattern of his advice is nearly theirs, but is positioned instead in relation to patterns of practical advice; but the adherence with the patterns of moral advice are so obvious, so impossible to deny, that the effect is to challenge whether moral device is not all practical, and also to suggest that his own system is better than theirs, in where and how it does differ from their pattern] . ‘Every system leads to absurdity in extreme cases, so we must be careful to keep our system to plain obvious cases’; ‘we must avoid the ideal and extreme because we have been taught false ideals.’ [The practical advice would seem to preclude the pattern of higher ideals that the moralists appeal to]. He cannot help thinking about higher matters than he pretends to, but this acts as a criticism of language; ‘the words of all moralists shift as mine do, only they have not the sense to see it. I may not be doing much but I am keeping my head.’ [But language has its own patterns and he recognizes at least where the patterns of his practical advice are moving into false ideals, and this is where his practical pattern is different from theirs, in its acknowledging the inevitably patterning of language] That is the force of the perpetual analogy from business to spiritual matters, and the double irony of his sustained praise of the ‘mean.’ (He does not try to stop altering the field in the course of observing it by making himself small but uses the alterations for further knowledge [the language shifts and drives to ideals; he cannot stop that, to do so would be to be unscientific, but he lets its pattern emerge only to reconfigure and modify the pattern he has established to address those patterns of ideals emerging because of language itself].) ‘Pray let nobody idealise me’; the whole charm of his trick, and it is a genuine one, is that he refuses to recognize the grandeur of the senses which he cannot keep out of his words…

The man who uses the third sort of comic primness need not, however, go off in these directions; he may simply not be interested in the aspect of the matter that makes it a problem. Aristotle’s remarks in the Rhetoric about how one should treat evidence extracted by torture, according as it is favorable or not, are a good example, because they show how such a man can seem extremely ‘innocent’ without seeming silly or ill-informed [he knows about the puzzles that emerge, but does not fit them into what he is saying]. The question whether it is stupid to torture witnesses at all has obviously occurred to him but is not the matter in hand. Zuckermann’s book on Monkey Hill, and much of Darwin for that matter, give the same effect; one sentence may seem Swift satirizing Man and the next a scientist satirizing scientific method, but the man is keeping himself to one purpose [the puzzles that deserve satire, that show inconsistency in behavior, are brought to light but are not treated as puzzles, are not treated as a challenge to the pattern that the author is establishing]. Even if he is interested in the matter he may imply a claim that it is irrelevant without implying a claim to be ignorant of it. This reserve about the degree to which one has got the matter in hand is of course a central method of irony [irony establishes relations between patterns, and between patterns and puzzles, in such a way that the relation between them cannot be determined as a pattern; it is loose enough a relation that its being a pattern, or else constituting a puzzle, might be denied]. And the same effect may be given by someone who as not yet discovered that the problem exists; this may be called ‘genuine innocence’ and in a way returns the third sort of comic primness to the first; the speaker feels that this is a lively way out, the hearer that it is rich in contradictions. This again may be imitated; the ironist may claim that to so good, natural, innocent, et, a person as himself the problem in hand does not arise—what he says satisfies both parties to the dispute, almost like a pun [a pun is a word that fits two patterns of language]; there is no way of proving that he is conscious of the problem [the ironist can seem to hold two patterns in relation without seeing that the pattern between them might entail puzzles]—if he is made to hear of it he will still feel the same. This is best when so arranged that the other man cannot attempt to call the bluff without exposing himself, which arises in the conventional setting of Comic Primness.

There are other matters in Some Versions of Pastoral that I think can be clarified by patterns. Some are quite obvious: the staircase figure in the chapter on “The Garden.” Others are less so. Throughout the book, Empson appeals, more than elsewhere, to types: Rogue, Hero, Swain. But these are themselves shorthand for patterns that are repeated, with variation, across plots. Then there is “Nature,” which figures repeatedly in the study, as in the chapter on Marvell, in which Empson digresses to discuss Coleridge’s Mariner and Christopher Smart’s David, both seeking control over Nature. Nature is not a pattern in and of itself, but it is a pattern of patterns, a term fundamental to describing and classifying patterns themselves.

Empson is the most puzzling of critics: a critic inclined to make us confused, but also to root out, like a dog hunting truffles, puzzles in texts. But those puzzles, like any puzzles, only make sense if we see the patterns from which they emerge; in this work those patterns take on a greater variety of forms than elsewhere (not just syntax or verbal, not contained within single words, or single complex word as pattern), and recognizing that, and making the patterns explicit as patterns, can make us better see the puzzles that Empson claims the works are resolving. In Seven Types of Ambiguity we have fleeting glimpses of Empson’s preoccupation with absorbing all of experience, with including everything in a life or literary work (the remarks on Proust and “n+1” being better than “n”); but only in Some Versions of Pastoral does that mysterious fascination with all-inclusion, with absorbing everything, come into its own (in the passages on Nature, especially). It is in the Lear/Fool chapter of Complex Words, but it is most bizarrely in Milton’s God, where Empson imagines Milton positing a God who will shed personhood and become a sort of universal absolute. I think this too can be expressed in terms of patterns, and of Empson’s atheism, which followed from his rejection of Christianity while seeking also to seek in the works he read an impulse for a totalizing resolution of the numerous patterns of existence; he granted, I think, that such an impulse might be satisfied by Christianity, in some authors, but I take his idiosyncratic readings of Christianity to stem ultimately from a sense that Christianity if it means anything, must mean this sort of resolution into a pattern of patterns; it is not what Christians wanted to hear, but it was sufficiently generalized that it allowed Empson the broadest interpretive field of any 20th century critic.


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