Empson and pluralism

Mark Thompson

In his student journalism at Cambridge, the poet and critic William Empson (1906–84) expressed a position that might be called psychological pluralism, though he would have preferred ‘world-mindedness’, praising books that ‘gratify our strong and crucial curiosity about alien modes of feeling, our need for the flying buttress of sympathy with systems other than our own’.

He never abandoned or qualified this position; in the 1960s, he reminded readers of our ‘need to feel that, whatever we do with our own small lives, the rest of the world is still going on and exercising the variety of its forces’. Other systems (cultures, values, ways of doing things, ‘modes of feeling’) exist; their variety is valuable in itself; a sympathetic sense of their difference is essential to our equilibrium; defending the former, we strengthen the latter. The notion of this sympathetic interest presupposes what he called – in a 1958 essay on Henry Fielding – a ‘humanist, liberal, materialist’ attitude, ‘recommending happiness on earth and so forth’. Here lay the humanistic common ground, where altruism and self-interest could merge.

This position implied a secular theory of value, which Empson expounded – though hardly in a way that would satisfy many philosophers – in The Structure of Complex Words (1951). While it does not derive from literature, in Empson’s view this position finds confirmation in literature more intensely than in other kinds of communication. For ‘the central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own’ (Milton’s God, 1961). He said the same in the essay on Fielding: ‘the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to [the] basic fact’ that ‘there is more than one code of morals in the world’.

The poet Empson thought his way around these matters in ‘Homage to the British Museum’ (written by 1929 or 1930), celebrating the statue of a Polynesian sea god:  

        … At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
        Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
        His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Here a line-break ends the exposition, letting the poem gather itself for a complex invocation that rises almost to a pastiche prayer for pluralists:

        Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
        And dissolve into our judgement all their codes. …

It seems fitting that Isaiah Berlin should have recommended Complex Words as one of his books of 1951, and done the same for Using Biography, Empson’s last book, published posthumously in 1984, which includes the Fielding essay quoted above.
© Mark Thompson 2004