Taking a look at Milton’s God. Extraordinary book.
I don’t know how much people bother with it. Most people only seem to read Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral (yes, of course we hope that is the title of Perlman‘s follow-up novel) from the criticism; they don’t even really go for Complex Words, which is A-fucking-1. It’s also odd how few people even take the time to mention that Empson had one of history’s maddest arrangements of facial hair:
The handlebar/neckbeard double team! Let’s take another look:
I mean, wow. How do you decide on that?
Milton’s God is all good Empson fun, but the final chapter is strong stuff (in a good way, an intoxicating liquor way ) . He’s one of the great anti-christians of the last century; but I’d never seen it packed together quite so tightly.
Empson wants to get home that there’s a great deal of torture worship in Christianity. In fact:
The symbol of the Religion of Love is a torture.
The Christian God the Father, the God of Tertullian, Augustine and Aquinas, is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man.
Lord, that’s a bit strong isn’t it, Wi…
[The Blessed] must sit beside God for all eternity and watch almost all the people they have loved on Earth being tortured by God… and they must incessantly praise God for his mercy.
And the Crucifixion?
In return for those three hours of ecstasy, the Father would give up the pleasure of torturing for all eternity a small proportion of mankind.
Go! Go! Go!
Mucking about with people’s sex, always a disgusting business of course, is the epidemic or grass-roots way for Christians to gratify their God, when prevented by public opinion from having an epidemic or orgy of torture. The phrase ‘mucking about’ may seem to lack precision or dignity, but I do not know what else would cover what it is needed to describe. Apart from what goes on among believers, it is a regular demand of Christians to alter the public law, so that people who are not even supposed to be Christians can be tormented under rules invented for the edification of believers.
I think he’s losing his rag a bit there — repetition of ‘epidemic’ and ‘believers’ is a little sloppy (although he’s shading meanings with the ‘epidemic’ I suppose) — but interesting points, and one I’m not used to hearing put so starkly.
Bracing. That might be my single-word description of Empson’s criticism. He doesn’t read like anyone else, and that’s a virtue few critics have; plus there’s that loose persuasive style that’s actually pleasure. He’s been my favourite critic for just about ever; better wrong in his train than right and a bore.
(There’s a tangential thought here too, about the age of criticism that now seems over. One of the Martin Amis bunch – I think Amis himself – describes somewhere how he and his cronies were obsessed by lit crit and the arguments of Leavis, Empson, Ricks, Kermode et al even after college; that reading lit crit was seen as a vital part of a civilised mind, and that now this attitude has died away. He’s right and wrong in that; the lit crittiness of it sounds very mid-century to me; but I think a (surprising) number of intellectually active non-academics have transferred those thoughts/impulses/values to theory instead.)
A quick word on the poetry, I suppose. I used to like Empson’s poetry more than I do. Do people still sell him as one of the greats of the last century? I always recall a certain type of fast analytical young man bigging up the Empson oeuvre; I’m not sure if that didn’t pass slightly with the publication of the Haffenden edition. Certainly it made me more reserved. Empson was an astute self-critic, and I think he regrets lacking the ‘singing line’ at some point. He’s spot on there: the bulk of his work sounds a lot stiffer to me than it used to, a bit too rigid and mechanical to hold me now. That said, there’s at least half-a-dozen poems of his with which you do not fuck; and which of us can claim so much?