Impersonality: Seven Essays

Impersonality: Seven Essays

by Sharon Cameron

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Philosophers have long debated the subjects of persons and personhood. Sharon Cameron ushers this debate into the literary realm by considering impersonality in the works of major American writers and figures of international modernism - writers for whom personal identity is inconsequential and even imaginary. In essays on William Empson, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo


Philosophers have long debated the subjects of persons and personhood. Sharon Cameron ushers this debate into the literary realm by considering impersonality in the works of major American writers and figures of international modernism - writers for whom personal identity is inconsequential and even imaginary. In essays on William Empson, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, T. S. Eliot, and Simone Weil, Cameron examines the impulse to hollow out the core of human distinctiveness, to construct a voice that is no one's voice, to fashion a character without meaningful attributes, a being that is virtually anonymous. "To consent to being anonymous," Weil wrote, "is to bear witness to the truth. But how is this compatible with social life and its labels?" Throughout these essays Cameron examines the friction, even violence, set in motion from such incompatibility-from a "truth" that has no social foundation.

About the Author:
Sharon Cameron is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University

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Impersonality SEVEN ESSAYS
By Sharon Cameron
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-09132-7

Chapter One Introduction by Way of William Empson's Buddha Faces


Writing on the "fantastic" slowness of the Noh theatre, William Empson, who had lived in Japan and China during the 1930s, differentiated the "music of the Far East" from that of European music in these astonishing terms:

Now the scientists seem to agree that we feel differently about rhythm according as it is slower or faster than a heartbeat, and nearly all European music goes faster than a heartbeat.... I think it is true to say that European music is a much larger creature than Far Eastern music; it is the fresh air. But the fundamental difference in all these things goes back to the view taken of God and of the individual man. A rhythm quicker than the heartbeat is one that you seem to control, or that seems controlled by some person; the apparently vast field of our music is always ... the individual speaking up. Music based on rhythms slower than the heartbeat ... remains somehow impersonal. I only want to say here that you must take the music seriously as something that fits in with the whole story, and the story may well be the other half of the truth about the world.

I begin with William Empson's characterization of impersonality as "the other half of the truth about the world" because of its largeness of outlook. Empson's fascination with Buddhism as "a viable alterative to the Christian-Sacrificial ethic of the West that he so deeply scorned" did not arise from Buddhism's pessimism but from its credence in impersonality-the fact that Buddhist doctrine "does not believe in the individual" (A 534). Though Empson was quick to interject "I naturally would not want to present myself as a believer by mistake," his "respect," even admiration, for "the basic position" of Buddhism-which advocates self-abandonment-"needs to be remembered," Empson insisted, "when one tries to survey what the human mind could think about a subject" (A 600). Empson's own passion for that subject is manifested in his placement of the Fire Sermon at the front of the Complete Poems; in his study of Buddhist iconography, which culminated in the completion of a monograph, Asymmetry in Buddha Faces; and-in response to what he called the Buddhist "version of a death wish," based on the supposition that "no sort of temporal life whatever can satisfy the human spirit" and that "therefore ... we must work for an existence outside time in whatever terms"-in Empson's rational assessment: "I doubt whether any process of analysis could show it to be wrong" (A 537). What appealed to Empson about Buddhism's denunciation of existence was its nonsentimental inclusion of "all existence ... even in the highest heaven." "The coolness of Buddhism towards heaven, and towards the supernatural in general" (A 599)-specifically Buddhism's capacity "to remove all doctrinal props about immortality and still claim that death is somehow of the highest value" (A 536)-"gave fruit to millions of men" (CP 151). Empson elaborated:

And this is what [the Fire Sermon] said, and it said, "Death, there is no other possible good thing but death," and it said that very clearly. The facts about the behaviour of men are very much stranger than they seem to us. And so it is important to say ... that almost all the effects of the Fire Sermon were good effects. For example, hundreds of thousands of men have been burned while still living in the name of Jesus, and probably no man has been so burned in the name of Buddha. But the Buddha said things that gave much more reason for burning, much more hate of common living, much more poison, if you are looking at the simple words, than the words of Christ. But in fact they did no damage. As a question of history, where these words came they did good. (CP 151)

Empson's writings on the Far East also express enthusiasm at the idea of karma (the lawfulness of cause and effect minus the oppression of a "personal lawgiver" [A 598]); at the paradoxical notion that pleasure is not the antithesis of pain but is inseparable from it; at the nonexclusiveness of the Buddhist religion ("everyone might now aim at becoming a Buddha" [RB 37], in distinction to a Christian church which claimed to be "the only source of salvation" [RB 36]); and, most especially, as I have begun to discuss, at the idea of impersonality. In "Mr. Eliot and the East," Empson argued that Eliot's "stress on society and tradition rather than the individual ... is not an argument for Christianity but for Buddhism" (A 568). When Empson remarked that death wishes in Buddhist doctrine are "trivial by comparison with the values which grow in their shadow" (A 544), it was ideas like these he had in mind.

Empson's capacity to make available his persistent sense of both the strangeness and the seduction of impersonality, as he encountered it in the music and doctrines of the Far East ("This is the teaching that went across all the east of Asia and by only touching a country made it strong" [CP 151])-his ability to contemplate its foreignness without domesticating, assimilating, or, conversely, rendering it exotic-is even more visible in the mixture of curiosity and powerful sympathy that vitalizes his descriptive analyses of Buddha faces, on which I pause in the following pages:

The drooping eyelids of the great creatures are heavy with patience and suffering, and the subtle irony which offends us in their raised eyebrows ... is in effect an appeal to us to feel, as they do, that it is odd that we let our desires subject us to so much torment in the world. The first thing to say about the Buddha face ... is that the smile of superiority can mean and be felt to mean simply the power to help. The next thing, I think, about the stock type, is that it is the simplest conception of high divinity the human race has devised; people say it is monotonous, but there is a sort of democracy about its repetition.... Anyone who cares about the Lord Buddha can do his face in a few ignorant strokes on sand or blotting paper, and among all the crude versions I have walked past I do not remember one that failed to give him his effect of eternity. It is done by the high brow, soaring outwards; by the long slit eye, almost shut in meditation, with a suggestion of a squint, that would be a frighteningly large eye if opened; and by a suggestion of the calm of childhood in the smooth lines of the mature face-a certain puppy quality in the long ear helps to bring this out. If you get these they carry the main thought of the religion; for one thing the face is at once blind and all-seeing ... so at once sufficient to itself and of universal charity. This essential formula for the face allows of great variety and is hardly more than a blank cheque, but one on a strong bank, so to speak. To my feeling a quite unrealistic Buddha is far more ready than a European head of Christ to be conceived as a real person in the room; as you sink into it you seem to know what it would feel like to have those extraordinary hands. (A 574)

The formula, which does not require skill to master, lingers on and, from successive vantages, penetrates the Buddha's eyes ("terrible," Empson remarks, "when the Buddha ... once fully opens his eyes, as he takes his last look at his wife" [A 574]). What compels Empson's attention shifts from the "drooping eyelids ... heavy with patience and suffering," to the raised eyebrows ("an appeal to us to feel" as he does), to "the long slit eye, almost shut in meditation," to the almost parenthetical speculation that the eye would be too large if opened, to Empson's reading in these half-closed eyes "the main thought of the religion." Although Empson does not immediately gloss the thought for which the paradox "blind and all-seeing" stands as foundation, the point is its comprehensiveness-at once "sufficient to itself and [indicative] of universal charity"-which would seem an inclusiveness that is an end point, but which marks two further forms of expansiveness not indebted to totality per se. There is first a shift from Empson's gaze at the figure's half-closed eyes to a presumptive seeing that those eyes see, a vision which has the effect of suffusing the icon with vitality so that it is like "a real person in the room." The second is a shift from seeing that the figure sees to penetrating what is seen, not as a vision but as a proprioceptive presence which sinks into the body, experienced from within. In "you seem to know what it would feel like to have those extraordinary hands," Empson intuits an animism which, in lieu of particularization, harks back to earlier articulations of the "extraordinary"-whether this is instantiated in the power of contentment, or which might be "simply the power to help," but which is first the capacity to feel "so much torment in the world" (A 574)-and which is also drawn forward into subsequent characterizations of the "extraordinary": "the archaic fixed smile" an "effect both of secure hold on strength and peace and of the humorous goodwill of complete understanding" (A 575). "What it would feel like to have those extraordinary hands" thus becomes a synecdoche for the manifestation of sentience everywhere-the antithesis of the lifelessness Empson claims is conveyed by the stereotype (the "misunderstandings of a man in the street: that the Buddhas have no expression at all ... or else that they all sneer" [A 573])-for an impersonality that, deriving from a formula, breathes being into the whole.

In the Pali suttas, whose doctrine I now examine briefly, the sentience Empson prized in Buddha faces is systematically uncoupled from individuality. Though Empson does not dwell on this aspect, the impersonality he idealized does not just come about; rather, it must be practiced. The practice prescribed by the suttas is a disidentification with perception and sensation. This disidentification, expressed most starkly in the imperative, You will not be by that, erodes the foundation of personal identity, since the relentless teaching of the suttas is that perception and sensation, though experientially inescapable, do not constitute a self.

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (The Great Passing, or The Buddha's Last Days), which both William Empson and T. S. Eliot read in the translation by Henry Clarke Warren, Ananda, the Buddha's servant, gives voice to a grief that is also disseminated everywhere: "The Teacher is passing away, who was so compassionate to me!" (DN 265). But this narrative, which draws on conventions of mourning that mark the passing of a sacred figure-descriptions whose punctuation is intelligible to us from other miraculous death narratives-grows perspectivally uncanny in the clarification of the Buddha's final instruction. The content of that teaching ("You should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge ... with the Dhamma ... as a refuge" [DN 245]) is not "be self-sufficient," but rather a prescription to cultivate isolated conditions of practice in which to contemplate the four foundations of mind-fulness-the body, feelings, mind states, and objects of mind: "How does a monk live as an island unto himself, ... with no other refuge?.... A monk abides contemplating the body as body, earnestly, clearly aware, mindful ... and likewise with regard to feelings, mind and mind-objects" (DN 245).

In the absence of distraction, one is able to discern the changing nature of bodily sensation and the contingent (nonautonomous) nature of bodily sensation (to see that nothing can arise alone without the support of other things on which its existence depends)-that is, the nonsubstantive nature of bodily sensation. And similarly of feelings, mind states, and objects of mind. Experienced rather than conceived, all are empty phenomena, whose insubstantiality could not constitute individuality. What body, feelings, mind states, and mind objects are empty of is personal identity. The reduction to sensation without thoughts that appropriate it (or a seeing through such thoughts) unsocializes perception so that its objects are particles-like driving rain, or snow on the television screen-nothing that could have meaning: "When ... regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and cognized by you, in the seen there will be merely the seen, in the heard there will be merely the heard, in the sensed there will be merely the sensed, in the cognized there will be merely the cognized, then ... you will not be 'by that.' When ... you are not 'by that,' then you will not be 'therein.' When ... you are not 'therein,' then you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. This itself is the end of suffering" (SN 1175-76). Merely the seen, merely the heard, merely the thought deconstructs individuality so that a man, a woman, a living being might be a conventional or legal reality, but no longer an essential one, an extremity which reiterates its lack of compromise in "you will not be 'by that' ... you will not be 'therein.'" Such an imperative declares the illegitimacy of identifying with, of assuming a possessive relation to, any sensation or perception, which, however experientially inescapable, is not self-constituting. Thus when the Buddha says about the four foundations of mindfulness, "This is the direct path for the purification of beings" (MN 155), he is advocating an immediate experience which demolishes the perception "I am" or "This is mine." Practice consists of repeating this disidentification over and over again. To be "your own island" is to discern virtually infinitesimal phenomena whose transience renders vacant such grammatical constructions.

Moreover, when in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha consoles Ananda, saying, "Enough, Ananda, do not weep and wail! Have I not already told you that all things ... are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other? So how could it be, Ananda-since whatever is born, become, compounded is subject to decay-how could it be that it should not pass away?" (DN 265), he seems to refer only to his impending death. But the instruction to "contemplate the body as the body" so that "in the sensed there will be merely the sensed, in the heard ... merely the heard" (Empson, commenting on such repetitions, wrote "If you put in all [of them] ... it is a pretty appalling experience") amplifies the reference to which "all things ... are subject to change" pertains. After the Buddha's death, the refrain is echoed:

Those monks who had not yet overcome their passions wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning, crying ... "the Well-Farer has passed away ... the Eye of the World has disappeared!" But those monks who were free from craving endured mindfully and clearly aware, saying: "All compounded things are impermanent-what is the use of this?" ...

There are sky-devas whose minds are earth-bound; they are weeping and tearing their hair ... earth-devas ... they do likewise. But those devas who are free from craving endure patiently, saying: "All compounded things are impermanent. What is the use of this?" (DN 272)

The reiteration, "All compounded things are impermanent," expresses not only an ultimate manifestation of the insubstantiality of self at death, but also, more unnervingly, an immediate manifestation of it revealed in the explanation of what it means to "comprehend" the impersonal nature of experience. In every moment of clear awareness, "You will not be 'by that'" (SN 1176).

The point of Buddhist doctrine-to which I return only briefly in the essay on Eliot-is its extremity as a model. But not a contrasting one. Although it might seem the case that passages from the suttas derive not only from a foreign culture, but also from a foreign vantage far exceeding any alienation of a Western analogue, the writing discussed in my essays argues to the contrary. Empson's fascination-congruent with his lifelong engagement with contradiction in general-with the incompatibilities of the Buddha features has a special pertinence to my discussion of impersonality. Impersonality (as a practice, as an ethic, as a representation), since it is undertaken by persons, could only be contradictory by definition. Moreover, Empson's repeated attempts to capture the Buddha expression reveal, as a defining insight, that the power of these icons does not issue from a depth, an autonomy, an interior, but from a fully visible presence whose enigma, and whose value, does not lie in its uniqueness.


Excerpted from Impersonality by Sharon Cameron Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Sharon Cameron is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the Johns Hopkins University. Among her many publications are Thinking in Henry James,Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles, and Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain, the first two published by the University of Chicago Press.

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