About face

Michael Freeman

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Photograph: Rupert Arrowsmith

William Empson’s study of Buddhist iconography is extraordinary on three counts: in its illuminating interpretation of the ancient sculptures of the Buddha; in the engaging tone and texture of its exegesis; and in the vagaries of its publishing history. The critic who had earlier changed the face of literary criticism was here facing up to his obsession with Buddhist art, in an intriguing modulation from his classic study of types of ambiguity in poetry to types of asymmetry in the faces of the Buddha, unfolding a theology in the physiognomy.

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