Unreal Nature

July 14, 2017

The Nose Can Do What It Likes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:34 am

… all that lightness and tenderness which will at any moment brush away the present universe as an unwise dream.

This is from the ‘The Faces of Buddha’ by Sir William Empson found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

There is room for an amateur to say something about Buddha faces, because the experts tend rather to avoid so indefinite a topic, while there are two likely misunderstandings for a man in the street: that the Buddhas have no expression at all … or that they all sneer … .

… Certainly in each Buddhist country, after a few centuries, the type becomes conventional and is liable to be complacent; also one thinks first of the Buddhas of China, and as soon as the Buddha arrived in China he was given something of the polite irony of a social superior.

… 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. In a way Europe has agreed on the face of Christ, but you have to be a good artist to do it. 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 ears helps to bring this out.

… the artists at Angkor no less than Ajanta seem to have amused themselves by putting the same face on to all the races of mankind.

The formula leaves much of the face free. The nose can do what it likes, and is used for anything between childishness, sensuality, and administrative power. The mouth can do what it likes, and varies from a rich sensual repose to the strained tight-lipped alert smile seen on flying aces and archaic Greek sculpture.

[line break added] This of course is not borrowed from Greece; the Greek influence was not archaistic, and anyway the typical thing about an archaic Apollo is not simply the mouth but a peculiar half-baked look about the jowl. The point about the archaic fixed smile, on Buddhas or elsewhere, is that it would be made by a pull of the main zygomatic, the muscle most under conscious control, leaving the others at rest; thus it is an easy way to make a statue look socially conscious, wilful, alert.

… you have only to sink the ends into the cheeks to give it an ironical or complacent character, and my example from Yun-kang, almost winking as it is, gets, I think, with these simple means, an extraordinary effect both of secure hold on strength and peace and of the humorous goodwill of complete understanding. The Koriuji example is traditionally a gift from Korea and can stand for the second main influence on early Japan; its very subtle mouth is not at all of this type, and the future Buddha has a plaintive and somewhat foxy elegance not yet developed as an active force in the world.

[line break added] In the Chuguji one, who will also when he is born bring a new revelation, it is rather the older convention for the mouth, toned down and with a couple of ripples on the smooth wood, that gives all that lightness and tenderness which will at any moment brush away the present universe as an unwise dream.

-Julie

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