Sir William Empson  Rupert Shephard (1909–1992)Sir William Epson by Rupert Shephard (1909-1992)

By Richard Lofthouse

English literary critic and bohemian Sir William Empson (1906-1984) wrote a manuscript about Buddhist art that was lost for sixty years, re-discovered by a British Museum curator, now published by Oxford University Press for the first time in 2016. The Face of the Buddha is surely one of the great literary recoveries of our century. Lost manuscripts of this stature turn up very rarely. You can’t make up such a discovery for the sake of boosting your likes in Facebook, or to arouse a cheap sensation through a press release. The Face of the Buddha, by contrast, is a momentous cultural occasion that will take time to fully register. Brilliantly edited and introduced by Oxford alumnus Rupert Arrowsmith (Christ Church, 2005), the book details Empson’s prolific travel across East Asia during the 1930s, having been struck by the insight that in Buddhist sculpture, faces are asymmetrical. The accumulation of examples of Buddhist faces, and Empson’s commentary on them, plus copious illustrations of what it is he is describing (thank goodness) result in a rich and beautifully written narrative analysis. The book is difficult to pigeonhole, which is what makes it great. Empson’s quarry is more subtle (and less verifiable) than most, and spans theology and aesthetics. The literary qualities are startling. There is no room here to do justice to the book, but I would send readers to philosopher John Gray’s (Exeter, 1968) comprehensive review in the New Statesman.

Dull Disasters? How Planning ahead can make a differenceAmid atrocities and outrages in France and Germany, it seems appropriate to move to a book titled Dull Disasters? How planning ahead can make a difference. The book is a plea to get away from emergency aid requests following a freak natural event resulting in a disaster. The authors mean the Red Cross asking you to empty your wallet on the spur of the moment, but in particular its international aid equivalent. For instance, a few days after the earthquake that hit Nepal in April 2015, the UN appealed for US$415 million to cover the first three moths of relief effort. That was followed by the Red Cross coming to you and me via Radio 4. Of course –and the authors emphasise this in more than one place- you can’t insure against every freak event. In fact, they say, the current system does work to a degree, and UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, on ‘humanity’, states that ‘Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found.’ But – and this is the rest of the book – the ‘begging bowl’ model is typically too little too late, and can be ruinously inefficient. By the time the resources arrive, the damage is long done. The authors go into considerable detail about Ethiopian funeral societies, Gebrale Iddir, which smooth out the cost of an unexpected death in the family through a subscription model. This mutual society model is not new, and it proliferates throughout numerous poor and rich societies in Africa and beyond. It’s the model that is then explored on an international scale here, although at this point readers should prepare for a new vocabulary of risk transfer instruments and catastrophe-deferred drawdown. Whoever edited this book for OUP made a courageous decision to go with a title sporting the word ‘dull’, but the point is well taken in context. The two authors, meanwhile, exemplify an Oxford that is perhaps less familiar to older alumni; one in which students put DPhils to work in the ‘real world’ and incumbent fellows hold dual roles, by no means bound by ivory towers. Daniel Clarke is an actuary and development economist with an Oxford DPhil in economics, while Stefan Dercon is Professor of Economic Policy and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Jesus College – and also Chief Economist of the UK Department for International Development. 

On a not unrelated note, Oxford’s Professor of Gerontology (or ageing, in plain English), and Director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, Sarah Harper, has written a timely volume called How Population will transform our World. Migration and ageing are two of many themes in the book, which forms part of a new series on 21st century challenges published jointly by OUP and the Oxford Martin School. 

Next, three volumes of history to bring some ballast for all these contemporary worries. Light in Germany Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment by T. J. Reed, Taylor Professor Emeritus of German at Oxford, and emeritus fellow at the Queen’s College. Reed has a phenomenal track record, brought to bear again here in a wonderful dusting off of scenes and chapters from the German Enlightenment, so often occluded by the disasters of 20th century history. On a different aspect of intellectual history, although not unrelated, is George Herring’sThe Oxford Movement in Practice The Tractarian Parochial World from the 1830s to the 1870s. OK, so not everyone will warm to this, because it operates as a niche of scholarship appearing to rake over the half-cold embers of church warfare in the heyday of Victorian high mindedness. In this case the argument is that Tractarians did not smoothly and simplistically gravitate towards ritualism and a ceremonial form, between the 1830s and 1860s. No, Herring asserts that this development was partly what the earlier generation of Tractarians feared, and resisted. The crunchiness is put back into an otherwise bland narrative, a bit like a successful tutorial. We should be glad that there is still room for monographs like this.

Chris Wickham’s Medieval EuropeFinally, going back much further in time is Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe,shortly to be published by Yale University Press. Wickham is Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford. What he has done here is track the entire sweep of the middle ages across Europe, from the end of the Roman Empire to the Reformation.

Some readers prefer the monograph approach, while others profit from these big sweep approaches. Wickham’s book is immensely careful and something of a landmark, while embracing an general audience (and no doubt hitting student reading lists up and the down the land). One to pre-order ahead of the shortening days and new academic year.

Images: Art UK, Yale University Press, Oxford University Press