Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually incommensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.
Source: John Gray, It’s unfashionable to call someone a “genius” – but William Empson was one