Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Did William Empson have ADHD (or something like it)?

A few months ago, I wrote in my newsletter, Talk about books, that the distinguished poet and literary critic, William Empson, who died in 1984, had aphantasia, and that his inability to form mental (visual) images had probably influenced the way he wrote criticism of poetry — and quite likely the way he wrote poetry too. As I said in that post, it was a brief reference in John Haffenden’s biography — a mere dozen words out of that two-volume work running to over 1,000 pages — that alerted me to the absence of a visual imagination on Empson’s part. The evidence is anything but copious but it seemed unequivocal to me and is backed up by brief comments in some of his writings, as I discuss in that post.

Several years before I had any suspicion that Empson might have had aphantasia, I had wondered if he could possibly have been affected by ADHD. Mess, disorganization and a chaotic work and living environment are among the characteristics of people with ADHD, and Empson seems to have suffered from these to an extreme degree. For example, a visitor to his lodgings, Ralph Parker, wrote to Elsie Phare (later Duncan-Jones):

He is living in Bloomsbury in a large room, beautifully furnished above the waist level, below a sea of books, bread, hair brushes and dirty towels. (Haffenden I, 261)
Haffenden biography> John Haffenden, William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins, Oxford University Press, 2005
John Haffenden, William Empson, Volume II: Against the Christians, Oxford University Press, 2006)

Sylvia Townsend Warner came to see him in the same place and noted “a very untidy room, with bottles and books on the floor” (Haffenden I, 261).

When he was in Sheffield as Professor of English Literature from 1952 to 1971, he lived in lodgings which he referred to as “the Burrow”, described by Haffenden as “the rear ground floor of a tenement dwelling” (Haffenden II, 323).

His accommodation consisted of a stark single room, about twelve feet square, along with a tiny kitchen area by the door; the floor was bare concrete, and an iron-framed single bed stood in the corner … even Empson occasionally became concerned about the insanitary state of his dive. (Haffenden II, 324)

John Henry Jones, who translated the German Faust-book into English for Empson, and edited Faustus and the Censor for publication after Empson’s death, provides evidence of Empson’s disorganization in at least one respect other than his living conditions. He writes that, in 1982, Empson had finished a complete draft of his Faust essay and given it to Jones as the Empsons were about to leave for Miami where William Empson had an appointment as a visiting professor for 5 months.

It was a moment of great flurry and haste and he had been working most of the night to finish the draft … I was soon to discover that the papers he had given me were in considerable confusion and mingled with earlier drafts; he must have got them mixed up during his furious last-minute amendments under the pressure of imminent departure … When he arrived back in Hampstead and inspected his work, he was convinced I had dropped it and we soon ceased to discuss the matter. (Faustus and the Censor, (Basil Blackwell, 1987), Introduction, p. 3)

All of this seems compatible with the suggestion that William Empson may have suffered from ADHD, though it’s certainly nowhere near conclusive. I wrote about “Aphantasia and Executive Function” in 2018, just a few months after I recognized that I have aphantasia. I understand that subsequent research tends to show that executive function, such as nonverbal working memory, is not impaired in people with aphantasia, though it’s a statistical inevitability that there will be some people who have both conditions independently of each other.

While it’s generally accepted that aphantasia is not a disability or a disorder, I am convinced that it affects different people in very different ways, depending on such things as their circumstances, the kind of work they do, and their personalities. It seems possible that some people with aphantasia may on that account behave in ways characteristic of people with ADHD or executive dysfunction. Such cases would, of course, be hard to distinguish from those where the conditions coexisted without any causal relationship.

So, I’m unable to come to any conclusion about Empson’s possible ADHD. But, because I had already been wondering whether he might have suffered from that disorder, I was particularly struck by the revelation that he had aphantasia and I thought the circumstance worth noting. Maybe further research into either condition will tell us more.

Usually when I post something to this site, I add it to the index under “Recent posts” unless it’s about books or literature, in which case I add it under “Criticism and book discussion”, or about aphantasia/SDAM, when it goes on my aphantasia page. This post, unusually, could go in all three places. Since it’s mainly about ADHD rather than aphantasia, and it doesn’t concern Empson’s writing so much as his living circumstances, I’ve decided it should go under “Recent posts”.

Posted by Art on 10-Dec-2023.