Archive for October 2013

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, by Samuel Johnson

October 13, 2013

Far are the shades of Arabia,
Where the Princes ride at noon . . .
–Walter de la Mare, “Arabia”

In the Augustan Age, “Abissinia” was as mythic a place, or nearly, as Lilliput or Brobdingnag. Dr. Johnson required no primary research on how the far-off Musselmen lived, but made his hero Rasselas a man on the quest for truth in strange places, using a common philosophy.

Rasselas is especially blessed to live in the “happy valley,” where all strife and discord are unknown. This bores him. We learn that he is the first to have this reaction to the gifts of the happy valley. He decides to see the miseries of the world in order to value sufficiently his happiness.

Rasselas learns from the poet Imlac, who has traveled the world, the venality of mankind and that deserts are not always just. Rasselas is scandalized to learn that evil can conquer good despite the best laws and magistrates.

So he makes an escape from the happy valley with Imlac, taking along his sister Nekayah. They go first to Cairo, where Rasselas falls in with a group of young men, whose constant pursuit of pleasure spurs him to a lecture of sorts: “The first years of man must make provision for the last. He that never thinks never can be wise. . . .” He makes no converts. “They stared a while in silence one upon another, and, at last, drove him away by a general chorus of continued laughter.”

A great professor of philosophy is plunged into despair at the death of his only daughter. Rasselas points out that the professor’s own philosophy should comfort him: “Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart against calamity? Consider, that external things are naturally variable, but truth and reason are always the same.” The professor replies, “What comfort can truth and reason afford me? Of what effect are they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?” The prince learns from this encounter “the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.”

They then meet a hermit, whose reputation for wisdom runs far and wide. As it happens, however, the hermit has decided that by removing himself from evil influences, he at the same time has avoided the good. He gives up the solitary life and travels with Rasselas for a bit. (At this point, the reader will notice that Rasselas has a kind of quantum effect on those he meets.)

Nekeyah goes her own way for a time to investigate domestic life and reports on her findings: “Parents and children seldom act in concert: each child endeavours to appropriate the esteem or fondness of the parents, and the parents, with yet less temptation, betray each other to their children; thus some place their confidence in the father, and some in the mother, and, by degrees, the house is filled with artifices and feuds.”

In the last chapter, “The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded,” each of the party makes a choice of life–Nekeyah will found a college of learned women, Rasselas will have a “little kingdom,” where he can observe all the effects of his administration (but this soon runs afoul of his desire to expand his holdings), and Imlac and his friend the astronomer “were content to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port.” But all concede that their wishes are unattainable, and resolve to return to Abissinia.

This isn’t much of a story–more of a walking Platonic dialogue, or series of dialogues–but fits in a tradition with other picaresque tales–Don Quixote, Candide, Huckleberry Finn–that generally do better at putting fiction before philosophy. Johnson had the freedom to imagine the happy valley and to describe Arabs and Easterns as he expected them to be, or as projections of British predilections and whimsies; an author today would have to write science fiction and invent inhabitants of other planets to express these thoughts. This is eighteenth-century science fiction, then–or better, science fiction is today’s adventure yarn, when an author who sets a story in another country is staked down by ropes and ropes of little facts.

Islamic astronomer

Islamic astronomer