Wednesday, March 7, 2012

484. Rasselas – Samuel Johnson

 History: Samuel Johnson wrote the piece to help support his seriously ill mother with an intended completion date of January 22, 1759 (the eve of his mother's death). The book was first published in April 1759 in England. The first American edition followed in 1768.The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, often abbreviated to Rasselas, is an apologue about happiness.
While the story is thematically similar to Candide by Voltaire — both concern young men traveling in the company of honored teachers, encountering and examining human suffering in an attempt to determine the root of happiness — their root concerns are distinctly different. Voltaire was very directly satirizing the widely-read philosophical work by Gottfried Leibniz, particularly the Theodicee, in which Leibniz asserts that the world, no matter how we may perceive it, is necessarily the "best of all possible worlds", whereas the question Rasselas confronts most directly is whether or not humanity is essentially capable of attaining happiness. Writing as a devout Christian, Johnson makes through his characters no blanket attacks on the viability of a religious response to this question, as Voltaire does, and while the story is in places light and humorous, it is not a piece of satire, as is Candide.
Plot: The plot is simple in the extreme. Rasselas, son of the King of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), is shut up in a beautiful valley, “till the order of succession should call him to the throne.” He grows weary of the factitious entertainments of the place, and after much brooding escapes with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah and his poet-friend Imlac. They are to see the world and search for happiness, but after some sojourn in Egypt, where they frequent various classes of society and undergo a few mild adventures, they perceive the futility of their search and abruptly return to Abyssinia.
Local color is almost nonexistent and episodic elements, e.g. the story of Imlac and that of the mad astronomer, abound. There is little of incident, no love-making, with few endeavors to charm the fancy, and with but slight recognition of the claims of sentiment.
Review: Johnson brings together a wide variety of his favorite themes in this brief book, as he follows a small band of travelers as they interact with the world around them.
"Rasselas" of the title is a prince who has led a sheltered life in the Happy Valley. Over time he becomes discontented with always being contented, and decides to escape his boredom by leaving. He is led by his guide Imlac, a court counselor and poet; accompanying them is Rasselas's sister and her maid.
Rasselas's goal is to make a "choice of life," something he has great difficulty doing once outside the confines of the Happy Valley. Repeatedly, the quartet encounters arguments and counterarguments for one way of life or another. Ultimately, they realize that it's not what they choose to do in this life that matters, as long as it doesn't impede on their after-life. That is the major conclusion they reach, in a final chapter which Johnson calls "The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded."
The book and its writing is fairly simple, and could be read by anyone in high school. Unlike a lot of Johnson's essays, the syntax is not tangled, and it is easy to get through. However, while the writing is fairly simple (Hemingway some times comes to my mind!), the themes are big. And a young reader must be patient: what sounds like a final opinion on one page frequently gets an "on the other hand" on the next.
This is important, because some of the lines which characters speak are easily taken out of context, and misintepreted. A reader who is not careful may find a line which seems to resonate, and draw the wrong conclusion. Here are two examples: at one point, Imlac (Rasselas's guide) says to Rasselas, "Human life is everywhere a condition in which there is much to be endured and little to be enjoyed." Pretty pessimistic! But in its proper context, Imlac has only cautioned Rasselas against envying the Europeans. In another instance, "The Artist" (no, not the one with the glyph!) tells Rasselas, "Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first oversome." How *wonderful* for the office bulletin board! But then (on the other hand) The Artist puts on a pair of man-made wings and takes a belly flop into a lake.
This book is chock full of aphorisims like these two, and that is part of its appeal. But they are deceptive in isolation, and should be considered as part of the book as a whole.
Opening Line: Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.
Closing Line: They deliberated a while what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abissinia.
Quotes: "We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself."
Rating: did not read

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