Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

Some books I expect to enjoy merely because I consider them classic in terms of being influential or historical, not because I expect them to have a pleasing aesthetic or narrative.  I read them because they appeal to my sense of completeness or because you want to see what people were reading two- or three-hundred years ago.  To take a quotation from this very book, I sometimes assume these old novels are “classics” because when first published they “surprised [readers] as a novelty, and retained the credit by consent which it received by accident at first.” 

It was with these limited expectations that I sat down to read one of Melville House’s most recent additions to their Art of the Novella series: the great dictionary writer Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759).  The influential tale is 250 years old this year, and I thought reading it would give some pleasing historical context.  After the first few chapters I realized once again that books are usually classics because they have pleased readers and not just historians through the years.  Here, as is often the case, the historical context is interesting but incidental to the well written words which should make many writers envious.

Rasselas,-Prince-of-Abyssin

Review copy courtesy of Melville House.

To call this a novella might be a stretch, depending on how you define the term.  Though it is basically the same length as a novella (this edition runs in at just over 180 pages, but there are many blank pages), it is not necessarily the type of narrative one expects when picking up a novella.  I consider it to be a philosophical treatise built around episodes but in novella form.  That shouldn’t scare anyone off, though.  The topic is one we can all relate to: happiness.  But just a minute.  Before scoffing at Johnson’s chosen subject you should know that this is nothing  — nothing – like those books of aphorisms you find today that guarantee to change your life.  Johnson is never trying to show the reader how to attain happiness.  Rather, he is fixated on the elusive nature of happiness.  Can it ever be achieved?  The first sentence might clue the reader in on Johnson’s resolution:

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 Abyssinia.

Rasselas is a young prince, twenty-six when the story begins, who lives in a paradisiacal valley created for him and his siblings.  There “[a]ll the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded.”  Johnson’s descriptions are beautiful and exotic and impossible but oh so appealing.  The Happy Valley is a mythical place even for those who live in the kingdom:

All the artificers of pleasure were called to gladden the festivity; the musicians exerted the power of harmony, and the dancers showed their activity before the princes, in hopes that they should pass their lives in blissful captivity, to which those only were admitted whose performance was thought able to add novelty to luxury.

I love those sentences.  In them Johnson, with great prose, moves the narrative forward while describing the setting and alluding to his own negative feelings about the Happy Valley as an ideal.  Soon Johnson doesn’t hide his hand.  That this place is beautiful but dead for humans becomes apparent when Rasselas is introduced.  In ruminating about his state of being, Rasselas compares himself to the animals who are happy if they are fed and watered and comfortable — “. . . but when thirst and hunger ceases, I am not at rest.”

Rasselas decides he must escape the valley.  Surely the happy state that is missing there can be found on the outside where life is not so artificial.  There are several comical chapters about his attempts to escape, my favorite being the artificer who, after months and months of research and work, invents metal wings that do nothing more than sink into the sea.  He was not happy.  Rasselas’s bad luck changes, though, when he meets Imlac, a philosopher and scholar who was allowed to enter the valley to teach.  Imlac, realizing that Rasselas is disillusioned, does not hide the fact that there is not one person invited into the valley who did not yearn to escape and live on the outside again.  Rasselas explains to Imlac his desire to escape the valley to find what Choice of Life will make him happy.  He knows this Choice is not available in the valley.  Not really believing in Rasselas’s quest (“Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.”), Imlac nevertheless agrees to help him escape and to be his companion on the journey.  On the night of escape, Rasselas is surprised to find his sister Nekayah following him.  She admits she didn’t know where he was going, but, now that she knows, she wants to go too.  Together they quest for the state of being that will guarantee happiness.

Obviously the quest is doomed to failure, but the quest itself is what’s important here.  Through it Johnson allows his characters to interrogate several types of people — hermits, scholars, couples, kings, etc.  One of my favorites was Rasselas and Nekayah’s discussion on the state of marriage:

Marriage is evidently the dictate of Nature; men and women were made to be the companions of each other, and therefore I cannot be persuaded but that marriage is one of the means of happiness.”

“I know not,” said the Princess, “whether marriage be more than one of the innumerable modes of human misery. . . .”

And here’s the best time for me to insert an Annie Hall quote in a review.  While it is very different in tone, the futile search, particularly when looking at relationships, reminded me of the part in Annie Hall where Alvie asks a couple on the street why they are happy:

Alvie:  Here, you look like a very happy couple.  Um, are you?
Young Woman:  Yeah.
Alvie:  Yeah?  So, so, how do you account for it?
Young Woman:  Uh, I’m very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Young Man:  And I’m exactly the same way.

One last thing:  As much as I enjoyed this book, I must say that the episodic nature can become grating at times.  Like Candide, Rasselas has a weak overall narrative structure that serves mainly to allow the characters to have dialogues with people from a variety of backgrounds.  But, again like Candide , there is so much there that within each episode one forgets that it is only loosely tied to other episodes by the single philosophical thread.  And there are so many wonderful moments of illumination, like when Johnson reduces the glory of the pyramids to this: “I consider this structure as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments.”  And there are beautiful moments of melancholy where the loose structure evaporates and the characters become more than vehicles for philosophy, like when Imlac tells the heartbreaking story of the insane astronomer and the characters hope he can “delay the next morning the rising of the sun.”

11 thoughts on “Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

  1. Mel says:

    It was good to see Rasselas treated well here. I have read it maybe five times in the last 40 years or so. The first time was in a class on the 18th century English novel. There is great wisdom in the writing of Dr Johnson. “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and “London”
    come to mind.

  2. Trevor says:

    Before Rasselas I had only read a few of his essays and some of his more witty definitions in his dictionary. I remember that his essays were so well written, very clear and concise and precise, but until this I didn’t know he wrote some narratives. I will have to look up the others!

  3. Isabel says:

    Being in a wonderful environment, according Agent Smith of the Matrix, made the humans restless. So, that’s why the machines created a kind of dismal place.

    I know where the idea was taken!

    Great review.

  4. Trevor says:

    I did say the book was influential, Isabel, but I didn’t realize just how influential it was until your comment :) !

  5. Trevor: I do think with books like this that you should find a way of indicating that the publisher has provided the book, rather than you pulling it off the shelf. All in the interests of reviewing honesy.

  6. Trevor says:

    Fair point, Kevin. Last week I took the legal ethics exam and have spent far too long thinking about conflicts of interest in that context. I’m actually currently working on a type of “statement” about my own policies for dealing with transparency and potential conflicts of interest. I’m considering going through my old posts to place at the top whether I got the book from the publisher. I’m still working on how to articulate the “statement” (it is currently far too long and circular to post — the ethics exam actually did not help me articulate my blogging policies). There are a few projects I need to complete for the blog to bring it up to my current vision, and transparency is one of the most important.

    I’m curious about others’ thoughts on this. As blogs increasingly become the place people look to find new books, what sorts of policies should bloggers adopt? Because blogs can be written by anyone from amateur to professional (and the blogger is always independent to write whatever pops into mind with no editor or manager or committee overlooking their conflicts of interest), it’s a more difficult question to answer than I first anticipated.

    We bloggers can be entirely self-interested, promoting books we don’t like in hopes the publisher will continue giving us books to “promote” and not to “review.” We’re often not professionals — at least not professional journalists or reviewers or scholars — so there’s no real way to enforce a disciplined approach; it’s all up to the blogger who can adapt as the blog evolves and as readers make demands. Since many of us started our blogs more as an experiment than as a career or even as a project, many don’t anticipate how these issues might come up.

    All of this is so interesting right now when publishers are modifying their own policies because blogging is becoming more and more prevalent. Moving in a new direction, publishers and bloggers can become entangled. Bloggers can become very excited simply by receiving a review copy, whatever the source, whatever the book. This can be perceived as a promotion or sign of acceptance in a beautiful world. To show gratitude the blogger (who is often a simple book lover) might write a glowing review when he or she might have felt ripped off had $15 been spent on the book.

    As a point of disclosure in the absence of a finalized statement: no publisher has ever set up a quid pro quo arrangement with me. They have acted honorably, sending me a catalog wherein I can select books I’m interested in, all with the understanding that I might not like it and might tell all readers here that it was not worth their time. I don’t accept books I’m not interested in. I like getting free advanced copies of books I’m interested in.

    Also, there is this. The publishers who send me review copies are the publishers I’m interested in promoting: New Directions, Archipelago Books, and the Dalkey Archive. Melville House and a handful of others have sent me a couple of books. I find their publishing projects important and valuable to readers, particularly those interested in world literature. Because of this, I have the very real propensity to promote them despite not liking a particular book they’ve recently published. However, I have never intentionally misrepresented my feelings for a book on this blog. I like these publishers because I like the books they choose to publish. In a way, because they are smaller and fairly independent, they can create the same type of community and following a blog can.

    Nevertheless, because of my very real propensity mentioned above, Kevin is right, I need to let readers of the blog know who has sent me a review copy so they can add that to the equation when determining whether to accept my opinion and purchase a book or not.

    Such disclosures — and another iteration of what above inadvertently became a type of statement — to come!

  7. You have obviously been thinking about this to be able to post such a complete response in such short order. It is a very thorough interim statement.

    Free review copies have been part of the book industry as long as any of us have been reading. In fact, what makes bloggers different from the former sources of reviews such as the daily press or trade publications is that many of us do purchase the books we review, or bring them out of our personal libraries.

    The reason why I think a source statement is worthwhile is that much of the blogging world in the non-book field now does feature promotional posts which I feel are an ethical conflict. As your last couple of paras indicate, an indication of source is just another piece of data that we visitors can include in contemplating your thoughts.

    In my own case, I’m trying using the caption function with the book cover to indicate where I got my copy. In addition to transparency, it has the additional benefit of allowing me in most cases to include a link where people who might want to buy the book can go.

  8. Trevor says:

    That’s a great idea, Kevin! In an attempt to do what you have done, I have the link not in the caption but on the image itself. I’m working on changing that, since who clicks on these pictures expecting to go to another page? Hopefully I’ll have it figured out soon.

  9. Isabel says:

    Check out Reading Matters policy and her 2006 post about the free books.

    http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/site-policy.html

  10. Guy Savage wrote about this too, over on His Futile Preoccupations. It’s one of his favourite books, I bought it myself recently on the back of that recommendation, reading this I’m glad again that I did.

    My own interest came from the comparison with Candide, which I consider a masterpiece (a word I use very sparingly indeed), which in turn of course is in part a response to the Lisbon earthquake.

    On a more general note, few books survive in print 200 years or more, without being very good. Pamela, perhaps, an exception.

  11. Trevor says:

    If you liked Candide, Max, I think you’ll like Rasselas. Rasselas isn’t nearly as funny as Candide, and in the end it doesn’t deal with such large tragic events, but the witty style and philosophical musings are comparable. Hope it’s great for you too!

Leave a Reply