Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia
by Samuel Johnson (1759)
Melville House (2009)
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. 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.
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.”