In an effort to remind myself how much I love reading, I decided to reread Samuel Johnson’s longest bit of prose fiction, ‘Rasselas’. Maybe because I am attempting to break out of my own content Happy Valley and find myself at a crossroads but I found this short book about ‘the choice of life’ to be very engaging, provoking and moving.
Rasselas is a short book, just over a hundred pages, and I recommend it as a brilliant introduction to Samuel Johnson’s writing and thought but first I must issue a warning, this is not a novel, it’s more a leisurely thought experiment. There is some action, but that is only a tool to give rise to the discussion and thoughts, not the focus itself.
The thought experiment starts in the Happy Valley, a place where every wish, need or entertainment of life is pumped in for the safe and docile life of it’s inhabitants, mainly princes and princesses, their attendants and those lucky enough to be chosen to live in the opulence afforded. Unfortunately, with all amusements on tap, the Prince Rasselas cannot find his life anything but pointless and decides to escape and ‘choose life’.
He is aided by the well travelled Imlac, his sister Nekayah and her favourite servant, Pekuah. The gang head off to Egypt where they meet people from all walks of life and quiz them about whether those are happy lives. On a trip to the pyramids, Pekuah is snatched by Arabian raiders, but later returned after having a nice time learning astronomy. They meet up with an astronomer who believes he controls the weather who they slowly heal from the delusion by distracting him from his madness. Then they all go home to follow their own projects, safe in the knowledge that none of them will achieve all they want, nor will they find happiness unmingled with sadness. The end.
True, a recap of the plot does not focus on the book’s strong point, where Johnson excels is, as always, his beautifully delicate understanding of human behaviour and emotion and although the plot is not too hot, I think other reviews I have read on this book are very unfair about Johnson’s characterisation. Although Johnson could never sublimate that grand Johnsonian voice in his characters (as Goldsmith put it, his little fishes would sound like whales) he does differentiate the characters and give them journeys and arcs to go on.
Rasselas starts off pampered, bored and idle. He mopes around the Happy Valley and is easily discouraged from pursuing his wishes. There is one very telling early part, where facing a set back he spends four months ‘resolving to lose no more time in idle resolves.’ This is a man who knows indolence, and also I thought, one of many sardonically humorous parts of the book. It’s a timely reminder to not dilly-dally with mulling over failures but to move on with the next success.
As Rasselas starts to put life under his own control, he starts to enjoy things for the sake of them, ‘rejoicing his endeavours, though yet unsuccessful, had supplied him with a source of inexhaustible inquiry.’ When they escape the Happy Valley, he learns more. He learns that people put on a face of happiness they might not be feeling, that sages might ‘talk like angels but live like men’ and that being a ruler cannot certainly bring happiness to either him or his people. Finally, he reaches a point which I will discuss later.
Rasselas’s sister, Nekayah, goes on a similar journey, her big moment is when her servant is kidnapped and she discovers the shock of grief, but also the slowly growing ability to carry on. Her servant, Pekuah changes the most. Before being kidnapped she is superstitious and uninterested in the world around. When she returns she is calmer, more focused and with knowledge of the stars she didn’t previously know. The two women in particular help the mad astronomer to come back to himself.
The only character who doesn’t change is Imlac. He has already been around the block and knows most of the things his companions will learn. There is a nice point that Imlac enjoys watching Rasselas and Nekayah enjoying the novelties of the world, as he can share a little in what it was like to see them the first time. Imlac reminds me of no-one more than The Doctor, in Doctor Who. He’s seen it all, knows the general outcomes of things, has something to say about most things and views it all from an unusual kind of distance. If I ever write an episode of Doctor Who, I would want to have The Doctor meet Samuel Johnson, and I would certainly somehow link Imlac and The Doctor.
Finally, the most interesting part of the book is the ending, or the ‘conclusion, in which nothing is concluded’. In this, they decide to choose the life they will pursue after their extensive research into happiness. What is interesting is that each of them chooses the thing they would have chosen already. In a chapter earlier, the characters confessed the mad delusions that play around their mind, that could if unchecked go out of hand. In this latter part of the book, they maintain those delusions and decide to pursue them, with one small difference...
‘Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew none could be obtained.’ The lesson they have learnt, the thing that allows them to carry on with their fantasies, is the knowledge that they won’t be able to live the lives they hope to. It is the hopelessness that allows them to safely pursue it. It seems to me to be a completely radical idea, a real balm after the weak and floppy, positive-thinking/ law-of-natural-attraction nonsense. The thought that to rationally and realistically pursue a dream, in full knowledge that it will never bring unmingled happiness, but ready to face the woes along with the pleasures, is a powerful and peculiarly positive thing. That an acceptance of the difficulties of life, and a rejection of the hope of complete, total and lasting happiness is the key to living honestly, is very appealing to me. Especially as I have just finished my own novel which reaches a similar conclusion - that novel is Death of a Dreamonger, and I will talk more about that another time.
Unlike the natural philosopher in the tale, Johnson is not ‘one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer.’ To be honest, I could listen to Johnson being solid and miserable for a very long time. There is a hope in Johnson’s hopelessness, a goodness in his insistence on being good, even if by force of will. I think Johnson tried to live virtuously, but never well, because as he said, ‘to him that lives well, every form of life is good’. Poor Johnson found much of life to be not good, he really did endure more than enjoy. Let’s hope we can learn from his lessons and live well and enjoy it.
Here’s to living well,