I `WE are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance,' Samuel Johnson remarked in his Life of Milton. Undoubtedly Rasselas is a moral tale, whether or not Johnson was a novelist only by chance. His comment on the novelist Richardson — that if we were to read him for the story, our impatience would be so much fretted that we should hang ourselves — is one we may be tempted to apply to Rasselas. I say `may be tempted', since it is unlikely that a string of apophthegms in vacuo, a row of pegs on which to hang wise counsels, could have anything like the enormous and widespread appeal that Rasselas has exerted over the years. There must be a story inside it: a simple, primitive, basic one, like the story inside that highly sophisticated work of Thomas Mann's, The Magic Mountain; and characters too, though stripped of all `accidentals', which emerge distinguishably and (though without losing their `representative' quality) even develop in the course of the story. But if not exactly for the story, as we had better admit, we read Rasselas for the solidity of its wisdom (a more tolerant kind, it should be said, than is sometimes supposed) and the verbal force and skill with which that wisdom is pressed home, out of our realization that the author is concerned with fundamentals rather than incidentals (there are still readers who consider this a compliment), and for its humour.
Remembering the expectation of a load of gloom which, as Paul Fussell has commented, the traditional association of Rasselas with the death of Johnson's mother has encouraged some readers to form, we might have done better to start with these humorous stanzas of Johnson's:
Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life's evening grey:
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?
Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh'd;
— Scarce repress'd the starting tear; -
When the smiling sage reply'd -
Come, my lad, and drink some beer.
In fact, this is a parody of Thomas Warton and, more generally, indicates Johnson's contemptuous view of the `Gothic', the romantic or pre-romantic afflatus in all its forms. But its solemn question, `What is bliss? and which the way?', could stand as quizzical epigraph to Rasselas, for while Johnson's answer is not quite as hearty as the smiling sage's, our author is not intending to smite his bosom. One `romantic' phenomenon of his time was the oriental tale, the Arabian Nights Entertainments and the Persian Tales, with its fairy-tale exoticism and allegoricism, an escape from the `age of reason', from Grub Street and from the British weather. Johnson's treatment of the oriental genre is in the mode governing his lines about the `hermit hoar'. He was, as part of his strategy, de-romanticizing: primarily, of course, de-romanticizing highflown and ignorantly optimistic ideas about life, and only secondarily deflating the expectations set up by a tale about the mysterious East. `If Coleridge's magic damsel with a dulcimer were somehow to make an appearance in Rasselas, we should laugh,' says Mr Fussell. Yes, but very likely we should hear something accurate and informative about the manipulation and function of the dulcimer and the working conditions of the damsel.
But Johnson had already made the point about Eastern fantasies. In 1735, twenty-four years earlier, he had published an abridged translation of the Jesuit Father Jeronymo Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia, and in the preface to this he noted that
. . . the Portuguese traveller ... has amused his reader with no romantic absurdities or incredible fictions: whatever he relates, whether true or not, is at least probable ... He appears ... to have copied nature from the life, and to have consulted his senses, not his imagination. He meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes; his crocodiles devour their prey without tears; and his cataracts fall from the rock without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants.
The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable barrenness, or blest with spontaneous fecundity; no perpetual gloom, or unceasing sunshine; nor are the nations here described either devoid of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private and social virtues: here are no Hottentots without religion, polity, or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly polite and completely skilled in all sciences ...
Johnson concluded this vindication of his interest in Lobo's book by remarking that the reader will discover in it
`what will always be discovered by a diligent and impartial inquirer, that wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason . . .'
This is what the reader of Rasselas, like the travellers in that book, is to discover, together with the discrepancy between what is wished for and what is obtained.
Johnson's thought is drawn by the horses of instruction rather than the tigers of wrath, to use Blake's distinction: on his intellectual map the road of excess led to the gutter or the lunatic asylum. That was because he knew about wrath and madness, not because he was cosily ignorant or obtusely reactionary. Knowledge and information and fact he always prized; fantasy and imagination he feared, with the fear of a man who knows the horrors and disasters they can unleash: his agonized response to the death of Cordelia, the murder of Desdemona and the suicide of Ophelia, makes Shakespearean commentators ostensibly more `feeling' look deficient in imaginative participation or even thick-skinned. It is one's awareness of intense pressures, evinced as they must be in his peculiar blend of large abstractions and poignant specificities, which marks Johnson out as something quite other than a simpleminded champion of rationalism or a mouthpiece for formalized moderation. The tigers are there all right, and the reader had better be informed that they have teeth and claws. Johnson was a `poetic', a metaphorical, writer — that's to say, he had imagination and he used it — but he believed that untruths and fancies weakened, and that only the truth, though it might not make us free, could make us strong. In Rasselas the result is a work which, as John Wain says, `puts one in mind of a dragonfly — a purposeful and powerful body moving on wings of gauze'.
I hope it will not sound lowering to describe Rasselas as a conducted tour of truths and untruths, so long as we add that it is an exploratory and not altogether predetermined tour. Seeking to correct the view of the book as the expression and `happy illustration' of set and settled doctrine, John Wiltshire has put it this way: 'Rasselaas will seem less inspired by a desire to teach or modify manners and morals on grounds which Johnson is sure of, than a pondering of doubts and questions.' It is, I would suggest, a homogeneous or 'natural'-seeming blend, in which the ingredients are not always immediately recognizable, of firm certainties with persistent doubts and pondered questions. It would be vain to seek to defend the work against the charge of being `episodic': it is not a charge which is pertinent here. Nor will it do to complain of, or seek to excuse, the shortness of the book's chapters. The chapters are so weighty, their specific gravity is so high, that the reader is positively appreciative of their brevity. It is not that he fails to read on, but he does experience a relief analogous to that of putting down one solid object before picking up the next. And the next is commonly a new one. That is, the chapter-breaks stress the sense of variety and also the sense of active engagement in the work, which would be weaker without them. Like the blank spaces between aphorisms, they allow one to think over what has been said before continuing. A good brandy should not be taken in tumblers.
2 The episodic and aphoristic procedure makes it difficult to talk usefully about Rasselas in any way other than that of the progressive or running commentary. We shall have to begin at the beginning.
`Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope. . .' The beginning has been much admired, and indeed the mixture of plangency in the opening of that first sentence and of stern briskness in the close (`attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abyssinia') provides an attractive index to the overall tone of the book. One may have doubts about Mr Fussell's claim that the opening establishes Rasselas as `virtually a boy's book', despite his adduction of Johnson's anxiety in Rambler 4 about the effects of fiction on `the young, the ignorant, and the idle ... minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions'. True, the prince himself and his friends are young, or fairly young: the recipient of wise counsels is traditionally represented as young and with, ostensibly, all before him, and the giver of them as old and with much behind him, but (I would surmise) one does not get the impression that Johnson is really addressing himself to any special age-group. Men can deceive themselves or be deceived at any age — furnished or unfurnished with ideas, experienced or otherwise, no age is immune to the human condition. Rasselas contains too much pathos and too much resignation to be an unambiguously effective clarion call to successful living. It is no more `a boy's book' than The Vanity of Human Wishes is a boy's poem, or the Lives of the English Poets a primer for teenage scribblers.
Nor where Abassin kings their issue guard,
Mount Amara, though this by some supposed
True Paradise, under the Ethiop line
By Nilus' head, enclosed with shining rock,
A whole day's journey high ...(Paradise Lost, Book iv)
It seems that Johnson was the second writer, not the first, to locate the Abyssinian princes' place of confinement in a valley rather than on a mountain, but a valley is apt for his purposes, a position more likely to be `happy' than a mountain, and more relaxing. Truth or the truths of ordinary life stand on the hills, cragged and steep, outside. The resemblances of the happy valley to the Garden of Eden have been noted; one difference is that Adam and Eve had something to do (who were then the gentlemen?), and had each other. The happy valley is an artificial paradise, a Versailles in exile, and remote from that first and barely imaginable one. Rasselas appears in the guise of the old Adam, if not unregenerated at all events unsatisfied: he is the first who has complained of misery in the happy valley, we are told. `I can discover within me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted.' He surmises that the happiness of the animals is greater or at least less mixed than that of man, but he has the good sense not to envy their felicity — 'for it is not the felicity of man', whatever that may be and wherever it may reside. He is pleased — we note with amusement — at his own perspicacity in this matter and his own eloquence, like a writer who is elevated by the delicacy with which he has portrayed a lowness of spirits. He calls to mind an Adam in search of a serpent — `I have already enjoyed too much,' he informs his old instructor, `give me something to desire' — or reminds us of that related figure, Faust. Though further gone in years, Goethe's hero, too, is oppressed with a nameless pain, exhibits a similar petulance (but one far more literary than Rasselas's), and in a condescending way contrasts his discontent not with the animals but with the simple felicity of the common people celebrating Easter. Rasselas knows nothing of the common people and his terms of reference are much less grand, but it is clear from the outset that his grand tour is to be tinged with irony, direct though not obtrusive, and there will be no epic division or confrontation as between the flatulently aspiring Faust and the deflatorily cynical Mephistopheles.
Rasselas at twenty-six is bright almost to the point of pertness. When the old man tells him that if he had seen the miseries of the world he would know how to value his present condition he retorts that now he has something to desire — to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness. The old man is taken aback at the failure of his tactics; if Johnson saw himself as an instructor of the young, then he viewed himself as such with irony. For the young man is right. He must see these miseries, for to see is to share in some degree — `Life must be seen before it can be known,' Johnson wrote in his `Review of A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil' — and it is not enough for his instructors to tell him, as they have done amply, of those miseries. `All judgment is comparative,' Imlac is to declare in Chapter 30: `To judge rightly of the present we must oppose it to the past.' Life, like literature, is understood by reference to the comparisons and contrasts it affords. Even the happy valley — and it can hardly be intensely happy — must depend for its happiness on a degree of unhappiness, however slight: more skilful musicians or dancers coming after less skilful, or subtle monkeys set off by sullen apes, or (just possibly) a stomach at peace after a brief indigestion. We might observe at this point that Imlac's account of the state of affairs in the happy valley in Chapter 12 ('It must happen that one will please more than another') makes the inhabitants sound rather like Milton's fallen angels:
`The invitations, by which they allure others to a state which they feel to be wretched, proceed from the natural malignity of hopeless misery. . . They envy the liberty which their folly has forfeited, and would gladly see all mankind imprisoned like themselves.'
Yet the mere idea of unhappiness does afford Rasselas a certain initial happiness, for he spends twenty months daydreaming about the good he could do in the world, `the relief of distress, the detection of fraud, the defeat of oppression, and the diffusion of happiness'. If children's games are a preparation for later life, then Rasselas's dreaming is the first stage of his growing up, belated no doubt, but praiseworthy in a sequestered princeling whose education has omitted the notion of active benevolence as distinct from an empty pity for `those whom fate had excluded from this seat of tranquillity'. That he then passes four months, we are told, in resolving to lose no more time in idle resolves is a general reflection on human nature and perhaps a particular one on Johnson's own dilatoriness and unfulfilled literary resolves, `much intended and little done'.
The inventor of Chapter 6 comes to grief, but he is no mere Aunt Sally. `To swim is to fly in a grosser fluid, and to fly is to swim in a subtler.' Johnson's interest in scientific inquiry and in `engines' was genuine and informed (that Rasselas himself is no mere pasteboard puppet is shown by Johnson's endowing him with his own pleasure in every kind of knowledge), and the inventor's lecture impresses as all the sounder and more advanced than it would have done not so long ago. He describes the phenomenon of weightlessness and free fall quite expertly, and (though he evades Rasselas's query about breathing difficulties) his forebodings concerning the military use of flight are apropos. Given such sound principles, we are almost surprised that the invention should fail, but its failure map be taken as an acknowledgement that more knowledge is yet required, and not as a condemnation of Faustian presumptuousness or a ridiculing of crankiness. Johnson was no Luddite; in Adventurer 99 he had this to say about 'projectors':
That the attempts of such men will often miscarry, we may reasonably expect; yet from such men, and such only, are we to hope for the cultivation of those parts of nature which lie yet waste, and the invention of those arts which are yet wanting to the felicity of life ... Many that presume to laugh at projectors, would consider a flight through the air in a winged chariot, and the movement of a mighty engine by the steam of water, as equally the dreams of mechanic lunacy ...
Incidentally, G. B. Hill well illustrated the difference between Rasselas and Voltaire's much darker assault on optimism, Candide (published a few weeks earlier than Rasselas and at that time unread by Johnson), when he said,
'Johnson is content with giving the artist a ducking. Voltaire would have crippled him for life at the very least; most likely would have killed him on the spot.'
We first meet Imlac in Chapter 7 when he is reciting a poem `upon the various conditions of humanity' which catches the prince's attention, and might well be The Vanity of Human Wishes, written ten years earlier. Though the author includes his other persons in his intellectual patronage, Imlac speaks for Johnson where the subject of poetry is concerned — if, as we shall see, somewhat ambiguously — and his attitude towards the royal pupil he has acquired (he `pitied his ignorance, and loved his curiosity') is eminently Johnsonian. So, strikingly, are his remarks on inconsistencies, and on real and unreal wants.
Chapter 10 has been the most frequently quoted, as a resume of neo-classical (and specifically Johnsonian) literary theory. `The business of a poet ... is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest.' Side by side with this we may place a passage from Johnson's Preface to his edition of Shakespeare (1765):
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied ... His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find ... In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.
Whatever plea one may enter for streaks and peculiarities and the 'thisness' of one tulip as compared with another (features which modern writing is rich in, often at the cost of a larger poverty, the peculiarities tending to sink to perversions), the fact remains that what Johnson says is true of Shakespeare and must account in large part for the longevity and universality of his reputation. But Imlac goes on, contradicting what he has said and, quite directly, what Johnson said in connection with Shakespeare: the poet `must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life', he must `trace the changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom ...' The peculiarities and particular customs seem to have crept back in! Mr Fussell comments that as we listen to Imlac carrying on, we begin to realize that these are the notions less of a poet than of a failed poet. Not necessarily: perhaps it is Dr Johnson, not at present on his best behaviour as a literary panjandrum, who is sending himself up, acknowledging in humorous fashion that literature is too large for any prescriptive theory to cope with at all safely, and that, where poetry is concerned, whether or not inconsistencies cannot all be right, they may all be true. While nothing that Imlac says is arrant nonsense, his ambition to be complete and exhaustive is vain, and Johnson dismisses the ambition lightly and nicely at the beginning of the next chapter. `Enough!' exclaims the prince, who wants to hear about life: `Thou hast convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet.'
First, however, Rasselas is treated to a disquisition (or what the chapter title mischievously calls `a hint') on pilgrimage. `Long journeys in search of truth are not commanded,' one can stay at home and be pious: on the other hand, holy places `may operate upon our own minds in an uncommon manner' — a balanced presentation, in which a severe rationality yields properly to human nature, as in Johnson's comments in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland:
Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!
On life itself, Imlac is more taciturn, as if it comprehends the worst aspects of both marriage and celibacy: `Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.' In the face of this, the prince may be allowed, as corrective, an unrebuked expression of the more gentle, anti-technological side of hippie philosophy:
`I would injure no man ... I would relieve every distress... why should not life glide quietly away in the soft reciprocation of protection and reverence? All this may be done without the help of European refinements, which appear by their effects to be rather specious than useful.'
And despite what Imlac has said about life outside, he tells Rasselas that he doesn't know a single one of the prince's attendants who does not lament the hour when he entered the happy valley. (Presumably Rasselas was only the first to dare to complain aloud.) Now dissatisfaction is out in the open and the prince has a like-minded companion: it only remains to find a means of escape. They are promptly joined by Rasselas's sister, Nekayah (`Permit me to fly with you from this tasteless tranquillity'), and, in a spirit of duty and propriety rather than from free choice, by her favourite maid, Pekuah.
3. In the outside world the prince expects to be obeyed, and the princess that others should prostrate themselves before her in their beginning, we shall note, is their end. But both are sufficiently adaptable, helped in this by the holiday spirit which prevails (Imlac is really rather fortunate in his pupils), and Johnson pays a little homage to `realism' by informing us that two years are spent in studying the language of Egypt.
Rasselas's first sight of Cairo is most favourable, up to a point: everybody seems to be happy except, incomprehensibly, himself. To suppose others to be happy, to lack happiness oneself, but to counterfeit the appearance of happiness — this is a common phenomenon, Imlac tells him in a sub-Mephistophelean way, and he should not suppose that fate has picked him out for special treatment. The prince therefore turns from pleasure to wisdom, and is deeply impressed by a high-minded sage: `I have found ... a man who can teach all that is necessary to be known. . .' Imlac replies in a manner which would surely discourage the young person seeking a blueprint for life from this work: `Be not too hasty ... to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.' Confirmation follows speedily, for the prince finds the philosopher in deep distress at the death of his only daughter: `My views, my purposes, my hopes are at an end . . .' Briefly but firmly the prince reproaches him for departing from his own precepts: `Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart against calamity? Mr Wiltshire comments that `our sympathies are all with the crushed old man, and Rasselas's questions, however just, appear callow and heartless'. I think we do read the incident in this way — even though our sympathy for the philosopher is somewhat undermined in advance by his partiality for gold — and we learn something extra to what the prince has learnt about `the emptiness of rhetorical sound'. Johnson could hardly not be thinking about his mother at this point: he wrote the tale to make money to send her in her last days, and paid for her funeral out of it. While allowing the prince the element of priggishness usual in the young heroes of the Bildungs-roman, Johnson seems to endorse the attitude movingly embodied in a poem written by the slightly later Japanese Buddhist, Issa, on the death of his only daughter:
The world of dew
Is a world of dew ... and yet,
And yet ...
Sir John Hawkins recorded that, despite Johnson's stoicism, he was `as little able to sustain the shock (of his mother's death) as he would have been had this loss befallen him in his nonage'.
The myth that the possession of wisdom can immunize you against the calamities of life ('Dispute it like a man' — we remember Macduff's answer: `But I must also feel it as a man') having thus been disposed of, we are straightaway directed to another myth and its demolition in `A Glimpse of pastoral life'. `This,' says Imlac as they wend their way through fields, flocks and shepherds, `is the life which has been often celebrated for its innocence and quiet.' But alas, the shepherds are `rude and ignorant' and discontented, considering themselves `condemned to labour for the luxury of the rich'. This abrupt dismissal of a class with no doubt some justice in their complaints is alleviated by an ironic picture of the affronted princess persevering none the less in a private myth of herself, neither rude nor ignorant, fondling her lambs and listening, `without care, among brooks and breezes, to one of her maidens reading in the shade'. It does not seem probable that the author was vitally interested in either the rude shepherds or the princessly shepherdess.
Chapter 20 takes us from the resentful poor to the unfortunate rich, and the princess again obliges with a display of sensibility: their wealthy host is envied by the `Bassa of Egypt' ('My prosperity puts my life in danger'), and grief and indignation so upset her that she retires to her apartment. We have heard about the penalties of wealth in The Vanity of Human Wishes:
How much more safe the vassal than the lord;
Low skulks the hind beneath the rage of pow'r,
And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tow'r,
Untouch'd his cottage, and his slumbers sound,
Tho' confiscation's vultures hover round.
But in his less poetic or more judicious moods, Johnson knew that the pains of poverty were a good deal harder to bear. In reviewing Soame Jenyns's A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, a work which bears the misfortunes of others cheerfully, he quotes the opinion voiced there (and in Pope's An Essay on Man), that `Poverty ... is generally compensated by having more hopes, and fewer fears', and demolishes it with one powerful and well-aimed blow:
The poor indeed are insensible of many little vexations which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyments of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor, who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh.
There follow two short vignettes, the first portraying a famous hermit who describes how he became disillusioned successively with the life of a senior army officer, with mineralogy and botany and with seclusion. He cannot praise a cloistered virtue, questions his motives for retirement, digs up his treasure, and accompanies his visitors back to Cairo with every sign of enthusiasm. The second episode concerns a Rousseau-esque philosopher who preaches that the recipe for happiness is to live according to nature. When the prince asks humbly for a definition of the process he is treated to a splendid sentence of circular gobbledegook. Neither encounter helps the visitors in their `choice of life'; the first demonstrates Johnson's gift for creating an ironic situation without employing any of the verbal means to irony, while the second is a nimble parodic manipulation of the kind of large abstractions and generalities in which he himself has been accused of excessive indulgence.
The prince and his sister then divide the labour of observation and research between them: he is to explore `the splendour of courts', while she investigates `the shades of humbler life'. The prince's share is soon completed: he just has time to convince himself that the all-powerful Bassa enjoys the `sublime delight' of ruling over a whole nation before the Bassa is deposed by his Turkish overlord and carried off to Constantinople in chains. In case we should delude ourselves that there is a superior superiority to be enjoyed on earth, we are told that in turn the Sultan himself is murdered by his janizaries. The princess comes back with rather more material to exercise their minds. She has found little to impress her favourably in domestic life — accustomed to the conversation of Imlac and Rasselas, she finds her coevals vapid prattlers — but a good deal to say about the generation gap and even more about matrimony. Ian White has noted, of the setting of the tale, `Egypt is not only the country "where the sciences first dawned that illuminate the world", but also that "beyond which the arts cannot be traced of civil society or domestic life".'
The debate on marriage is the most elaborate and sustained in the book, for there is so much to be said on both sides — even though the most famous saying is said early on, by Nekayah: `Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.' Much good sense is spoken, and if parts of it are irreconcilable with other parts, then irreconcilabilities, though they cannot all be right, must, when imputed to man, all be true. According to Boswell, Johnson maintained that a lawyer had no business with the justice or otherwise of the case in hand, for his function was to deploy art and power in arranging the evidence. Here and elsewhere in Rasselas Johnson is arranging the evidence, sometimes the evidence on both sides of the case. Boswell also remarked that Johnson could be `the greatest sophist that ever contended in the lists of declamation' and in company would often argue on the wrong side `with equal warmth and ingenuity'. But, Boswell continued, Johnson `was too conscientious to make error permanent and pernicious by deliberately writing it'. Open-ended as Rasselas is — within, we are bound to add, its sombre frontiers — at no point is any view which Johnson would consider immoral given any sort of force or appeal.
Marriage, the prince proposes, is one of the means of happiness. The princess, whose sensibility must have been sorely wounded by her researches, makes the counter-proposition that marriage is one of `the innumerable modes of human misery'. Rasselas reminds her that she has represented celibacy as less happy than marriage, and `both conditions may be bad, but they cannot both be worst'. It all depends, is roughly what Nekayah counters with, or (as Rambler 63 puts it): `To take a view at once distinct and comprehensive of human life, with all its intricacies of combination, and varieties of connexion, is beyond the power of mortal intelligences.' For a moment a tiff threatens to break out, a mild demonstration perhaps of how easily domestic harmony is imperilled. However, the disputants, who seem to have advanced considerably in the processes of logical argument, go on to prove quite satisfactorily that late marriage is preferable to early marriage (the partners will be more mature in judgement, less driven by blind desire and visibly older than their children, with whom therefore they will not find themselves competing) and also that early marriage is preferable to late marriage (opinions will be less fixed and habits less ingrained, the partners will be more flexible and they will be able to supervise the growing up of their children). Rasselas finally wonders whether there may not be an optimum age for marriage, neither too early nor too late, but to the princess this suggests (though not in such crude terms) the donkey who starves to death between two equidistant carrots. Something has to be chosen, and something surrendered. `No man,' she says in an apter metaphor, `can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.'
The space devoted to this attempt to establish the best time of life for marrying, however inconclusive the attempt, at least implies that marriage has the edge over celibacy, by and large: that in fact, in Nekayah's preliminary summing-up, `Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures,' the `but' has more than the neutral conjunctive value of `and'. We are not too sorry that Imlac now enters and changes the subject: `It seems to me ... that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live.'
4 Imlac's seemingly odd way of repairing this defect — Rasselas and Nekayah find it odd — is to take them to see the pyramids. He points out that `to judge rightly of the present we must oppose it to the past' and that, whether for private persons or for public, history is a necessary study. `Ignorance,' he informs them in stern tones and characteristically Johnsonian mode, `when it is voluntary, is criminal.' In fact, the visit serves two important purposes. Unlike its rival, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid in itself serves no useful purpose commensurate with its expense.
It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires ... I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments.
We may feel that, as a dreadful warning, the pyramid is less effective than the trunkless legs and shattered visage of Shelley's Ozymandias, king of kings. The pyramid stands at least and, however inexplicably, it does impress the visitors — as it must do if Imlac is to hang an important and strongly felt moral tale thereby. But no admonitory reflection on the transitoriness of worldly glory and power is intended. The theme is man's continuing dissatisfaction, his hunger for the new, the phenomenon which Faust prided himself on as a sign of a superior nature -
When phantoms haunt him, let him go his way:
In onward-striding finding pain and joy,
He, every moment uncontented ...
— and which Imlac registers sadly as a central fact of the human condition, to be accepted perforce but not glorified, affecting mere men as well as kings of kings. The difference is that Faust believes that discontent drives out boredom by transforming itself into aspiration or 'onward-striding', whereas Imlac sees it as leading, with but a short respite, from boredom back to boredom. I would guess that, when it came to estimating the possibility of supplying `the appetite of novelty' with an adequate and legitimate provision of `perpetual gratifications', the two authors, Goethe and Johnson, would find themselves in substantial agreement. They both stood roughly equidistant (though it took Goethe longer to get there) from the two extremes of sanguineness and cynicism.
The second purpose served by the visit is that, as Frederick W. Hilles has put it, `the observers become participants': the party is thrown into personal distress by the abduction of Pekuah, a happening which testifies to Mr Hilles's comment that Rasselas is filled with `psychological insights developed through irony'. For Pekuah was kidnapped because she thought it safer to stay outside than to enter the pyramid: she could have been right, but as it happened she was wrong, and another wish has proved vain. Though the princess is inconsolable, Imlac contrives to lessen her self-reproach. Nekayah argues that she should not have indulged Pekuah in her fears -'She ought to have feared me more than spectres': that is not exactly self-reproach, though it is a nice touch — but Imlac tells her that she should not blame herself for what was well and kindly intended. How much worse it would be if Pekuah had been carried off because the princess had obliged her to stay outside, or if the princess had forced her to enter the pyramid and the poor girl had `died before you in agonies of terrour'! The conspectus of possibilities is managed nimbly — it was noted by his acquaintances that Johnson's mind resembled an elephant's trunk, `strong to buffet even the tiger, and pliable to pick up even the pin' — and with humaneness.
It is perhaps true that Pekuah absent is treasured more highly by the princess than was Pekuah present: she is now well-nigh canonized. But Johnson casts no ironic doubt on the genuineness and depth of Nekayah's sorrow. Imlac's solacing is sympathetic and just: `Our minds, like our bodies, are in continual flux; something is hourly lost, and something acquired ... Do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion: commit yourself again to the current of the world . . .' In fact, the princess continues to grieve for her maid until Pekuah is restored — between nine months and a year later — and, while the demands of life intervene along with its `common cares and common pleasures', Johnson tells us quite simply that `her real love of Pekuah was yet not diminished'. Moreover, she has learnt that `happiness itself is the cause of misery', for only that which is truly loved can be sorely missed.
Voltaire's Cunegonde suffered very considerable indignities and la vieille was not only raped but deprived of part of her buttocks. Pekuah's experiences as a victim of abduction are in a different class, and she gains much by them. (In passing we may note that when exhorting her to pull herself together and enter the pyramid, Nekayah told her: `Remember that you are the companion of the princess of Abyssinia'; before long, when they call upon the astronomer, Pekuah will be the leader and the princess her undesignated companion or chaperon.) Not only was she taken for herself a princess, but the Arab chief, her captor, turned out to be a gentleman ('I know the rules of civil life'), even something of a philosopher. `The angels of affliction,' he tells her in complimentary vein, `spread their toils alike for the virtuous and the wicked, for the mighty and the mean.' Furthermore, Pekuah is relieved to find, `his predominant passion was desire of money', and she knows that avarice is `an uniform and tractable vice', in this view not differing much from Johnson, whom Boswell reported as saying, `There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.' Pekuah's opinion of life in the harem is much like Nekayah's opinion of the daughters of the middle classes: it was not surprising, she tells the company on her return, that the Arab could find little solid pleasure in the society of his women, pretty though they might be (`ignoble beauty' is her phrase), and derive small pride from their `fondness', since they had no `choice'. For intellectual pleasure he turned to Pekuah, we gather, or her maids, relatively emancipated females. Her only fear was that admiration might turn to inconvenient love, but happily gold won the day over both the Arab's intellectual inclinations and his amorous aspirations.
The prince has decided to devote himself to science, and so, Imlac feels, another cautionary example is required. This is provided by the learned astronomer of Chapter 40, who combines profundity of mind, integrity and ready benevolence — `Surely this man is happy,' says the princess — with madness. The astronomer has revealed his little difficulty to Imlac: for the past five years he has regulated the world's weather and distributed the seasons, administering this `great office' with `exact justice'. We observe that the progress from observing and predicting to believing that one is commanding and creating is sufficiently comprehensible, containing the element of `logic' which characterizes all forms of madness, as distinct from idiocy. The astronomer's troubles are threefold: occasionally he suspects he is mad (the least of his distresses); he cannot prove by external evidence that he regulates the weather (as a scientist he knows the importance of `the laws of demonstration'), and he is agitated by the necessity of finding a suitable successor to himself (obviously the post calls for considerable strength and purity of character).
Comic as this episode promises to be, there ensues a sombre and moving study of madness, not as a special and rare condition afflicting a particularly formed or deformed class of persons but as something which is never far away from any of us. `Few can attain this man's knowledge, and few practise his virtues; but all may suffer his calamity. Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.' Imlac traces the development of madness: the hungry imagination gets the better of reason (the more readily in those who are too much alone and given to speculation, though perhaps, `if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state'); fancy `grows first imperious, and in time despotic', and `fictions begin to operate as realities' — the sufferer has been imperceptibly but firmly taken over by an obsession. Intelligence, learning and nobility of character are no defence, for, though he has come to think that in some way alarming to himself he is God, the astronomer is a true humanist.
The only possible cure for the astronomer's disease is to bring him into human society. He is not normally accessible to female visitors unless they are in distress (and to pose as such, Rasselas points out, would be to forfeit the astronomer's confidence), but happily the apprenticeship which Pekuah has served under her Arab captor enables her to arouse the astronomer's curiosity and secures their admission. Pekuah has grown in stature during the tale, perhaps more noticeably than the others, and her conversation soon `took possession of his heart'. The astronomer is invited frequently to Imlac's house, `where they distinguished him by extraordinary respect' (we may be forgiven for thinking of Johnson's reception into the Thrale family), and he begins to `delight in sublunary pleasures' — a beautifully apt adjective. Though his condition is exacerbated by guilt arising out of his newly found peace, he achieves to some extent the advice Imlac offered to the princess distraught at the loss of Pekuah, he is again committed to the current of the world. First Pekuah and then, as Imlac tells him, his own learning and virtue give him hopes of a more certain peace of mind.
J. P. Hardy has called this episode `climactic'. It is hard to say whether anything in Rasselas is more climactic, or more central, than anything else, such is the work's solidity and economy, but undeniably the subject of the episode is one which affected Johnson himself with personal immediacy, strongly and fearfully. So much is clear from the persuasive subtlety of the diagnosis, the absence of irony (though not altogether of humour), and the feeling gravity of tone. A count might show that the word most frequently recurrent in Rasselas is terror'. (Possibly it would share first place with `inquire'.)
The meeting with the old man which has interceded — serving to separate Imlac's `history' of the astronomer from their actual meeting with him — adds little to the more cheerful part of the account of old age given in The Vanity of Human Wishes (ll. 289-308), but it directs our attention to the better happiness and greater virtue to be looked for after death. The company go on to discuss the monastic life, a topic arising out of Rasselas's remark that variety is necessary to content, and Imlac lists its advantages: `Whatever is done by the monks is incited by an adequate and reasonable motive.' Yet `he that lives well in the world is better than he that lives well in a monastery': it is a sign of Johnson's disinclination to sacrifice exhaustiveness (and in this case compassion) for the sake of a strong and compact epigram that Imlac continues, `But, perhaps, every one is not able to stem the temptations of publick life', and there are the weary, the sick and the timorous to take into the account. Moreover, though not virtuous in itself, mortification `disengages us from the allurements of sense' and prepares us for the end of our present state and the beginning of our next.
Rasselas is unenthusiastic when it is proposed that they should pay a visit to the catacombs — Johnson has all along allowed that, within limits, attitudes quite properly differ at different stages of life and that what is appropriate to age is not necessarily so to youth — but agrees to `do' the catacombs on the grounds that he wants to do something. A nice touch of easy and natural humour occurs when Pekuah insists, this time, on entering `the habitations of the dead'. Once they are there, they engage in a brisk bout of hard philosophizing, philosophizing of a professional character, on the immateriality of the soul, with Imlac, on a more elevated level and in reverse, doing what Johnson himself did in kicking a large stone to refute Berkeley's subjective idealism. `All the conclusions of reason enforce the immateriality of mind, and all the notices of sense and investigations of science concur to prove the unconsciousness of matter.' The princess has the last word: `To me . . . the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.'
5 Chapter 49 brings the conclusion `in which nothing is concluded'. Confined to the house by the rising of the Nile, they divert themselves with talk of `various schemes of happiness which each of them had formed'. Pekuah wishes to be prioress of a convent, the princess to found a college for women `in which she would preside', the prince desires `a little kingdom, in which he might administer justice in his own person, and see all the parts of government with his own eyes', but, we are told, `he could never fix the limits of his dominion, and was always adding to the number of his subjects'. Critics have detected more irony in Johnson's account of these wishes than probably exists. The three wishes, Mr Fussell says, are ironic not only in that they cannot possibly be fulfilled but also because they betray a `secret lust for power over others', each of the wishers assuming that he or she will be top dog. Moreover, Mr Fussell holds that the norm, against which the young people's ambitions are to be seen as 'both vain and corrupt', is established by the contentment of Imlac and the astronomer `to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port'. In answer to this reading we must surely remark that what is right for the elderly is not right for the young, and Rasselas, Nekayah and Pekuah have life substantially in front of them. And we shall ask whether their wishes are either so `corrupt' or so utterly impossible of attainment.
Our young people have shown themselves more than usually intelligent, competent and decent, and they have learnt much. It is not conceivable that, at the end of a journey on which he has plainly enjoyed their company, the author would impute folly and corruptness to them, however indirectly. There is certainly nothing shameful in their ambitions. Johnson would not deny that someone has to be in charge, and the better the top dog, the better the lot of the underdogs. Rasselas would in fact make a good king, Nekayah a good college principal, and Pekuah a good prioress — though in view of the princess's piety and her favourite's blue stockings one can perhaps envisage the two exchanging their roles to some advantage. Whatever ironic pressure has been brought to bear upon the phrase `the choice of life' — Johnson's original title for the work — and whatever dominion must be allowed to chance, that `subtle and insidious power' (it is chance that has made Rasselas a prince), the fact remains that on occasion choice not only can be made but must be:
No course of life is so prescribed and limited, but that many actions must result from arbitrary election. Every one must form the general plan of his conduct by his own reflections; he must resolve whether he will endeavour at riches or at content; whether he will exercise private or public virtues; whether he will labour for the general benefit of mankind, or contract his beneficence to his family and dependants. (Rambler 184)
Elsewhere Johnson remarked, reasonably enough, that not too much of life should be spent in deliberating how to spend it.
What lends feasibility to the view of Mr Fussell and others is of course the author's comment, in the penultimate sentence of the book, `Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained' — though it is worth observing that the sentence also serves to exculpate them of folly and corruptness. Not many words have been wasted in Rasselas, but here Johnson is laconic by his own standards, and I remain unconvinced that the meaning of his comment has been wholly taken. Read as an indicator to the silliness or corruptness of their ambitions, if it really can be read thus, it surely runs counter to the book itself. It may well be that when Johnson says that none of their wishes could be attained, he has in mind not the activities themselves but the happiness which they expect (at the time of naming them) to accompany them. Not all of Pekuah's maidens would be pious, nor life as a prioress inevitably an `unvariable state'; the princess would not invariably succeed in turning her pupils into `models of prudence, and patterns of piety'; nor is it likely that Rasselas could administer total justice in his own person to the totality of his subjects, whatever their number: indeed, in Chapter 27, `Disquisition upon greatness', he asserted quite explicitly the impossibility of this ever happening. Top dogs are not exempt from the human condition: good kings, good prioresses, good college principals, all are exposed to the disappointments, the reversals, the trials and tribulations, and the boredom which the book has told us about. `Sir, sorrow is inherent in humanity.' But that is another matter.
They resolve to return to Abyssinia, where they will certainly do something — but not to the happy valley, where they would do nothing, for that is impossible to conceive of. `He who does his best, however little, is always to be distinguished from him who does nothing,' Johnson wrote in Rambler 177. That is not to say very much, and perhaps we must set against it this passage from A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland — it arises, quasi-apologetically, out of Johnson's `undignified' comments on the incommodious windows and inadequate ventilation of Scottish houses:
. . it must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniencies, in the procurement of petty pleasures ...
True, but Rasselas is a prince — in Chapter 16 he remarked, unreproved by Imlac, on the advantage his birth had given him — and can in fact look forward to `illustrious actions', and Nekayah is a princess. (And Pekuah is at least clever, cultivated, charming and well connected.) True also, but Johnson was not writing for princes and princesses, and since he was writing for and about man at large, concerned with the species, its general properties, and not with the aristocratic streaks, he may have felt obliged to pour some cold water on those individual and rather grand wishes. One thing is certain, of the conclusion as of the rest of the book, and Joseph Wood Krutch has expressed it well: Johnson has done `something more than merely rephrase the commonplaces which have long served to demonstrate that all is vanity', for his pessimism `was not merely of that vulgar sort which is no more than a lament over the failure of worldly prosperity. It was, instead, the pessimism which is more properly called the tragic sense of life. . .' There is no malignancy or other deforming animus in his irony, and, as A. R. Humphreys has said, it `never indicates on Johnson's part any self-congratulation on superior wisdom'.
Another quotation, from Matthew Hodgart, if we enter the Imlacian proviso that the past is never dead so long as there is a present, may serve to end this introduction:
In many of his opinions and prejudices, religious, political, or critical, Johnson belongs to the dead past; in his tolerance, energy, and intelligence he belongs to a world which is still possible.
D. J. ENRIGHT
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