Saturday, February 9, 2013

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

Thanks to Emma of Book Around The Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations. This was one of their Bah  - Humbook recommendations for me.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson is a novel that was first published in 1759. This is a philosophical but also dynamic and fun book.

Rasselas is the young prince of an Abyssinian Kingdom. He and other royal youths are by tradition sequestered in a paradisiacal valley where they wait to be called into monarchal positions.

Rasselas finds himself extremely unhappy in the placid and pleasant but unchallenging universe of the “happy valley”. After several failed attempts he, along with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the philosophical minded poet Imlac, manages to escape the confines of the valley.

The remainder of the narrative concerns itself with the question of the elusiveness of human happiness. Faced with dissatisfaction in the Eden-like valley, the group ponders if any situation, lifestyle or philosophy can lead to true contentment. From the beginning, Imlac contends that genuine bliss is impossible. Rasselas initially seems more open-minded and leads his friends on a quest to determine the answer.

As the four travel the region, they sample a variety of lifestyles and encounter a host of characters, each of who advocates various belief systems. Paths of sensualism, gaiety, piousness, mercantilism, political advancement, asceticism, stoicism, scientific curiosity and exploration, marriage, bachelorhood and more are explored. 

All these life courses are found to be lacking in long term fulfillment and do not lead to happiness. Sometimes contentment is possible for short stretches of time, but it ultimately fades into dissatisfaction, frustration or disillusionment.

A surprising turn of events occurs when our protagonists visit a supposedly wise and spiritually fulfilled hermit. They are shocked when they discover that he is miserable,

“I have been for some time   unsettled and distracted: my mind is disturbed with a thousand perplexities of doubt and vanities of imagination, which hourly prevail upon me, because I have no opportunities of relaxation or diversion.  I am sometimes ashamed to think that I could not secure myself from vice but by retiring from the exercise of virtue, and begin to suspect that I was rather impelled by resentment than led by devotion into solitude.  My fancy riots in scenes of folly, and I lament that I have lost so much, and have gained so little.  In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good.  I have been long comparing the evils with the advantages of society, and resolve to return into the world to-morrow.  The life of a solitary man will be certainly miserable, but not certainly devout.”  

For all the novel’s negativity, I do not believe that the ultimate message here is despair or nihilism. At times, an underlying current manifests itself in the text.  Though infrequent, there are passages that point to the idea that while life is often difficult and true long term happiness may be impossible to find in this world, one must strive to behave virtuously and morally. 

At one point Nekayah comments

“Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding.  But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue.  All natural and almost all political evils are incident alike to the bad and good; they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience and a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience, but remember that patience must oppose pain.” 

Ethical behavior may not pay off in this life, but there is a promise of immortality and reward in an afterlife. 

After visiting catacombs filled the mummified remains of the dead, Imlac through a chain of reasoning, “proves” that the soul is immortal.

Later Nekayah concludes,

“To me the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.”  

Hence, I believe this to be a work that at its heart champions a moral existence.

In my opinion, Johnson’s message, at least in regards to human satisfaction, is too simplistic. It is true that many people do find it impossible to find fulfillment, even when living in a materially secure state. However, this is not the case with everyone. There is an entire spectrum of happiness as well as unhappiness that is manifested in a wide variety of belief systems and lifestyles. I do believe, however, that the author does tap into the deep frustration and, at times, despair of a large percentage of humanity who cannot find peace, even when they live in somewhat benign environments.

In addition to the philosophical and ethical musings, Johnson’s work is entertaining. The adventures of the group are often interesting and sometimes very funny.  The four main characters are intelligent and lively, and each expresses their own well thought out philosophies and conclusions throughout the text.

This is highly recommended for anyone who likes a thoughtful exploration of human emotions. The philosophical musings are presented in a relative straightforward way and can be understood by almost anyone. For all the time spent concerning unhappy people and situations, this book is not a downer but actually an amusing and thought provoking read.


Tom Cunliffe said...

Gosh, that's quite an obscure book Brian - I wonder what made you choose it. It sounds like a very challenging read and makes some serious statements about life and the experience of it. I tend to avoid the more philosophical works but perhaps that 's a deficiency I need to correct

Guy Savage said...

I agree that I don't think that the message is ultimately of despair.

One of the parts I always remember from this is the quote (paraphrasing here) about in the city it's impossible to tell whether or not people have money. With all the credit floating around today, it's very true.

Anonymous said...

Obscure? Despair? Negativity? Simplistic? Are we talking about the same book? Samuel Johnson's Rasselas has always topped my list of the most enjoyable, delightful, whimsical and cheerful books ever written.

I always thought that Johnson's message in the book was that happiness was not something to be found, captured and retained (as they never find that thing). Happiness rather is what happens to you when stretch beyond your habits and conventions, strive toward a goal, or have purposeful interaction with other people (as they often experience). Like happens in the Dialogues of Plato, the Good Life is an illusive concept never completely or consistently definded, but is often experienced in searching for it.

LMR said...

You keep reading some extraordinary novels, Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - This was a Bah - Humbook choice that Emma and Guy made for me. I also have a good friend who has been encouraging me to reed Johnson for years.

This one was actually not too challenging as the language wwas easy to consume and the philosphy was very accessable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Ha! Ha! That is very true today! But it is less true since the financial collapse a few years ago. I guess point about money has been somewhat true in cosmopolitan cities for a very long time.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - As do you! I must thank Emma and Guy for this recommendation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hello Several - Don't get me wrong, I found this book very enjoyable. And I also think that you hit the mark by describing Johnson's style as whimsical. With that said this book spends pages and pages describing miserable people who are unable to fund happiness.

You do raise an intriguing concept, I think that you are implying that Rasselas and his friends may actually be happy in their lifestyle and interactions with others. Though you may be on to something with this argument the comment by Nekayah that I posted above might support a counterargument.

Ryan said...

"Rasselas finds himself extremely unhappy in the placid and pleasant but unchallenging universe of the “happy valley”. After several failed attempts he, along with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the philosophical minded poet Imlac, manages to escape the confines of the valley."

My initial thought was that the planning and execution of these failed attempts to escape should have given them a measure of happiness in that they represented a challenge in an otherwise unchallenging world. Their eventual escape would have then sent them into a spiral of depression and misery.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - When I think about it a major aspect to Rasselas's personality is that he is dissatisfied. The entire book seems to be aimed at his attempting to find satisfaction, first in his attempt at escaping the valley, later in his search for a happy and satisfying philosophy/lifestyle. Unfortunately his planning for escape does not bring him satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

I'm glad you liked it and you owe this entirely to Guy, since I'd never heard of it before.

I think you'd like Lettres Persannes by Monstesquieu.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - The Monstesquieu book is definitely on my radar. It looks terrific!

Caroline said...

I was also thinking of Montesquieu and some Volatire as well.
It's so typically 18th Century.
In a way it even reminds me of Gulliver's travels.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I have heard that Johnson was heavily influenced by Volatire. I really want to read Montesquieu soon.

Harvee said...

I had heard of the book Rasselas but don't recall reading it. How interesting to find out that no one belief or creed can lead to perfect happiness.

Too bad he didn't try yoga and deep meditation for some kind of understanding....or did he?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - They did not encounter anyone trying Yoga exactly. However the hermit that I mentioned above, who was miserable seemed to be vaguely following an Eastern belief system.

stujallen said...

this is a new one to me and one I would like to try I hoping to read one of the books sue choose for me this month ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I had never heard of this one either before the Bah - Hum Book exchange. This has really been a fun event!

Anonymous said...

Reminds me strongly of More's Utopia. Much recommended if you haven't already read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - Though I have heard much about Utopia I have not read it. I always thought that it was akin to Plato's Republic. I must give it a try!

Maria Behar said...

It's quite interesting to read novels with philosophical underpinnings, and this one is certainly a great example of such a novel. I remember Johnson from my English Literature classes in high school; I remember reading a couple of essays by him.

I'm adding this book to my Goodreads TBR shelf. I need to read it, since the problem of happiness is one I've been wrestling with most of my life (as I'm sure all of us have!)

Thanks for another excellent, very elucidating review!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - One nice thing about this book is that the philosophy is very straight forward and easy to digest and ponder.

This book is also very entertaining and I think that you would like it.

Guy Savage said...

Brian: I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining that he was broke and then he walked over to his vehicle: a colossal SUV--he practically needed a stepladder to get into it. Hate to think what his payments are or how much it costs to fill 'er up.

Anyway it made me think about the book. I'd hazard a guess that this book comes to mind at least once a day which is why it makes my top ten list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Indeed this book also makes me think about it whenever expresses that they are unhappy, especially when folks who tend to complain who seem to have no business doing so.

The best is when people who drive, for no rational reason, these enormous vehicles complain about the price of gas!

JaneGS said...

I've never read anything by Samuel Johnson but would like to--I always like to see what the fuss is about--and this sounds like a really good book to start with. It sounds like it's meaty but not dense, which I like. How readable is it?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi jane - This one is short and easy to comprehend. I would say that the language is easier to digest the Dickens. Though I have not read anything else by Johnson I think that this would be a good start.

Violet said...

Poor old Samuel Johnson. He had bouts of severe depression throughout his life, and also had Tourette syndrome, which meant he made a very bad first impression on people, so he was probably quite interested in the concept of happiness. I also read that he wrote this book in a week to pay the cost of his mother's funeral - she was on her deathbed at the time.

I haven't read the book, but I do find Johnson a fascinating character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I had heard about Johnson's depression and Tourette syndrome. I agree that it was very likely that at least the Depression relates to his interest in the subject of happiness. I think that it figures into his contention as to how difficult, or perhaps even impossible that it was to obtain.