Posts Tagged ‘innocence and experience’

Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

February 23, 2017

51yhyoyvael-_ac_us218_I’m not quite sure why I went back to this, 42 years after I last read it as an undergraduate. But it was an interesting little digression: Rasselas, the privileged prince, escapes from the happy valley where the emperor’s offspring are confined and determines to explore the world and find out what to do with his life; he’s pretty quickly tied up in the philosophical problem of whether to work out the best way to happiness and contentment or to get on with actually living life…

It was published in 1759, exactly the same year as Voltaire’s Candide, which it immediately reminded me of, except that Voltaire’s conte is more obviously and deliberately satirical, whereas Johnson’s tale mocks lightly while ultimately bringing our naive hero gently to his senses.

Rasselas discovers there’s no happiness to be found in stasis: we must always be striving for something new, and we also need to see and experience misery in order to recognise happiness. Is it better to get on with living and enjoying life, rather than trying to plan ahead to achieve perfection? Equally, it’s important to be yourself, rather than to imitate someone else, or to strive to be someone you are not: there is no place for gurus. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. As the prince, his sister and their companions travel around, everyone they meet who initially appears to have found the answers and to be happy, is actually dissatisfied in some way with their lot…

Johnson also explores the contrast between innocence and experience, which William Blake was to present in his songs some thirty years later: would it be better to just be satisfied with the state of innocence in which Rasselas begins? or perhaps explore and experience the world and then go back to seclusion? Where can there be true happiness, in that forever sheltered state of initial innocence or some carefully sought out, deliberately tried and tested path, from which clearly it’s not possible to return to the womb, as it were?

We are in the early days of the development of the novel, it occurred to me: Fielding’s Tom Jones was published ten years earlier, and what a difference! True, Rasselas isn’t really a novel, and has a philosophical purpose whereas Fielding sets out to divert and entertain. I was struck, nevertheless, by how sophisticated Tom Jones was as a text, by comparison, in terms of form, structure and language, but above all, characterisation. Rasselas is didactic, a tale of ideas, and also part of prose fiction finding its feet, writers exploring the potential of a new form, but it’s not a book I gaze fondly at on the shelves of my library…

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