Friday, July 27, 2007

The Dissatisfied Sadness of Rasselas

"He had been before terrified at the length of life which nature promised him, because he considered that in a long time much must be endured; he now rejoiced in his youth, because in many years much might be done."
-Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

Few works are so affecting as Johnson's study of human limitation and discontent therewith. His protagonist described here has not been worn down by poverty or illness, but rather luxury: Rasselas is an Ethiopian prince confined to a Happy Valley where all his desires are apparently met. Yet man gets unused to anything, and so the prince abandons his regimented life of ease to explore the real world, that he might find true happiness.

Rasselas meets philosophers, robbers, an eighteenth-century mad scientist, and men wealthy and poor yet no way of life relieves his sense of unfulfillment. He must content himself with the limits of life, dissatisfying and otherwise. Johnson plays with one of the basic paradoxes of life: limited goals are the only attainable goals, yet human improvement rests on our often boundless resentment of limitations.

That Johnsonian wit which powered Boswell's biography is present throughout. Regarding the the perils of moralism Rasselas' guide cautions "Be not too hasty to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men." One such moralist, after enchanting a crowd with his praises of the philosophical life, soon finds himself disconsolate after the death of his daughter:

"Sir, said the prince, mortality is an event by which a wise man can never be surprised: we know that death is always near, and it should therefore always be expected."
"Young man, answered the philosopher, you speak like one that has never felt the pangs of separation."
"Have you then forgot the precepts, said Rasselas, which you so powerfully enforced? Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart against calamity? Consider, that external things are naturally variable, but truth and reason are always the same."
"What comfort, said the mourner, can truth and reason afford me? of what effect are they now, but to tell me that my daughter will not be restored?"

Vanity and pride aspire to eradicate sadness and explain away death, but find their efforts thwarted in the end. The thematic parallels with Ecclesiastes are obvious.

Johnson rightly concludes his tale inconclusively. The optimism of the young Rasselas is tempered by experience, though the prince still itches for greatness. His anxieties about choosing the proper path fade after examining the catacombs of Cairo. His philosophical interlude itself appears vain in the face of mortality, and he makes an uneasy peace with the dissatisfied life. The futile quest for worldly happiness is resolved only in the hope of eternal happiness with God. And fallen creatures that we are, that great hope still does not satisfy.

See also: Theorodre Dalrymple favorably compares Rasselas to Voltaire's Candide.


Deep Furrows said...

Ha. I'm at the point in my life when I think I could enjoy Rasselas...

William Luse said...

Great stuff, Kevin. You picked one of my favorite guys. But by 'stuff' I was referring also to your own thoughts.