Cookie Warning

Warning: This blog may contain cookies. Just as cookies fresh out of the oven may burn your mouth, electronic cookies can harm your computer. Visit all kitchens and blogs (yes, including this one) with care.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Samuel Johnson On Braving Solitude

A place for reflection in Lichfield, England,
Samuel Johnson's hometown

In his short novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson introduces us to Rasselas, a young man intent upon finding happiness. He grew up in the Happy Valley, where all his needs and whims were catered to. Yet this wealth of pleasures left him unfulfilled. After living incognito in Cairo for two years, Rasselas can converse with the locals, and knows the unwritten rules of conduct that underpin Egyptian society. Accompanied by his advisor Imlac, Rasselas attends all types of community functions.

Wherever he went he met gaiety and kindness, and heard the song of joy or the laugh of carelessness. He began to believe that the world overflowed with universal plenty, and that nothing was withheld either from want or merit; that every hand showered liberality and every heart melted with benevolence: “And who then,” says he, “will be suffered to be wretched?”

Yet, just as in the Happy Valley, Rasselas grows depressed. Everyone looks so happy, but he has yet to find his place in the world. Imlac counsels him that every person’s fate is subject to forces beyond his control. Few occupy the positions in life that they set out to inhabit. If they do, they no doubt found the reality at variance with their preconceptions. Therefore, when a person sees others smiling, laughing, or having fun, it's easy to believe that they must be happy and content.

“In the assembly where you passed the last night there appeared such sprightliness of air and volatility of fancy as might have suited beings of a higher order, formed to inhabit serener regions, inaccessible to care or sorrow; yet, believe me, Prince, was there not one who did not dread the moment when solitude should deliver him to the tyranny of reflection.”

Rasselas has escaped the Happy Valley with sufficient riches to tour the world. He is hardly ready to settle down, or spend his days in contemplation. He wishes to search for those places and situations where people seem the happiest, so that he too can live there, and find his ideal occupation. Imlac spent most of his life exploring the world, and believes that no ideal society exists. But he is a patient man, and regards Rasselas with great affection, so he is happy to accompany him on his travels. Thus Samuel Johnson reminds us that we must brave the daunting task of looking inward to understand ourselves, if we are to order our days around the people, places, activities, and situations most important to us.

Dragon Dave

No comments:

Post a Comment