“Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.”
The lists compiled by various authorities and experts on the subject on the best books ever written can be good resources for new reading material. But I am at the same time suspicious of these lists. Some of the choices seem outrageous, and then I begin to wonder why one novel doesn’t make the list while another soars to the top. Another problem I have with these sorts of lists is the fact that those who do the choosing haven’t read every single book on the planet, so how can they say what is best?
This rhetorical question brings me to Samuel Johnson’s novella The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. I don’t have the ego to claim that this is one of the top ten books ever written, because I’m sure it isn’t. But that said, Rasselas makes the list of my most influential reads. My well-worn copy has been re-read innumerable times; the spine is long broken, the text is heavily highlighted and the pages are falling out.
Essayist, biographer, translator and poet Johnson, whose life was fraught with poverty, ill-health, and tragedy, wrote Rasselas simply because he needed money to visit his dying mother. The novella was reportedly written over the period of one week. In many ways Rasselas could be considered as a companion to Candide, but while Candide still makes it to university reading lists, Rasselas seems sadly forgotten.
The premise of Rasselas is simple: Rasselas, a young prince, lives with his family and servants in the Happy Valley. All of his needs are met. Every want and desire is catered to. He leads a perfect life of luxury, and yet something is lacking. He begins to wonder about the world outside of the kingdom in which he lives and feeling discontent he notes:
“[T]he sounds that pleased me yesterday weary me today, and will grow yet more wearisome tomorrow. I can discover within me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted. Man has surely some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification, or he has some desires distinct from sense which must be satisfied before he can be happy. “
Partially to alleviate boredom through novelty, but mainly to explore the notion of what it means to be ‘happy,’ Rasselas leaves the Happy Valley with two companions for his travels: his sister, Nekayah and the philosopher, Imlac. Together they travel through the world, and have many adventures and encounters throughout the journey. These encounters create opportunities for philosophical debate amongst the travelers. At one point for example, they debate novelty and change as a necessary component for happiness:
“Such, said Nekayah, is the state of life, that none are happy but by the anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted; let me see something to morrow which I never saw before.”
“Variety, said Rasselas, is so necessary to content, that even the happy valley disgusted me by the reoccurence of its luxuries.”
Rasselas is a deceptively simple work, but it is packed with wisdom and insight into the human condition. Each of the situations encountered influence and shape Rasselas’s desire to understand the nature of happiness, and of course, the answers prove as elusive as happiness itself. In doggedly pursuing his desire to understand and define the quest for happiness, Rasselas and his companions explore the fundamental conditions of the human state, and while Rasselas is a deeply philosophical work, ostensibly it reads like a simple tale of travel and adventure. Although Johnon’s wonderful example of Orientalism was written in the 18th century, the philosophy is amazingly prescient, and this of course says a great deal about the immutability of the human condition.
“Poverty has, in very large cities, very different appearances: it is often concealed in splendour, and often in extravagance. It is the care of a very great part of mankind to conceal their indigence from the rest: they support themselves by temporary expedients, every day is lost in contriving for the morrow.”
“Such, says Imlac, are the effects of visonary schemes: when we first form them we know them to be absurd, but familiarise them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”