02 September 2018

Rasselas as anti-orientalist fiction

So, having been on a kick of re-reading books I found meaningful and moving back in high school, I decided to give another look to The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson, which I read when I was still deep in the throes of my Jennifer complex. My gentle readers, it may amuse you and give you a hint of how muddled my still-all-too-deeply-Anglican mind is, that it never once occurred to me to connect the St Anthony’s Monastery of Johnson’s novel with the sketes of Ægypt visited by William Dalrymple in From the Holy Mountain, or with the Desert Fathers whose wisdom was compiled in the Apophthegmata, until it dawned on me of a sudden on this read-through. Yet another unlooked-for connexion between the old Platonic England I admire, and Eastern Christendom in the broad strokes! Against all of my better inclinations, I do seem to be piecing together a kind of Anglo-Orthodox Byzantine mosaic from the fragments of my previous intellectual formation.

The tale of Johnson’s Rasselas is a deceptively-simple one. The eponymous East African prince, who is lodged in a ‘happy valley’, hedged about with mountains and forests and ‘supplied… with the necessities of life, and all delights and superfluities’ by the emperor’s annual visits, in which ‘every desire was granted’ without need for pain or toil. Rasselas languishes here in boredom, needing ‘something to persue’, and is overcome with a desire to escape. In his efforts to find an exit from the happy valley, he meets Imlac, a very-learned and -experienced merchant’s son who becomes the voice of reason and wisdom in Rasselas’s life (and who appears to be something of a proxy for the author). Imlac helps Rasselas find a narrow spot in the mountain where they can begin making a tunnel out, but they are discovered in their escape by Rasselas’s sister Nekayah, who asks Rasselas and Imlac to take her with them. Rasselas agrees, and Nekayah brings her favourite maid Pekuah and several other maidservants.

The remainder of the story progresses through Cairo and the deserts of Ægypt, as Rasselas and Nekayah attempt to discover a ‘choice of life’ outside the happy valley that is nevertheless fulfilling and happy. Johnson reveals through their adventures the fact that even the people who seem the happiest often struggle with a myriad of different worries, setbacks, hardships and doubts – many of them of their own infliction. Through several such vignettes, he lampoons the idea that virtue or knowledge pursued for their own sake are sufficient for happiness. The climax of the story happens when Pekuah is kidnapped and held for ransom by bandits as Rasselas and Nekayah explore one of the pyramids at Giza.

Setting Rasselas in ‘exotic’ locations like East Africa and Ægypt instead of London and Paris was in part owing to certain interests of Johnson himself – who had been intrigued and enamoured of Africa since reading of the travels of Fr Jerónimo Lobo, SJ – and in part owing to a purpose on his part of de-mystifying Africa. Rasselas, his sister and companions, and the people he meets are very much not exotic to English readers, and this is deliberate. Johnson makes them complete characters with desires and preoccupations very much meant to be universal: they want to be happy, fulfilled – and they want to have purpose and meaning. Johnson was indeed one of the few Englishmen of his time to treat black Africans as complete people, and opposed slavery and colonialism in vehement terms.

Johnson’s novel is often criticised for being simplistic or flat in terms of its plot, but this seems to be deliberate. On one hand, he is trying to make a broader philosophical point against flights of fancy and in favour of a more ‘realistic’ view of life, in line with The Vanity of Human Wishes. Johnson, like the Russians who studied China, is working at cross-purposes with his Jesuit tutors. The ‘happy valley’ itself is a deflation of the idea of Shangri-La, an exploration of the misery of a state in which nothing is to be striven for. But he also excites expectations of adventure and romance through his choices of œuvre and setting – and no doubt this played a rôle in the marketing of the book, which Johnson wrote to defray the expenses of his mother’s funeral – but inevitably deflates them too, often with a satirical edge. There is little found in Johnson’s Cairo that could not be found in any other city. The plight of the poor and the insecurities of the rich are immediately understandable. The pyramid is not home to spectres or curses. Likewise Johnson makes no attempt to romanticise the nomadic life of the Arabs, but neither does he make them out to be backward, duplicitous or sensuous after the Orientalist tropes of his time. Pekuah comes by nothing worse at her Arab captors’ hands than boredom.

On the other hand, he is trying to make a point which can be considered broadly anti-colonialist. Johnson refuses point-blank the idea that Europeans are in any immediate sense superior to non-Europeans, and that only the ‘unsearchable will of the Supreme Being’ has placed Europeans in a position of relative power and technological prowess. Johnson has a religious, Anglican universalism about fallen human nature, which opposes a sæcular universalism which in practice provides cover for the murder, fraud, robbery and enslavement of aboriginal peoples under European colonial rule, under a banner of ‘progress’. Though Rasselas is not nearly as vehement against European colonialism as some of Johnson’s other works, he nonetheless says, through Imlac:
The Europeans are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.
Rasselas sparks immediate comparisons with Candide wherever it is mentioned, but of course Johnson has nothing close to Arouet’s hatred of religion. St Anthony’s Monastery is chosen as the setting of much of the late part of the novel, and by the end of the book, Pekuah, ‘never so much charmed with any place’ as St Anthony’s, determines to choose the life of a nun, and ‘wished only to fill it with pious maidens’ (a curiously hagiographic phrase). At the same time, even the monastic life is not romanticised by the worldly Johnson; one of his characters is a desert hermit who grows weary and despondent in his life in the desert, and eagerly returns to Cairo after Rasselas’s visit.

Rasselas easily earns its keep on my shelf, along with the rest of that small portion of Johnson’s opus which I’ve managed to collect over these years. With regard to these old and well-loved books, perhaps it’s worth letting them sit aside for a time, but not failing to go back and re-read them. Speaking for myself, finding new insights and discovering new connexions even within an old and familiar work on successive read-throughs is very much worth the time taken. In my own case, having become more familiar both with Eastern Orthodox spirituality and with post-colonial theory, lends a decidedly different (but by no means less-flattering) cast to Rasselas this time through.


  1. Rasselas open with the best-written sentence in the English language. I've read it and taught but never made the Orthodox connection. Will have to look at again with this in mind.

  2. Indeed, I never made that link myself until I re-read it; and even then it was kind of accidental!

  3. How did I miss this!? Must now read, of course.