Samuel Johnson and the Vanity of Human Wishes

Samuel Johnson, the Dr Johnson of national memory, is primarily known for his wit. His epigrams are hardly common currency, but they do have a certain appeal – and a certain constituency. Who has not heard ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ or ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ (a particular favourite of Boris Johnson) deployed in conversation by someone altogether too keen on appearing intelligent?

Despite this not entirely ephemeral popularity, and a place in Britain’s intellectual life through the medium of James Boswell’s excellent biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, the literary man in question appears a little forgotten behind the titanic, and to some degree invented, personality with which his name is associated.

Attempting to remedy my own ignorance of Johnson’s writings, I recently read a novella written by the man in 1759: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. This book in particular was interesting and I was surprised that I found it as readable and even as vital (in both senses of the word) as I did. It is a story of world travel and philosophical discovery, of surprisingly fast-paced events and a lack of extraneous descriptive detail; in many ways, this relates Rasselas to Voltaire’s Candide, which was published in the same year. Both are shamelessly exotic, both exude a certainly lively humour despite depicting a less than frolicsome subject matter, and both are also remarkably brief – concision being something of a forgotten art today.

The central plot of Johnson’s effort concerns Rasselas, the titular Prince of Abyssinia, and how he seeks to escape effective imprisonment in the ‘Happy Valley’ where he is confined by his father, the Emperor of that country, until such time as he is required to take his place in the succession of sovereigns.

This place, the Happy Valley, is portrayed as a sort of paradise, filled with pleasures of all kinds. Its inhabitants ‘lived only to know the soft vicissitudes of pleasure and repose, attended by all that were skilful to delight, and gratified with whatever the senses can enjoy’. The appetites of the residents (and prisoners) of this place ‘were excited by frequent enumerations of different enjoyments, and revelry and merriment were the business of every hour, from the dawn of morning to the close of the evening’.

To live within this gilded cage is both a great pleasure and a tremendous honour, and admission was granted to a select few on an annual basis. Since rumours abounded of the delight to be experienced within, and once a person enters the Happy Valley they can never leave to tell salutary tales, entry was greatly prized: ‘Thus every year produced new scenes of delight, and new competitors for imprisonment’.

Yet this pleasure is transient, and the young man Rasselas grows restless, despite the apparently sincere enthusiasm of others in that very situation. They have him tailed, and the reason for his lack of satisfaction emerges as he describes the logic behind his restlessness, which is overheard by an old instructor. Rasselas believes his life is unsatisfying, and that it is ultimately devoid of purpose and fulfilment. The prince compares himself to the animals he encounters, and likens their unthinking, reactive lives with his own reflective capacity: ‘I am hungry and thirsty, like him, but when thirst and hunger cease, I am not at rest.  I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness’.

The happiness provided by the valley bearing that name proves illusory. This is not only an essential reason for the novella’s action taking place; it also becomes, in a more general way, the theme of the piece.

After an escape from the Happy Valley, and inspired and prompted to travel widely, Rasselas, along with his sister, Nekayah, and her friend and attendant, Pekuah, and a scholar, Imlac, travel around Africa and the Middle East, looking for happiness in the lives of others, all the while hoping  that this knowledge might supplement their own.

When Rasselas decides to escape, he says to Imlac, ‘I have examined the mountain on every side, but find myself insuperably barred – teach me the way to break my prison; thou shalt be the companion of my flight, the guide of my rambles, the partner of my fortune, and my sole director in the choice of life.’ This final phrase, given additional emphasis (something which recurs), is the central one; in it is found the heart of the matter. The route to happiness is seen to be through the opportunity to choose a path in life, an ability to shape one’s own surroundings and to steer one’s own course. In a word, this represents freedom: freedom to act, freedom to live as one chooses, freedom to pursue any particular intellectual or social milieu or moral interest. Choice is a good idea – at least to our modern tastes – but it is also a rather shallow, nebulous thing, a concept all too difficult to define.

In the pursuit of happiness, in a phrase, this collection travels to the teeming metropolis of Cairo and the vast, transcendent pyramids of Giza. They see much and discourse with many whose lives seem less delightful than the protagonists initially assumed: they encounter unserious young men (whose ‘mirth was without images, their laughter without motive; their pleasures were gross and sensual, in which the mind had no part; their conduct was at once wild and mean’); a regretful hermit (‘“I have indeed lived fifteen years in solitude,” said the hermit, “but have no desire that my example should gain any imitators”’); and an old and melancholy astronomer (who laments ‘many opportunities of good neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness and vacancy’).

Furthermore, the group discourses with lackeys, lords and even marauding Arabs straight from any trademark exotic description of foreign climes such as this. (In this story, they take the friend of the princess hostage before returning the woman after treating her well.)

In this telling, even those with power, real power, find themselves eventually rendered powerless; the Bassa, a local potentate, was eventually ‘carried in chains to Constantinople, and his name was mentioned no more’, while ‘[t]he Sultan that had advanced [his replacement] was murdered by the Janissaries, and his successor had other views and different favourites’. In this telling, glory and esteem are fleeting, and even humility – even the realisation of individual powerlessness – is no protection from the raw force of events.

As the journey goes on, the prince does not lose hope.  He still thinks wholeheartedly that, in the process of seeing the lot of the multitudes, he will in some way learn enough and gain sufficient experience to make his ‘choice of life’. This choice is held to represent nothing less than the capacity to ensure earthly happiness and personal satisfaction. It is a noble hope and yet a futile one.

Eventually, the four make their fateful choice; they decide the course of their own futures. Pekuah elects to remain at the Convent of St Anthony, the scene of a game of hostage trading where the Arab leader (head of the ‘troop of Arabs’ who ‘rushed upon’ their unsuspecting victims while the heroes were exploring the pyramids) returned Pekuah to her friend the princess; she ‘wished only to fill it with pious maidens and to be made prioress of the order’.

The princess decides that intellect and knowledge are the things to acquire: she decided ‘to learn all sciences, and then proposed to found a college of learned women, in which she would preside’, with the intention ‘that, by conversing with the old and educating the young, she might divide her time between the acquisition and communication of wisdom, and raise up for the next age models of prudence and patterns of piety’.

Her brother, the prince, ‘desired a little kingdom in which he might administer justice in his own person and see all the parts of government with his own eyes’. But such lofty aspirations came to naught. Contentment did not arrive: ‘he could never fix the limits of his dominion, and was always adding to the number of his subjects’.

Imlac, the poet and scholar, is perhaps the most sensible. He and his companion the astronomer ‘were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port’.

None of these courses in life comes to pass, however. Each is not quite what it was expected to be, or what it was meant to represent.

Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained.  They deliberated awhile what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abyssinia.

All of the escapees elected, in the end, to return to the land of their captivity. It is an amusingly anti-climactic conclusion, heavy in bathos. But it also conveys more than a little about the nature of life. In a way this parallels the beginning of the work, where Imlac, himself an experienced traveller, who set of to see the world in spite of his father’s wishes, did not attain the hero’s welcome he expected upon his return.

I now expected the caresses of my kinsmen and the congratulations of my friends, and was not without hope that my father, whatever value he had set upon riches, would own with gladness and pride a son who was able to add to the felicity and honour of the nation.  But I was soon convinced that my thoughts were vain.  My father had been dead fourteen years, having divided his wealth among my brothers, who were removed to some other provinces.  Of my companions, the greater part was in the grave; of the rest, some could with difficulty remember me, and some considered me as one corrupted by foreign manners.

Imlac grew tired of being dismissed by those he sought to cultivate and to impress, and he became morose and unhappy at the failures of his enterprises. Even in matters of personal direction, he was unable to succeed. Imlac ‘opened a school, and was prohibited to teach’.

What served as a warning in the beginning became a kind of foreshadowing in the end. Imlac describes his original journey back to the land of his father, which culminated in his ascent into the gilded prison of the Happy Valley.

Wearied at last with solicitation and repulses, I resolved to hide myself for ever from the world, and depend no longer on the opinion or caprice of others.  I waited for the time when the gate of the Happy Valley should open, that I might bid farewell to hope and fear; the day came, my performance was distinguished with favour, and I resigned myself with joy to perpetual confinement.

This may present a depressive view of life, but it is not entirely unwarranted.

Johnson also expressed a similar perspective in his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, a foray into verse based on the tenth satire of Juvenal. This work exhibits a similar resignation in the face of events, and also a sense of entrusting higher powers with the barest facts. Johnson’s work also condemns the pride of man, in his own unique way, who seeks to try to forge his own path in life ‘without a Guide’.

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

In Johnson’s telling, the only true happiness to be found can be attained in the next life. He was a devout man, a true believer, and this fact cannot be overlooked; and it cannot be forgotten that this morbid sense can only have been compounded by the fact that Johnson wrote Rasselas (in an oft-repeated story) in a week to pay for the cost of his mother’s funeral.

The heavenly happiness Johnson had in mind was stable, genuine and everlasting – the reward, in some ways, for having lived at all. All this despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that the world of men is petty and mutable and prone to decay and decline. The grandest aspirations remain unrealised; the greatest ambitions are forever unfulfilled; and the noblest intentions harbour no guarantee of success or happiness.

This vision is certainly of a deeply religious vintage, which is no wonder. And in that way the book has some cultural and historical value – beyond even its charms as fiction and its successes in philosophy. Its portrayal of an ultimately unhappy world rescued – or rather made worthwhile – by the promise of salvation is one which has inspired many millions of people: it has prompted them to endure terrible hardships and to persist with the business of existence despite dizzying mortality rates and a modal life expectancy of one year old. In such a world the apparent pessimism of Johnson’s work (which is offset by the occasional flash of humour and wit) becomes not just explicable but necessary; it makes sense of the world as it then existed and gives impetus to and justification for continued action.

At the same time, however, this knowledge makes all the more explicable – and all the more real – the tone which Johnson takes in The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Impeachment stops the Speaker’s pow’rful Breath,
And restless Fire precipitates on Death.

A product of its time, then, and a product of the author’s own peculiar circumstances, Rasselas is a work which defies easy classification; but it is certainly interesting as a document, as a novella, and as an exposition of a method of thinking which has not entirely vanished from view, despite the uneasy passage of the ensuring centuries.

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