3. Restless Wrestling: Johnson's Rasselas"... we are now again invading the habitations of the dead ..."
Samuel Johnson's Rasselas can be seen in part as the personal (a word rooted in Latin per-sona, "a mask") meditation one might expect given its presenting occasion, the death of the author's mother and his ostensible need for money to cover funeral experiences, and its composition in a week-long, scarcely revised outpouring. On or near the book's publication date Johnson writes that such powers as we now find in Rasselas are only necessitated by "great exigencies"- -these "happen but seldom, and therefore those qualities which have a claim to the veneration of mankind, lie hid, for the most part, like subterranean treasures, over which the foot passes as on common ground, till necessity breaks open the golden cavern" (Idler 51, 7 Apr. 1759). Rasselas (R) suggests, in part, personal meditation since, as with most any literary text, the book and its author disclose many things. Like the palace described at the end of the first chapter, "built as if suspicion herself had dictated the plan," the text is riddled with "open and secret passage[s],"(1) though the "upper stories" are no doubt better known and more accessible than the "subterranean passages." Like the palace, the text seems joined with a cement--a semantics--that, as with the force of habit, "grows harder by time" (R 41).(2) In this written palace, "[m]any of the columns," we read, have "unsuspected cavities" concealing treasure whose accumulation, only to be revealed in "utmost exigency," is recorded "in a book" (in its columns, one supposes) "itself concealed" (41). For Johnson, as for Wordsworth after him,... books are yours,
Within whose silent chambers treasure lies
Preserved from age to age; more precious far
Than that accumulated store of gold
And orient gems, which, for a day of need,
The Sultan hides deep in ancestral tombs.(The Excursion 4.564-69)
One can find Johnson everywhere just around the corner in Rasselas--in the old man at the end who has "neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake the honor of her husband" and who regrets time "lost in idleness and vacancy" (136), in the astronomer who "has drawn out his soul in endless calculations" (127),(3) in the anonymous auditor of chapter twenty-two, "more affected with the narrative than the rest" (87), in the roving Arab beset with "an intestine conflict" (126), and in the "wise and happy man" overcome by the death of his closest female relation. This latter encounter, in chapter eighteen, W. K. Wimsatt finds "the only part of the whole book that verges on the uncomfortable" ("In Praise" 128), and in that reflects our general lack of ease with raw affect. Yet it seems perfectly in keeping with some logic of the unconscious that this wise and happy man who speaks with the greatest energy on "the government of the passions" is the very one who must endure the passion of realizing that "what I suffer cannot be remedied, what I have lost cannot be supplied." With the death of his only daughter, he continues, "My views, my purposes, my hopes are now at an end: I am now a lonely being disunited from society" (R 81). Johnson's Idler No. 41, published 27 January 1759, five days after his mother's death, echoes his language: "The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end." A month later he writes his step-daughter, still in the tone of the bereaved philosopher, "I am now very desolate" (1 Mar., Letters [L] 120).
A decade earlier, when his mother was eighty and it was then a mere nine years since he had last made an excursion to Lichfield to visit her, Johnson was already anticipating her death as "one of the few calamities on which I think with terror" (L 25). Little wonder that some critics have been curious about young Sam Johnson's relationship with his mother, Sarah, already forty when he was born her first child. Such concerns are of course colored by presuppositions: so one critic feels that "[t]here can be no doubt of his love for her" since "[i]n later life he wrote of his `dear mother' with obvious feeling" (Clifford 20), while for another, "[i]f he felt love, it was clearly a love overlaid and warped by other emotions; not once in his private diaries and prayers did he call his mother `dearest', though commonly using the term for his female friends" (Porter 73). Johnson's own comment is curiously ambivalent and might raise doubts, as well, about his reading of the word "love": "I did not respect my own mother, though I loved her: and one day, when in anger she called me a puppy, I asked her if she knew what they called a puppy's mother" (Piozzi 69). Whatever the exact age we are to give Sam in this scene, the son's slur testifies to his internalization of what he later reported as the parents' mutual "contempt" (Clifford 17).
"My mother," Johnson said, "was always telling me that I did not behave myself properly" (Piozzi 68); to Boswell he related that "Sunday was a heavy day to me when I was a boy. My mother confined me on that day, and made me read `The Whole Duty of Man'" (Boswell, Life 50). Such early, repeated confinement seems a precondition for Johnson's now much discussed "padlock" and the associated diary entry, in 1771, "De pedicis et manicis insana cogitatio" (Diaries 140); in 1773, under the same roof with his by then securely established reparative object, Hester Thrale [later Piozzi], Johnson wrote her, in French, that "if it seems best to you that I should remain in a certain place" it "will not cost you more than the trouble to turn the key in the door twice a day" (Newton 104; cf. L 323-4). These obsessions with imprisonment may lead us to recontextualize one familiar anecdote: "Dr. Johnson said, that one day at Oxford [when he was 19], as he was turning the key of his chamber, he heard his mother distinctly call Sam. She was then at Lichfield" (Boswell, Life 1138; first italics added). Perhaps the key to this account is not the "supernatural" (Boswell) or nostalgia (Clifford), but the dynamics of unconscious association: Johnson's mother was certainly an ongoing internalized object, and Johnson told of another incident in which "a long time after my mother's death, I heard her voice call Sam!" (Piozzi 125), though here also we do not learn whether the sounds of a key in the door triggered the memory.
Even the most abbreviated view of the "world of bad internal objects" (Newton 113) which young Johnson incorporated in Lichfield, that "place of confinement" (Rambler 165), requires mention of Johnson's father and brother. From his father, Johnson felt he had inherited "a vile melancholy" (Boswell, Life 27), and he looked back on the bookseller Michael Johnson, 52 years his senior, as "a foolish old man" (Boswell, Life 31). The deeper complexities to the relationship, not to mention the timelessness of the unconscious, are marked in Boswell's picture (p. 1357) of Johnson, in his seventies, standing in the rain at the spot where his father's market stall had been, to expiate the "prideful" refusal to tend it of a half- century before (perhaps when his father was dying in 1731). As for Johnson's brother, Bernard Meyer ("Application") draws attention to the possible psychological connection between Nathaniel's birth, when Sam was three, and the celebrated incident of the three-year-old's chancing "to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh [11 = 1+1] of a brood" and composing a quatrain for its epitaph (according to Johnson, his father wrote the verses and wished to pass them as his son's). Johnson's near total silence regarding his brother speaks for his jealousy of this "rival for the mother's fondness" (Piozzi 63). "Natty" died mysteriously, perhaps a suicide, when Johnson was twenty-seven and leaving Lichfield for London, but twenty-two years later, recording a prayer for his mother, just dead, Johnson adds, "[t]he dream of my Brother I shall remember" (Diaries 67). So much for the sentiment he penned contemporaneously that "he that is once buried will be seen no more" (R 107).
On 23 March 1759, two months after his mother's death, Johnson mentions his "little story book" as soon to be published (L 122). Unlike his author, the character of the story whose name soon came to denominate it has neither a dead mother, a dead father, a dead brother, or a dead wife, but rather a "dear" (R 97) sister, Nekayah. The incantation of her name, however, might recall the Greek [vekuia] (Nekuya) which, as a note in Pope's translation details, traditionally names the eleventh book of the Odyssey owing to the calling up of the dead (nekus) therein, including, memorably, the shade of Ulysses' mother. Johnson, after all, was an old hand at deriving significant names from his classical heritage, as evidenced by the ferociously arrogant "Ferocula," furious "Furia," unhappy "Misella," the suitor "Hymenaeus," calm "Tran- quilla," the travelling "Viator," or the maxim-wise minimal critic, "Dick Minum" of Johnson's periodical essays (themselves offered through his self- personifications as "Mr. Rambler" or "Mr. Idler"). The added terminal letter of Nekayah (like that of the other named woman, Pekuah) perhaps also points towards Sarah Johnson.
While the narrative of The Prince of Abissinia (the title under which was first published what we have come to call Rasselas) opens and remains for some chapters in "the happy valley" of Abissinia, the concluding sentence reports only that the company "resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abissinia." One still encounters the blithe assumption that the party returns to happy valley (e.g. Meyer, "Notes" 334), but after George Sherburn's 1951 query, "Rasselas Returns--To What?", and the increasing recognition of Johnson's "uncustomary obscurity" (Wasserman 20) regarding this point, readers have become more comfortable with the fearful symmetry of the story's inconclusive conclusion. Steven Lynn sounds a contemporary tone when he writes, "We do not know if the travellers carry out their resolve `to return to Abyssinia' [sic]. Nor do we know for sure what it would mean if they do" (125). Edward Tomarken, reviewing in 1989 interpretations of the conclusion, reports confidently that "[n]ow we are able to understand why it took two centuries for the meaning of the term `Abyssinia' [sic] to be fully understood," even as he himself remains sure that "they return to Abyssinia [sic]" (102). It is striking, first of all, that the narrator abandons us in a rising flood: the nothing which is concluded (to invoke the final chapter heading) concludes with and includes "the inundation of the Nile." The pilgrimage began in Abissinia and, we now learn, intends to return there--what concerns us here, especially given the closing flood, are some possible connotations of the word/space from whence the protagonists came and into which they are to return. This trajectory--as old, at least, as Bede's bird passing from the darkness into the brightly-lit feast- hall and out again--suggests that, despite the red herring i for y, Abissinia is another name for the abyss, or, in the definition of Johnson's Dictionary, "A depth without bottom," "a great depth," and "[i]n a figurative sense, that in which anything is lost." The attempt to find the lost object thus carries one into the abyss; in the Idler essay directly following his mother's death, Johnson reports that "[t]he loss of a friend ... is a state of dreary desolation in which the mind looks abroad impatient of itself, and finds nothing but emptiness and horror" (No. 41, 27 Jan. 1759). Abyssinia is, of course, a geographical entity, but the vagaries of Johnson's effort in translating Father Lobo's A Voyage to Abyssinia (note the y there) suggest that the homeland of Rasselas translates "the abyss of meaninglessness that [Johnson's] big writing projects always encounter" (Kernan 168). "Since college days at least," writes Joseph Krutch, Johnson "had known that the abyss was just beside whatever path he trod" (108). But Rasselas's Abissinia is more a name and mental space than a geographical locale--the "real scene of Rasselas," remarks Irvin Ehrenpreis, "is the mind of its author" (110). The narrator doesn't show the party's return to Abissinia because on the one hand they are almost already there, brooding on the vast Abyss of the rising inundation, and on the other hand, their state once they cross that bourne from which none has ever returned is not accessible to language.
In the memorable association of Paradise Lost, chaos is first made "pregnant," and then, as the "wilde Abyss", imagined as "The Womb of Nature and perhaps her Grave" (2.910-11). Edward Young's Night Thoughts registers the impact of Milton's description in imagining that "the Almighty FATHER ... / Impregnated the Womb of distant Space," "that Abyss of Horror" (9.1538-39, 1547). These conceptions can return us to Rasselas's beginning in the happy valley, a location some confident critics find to refer to "foetal existence" (Joost 166, Reed 61), though Milton's Edenic "happy ... seat" and "flourie lap / Of som irriguous Valley" (PL 4.247, 254-55) seems more sexual than pre-natal ("Nor those mysterious parts were then conceald, / Then was not guiltie shame" [4.312-13]). Certainly "gynecomorphic significance" (Meyer "Application" 158) abounds in the happy valley, whose only entrance is by "a cavern that passed under a rock," the outlet of which "was concealed by a thick wood" and the mouth closed with iron gates "so massy that no man could, without the help of engines, open or shut them," and whose lake discharges "its superfluities by a stream which entered a dark cleft of the mountains" (R 39-40). The gates (sometimes gate) form a memorable feature of the happy valley psychography: Johnson four times describes them (or it) as "iron" (39, 40, 49) and once even has the prince, "whose thoughts were always on the wing [Lt. penna], as he passed by the gate," address it intimately, "`Why are thou so strong, and why is man so weak?'" (R 70). The prince's accompanying "countenance of sorrow," however, changes to joy on observing some "conies"(4) and their upwards tending "holes" which give him and Imlac the hint for effecting a "mine"--and they soon find "a small cavern, concealed by a thicket, where they resolved to make their experiment" (R 71). While Imlac states that he could "burst the gate, but cannot do it secretly" (R 70), the fact that the party avoids the iron gates makes an ironic comment on one "choice of life":Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life
(Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress," 41-44)
The distinction between "foetal" and "gynecomorphic" interpretations of the happy valley resolves into different stages in individual (here, male) psycho- sexual development--according to Rasselas, "none that once had passed [the gate] were ever able to return" (48-49), yet his father, the mighty "emperour," consummates an eight-day visit annually (40).
All this foregrounds the question of sex and the little death, the apparent absence of which, in an ostensibly systematic search for happiness, might raise some eyebrows. Arthur Murphy, after all, reported on David Garrick's authority "that when it was asked what was the greatest pleasure, Johnson answered f-----g" (Campbell 68), and Boswell reports it as "well known" that Johnson's "amorous inclinations were uncommonly strong and impetuous" (Life 1375). One anecdote has Johnson telling Garrick, "I'll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms [`bubbies,' in another account] of your actresses excite my amorous propensities [`genitals,' alternatively]" (Boswell, Life 143 [Pearson 48 fn.]). One can see Johnson wrestling with sexual fantasies in his personal writings; between 1758 and 1765, for example, come "frequent pleas to the Almighty to `purify my thoughts from pollutions,' `grant me chaste in thoughts, words and actions,' `reject or expel sensual images.' He asks that `all corrupt desires may be extinguished,' there are repeated sad comments: `I have lived totally useless, more sensual in thought...', `My thoughts have been clouded with sensuality'" (Clifford 315). Such evidence leads Jean Hagstrum to write of Johnson's "clamorous physicality" and to suggest that "his private being was constantly invaded if not by overt incitements to lasciviousness, then certainly by sensual imagery welling up from within" (46-47).
Perhaps more than chance, then, brings Rasselas on stage "in the twenty-sixth year of his age," when he is just a few months older than his author at his marriage to the forty-six year old widow, Elizabeth Porter. In his first action, the prince fixes "his eyes upon the goats that were browsing among the rocks" and begins "to compare their condition with his own." (R 42). The object of his comparison, Johnson's Dictionary attests, traditionally evokes "a lecherous animal," known for its "rankness" and "lust," and a dictionary of slang fifty years later defines "goat" simply as "[a] lascivious person" (cf. Cleland's Fanny Hill, ten years before Rasselas, whose defloration is contracted to a "liquorish old goat" --or Blake, in the "Proverbs of Hell," which speaks of "The lust of the goat"). The memorable heading of the following chapter--"The wants of him that wants nothing"--in effect offers as one of Rasselas's obscure objects of desire the big O, Hamlet's "nothing" or "fair thought to lie between maids' legs" and the subject in general about which the world makes "Much Ado."(5) Imlac's observation that "he whose real wants are supplied must admit those of fancy" (R 56) puts "nothing" on a par with "fancy," that "parent of passion" (79) which with "transitory lustre" (80) leads one to "riot in scenes of folly" (86). The text risks the bawdy truth of "nothing" confident in its massive repression of erotic concerns;(6) the "desires" distinct from the senses Rasselas mentions "which must be satisfied before he can be happy" (43) are those which, according to Idler 52 (14 Apr. 1759), near the publication of Rasselas, "[b]y timely caution and suspicious vigilance ... may be repressed." The side-stepping of sexual pleasure in Rasselas (despite the recognition that "celibacy has no pleasures" ), like the Dictionary's avoidance of sexual denotations, can be related to Johnson's own observation that "[n]o man talks of that which he is desirous to conceal, and every man desires to conceal that of which he is ashamed [Lt. pudendum]" (Boswell, Life 1048). When he associates with "young men of spirit and gaiety," the prince finds that "their pleasures were gross and sensual" and "he was ashamed" (78); and in Idler 52, just mentioned, "sensuality" occasions "dread of ... shameful captivity."
The extended discussion in Rasselas concerning marriage, which several times approaches acrimony the better to make its point, bears witness to the pressure to resolve "the ardour" and "importunities of desire" (100, 119, 88). Perhaps the major consideration for "the choice of life" will be what Johnson describes as the "irrevocable choice" of a partner (R 101), but any thinking on this must lead to the idea of divorce and the nature and origin of "irrevocability." Precisely the ongoing inability to resolve this question of the Other (whether woman or body or unconscious) and how even it should be considered leads Rasselas for the first time to the brink of the abyss as he argues to his sister, "You surely conclude too hastily from the infelicity of marriage against its institution; will not the misery of life prove equally that life cannot be the gift of heaven?" (99).(7) That life perhaps may not be "the gift of heaven," that it may be, as Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness, "a greater riddle than some of us think it to be," seems one of the burdens of Johnson's little story book. Rasselas's recourse in the face of such possibilities is the surly assertion of his "surely"--just as in the second chapter he argues, "Surely the equity of providence has balanced peculiar sufferings with peculiar enjoyments" and that "Man has surely some latent sense for which [the happy valley] affords no gratification" (and on at least six other occasions as well).
Comparing himself to the goat, Rasselas marks their differences and gives, in passing, one version of his name: unlike the animal, he says, "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" (43). Indeed, Rasselas later explicitly identifies himself as "restless" and "unsatisfied with those pleasures which I seem most to court" (76). Evidently he wishes "to court" elsewhere, perhaps finding himself--as did Boswell on 13 April 1763--"so much in the lewd humour that I felt myself restless, and took a little girl into a court" (London Journal 241). Like Johnson, Rasselas is restless: a near relation, it would seem, to the Idler's friend, "Tom Restless," who appears while Rasselas is in press (No. 48, 17 March 1759; "Tom has long had a mind to be a man of knowledge")--or to "Sober," Johnson's avowed self-portrait in an earlier issue of a man whose "strong desires and quick imagination ... will not suffer him to lie quite at rest" (No. 31, 18 Nov. 1758), or to "Omar," in a later Idler, possessed by "restless desire" (No. 101, 22 Mar. 1760). A quotation from Bishop Atterbury which the Dictionary supplies to illustrate the sense of the word is pertinent here: "We find our souls disordered and restless, tossed and disquieted by passions, ever seeking happiness in the enjoyments of this world, and ever missing what they seek."(8) Or again, to illustrate the meaning of "phantom," but keying as always on the idea of "happiness," consider this quotation from John Rogers which Johnson chose for his Dictionary: "Restless and impatient to try every scheme and overture of present happiness, he hunts a phantom he can never overtake." "Still to new heights his restless wishes tower," says "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (l. 105) of Wolsey. "Restless," too, repeatedly describes a character who must have assured the "overmatch" Johnson encountered at nineteen in reading William Law's A Serious Call to A Devout and Holy Life: the allegorically named Flatus "is satisfied with nothing," "was a great student for one whole year," "loses several days in considering which of his cast-off ways he shall try again," and, in short, exhibits the "anxieties, delusions, and restless desires" of a "restless life" (134ff.). A contemporary review of Rasselas picks up its theme-word to criticize the book's tendency "to conclude too much from the restless disposition of mankind" (Monthly Review20 : 429).
Even in the happy valley, where "[e]very desire was immediately granted," Rasselas does not "feel [him]self delighted" (40, 43) and seems always without "rest": the "[e]rect penis in its desired place of rest" (Rubinstein 219). The possible puns in his name may seem unlikely at first, but Rasselas's exemplifying "The wants of him that wants nothing" suggests that whatever Johnson may have written against puns or quibbles,(9) he could on occasion use them as well as the next person in giving voice to the restless unconscious. In the heading for chapter three, the denotation of "want" vacillates between the principal definitions in the Dictionary, "need" and "deficiency." The term "nothing" becomes complicated beyond the passing Elizabethan sexual reference as one pursues it through the etymology "no and thing" and the Dictionary entries "Negation of being", "nonentity", and finally "nonexistence" (cf. Young's Night Thoughts: "Non-Existence? NOTHING'S strange Abode!" [9.1522]). All these terms lead to the noun and verb "lack," which Johnson defines as "(to) want", "(to) need", "to be without." The reciprocal implication of wanting and lacking shows up neatly in translations of Psalm 23:1, a verse singularly inappropriate for Rasselas at this juncture; in Coverdale's version, "The Lord is my shepherd, I can want nothing," but in the Great Bible, four years later (1539), "therefore can I lack nothing." Rasselas, however, wants more than anyone, desiring, in effect, to be a god: "That he who wants least is most like the gods who want nothing," was, according to Hester [Thrale] Piozzi, "a favorite sentence with Dr. Johnson" (Piozzi 150). It may be worth noting that nothing is also the object of the other famous and self-reflexive chapter heading, the conclusion "in which nothing is concluded"--a title which on one level, defensively, preemptively judges the "little story book" and its author as nugatory.
The chain of lack seems at work in chapter seven where, as the lake (le lac) overflows its banks and the level of the valley is covered with the inundation, the text materializes a figure who could announce "I'm Imlac." Johnson commented to Boswell regarding the name that, "Imlac in Rasselas I spelt with a c at the end, because it is less like English, which should always have the Saxon k added to the c" (Boswell, Life 1088)--but perhaps, as well, a projection named "Imlack" comes too close to weird personification.(10) As the first model of "a man of learning" (the description is also applied to the astronomer at the book's end), Imlac suggests a self- conscious acceptance of lack, of want, of "the vanity of human wishes," or, heroically, "the tragic sense of life" (Krutch 176). On another level, "lack" denotes a felt inability to achieve viable, secure ego- satisfaction: lack, then, of potency or, … la Lacan, "the phallus." In this dark and muffled realm, "happiness" might be to "have penis." Rasselas wants his "happiness" to be "something solid and permanent, without fear and without uncertainty" (78), and attends to the argument that with the "happiness" of conquered "passion," he cannot be "emasculated by tenderness" (80). However, for the narrator of Rambler No. 18, just such "command over [his] passions" correlates to his considering himself "a kind of neutral being between the sexes" who perceives, even without possess- ing it, that "happiness ... is to be found only with a woman of virtue" (cf. Rambler No. 167, which finds "happiness only in the arms of virtue"). Mixed feelings about such female virility perhaps figure in Johnson's practice of taking "women of the town to taverns" to "hear them relate their history" (Boswell, Life 1375), or his comment that, barring "duties" and "reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she would be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation" (Boswell, Life 845). The mad astronomer at the end of Rasselas, waking from his heavenly obsessions, can only regret the choice of life which has led him to miss "the endearing elegance of female friendship, and the happy commerce of domestick tenderness" (140). But the conflict between desires for verbal conversation and for physical "conversation"--between desire and guilt-- furthers rooted depression, which in turn prompts desperate self-lacerating fantasies. On one occasion, "sighing, groaning, talking to himself, and restlessly walking from room to room," Johnson "used this emphatic expression of the misery which he felt: `I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits'" (Boswell, Life 342).
Given the pervasiveness of lack, it seems in fact for nothing that the Nile--le Nil in the French version of Lobo's A Voyage to Abyssinia which Johnson translated--is everpresent in the background of Rasselas as "a recurring symbol in the story" (Greene 811), "a repeated point of narrative reference" (Wasserman 12). Both Imlac and Rasselas were born near "the fountain of the Nile" (55), caput Nili, as if to suggest some privileged proximity to the void, the Other, the "secret to so many generations" (Lobo 169), "the fountains of knowledge" (R 57)--indeed, for Lucan's Caesar, quoted in Lobo, "Nihil est quod noscere malim / Quem .... Niliacos fontes" (169). The restless pilgrimage begins in the abyss of Abissinia-- "la source du Nil"--as the party beholds "the Nile, yet a narrow current, wandering beneath them" (R 14) and ends with "the inundation of the Nile" (149) and the intention to return to Abissinia or, Johnson's phrase elsewhere, "sink into nihility" ("Review" 531). Wordsworth uses much the same association in The Prelude, seeing Imagination as an "awful Power [risen] from the mind's abyss" and proceeding to liken it to "the mighty flood of Nile / Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds" (6.594, 614-15 [1850 ver.]). This flooding river of nothing, of nihil, appears as "the stream of time ... the current of the world" (R 115), "the stream of life" (150) or "flux of life" (48) and exemplifies Johnson's "realization of the imagery latent in even the most abstract philosophic word" (Wimsatt Words 66).
The emphasis on the Nile reminds one again how little Rasselas owes to Lobo's account, where Egypt and the lower reaches of the Nile hardly appear. But Rasselas and his party have their overdetermined mission to suffer the air of Cairo (Cair-o, a pronunciation still met with) and the world of care or (the Dictionary again) "solicitude; anxiety; perturbation of mind" (cf. Pekuah's train of association from "Cairo" to "cared so" [R 126]). Samuel Garth's "The Dispensary" (1699) joins "Restless Anxiety, forlorn Despair, / And all the faded family of Care," to suggest how at home in Cairo one might suppose Rasselas to feel. Though it can appear a region "inaccessible to care or sorrow," yet among its inhabitants "there was not one who did not dread the moment when solitude should deliver him to the tyranny of reflection" (R 77).
"A man would be a blockhead who did not write for money," Johnson said, and, the story goes, he wrote Rasselas to raise funds for expenses associated with his mother's death (rather, one might suggest, to raise funds against his own psychic expenditure). The topic of money may lead, however, to the fourth and last- named character, Pekuah. As the one figure who has actual cash value ("two hundred ounces of gold" [R 121]) and who experiences firsthand "desire of money" (R 121), it is tempting to see Pekuah as related on some level to the Latin pecua, "money" (more commonly, pecunia--as in Coleridge's remark that he writes "compelled by the God Pecunia" [Letters 1.631]). So a Latinist of Johnson's order might formulate an overdetermined sentence to read: "finding that his predominant passion was desire of money [pecunia / pecua], I began now to think my danger less, for I knew that no sum [pecunia] would be thought too great for the release of Pekuah" (R 121). With this secret passage sounded out, one can imagine a work founded literally in restlessness, lack, the recall of the dead, pecuniary concerns, the abyss, nihil and denial ("To deny early and inflexibly is the only art of checking the importunity of desire" [Idler No. 52]). With Bernard Einbond, we may perhaps not find in Rasselas "the allegorical punning and diction so characteristic of Johnson's short allegories" (83), but if, as Lacan holds, the unconscious is structured like a language, then for Johnson the lexes introduced above may crystallize some of its complexes.
The object of the pilgrimage is to be able to determine "the choice of life," the phrase initially envisioned as the title of Rasselas. But considering the abyss of nihilism and restless care to be found in the book's subterranean passages, one might begin to hear "the choice of life" as announcing not some desideratum--the possibility of deciding among lifestyles--but rather a more hard-won choice already made and according with Deuteronomy 30:19: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." Nekayah, at any rate, appears to echo this verse when she says, "Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content" (103). He who wants nothing has, no doubt, like Johnson according to his old friend John Taylor, "at one time strongly entertained thoughts of suicide" (Bate 116); such thoughts and a remedy surface in Johnson's advice to Mrs. Thrale, "Get your Children into habits of loving a Book by every possible means; You do not know but it may one Day save them from Suicide" (in Irwin 60). George Irwin, however, quotes Rambler No. 110 to argue that "[h]e who considered himself as `suspended over the abyss of eternal perdition by the thread of life' never seriously considered breaking that thread" (60). Having chosen life, Johnson judges emphatically the alternative even in defining it: "the horrid crime of destroying one's self" (Dictionary).
Wittgenstein, who expressed admiration for Johnson's Sermons, concludes his early notebooks with the following:If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed.
If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed.
This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin.
And when one investigates it it is like investigating mercury vapour in order to comprehend the nature of vapours.
Or is even suicide in itself neither good nor evil? (91)
That is to say, Is life then ultimately lacking value or meaning, lacking any ground on which to judge? One answer should be evident given the terms stressed here: the tragic sense of life is the sense of its meaninglessness when one so wants it to have meaning. Johnson's "spiritual anxiety," for Max Byrd, turns on just such an "anguished demand for meaning from a world that absurdly refused to disclose it" (369; one might recall here Samuel Beckett's surprising disclosure that, "It's Johnson, always Johnson who is with me. And if I follow any tradition, it is his" [in Davis 3]). Anyone familiar with Johnson's writing can imagine a dismissive response to all this considerably more vehement than the "choose, and pursue your choice" by which he answered Boswell in 1763 (8 Dec., L 166). Johnson himself, however, just after completing The Prince of Abissinia tries to give up the restless questioning he has broached: "A man who has duly considered the condition of his being, will contentedly yield to the course of things" (Idler No. 51).
Yet Rasselas toward its inconclusive conclusion raises the question of ultimates and in particular the religious outlook of that divided subject, Samuel Johnson. As Patrick O'Flaherty notes, though Johnson's "powerful empirical intellect was rarely at ease with the Christian faith, yet he could not bear the thought which rejection of Christianity would have entailed: the thought of annihilation"; and he quotes Samuel Rogers's observation that Johnson was "`literally afraid to examine his own thoughts on religious matters'" (207-8). The lack of reference to Christianity in Rasselas is striking, the more so as Abyssinia's Christian tradition was of particular interest and as Johnson's memory of "Rassela Christos" in Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia seems one more determinant for the name of "Rasselas." At the same time, the book offers recurring invocations of "the equity of providence" (43), "the unsearchable will of the Supreme Being" (64), and "him by whose laws our actions are governed, and who will suffer none to be finally punished by obedience" (112); and, significantly for someone who defines death as "the departure of the soul from the body" (Dictionary), in the penultimate chapter "Imlac discourses on the nature of the soul." Imlac's discourse at this important juncture deserves to be considered without its double negatives to appreciate better its rhetorical structure:
is[no] limitation of omnipotence ... to suppose that one thing is[not] consistent with another, that the same proposition can[not] be at once true and false, that the same number can[not] be even and odd, that cogitation can[not] be conferred on that which is created [by "omnipotence"!] incapable of cogitation. (147-48)
One may wonder if Soame Jenyns, at least, recalled Johnson's scorn of two years before: "Surely a man who seems not completely master of his own opinion should have spoken more cautiously of omnipotence, nor have presumed to say what it could perform, or what it could prevent" ("Review" 532). The only sure point of Imlac's self-deconstructing (omnipotence omnipotence) discourse seems to be his contention that "we must humbly learn from higher authority" (148; italics added). At which, "the whole assembly stood a while silent and collected." Indeed, what's left to say?-- either you take it (perhaps with the help of a "collect" or "short prayer" [Dictionary]), or you don't. For as Johnson writes in his sermon on his wife's death, the doctrine that the soul exists "exempt from dissolution and corruption" is, for Christians, not "learned" but "believed upon ... higher authority" (Sermons 264, emphasis added). Rasselas, however, doesn't stop with the silent assembly, and a brief coda to the scene signals impending demise en abâŚme.
After the lengthy detailing of the prevalence of imagination in the case of the astronomer and the demonstrating of fancy's obsessive dedication to the narcissistic phantom, how can one not weep with laughter (like Johnson over young Bennet Langton's making a will [Boswell, Life 548]) at the grandiosity of Rasselas's conclusion, "How gloomy would be these mansions of the dead to him who did not know that he shall never die; that what now acts shall continue its agency, and what now thinks shall think on for ever" (149)? The comedy of "a man of learning" (the astronomer) offering "a man of learning" (Imlac) "the inheritance of the sun" (132) seems reason itself beside Rasselas's oblique invocation of the Christian's inheritance of life everlasting from the Son.(11) But despite his gloom-dispelling belief, it is an evidently subdued prince who urges the group's departure from the "scene of mortality," leaving his sister to utter "what is surely, in one sense, Johnson's conclusion" (Hardy xxi, italics added) as she trumps "the choice of life" with "the choice of eternity." The narrator's chapter-closing comment that "under the protection of their guard" they "returned to Cairo" suggests that such belief or imagining of the "higher authority" of "God" (a word the text, like Nekayah, "fear[s] to name" ) is the most credible "guard" [i.e. gawd] one can trust in. Their "guard" is that hired authority ("They hired a guard" : or, in the words of Isaac Watts's great hymn, "Our God, our Help in Ages past ... Be thou our Guard"). The unconscious aspect of the hypothesized transcendental signifier suggests itself as well in Johnson's writing his step-daughter of his regret at not having visited his mother but concluding that "God suffered it not" (23 Jan. 1759, L 119). It wasn't just God that kept a mother's "dutiful son" (13 Jan., 16 Jan., 18 Jan., 20 Jan. 1759) away from her house for her last nineteen years (in 1755 Johnson noted how his mother was "counting the days" to the publication of the Dictionary "in hopes of seeing me" [Boswell, Life 206]). Johnson's plight and his text cry out for some acknowledgement of the unconscious, inevitably vague though our picturing of it must be.(12)
The last comment on the pilgrimage, chapter forty- nine, comes from an author himself in the forty-ninth year of his life's journey, who could report to Bennet Langton less than two weeks before selling the copyright to Rasselas, "When I was as you are now, towering in the confidence of twenty one, little did I suspect that I should be at forty nine what I now am" (9 Jan. 1759, L 113). This last chapter concludes that, "Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained. They deliberated a while what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abissinia. / FINIS." At the very least, these parting lines can confirm suspicion of the divided subject of the book-- one which can wish and yet well know that wish's impossibility.
Rasselas is in part the interior dialogue of that divided subject, Samuel Johnson; a dialogue itself undertaken to ward off the "hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life" (R 108). In chapter 22, Rasselas relates the story of the hermit who abandoned his second choice of life, and after various comments an unidentified subject comes forward:
One, who appeared more affected with the narrative than the rest, thought it likely, that the hermit would, in a few years, go back to his retreat, and perhaps, if shame did not restrain, or death intercept him, return once more from his retreat into the world:`For the hope of happiness, said he, is so strongly impressed, that the longest experience is not able to efface it. Of the present state, whatever it be, we feel, and are forced to confess, the misery, yet, when the same state is again at a distance, imagination paints it as desirable. But the time will surely come, when desire will be no longer our torment, and no man shall be wretched but by his own fault.' (87)
The desired state, evidently, is complete self-control: the anonymous voice tropes Rasselas's desire to desire nothing, or to be like a god, completely self-determin- ing. One echo hints that this time surely to come is identical with "the time [which] will come when you will acquit your father" (55), but another echo hints that freedom from desire comes only with death: "desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). The reality behind the fantasy of control is, naturally, that death cannot be controlled: "there is none who does not ... hope another year for his parent or his friend; but the fallacy will be in time detected; the last year, the last day must come. It has come and is past" (Idler No. 41, 27 Jan. 1759). The affected, anonymous "one" is in fact answered by a self-satisfied philosopher that "[t]he time is already come, when none are wretched but by their own fault" (87). The problem is how our nature can be our fault, but neither from his consideration of psychology or of religion can Johnson formulate an adequate response.
So he is left with an expanding collection of guilt-evoking ghosts: dead father, dead brother, dead wife, dead mother, and his own dead, inadequately loved childhood which he cannot escape. According to Boswell,Johnson observed, that the force of our early habits was so great, that though reason approved, nay, though our sense relished a different course, almost every man returned to them. I do not believe there is any observation upon human nature better founded than this; and in many cases, it is a very painful truth; for where early habits have been mean and wretched, the joy and elevation resulting from better modes of life must be damped by the gloomy consciousness of being under an almost inevitable doom to sink back into a situation which we recollect with disgust. (Life 628)
All this past is buried in the words of a "little story book" with its open and secret passages, its columns, unsuspected cavities and "reposited ... treasures" (R 41), a book which thus offers a kind of crypt, like "the catacombs, or ancient repositories" toward which it tends: "Books are faithful repositories," Johnson wrote (Journey 83). Ehrenpreis complains that while the first chapter "ends with a detailed account of the internal plans of the palace and the storage of the imperial treasure, ... we never return to the palace, and the treasure remains untouched" (111). But, leaving the open passage and upper stories for the "labyrinth of subterraneous passages, where the bodies were laid in rows" (145), perhaps we never leave. In this "habitation of the dead" are lodged "the bodies of the earliest generations," where, "by the virtue of the gums which embalmed them, they yet remain without corruption" (145). The text thus points to and shrouds in silence the infantile desire for "mummy"--the word whose pertinence to this passage is made clear by the Dictionary: "A dead body preserved by the Egyptian art of embalming."(13) Shadowing the author "in the utmost exigencies" of his psychic kingdom, we watch dimly as he embalms himself in a little repository whose "private galleries" and "subterranean passages" (R 41) make it "so large as to be fully known to none" (R 41).
Chapter 3 -- Notes
1. Compare Johnson's description of an individual's "ruling passion," which "operates upon the whole system of life either openly or more secretly" ("Life of Pope" 520).
2. In "The Vision of Theodore," Johnson says of the chain of Habit that "[e]ach link grew tighter as it had been longer worn" (168).
3. Hester [Thrale] Piozzi reports that, "When Mr Johnson felt his fancy, or fancied he felt it, disordered, his constant recurrence was to the study of arithmetic; and one day that he was totally confined to his chamber, and I enquired what he had been doing to divert himself, he shewed me a calculation which I could scarce be made to understand, so vast was the plan of it, and so very intricate were the figures: no other indeed than that the national debt, computing it at one hundred and eighty millions sterling, would, if converted into silver, serve to make a meridian of that material, I forget how broad, for the globe of the whole earth, the real globe" (Piozzi 87).
4. A "coney" is a "rabbit," but see entries in Henke for "cony," "coney-berry," and "cony-catching," which show how "[t]he bawdy sense of `cony/cunny' was a commonplace" (60). In the 1741 erotic allegory A Voyage to Lethe, "Captain Samuel Cock" lists his father as "Sampson Cock of Coney-Hatch" (Boucé 81).
5. On "nothing" in Shakespeare, see Pyles, Rubinstein 172-73, and Booth 164; and for other Renaissance drama, Henke 179.
6. Cf. Rambler 89 (22 Jan. 1751): "this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being, is secure from detection, and fearless of reproach."
7. "To ask this question, for a mind as ardent as Johnson's, is to stand at the brink of an abyss" (McIntosh 190).
8. Cf. Charles Wesley's hymn "Looking to Jesus": "Thee my restless Soul requires; / Restless till / Thou fulfill / All its large Desires" (Wesley 156).
9."A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapors are to the traveler; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career to stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it" ("Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare," 309).See Einbond, however, on "the large number of Johnson's allegorical metaphors which are also good puns" and "the effect of such puns on the nature of his allegory" (45 ff.)
10. Ehrenpreis points to "an anagram of `Michael,' the name of Johnson's father" in "Imlac," though he is "confident that the author did not realize the fact" (102) and goes on to mock this "presumed insight" (107). The Arabs as "sons of Ishmael" (120, emphasis added) offer more interesting anagrammatic possibilities to conjure with for "Michael," particularly considering their leader, the rambling "Rover" who seizes Pekuah. Gwin J. Kolb finds that the appearance of an "Icon-Imlac" in a 1682 history of Ethopia owned by Johnson "almost certainly provided the name of the poet" (xxviii). Johnson, however, did not shy from even overt personifications, as we see, for instance, in the "Tom Double," "Will Puzzle," and "Ned Smuggle" of Idler 92 (19 Jan. 1760).
11. On Easter Sunday 1759, a few months after writing Rasselas, Johnson prays, "so sanctify my affliction, O Lord, that I may be converted and healed; and that, by the help of thy holy spirit, I may obtain everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (in Wain 202); and in his last prayer (December 1784), in a formulation suppressed by the first editor, he writes, "Forgive and accept my late conversion" (Wain xi). John Wain comments that, "By conversion he meant not a change from non-belief to belief, but a change of heart, a progression from an unblessed to a blessed state of life" (xi). But Johnson defines "conversion" as "1. Change from one state into another, transmutation; 2. Change from reprobation to grace, from a bad to a holy life; 3. Change from one religion to another" (Dictionary, s.v.). If, with Wain, one plumps for the second sense, what is there to be accepted and forgiven?
12. Johnson's "God," for instance, might offer an example of what Julia Kristeva calls the "imaginary phallus." Joseph H. Smith's discussion of this term seems directly applicable to Johnson: the "imaginary phallus," he writes, is an effort to repress ... the mother of symbiosis, the mother as a figure of death, the yearning for the early, life/death, mother lost. It represses, that is, grief, which then returns as depression or abjection. It is an effort to repress the original emptiness with which one entered the world. It is an effort to repress desire, or, at least, honest desire-- desire that does not deny its origins in the original splitting, emptiness, indigence, and guilt. But the turning toward the hope of wholeness and life remains driven, empty, and imaginary until or unless one can, in that turning, simultaneously face the fear of lack and death that the rejected mother of symbiosis comes to represent. (1059-60).
13. The extraordinarily lengthy illustration accompanying this definition of "mummy"--a 376 word passage from Hill's Materia Medica--suggests some unusual investment by the lexicographer.