Rasselas, a Bloglodyte’s Salvation

Illus. from Samuel Johnson's "Rasselas"

There are dangers with being (as I call myself) a bloglodyte,    I spend a lot of my time in solitary contemplation, and sometimes, in blogging about the world, I feel responsible for what’s going on in the world. Sometimes I feel weighed down and I struggle for perspective.

Wouldn’t you know that Samuel Johnson, whose understanding of human nature rivals that of Shakespeare, anticipated what I’m going through. Particularly relevant to my case is the astronomer in Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

Rasselas is a philosophic narrative about a prince and his party traveling around the world in search of the optimal way to live, and at one point they learn about an old scientist.  Their guide Imlac says that, at first glance, the sage appears to be living a rich and meaningful life:

I have just left the observatory of one of the most learned astronomers in the world, who has spent forty years in unwearied attention to the motion and appearances of the celestial bodies, and has drawn out his soul in endless calculations. He admits a few friends once a month to hear his deductions and enjoy his discoveries.

So far, so good.  In fact, his devotion to studying the stars and sharing his discoveries with others could describe what I do, both as an academic and as a bloglodyte.  I survey the heavens—literature and life, in my case—and seek to understand them better. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. But as always with Johnson, what at first appears an ideal existence proves to have problems. In the astronomer’s case, madness enters in:

Hear, Imlac, what thou wilt not without difficulty credit. I have possessed for five years the regulation of the weather and the distribution of the seasons. The sun has listened to my dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic by my direction; the clouds at my call have poured their waters, and the Nile has overflowed at my command. I have restrained the rage of the dog star, and mitigated the fervors of the crab. The winds alone, of all the elemental powers, have hitherto refused my authority, and multitudes have perished by equinoctial tempests which I found myself unable to prohibit or restrain. I have administered this great office with exact justice, and made to the different nations of the earth an impartial dividend of rain and sunshine. What must have been the misery of half the globe if I had limited the clouds to particular regions, or confined the sun to either side of the equator?

What are we to make of this craziness?  Imlac explains that excessive contemplation inevitably leads to a skewed vision:

In time some particular train of ideas fixes the attention; all other intellectual gratifications are rejected; the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favorite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish.

The group of travelers in Rasselas are able to wean the astronomer from his mad notions simply by providing him with diversion and good company.  Eventually, when he returns to common sense, he confesses to them,

“I can only tell that I have chosen wrong. I have passed my time in study without experience — in the attainment of sciences which can for the most part be but remotely useful to mankind. I have purchased knowledge at the expense of all the common comforts of life; I have missed the endearing elegance of female friendship, and the happy commerce of domestic tenderness. If I have obtained any prerogatives above other students, they have been accompanied with fear, disquiet, and scrupulosity; but even of these prerogatives, whatever they were, I have, since my thoughts have been diversified by more intercourse with the world, begun to question the reality. When I have been for a few days lost in pleasing dissipation, I am always tempted to think that my inquiries have ended in error, and that I have suffered much, and suffered it in vain.”

Imlac was delighted to find that the sage’s understanding was breaking through its mists, and resolved to detain him from the planets till he should forget his task of ruling them, and reason should recover its original influence.

I’m not convinced that my study of literature is only “remotely useful to mankind,” nor do I agree that the astronomer has wasted his life. Johnson makes clear elsewhere in his work that simply mingling with the world is not the key to a good life either.  In fact, there is no ultimate key, and the final chapter of Rasselas is entitled “Conclusion, in which Nothing Is Concluded.”

What Rasselas gives us, however, is a tool for reflecting on what we do.  The astronomer shouldn’t stop being an astronomer, but he should also widen his lens, as it were.  Whenever we risk falling prey to myopia or complacency or some other one-dimensional line of thought, Johnson is there to reveal our condition to us and offer us countervailing perspectives so that we can regain our bearings.

In my case, Rasselas reminds me to close up my laptop, seek the company of friends, and contribute to the community.

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3 Comments

  1. Susan
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad that your pursuit of knowledge did not keep you from some of the comforts of life, Robin. Especially “the endearing elegance of female friendship, and the happy commerce of domestic tenderness.” 🙂
    This post is a good reminder, however, not to become weighed down with responsibilities ( some of which may not even be ours). Especially if doing so comes at the cost of enjoying our lives as part of the communities we are trying to serve.

  2. Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Robin,
    I discovered your site this morning. Rasselas! Beowulf! Literature as a necessity of life!
    I feel like Brer Rabbit coming home to the briar patch. Thanks.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you found the website, Maeve. I like yours as well, at AmericanEnglishDoctor.com. We both of us believe that literature is not the exclusive preserve of English professors. (As I point out to my students, there weren’t too many academics gathered in the monasteries and mead halls to hear recitations of Beowulf.)


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