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Lecture on Chapters 9 – 12

Theodore Dalrymple lectures on Imlac's personal history: leaving Abissinia and entering the Happy Valley.
12.4
In chapters IX to XII, Imlac recounts his life between leaving Abyssinia and entering the Happy Valley, a period of 20 years. In chapter IX, Imlac arrives after a sea voyage at Surat, a port city on the West Coast of India. There he is taken for a rich man. But is also naive, and so he soon cheated by his associates for the sheer pleasure of it. Rasselas is incredulous. Is there such depravity in man, he asks, as that he should injure another without benefit to himself? In other words, does there exist the motiveless malignanty that Coleridge wrongly attributes to the character of Iago in Othello.
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Imlac replies, “Pride will please itself with very mean–” that is to say, it’s very slight– “advantages. And envy feels not its own happiness, but when it may be compared with the misery of others.” In other words, bringing about the misery of others can actually be a source of happiness, at least to the type of person who is given to envy, which is probably most of us. This is a discomforting idea whose truth we recognise at once, though one we would prefer not to acknowledge. Like the French writer of Maxims La Rochefoucauld, Johnson often says things which are both obvious and revelatory. Imlac however, has no desire to be a merchant. He wants to be a poet.
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And in his disposition of the qualities of a poet, he tells us that he must be an observer of nature both on the macroscopic and the microscopic scale such that, to quote William Blake, “He can see all heaven in a grain of sand.” But the poet must be more he must be interested in humanity, and also able as Johnson put it, to divest himself of the prejudices of his age and country, and consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state. The ability of anybody to do so even partially is what is increasingly denied in our times of competitive grievance.
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But Johnson himself was an early opponent of slavery and also of colonialism, which he considered a form of unjustified usurpation, even where the colonised were on a lower cultural level than the coloniser. Imlac tells Rasselas that on his travels he met many people from western and northern Europe, from the most powerful nations. Rasselas asked him why the Europeans should be powerful. Why it is they who should have spread their power over the whole globe. At this time, of course, Australia had not yet been dreamed of. The answer was simple– because they knew more. This of course begs the important question as to why they should have known more, but Rasselas does not ask it.
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Instead, he asked Imlac whether the Europeans are happier thanks to their power and their knowledge. Imlac admits that they are happier than others, but adds that they are still not happy. The question is raised as to the relationship between knowledge and power on the one hand and happiness on the other, without an answer being given. After 20 years Imlac returns to Abyssinia. Nobody is really interested in what he has to say, the common experience of people who have had adventures out of the ordinary. But this time he, has seen so much of the miseries of the world that he wants to be admitted to the Happy Valley and eventually succeeds in being admitted. “Has though found happiness at last?”
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asked Rasselas. “Great prince,” Imlac replies, “I shall speak the truth. I know not one of your attendants in the Happy Valley who does not lament the hour when he entered this retreat.” And since they regret their irrevocable loss of liberty, they would wish the whole of mankind to be confined with themselves. If one cannot be happy oneself, the misery of others is a consolation– another uncomfortable truth about human beings.
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Rasselas reveals that he is planning to escape, and Imlac though he has just said that everybody regrets his admission to the Happy Valley and would like to reclaim his freedom, warns Rasselas that such as the misery and disorder of the outside world that he might soon regret his escape from the Happy Valley and wish to return. It seems that when you are a human being, you cannot win.
“Pride…will please itself with very mean advantages; and envy feels not its own happiness, but when it may be compared to the misery of others.” (p. 22)

This week, you will learn about the connection between poetry and knowledge, the unexpected pleasures of rural life, and the well-concealed anxieties of social existence.

You will explore the life-story of Imlac, the realms beyond the Happy Valley, and Rasselas’ initial encounter with the wider world.

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Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas: An Introduction

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