Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapters 17 and 18

The title of chapter 17, “The Prince Associates with Young Men of Spirits and Gaiety” is more promising than its contents. Yes, Rasselas does decide to sow his wild oats, but just a few days later he is “weary and disgusted”, and returns to virtuous life. Before he leaves, he preaches his friends a sermon about how this way of life is going to turn out very bad for them when they get older, but they only laugh at him. The next step in his education is when by chance he goes to see a certain philosopher teaching at his school. The philosopher’s teachings are basically a version of stoicism – he teaches how one should not be governed by passions, but only by reason. Rasselas loves this and after his lecture he approaches him, asking for a permission to visit him at home. The philosopher first hesitates, but when Rasselas drops a purse of gold into his hand, he agrees. Rasselas comes back home and is all elated about how he met the Best! Teacher! Ever!, although Imlac warns him that “the teachers of morality… discourse like angels, but they live like men”. After a few days Rasselas goes to see the philosopher, and when the servants don’t want to admit him, he again bribes his way in. The philosopher, as it turns out, is in mourning after the sudden loss of his daughter (maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t think anybody would add with such ease “from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age”, which makes it unpleasantly close to “I mourn her only because she was going to be my primary caregiver”). Rasselas, somewhat tactlessly, points out that according to his own teachings death happens to everyone, so there’s no point in getting emotional over the external things; only truth and reason are unchangeable and worth being attached to. What’s the good of truth and reason for me now, answers the unhappy father. Rasselas realizes it’s best to stop and goes home, “convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound”.

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Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapter 9

Imlac at first is enchanted by the sea, but soon grows weary of it. He comforts himself with the thought that the land is surely more varied. He lands in Surat in India and joins a caravan, whose other members, seeing that he is both rich and inexperienced, take great pleasure in setting him up and allowing him to be cheated by servants or ripped off by various officials, just for the pleasure of feeling superior to him. Rasselas can’t quite believe how somebody can take pleasure in other people’s humiliation without any material benefit to themselves, just for the sake of feeding their pride, but Imlac tells him that pride “will please itself with very mean advantages”. When he arrived in Agra, he learns the local language and soon is able to converse with various scholars. The tutor to royal children likes him so much that he introduces him to the emperor. The emperor asks him many questions about his country and travels, and, as Johnson put it in another of his sly jokes, at the end of the interview “he dismissed me astonished at his wisdom, and enamoured of his goodness”. The merchants with whom Imlac travelled, seeing how popular he is, now ask him for introduction to the palace ladies. Imlac first reminds them about how unkind they were to him. They do not show any signs of regret or shame and offer him a bribe, but that he refuses as well, knowing that they were going to cheat their customers as well, who were going to rely on Imlac’s reference. After Imlac goes tired of India, he goes to Persia and then to Arabia.

Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapter 8

Around midnight the concert ends and Rasselas calls Imlac to tell him the story of his life. Imlac, after some initial coy disclaimers (I’m a scholar, a scholar’s life is not interesting) says that his father was a rich merchant, a good man in his way, but interested only in making money and hiding it from the authorities. Here Rasselas interrupts him, saying that it’s a mark of bad governance on the part of his father if his subjects have to be afraid of losing their possessions. He demands to know the name of the bad governor. Imlac tells him that being young, he can’t know that even the best rulers can’t control everything and continues. Imlac’s father gave him the best education and seeing that his son was smart, he hoped he would grow even richer than he was. Here Rasselas interrupts him again, saying that he can’t see why his father wanted be to even richer, if he had to hide even what he already had. Imlac explains that people are sometimes inconsistent, his father might hope for better times, and everyone needs some motivation in life; for the people like his father, whose needs are satisfied, it is fancy which propelled him. Rasselas says he can understand that and apologizes for interruption. Imlac soon realized that learning, not business, was his thing, but he also was dissatisfied with his teachers, because outside the classroom they did not seem any wiser than common men. When Imlac is twenty, his father gives him ten thousand pieces of gold. This is your venture capital, my son, he says, and he gives him the standard fatherly speech about the value of hard work and parsimony (I had less than fifth of it when I started and see where it got me etc.) He tells Imlac that if he can double it in four years, he is not going to be subjected to him as his son any more, but he is going to be his friend and partner. (So he’s expecting like 19% return on investment, which seems to be a bit much, but I know nothing about business today, let alone in fictitious Abyssinia.) If Imlac loses it, well, he will have to wait for his father’s death to inherit the rest. Imlac loads his gold on camels, but when he reaches the shores of the Red Sea, he is seized with an urge to see other countries. If I’m going to lose money, let be it, he thinks, and leaves for India, leaving an explanatory letter to his father.

Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (the end)

People generally wish for a long life, but what’s the use of that? Johnson paints a sad picture of an ageing miser, whose family pretends to be amused by the same old anecdotes just to be sure they are going to be in his will. Even the people who can enjoy a happy old age thanks to the virtuous life they led when they were in their prime still suffer from grief when they lose their loved ones, and feel increasingly superfluous and out of touch with the contemporary world. Anyway, few people can hope for a happy old age, even the most illustrious ones, viz. Marlborough and Swift. Swift’s dementia in his last years is well-known, as for Marlborough (the famous general), I guess Johnson is referring to the series of strokes he suffered from in the last years of his life. And mothers usually pray for beauty for their daughters, but beauty makes them forgetful of virtue and prudence, bringing them infamy. Johnson quotes the examples of two royal mistresses, Catherine Sedley and Anne Vane, although I’m not sure his examples are particularly well chosen and they seem to be picked just because they were still in the living memory, while safely dead. Catherine Sedley, the mistress to James II, considered herself plain, although it could be just the result of the fact that in her times the ideal beauty was blonde and voluptuous, while Sedley was apparently more of a Winona Ryder, not Claudia Schiffer. She also seems to have a relatively long and happy life, going the usual route of royal exes by marrying a mid-level nobleman who got a nice new title as a bonus. I could not find that much information about Anne Vane, apart from the fact that she really got around and died rather young. I guess Johnson was disapproving of their lifestyle altogether. So, all in all, if all the things people wish for in life are worthless, what should we wish for? Love, patience and faith, is Johnson’s answer.

Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

I decided to skip blogging about the next section in the NAEL, that is William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode, because I decided I had little to add to the commentary published there. So today I’m moving to Dr Samuel Johnson, possibly my favourite person in the whole of 18th century – depressive, witty, kind to people and animals, and so sensitive that he would go personally to buy oysters for his cat so that his servant wouldn’t feel degraded by being sent to buy cat food. This last detail even makes me forgive his notorious remark about women preaching being like dogs walking on their hind legs, because when we paraphrase it by removing women out of it, you can still use it in a lot of cases when people are showered with excessive praise.

“The Vanity of Human Wishes” is, as they called it in the 18th century, an “imitation”, or a kind of a loose paraphrase of Juvenal’s Satire 10. The intro to the poem warns that it is tough and it’s correct. The poem, written in the favourite verse of the 18th c., heroic couplets, starts with a look on the globe, from China to Peru, and comments about the widespread human foolishness, which makes people avoid imaginary evil or pursue imaginary good, the foolishness which sometimes destroys whole nations. Then we get some standard remarks about how the greed for gold is the worst. Another example of human foolishness is kings invading other countries for imaginary gains, and the low foot-soldiers may be actually better off in this case, because they are not going to end up in the Tower. Then somewhat suddenly Johnson changes his course of thoughts by portraying a poor traveller who wanders through the forest, “serene and gay”, amusing himself with singing. If we want to destroy his peace of mind, we have to make him richer and then he’ll be seeing danger lurking in every thicket. Johnson calls to the spirit of Democritus, who was known as “the laughing philosopher”, because he found man’s follies very amusing, to come back and look at the world now. Johnson somewhat idealizes the times of Democritus, claiming they were the period when “Want enchained Caprice”, and imagines Democritus would find much more to laugh about in his degenerate times. People jostle for preferment, fame and money, but their pursuit inevitably ends with a downfall. The portraits that used to hang on the walls (like the image of Athena which used to protect Troy), when their models fall into obscurity, are burnt or sold in auctions, and their golden frames used for other, more current celebrities.

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 10 and 11

Lucy returns with a bottle of liquor, insisting on Polly’s drinking it. Brandy is like men, she says, women like to take it, but pretend not to, and so they do it only in private Polly still demurs, even when she has a glass pressed into her hand. Fortunately for her, at this moment she seed Macheath brought in chains and drops the glass. Both she and Lucy throw themselves at Macheath, singing a duet imploring him to look at either of her. (A small snippet of this scene starts at 2:58)

Macheath says this affair will soon end with his death, so he really doesn’t need to choose one over the other, but Peachum points out his declaration may prevent litigation between the two widows. Macheath sings a song about how one wife is more than enough. Lucy and Polly then implore in speech and song their respective fathers not to deliver the evidence against Macheath. This is the moment depicted in the famous Hogarth painting.
William Hogarth 016

A choice morsel of gossip c. 1728: the actress playing Polly, Lavinia Fenton, may be acting pleading to her stage father, but she is really staring at Duke of Bolton, the man in blue sitting on the right. The Duke, unhappily married and Lavinia’s senior by 23 years, fell in love with her during the show. ICYMI, the sculpted satyr laughs and points down at the Duke. Lavinia’s meteoric career as an actress ended with her eloping with the Duke and becoming his longtime mistress and eventually wife when the Duke’s first wife died.

But both fathers are unrelenting: Lockit points out in a song that if they don’t hang Macheath, they may hang themselves, and Peachum advises Polly to look for a new husband. Macheath sings a defiant song about how his death was only to be expected, and at least his death will please both of his wives. Then he leaves with Peachum and Lockit. And here’s the whole scene with Laurence Olivier.

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 1 and 2

Act III opens again in Newgate, with Lockit accusing Lucy of helping and abetting Macheath. Lucy swears she didn’t do it and tries to redirect her father’s suspicions to Polly and Peachum: they’ ve been here, they know Newgate very well, it could be them. Lockit, still suspicious, asks Lucy whether Macheath paid her to help him escape and swears that if she shares the money with him, he won’t be angry. Lucy says she’d rather pay herself to keep Macheath with her. Lockit says he hoped Lucy’s education behind the bar in the alehouse would have made here more careful, and Lucy says it was the cause of her ruin. She sings a sad song about how he taught her to kiss all the customers, but nothing more. Unfortunately there was this one customer whose kiss was so sweet she couldn’t forget it and she gave him her all.

(I can’t link to the exact point in the clip, but the song starts at about 2:55 mark). She then confesses she did help Macheath and now she suspects Polly is actually his wife. Now Macheath will go back to Polly, she will first wheedle him out of his money and then Peachum will hang him. She sings another very sad song about how her love is all madness and folly and how jealous she is. Lockit tells her angrily to go away. Left alone, he reveals in a monologue that he intends to outwit Peachum by getting him drunk and making him reveal where Macheath is hiding. He says that the man is the only social animal of prey, because lions, wolves, and vultures, don’t live in herds or droves, thus revealing his ignorance of David Attenborough’s oeuvre. But continuing this shaky simile, he says Peachum is his friend and thus he has the right to be the first to cheat him. He sings a song about how gamesters conspire together to trick a dupe, but when the scheme fails, they will betray one another, like hungry pikes eating one another. He calls Lucy and asks her whether anybody from Peachum’s gang is around. Lucy says Filch is drinking with Black Molly. Lockit tells her to call him.