The Choice of Life: Enlightenment or Baroque?

Samuel Johnson is reputed to have taken no more than a week to write his Oriental tale or philosophical romance Rasselas, the ostensible motivation famously being to defray the cost of his mother’s funeral.  As printed (in 1759), the full title was The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.  But as is well documented, Johnson wanted the title to be The Choice of Life, or, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.  Granted, the publisher probably thought the single title sounded better, less portentous, and therefore more saleable.  He was probably right.  However, the double title had the purpose of signalling the genre of the book, which is allegory.  Walter Benjamin pointed out that allegorists gave their works two titles for the purpose of immediately distinguishing for the reader the two levels upon which the work would, well, work.  In the case of Johnson’s lean masterpiece, it seems sensible to conclude that the literal level is indicated by “The History of Rasselas” and the allegorical level by “The Choice of Life.”

How would a periodizing fetishist approach Rasselas?  One could certainly characterize it as an “Enlightenment allegory.” Rasselas’ confinement to The Happy Valley is decreed by tradition.  His escape from paradise to the world outside is a break with tradition, the Enlightenment gesture par excellence.  His desire to make a “choice of life,” to determine how he will live by a reasonable selection among alternatives, is again, something only the freshly deterritorialized bourgeoisie could dream of doing.   (Gone or rapidly going were the days of the feudal immobility of Lords and Vassals. At least life in the middle of the two extremes was becoming rather more fluid.)  Rasselas thus appears to exude a kind of Enlightenment optimism in its theme of “having and making a choice.”  Rasselas thinks that his life will take on the form of a secular progress: that he will leave behind the discontent that dogged him in The Happy Valley and achieve lasting happiness through the choice of life that the fair exercise of Reason will allow him to correctly determine.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in the narrative.  The progress is frustrated, if not entirely refused.  Happiness is not the telos of a subject that has the liberty to make a choice of life.  Life does not appear to have a telos at all.  (The party ends with the decision to return to Abissinia.  The narrative takes on the form of a circular return to the origin, but this circular form is ironic, or humorous, like the circular form Deleuze and Guattari impute to A Thousand Plateaus.)  It is this absence of a telos to historical process that is the content of Rasselas’ enlightenment.  As one reads further, Rasselas thus takes on the characteristics of “baroque allegory.”  The Abissinian prince breaks free from the confinement of tradition only to find himself unable to escape from the confinement of what Benjamin would have called “the strict context of immanence.”  The chief characteristic of “immanence” is irredeemable mutability and thus the chief affective reaction to immanence is unsurmountable ambivalence.  Insofar as it declares ambivalence to the mutability of life untranscendable, Rasselas exudes a kind of pessimism.  Like the baroque allegories Benjamin spoke of, it betrays this pessimism to the degree that it entertains the thought of the immortal soul’s ultimate redemption from immanence.  One could add more cars to this train of thought…

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