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Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author

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Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author. Wendy Laura Belcher. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2012. Pp. 285. ISBN. 978-0-19- 979321-1 (hb). £45.

In the winter of 1733 the twenty-four-year-old Samuel Johnson was in a poor state. Obliged to leave Pembroke College Oxford as a result of poverty, he had succumbed to one of his recurrent depressions. He took to his bed, from where he dictated to a friend an English translation of Father Jerónimo Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia, originally written in Portuguese, via a modified French translation made by Joachim Le Grand.  The immediate reason may have been a need to make some money, though when published in 1735, the slender book made little. But why did Johnson choose to devote his energies to this particular, obscure text? A quarter of a century later, needing at short notice to defray his mother’s funeral expenses in Lichfield, he dashed off in a week a short work of fiction in which he returned to the location of Lobo’s book. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia at least has the merit that, unlike the Lobo translation, it is still widely read. Published in the same year as Voltaire’s Candide, to which it bears a coincidental and oblique relation, it is a parable of the frustrated search for wisdom and happiness, which starts in a “Happy Valley” in Abyssinia, and proceeds to Egypt, whither the princely Rasselas is accompanied by a philosopher called Imlac. Like the Lobo book, it manifests a familiarity with the country we now call Ethiopia vastly in excess of that one might expect of an Englishman at the time, or indeed since.

The principal claim in Wendy Laura Belcher’s perceptive but repetitive book is that Johnson was not simply obsessed by Abyssinia, but possessed by it. She adduces her argument from a variety of sources. First, there is the open question, why, having travelled so little in the flesh, Johnson repeatedly returned to this particular foreign terrain at moments of personal crisis. Belcher points to the fact that as a young man Johnson immersed himself in everything he could get hold of on the history, the customs and the literature of that country, and more particular of the Habesha, the predominant ethnic element. There were sound reasons for this choice. The Habesha possess a literature three thousand year old, and Coptic Christianity is older than Catholicism or, indeed, than any European version of the faith. Tormented by doubt and misgiving, the piously Anglican Johnson was evidently attracted by a church that was neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor indeed traditionally Orthodox, and which seemed close to the teaching and practice of the early desert fathers.

Belcher’s strongest suit stems from her careful examination of relevant texts. Nobody before her has examined the Lobo translation in such detail. As a result she is able to demonstrate what few have suspected: that at numerous points Johnson intervenes to counteract the chauvinistic and pro-missionary biased Lobo and Le Grand, correcting their accounts of history in favour of indigenous Habesha point of view reconstructed largely from surviving Habesha writings. Something in the Habesha way of life evidently drew him inexorably to them. The trouble arises when, buoyed up by her empirical discoveries, Belcher proceeds to expand polysyllabically on them. To represent the oddly eclectic and learned character of Johnson’s African tales, she has dredged up the early eighteenth-century term “energumen”, meaning one who has been taken over by a devil or spirit. Both Johnson and these particular books were, she believes, “possessed” by the Habesha.  Johnson’s case history is, she proposes, one example of a not infrequent syndrome whereby various European authors have been captivated by the spirit of a particular foreignness. To suggest thus is a welcome counter-blast to the drab postcolonial drum. And to announce this form of reverse appropriation she brandishes the new term “discursive possession”, the illustration of which will doubtless occupy her, and other scholars, for some time to come.

At moments Belcher does seem to be aware that she is driving her plausible case too far. The most salient illustration of it, and among the more moving passages in Johnson, concerns the Egyptian astronomer encountered by Rasselas and Imlac, who has convinced himself that he can control the weather, even the course of the stars. Belcher’s arcane explanation is that the Habesha nobles once claimed to be able to control the course of the Nile, and that the astronomer is like them. The famous passage is therefore about Johnson’s encounter with “the other”. Yet, as every student of Johnson knows, it is most poignantly about Johnson’s own encounter with the delusive depths of his own personality. To insist, as Belcher does, that the two readings may co-exist, should not  distract us from the recognition that here as ever Johnson is primarily concerned with the pitfalls of a human nature consistent, as he proclaims in the first couplet of ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, from China to Peru, even to Princeton.

Reviewed by: Robert Fraser, The Open University.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 90-91]

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