chapter  8
31 Pages

Utopia and the philosophical tale: Rasselas

Both the category of eighteenth-century fiction that scholars define as the ‘philosophical tale’ and its overlapping genre, the ‘oriental tale’, appear to be tailormade for the utopian imagination. In a number of French and English examples the vivid utopian motif is woven into the figurative carpet as part of the pattern: the account of the Troglodytes in Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721), or Eldorado in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), or Johnson’s own Happy Valley in Rasselas, (also 1759).1 Not all philosophical tales are oriental, but this particular vogue - which can be traced to the influence of the French translation of the Arabian Nights (1704-17) - adapts well to the taste for fictional theorising about other cultures in relation to one’s own.2 ‘All judgment is comparative’ is one of Imlac’s aphorisms,3 and this applies to utopian fiction and oriental tale alike. ‘Oriental’ becomes loosely synonymous with exotic (to Westerners) civilisations covering areas of three continents: Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the whole of Asia. As in many utopian fictions, distance evidently lends enchantment. Moreover, not only enchantment, but curiosity: Islam and China in particular represent imaginative structures alien and attractive to eighteenth-century Europeans. In more recent times, the cult of Orientalism has become a noted ideological battleground;4 again, as with utopias, any resemblance to the real world is sensitive and problematic. Even in its earlier period, the excesses of the cult’s devotees can excite derision not unlike that directed to utopian chimeras.