Citation: “Toward a Theory of Common Sense: Beckford’s Vathek and Johnson’s Rasselas.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26 (1984): 183-217.

Excerpt from pages 184-85

Prince Rasselas begins in the Happy Valley, grows impatient for the knowledge he thinks will bring happiness, burrows through the earth with his sister and mentor, and discovers ironically that happiness is not to be found where he had expected. Caliph Vathek also begins in the Palace of the Five Senses, grows impatient for the knowledge he thinks will bring power, and discovers–with shocking irony–that happiness and power are not to be found where he had expected.

We think of Johnson’s Oriental tale as a monument of common sense, however, and of Beckford’s as a veritable pyramid of bad sense. This difference in perception is significant. The best approach to the theme of “knowledge” in these works, After all, kicking a stone can also appear a compulsion or addiction, as the ultimate of Johnson’s “tics”: the tic of reality testing. Johnson kicking the stone bears a Sisyphian relation to Vathek kicking the Giaour. Reality principle and frustrated desire, Rasselas and Vathek have a sense in common. (p. 200)I suggest, lies through their ambience of common or uncommon sense, an ambience which communicates the nature of knowledge in the manner of the works’ telling. The manner of “sense” consists in style, imagery, aesthetic principles, or–to capitalize on one of Beckford’s key concepts–“taste” generally. As in Paradise Lost, which stands in the background of both works, “taste” is a gloss on “knowledge.” The two merge in Milton’s fruitful pun on “sapience” (from sapere, to taste and to be wise). Rasselas serves up a certain flavor of knowledge in its good taste, and Vathek an opposed flavor in its very bad taste.

Good taste can be left aside for the moment in order to develop an analytic of bad taste. One: bad taste is transcendental. . . .