Margaret Cavendish’s «Mad» Imagination | The New Yorker

Her analogy—perhaps a painful one—was the conception of a child. If nature were purely alive, she wrote, «The child in the womb would suddenly be framed as it is figured in the mind». To think of a child would be to have a child. However, having a child required the inanimate parts of matter to be formed into characteristic shapes and patterns through «endless changes, compositions, divisions, productions, dissolutions.» Through these changes, the child learned to walk and talk; gradually the child grew and grew old and finally died.

Since animate and inanimate matter intermingled, it made no sense to separate the internal dispositions of bodies from the external agents that acted upon them, as Hobbes did. Nor did it make sense to think in atomic terms, as Cavendish did in her early work. All matter was imbued with a single, infinite and self-knowing movement. She was also governed by a single will. This was the “Wisdom of Nature; because nature is peaceful in itself, she will not suffer her actions to disturb her rule,” she wrote. Against a brutal, divisive vision of both natural and political bodies, her philosophy tended toward peace rather than factionalism, cooperation rather than rebellion. Most importantly, they suggested that benevolent monarchical rule was desirable.

Chief among all movements was wit, «the fastest movement of the brain,» Cavendish wrote in «The Worlds Olio,» a collection of short essays and aphorisms. Wit was considered the most natural, the most agile, the most active and the most independent. It created and rejoiced in its own movements without relying on the embedded knowledge of scholars or societies. «Wisdom cannot be learned or acquired, for it is a free gift of nature and rejects art,» she wrote. The joke seized upon the thinnest shade of the idea and produced «Heavens and Hells, Gods and Devils.» His vitality allowed the wholly invented worlds of one man’s imagination to lay claim to the passionate reverence of another.

Within Cavendish’s expanding philosophy of the movement, the joke emerged as a thread, especially after she and her husband returned to England after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. William was disappointed in his hope for a place at Charles II’s court. he eventually became a duke. The couple took up residence at Welbeck Abbey, his woodland seat in Nottinghamshire. They found her naked, her furniture in disrepair, and there was much trouble with the Duke’s children berating their stepmother for meddling in their father’s affairs. Still, compared to the upheavals of war and exile, it was a minor affliction. «In peace is the best mind, and it is purest and best when the mind is quietest and calmest,» wrote the duchess. «There is little or nothing in peace but what they make of their own brains.»

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How could one know the movements of wit? Here Cavendish ended her dispute with Hobbes and turned to «the modern microscopic or dioptric writers»—Descartes, Hooke, Boyle—whose brilliant and expensive instruments, she claimed, had deceived them as to the true nature of motion. In her 1666 treatise «Observations on Experimental Philosophy», she complained that the lenses of microscopes were broken, defective and unevenly shaped, and that their mirrors produced distorted figures, like «a high heel to a short leg». The lice looked as big as lobsters, while the birds’ wings were abnormally spread and their feathers dyed garish colors. «How can a feather inform us about the inner nature of a bird?» she wondered. She rejected experiments that used this «fragile art» to augment the senses, no matter how reasonable their conclusions. That the pain of a bee sting is caused by poison, that a rainbow is a prismatic refraction of light, that snails have teeth—she refused, simply refused to believe it.

As a science, its thinking was doomed; poetry and knowledge separated. Yet between the cracks appeared images of true beauty. The thirty-seven items in «Observations of Experimental Philosophy» fail to make a single argument. They assemble a menagerie of bees, butterflies, snails and leeches with the same devotion that another woman would flaunt her jewels. Vegetable seeds and wild oat beard are presented with fanatical tenderness. Where her philosophizing does not touch on the wonder of natural patterns, she condemns human «deceptive spectacles». But even her harshest condemnation produced a spell: “If the blade of a knife or the point of a needle were naturally and truly as the microscope presents them, they would never be so useful as they are; for a flat or broad knife with a smooth edge would not cut, nor a blunt ball so suddenly pierce another body.’

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All sorts of mistakes were made when men used tools to make copies of copies. «Art for the most part makes hermaphroditic, that is, mixed figures, partly artificial and partly natural,» she wrote. She intended her art to be the purest extension of her thought, her extraordinarily sensitive soul. «I Language i want to get dressed Imagination v,» she wrote in «Poems and Fantasy.» She now began to make a garment «loose and thin,» an unpretentious idiom by which she could represent the invisible movement of wit.

Attached to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy was The Blazing World, Cavendish’s only novel and by far her most important work. In the preface, Cavendish invokes fiction as the simplest and most peaceful genre for the expression of wit. “The end of Reason is Truth; the end of Fancy, is fiction,” he argues. The fiction could be framed however she wanted, regardless of whether her creations existed outside her mind. It was a sovereign realm, and she was its supreme ruler: “For I am not covetous, but as ambitious as any of my sex ever was, is, or can be: which is to say, though I cannot be Henry Fifth, or Charles second; still i try to be Margaret the first.» Yet wit did not command armies. He renounced violent acts of death or dispossession. Even more encouragingly, his creative powers were available to all. It offered itself «in the power of each to do the like»—to create the world as well as rule it.

«The Burning World» opens with the abduction of a noble girl by a merchant, a man half-crazed by the lady’s youth and beauty. They sail away from the shores of her homeland into a storm, a «violent movement of wind» that—mercifully, magically—does not smash their ship to pieces on the ice and waves, but steers it across the North Pole of this world. , to the pole of the world adjacent to it. The merchant freezes to death, but the lady makes it to land and is rescued by strange travelers in ships made of gold and leather.

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Each ship is unique in its splendor, and yet «so ingeniously contrived that it has been able to fasten them together as closely as a honeycomb.» Each traveler has a unique hue: «Some look azure, some deep purple, some grass green, some scarlet, some orange.» They come from a land whose inhabitants are of many kinds: “Some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish or Mear. . . some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese, some Spider-men.” Yet they speak one language, worship one God, and obey one leader, the Emperor. When a lady is brought to him, he makes her his empress and grants her absolute power to rule. Her first act is to divide his men into schools and societies—experimental philosophers, natural philosophers, astronomers, chemists. Then she calls each of the groups together, one by one, to explain to her the movements that make up their world.

Although many have argued that «The Blazing World» is the first science fiction novel, it is more accurate to consider it the missing link in the development of the Renaissance romance into the novel of ideas. The original description of the world is not so much a sensory representation as a theory of how parts and wholes can be joined and separated by subtle, even imperceptible movements. The explanation offered by each group of specialists, concerning the moon, sun, planets, and animals of the world, takes the form of Socratic dialogues with the empress, with ideas and images taken from the «Observations of Experimental Philosophy.» The Empress is excited by didacticism, straightening out her men. Where the Duchess of Newcastle debated the scholars of the Royal Society, the Empress corrects her mixed characters, a scenario as comical as Circe debating with her pigs. The whole of «The Blazing World» revolves around a strange, if poignant, royalist fantasy: that there might be a world of learned men who value a single woman’s natural serious intelligence so highly that they happily accept her authority over them.

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However, it is not enough for the empress to be the mistress of her domain, who wants to share this vision of utopia with the people of her country in order to reconcile the factions that have turned against their ruler. It summons a new group of functionaries: immaterial spirits, composed of the fastest movement and thus able to move between worlds. She orders them to go to her world and bring back the scribe’s soul. The spirits consider and reject the souls of Aristotle, Plato, Descartes and Hobbes, and finally offer her the soul of a woman, the Duchess of Newcastle. “Though she is not among the most learned, eloquent, witty, and ingenious,” the spirits explain, “the substance of her Writings is Sense and Reason, and she will doubtless be ready to do you all the service she can. .”

Here, «The Blazing World» turns into a metafictional romance of writing. Humor may be the language of the soul, but writing is its medium. By connecting mind and hand, writing acts as an excellent vehicle for moving the imagination from the inside of the mind to the outside of the body. As Cavendish understood it, writing invites souls to inhabit corporeal forms. In «The Blazing World,» the service that writing renders to wit, and the wit of writing, is analogous to the highest form of love. «That Platonists he believed that the souls of lovers lived in the bodies of their loved ones,” says the spirit of the empress as she tries to understand what exactly the relationship between her and the duchess will be. She asks the spirit to bring her the soul of the duchess, “which the Spirit did; and after she came to wait on the empress, on her first arrival the empress embraced her and greeted her with a spiritual kiss; then she asked her if she could write?»


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