Margaret Cavendish’s “Mad” Imagination | The New Yorker

Margaret Cavendish’s “Mad” Imagination | The New Yorker

Her analogy—a painful one, perhaps—was the conception of a child. If nature were purely animate, she wrote, “a Child in the Womb would as suddenly be framed, as it is figured in the mind.” To think of a child would be to have a child. Yet having a child required that the inanimate parts of matter be formed into distinctive figures and patterns, through “infinite changes, compositions, divisions, productions, dissolutions.” Through these changes, the child learned to walk and to speak; by degrees, the child grew and aged and, eventually, died.

Since animate and inanimate matter were mingled, it made no sense to separate the internal dispositions of bodies from the external agents that acted on them, as Hobbes had done. Nor did it make sense to think in atomic terms, as Cavendish had done in her earliest work. All matter was suffused by a single, infinite, and self-knowing motion. It was also governed by a single will. This was “Natures wisdom; for Nature being peaceable in her self, would not suffer her actions to disturb her Government,” she wrote. Against a brutish, divisive vision of both natural and political bodies, her philosophies tended toward peace rather than factionalism, toward coöperation rather than insurrection. Most important, they suggested the desirability of benevolent monarchical rule.

Chief among all motions was wit, “the swiftest motion of the braine,” Cavendish wrote in “The Worlds Olio,” a collection of brief essays and aphorisms. Wit was thought at its most natural, agile, active, and self-governing. It created and delighted in its own movements, without leaning on the encrusted knowledge of scholars or societies. “Wit is neither to be learnt nor gotten, for it is a free gift of nature, and disclaimes art,” she wrote. Wit seized upon the slimmest shade of an idea, and fashioned “Heavens, and Hells, Gods, and Devils.” Its vitality allowed the wholly invented worlds of one person’s imagination to lay claim to the passionate reverence of another’s.

Within Cavendish’s expanding philosophy of motion, wit emerged as a guiding thread, especially after she and her husband returned to England following the restoration of the monarchy, in 1660. William was disappointed in his hope of a position at Charles II’s court, though he was eventually made a duke. The couple settled at Welbeck Abbey, his woodland estate in Nottinghamshire. They found it bare, its furniture spoiled, and there was much unpleasantness with the Duke’s children, who cast aspersions on their stepmother for meddling in their father’s affairs. Still, compared with the upheavals of war and exile, these were minor tribulations. “In peace there is the best wits, and that wit is purest and finest, when the minde is most quiet and peaceable,” the Duchess wrote. “In peace there is little or nothing but what they create from their own brain.”

How could one come to know the motions of wit? Here Cavendish left off her quarrel with Hobbes and turned to the “Modern Microscopical or Dioptrical Writers”—Descartes, Hooke, Boyle—whose splendid and costly instruments, she insisted, had deceived them as to the true nature of motion. In her 1666 treatise, “Observations upon Experimental Philosophy,” she complained that the lenses of microscopes were fractured, flawed, and unevenly shaped, and that their mirrors produced distorted figures, like “a high heel to a short legg.” Lice appeared as large as lobsters, while the wings of birds were abnormally stretched, their feathers streaked with garish colors. “How shall a feather inform us of the interior nature of a Bird?” she wondered. She rejected experiments that used this “brittle Art” to augment the senses, no matter how reasonable their conclusions were. That the pain of a bee sting was caused by venom, that a rainbow was the prismatic refraction of light, that snails have teeth—she refused, simply refused, to believe it.

As science, her thinking was doomed; poetry and knowledge were cleaving apart. Still, images of real beauty sprang from between the cracks. The thirty-seven entries in “Observations upon Experimental Philosophy” do not prosecute a single argument. They assemble a menagerie of bees, butterflies, snails, and leeches, with the same devotion that another woman might have lavished upon her jewels. The seeds of vegetables and the beard of a wild oat are presented with fanatical tenderness. Where her philosophizing is not touched by wonder at nature’s designs, it condemns man’s “deluding Glasses.” But even her strongest condemnations cast a spell: “If the edge of a knife, or point of a needle were naturally and really so as the microscope presents them, they would never be so useful as they are; for, a flat or broad plain-edged knife would not cut, nor a blunt globe pierce so suddenly another body.”

All manner of errors occurred when men used instruments to produce copies from copies. “Art, for the most part, makes hermaphroditical, that is, mixt figures, partly Artificial, and partly Natural,” she wrote. She intended her art to be the purest extension of her thought, of her singularly sensitive soul. “I Language want to dresse my Fancies in,” she had written in “Poems, and Fancies.” Now she began to fashion a garment “loose, and thin,” an unpretentious idiom by which she could represent the invisible motion of wit.

Appended to “Observations upon Experimental Philosophy” was “The Blazing World,” Cavendish’s only novel, and her most lastingly significant writing. In a preface, Cavendish invokes fiction as the plainest and most peaceable genre for the expression of wit. “The end of Reason, is Truth; the end of Fancy, is Fiction,” she argues. Fiction could be framed however she pleased, without any regard for 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 ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be: which makes, that though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I endeavour to be, Margaret the First.” Yet wit did not command armies. It abjured violent acts of death or dispossession. Even more encouraging, its powers of creation were available to all. It was “in every ones power to do the like,” she offered—to make a world and to rule it, too.

“The Blazing World” begins with the abduction of a noble maiden by a merchant, a man half crazed by the lady’s youth and beauty. They sail from the shores of her homeland into a tempest, a “violent motion of the Wind,” which—mercifully, magically—does not dash their boat to pieces against the ice and the waves but steers it across the North Pole of this world, to the pole of a world that adjoins it. The merchant freezes to death, but the lady reaches land and is rescued by strange voyagers in ships made of gold and leather.

Each ship is unique in its splendor, yet “so ingeniously contrived, that they could fasten them together as close as a Honey-comb.” Each voyager is of a singular shade: “Some appear’d of an Azure, some of a deep Purple, some of a Grass-green, some of a Scarlet, some of an Orange-colour.” They come from a land whose inhabitants are of many species: “Some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish- or Mear-men . . . some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men, some Spider-men.” Yet they speak one language, worship one God, and obey one leader, the Emperor. When they bring the lady to him, he makes her his Empress and grants her absolute power of rule. Her first act is to divide his men into Schools and Societies—experimental philosophers, natural philosophers, astronomers, chemists. Then she summons each of the groups, one at a time, to explain to her the motions that make up their world.

Although many have claimed “The Blazing World” as the first science-fiction novel, it is more accurate to think of it as a missing link in the evolution of Renaissance romance into the novel of ideas. The initial description of the world is not so much a sensuous rendering as it is a theory of how parts and wholes may be joined and separated by gentle, even imperceptible motions. The explanations offered by each group of specialists, concerning the moon, the sun, the planets, and the animals of the world, take the form of Socratic dialogues with the Empress, with ideas and images lifted from “Observations upon Experimental Philosophy.” The Empress thrills to didacticism, to setting her men straight. Where the Duchess of Newcastle debated the scholars of the Royal Society, here the Empress corrects her mixed figures, a scenario as comic as Circe discoursing with her pigs. All of “The Blazing World” revolves around an outlandish, if touching, Royalist fantasy: that there might exist a world of learned men who prize a single woman’s natural, earnest intelligence so highly that they happily accept her authority over them.

“I think he’s outgrown the baby gate.”

Cartoon by Amy Hwang

Yet to be mistress of her domain is not enough for the Empress, who wants to share this vision of utopia with the people of her land, so that it might settle the factions that have turned on their ruler. She calls on a new group of functionaries: the immaterial spirits, composed of the swiftest motion and thus capable of moving between worlds. She orders them to journey to her world and bring back the soul of a scribe. 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. “Although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious,” the spirits explain, “the principle of her Writings, is Sense and Reason, and she will without question, be ready to do you all the service she can.”

Here “The Blazing World” transforms into a metafictional romance of writing. Wit may be the language of the soul, but writing is its vehicle. By joining mind to hand, writing functions as a superior transport for moving fancies from the inside of the mind to the outside of the body. As Cavendish conceived of it, writing invites souls to live in corporeal figures. In “The Blazing World,” the service that writing provides to wit, and wit to writing, is analogous to the highest form of love. “That Platonicks believed, the Souls of Lovers lived in the Bodies of their Beloved,” a spirit tells the Empress, as she tries to understand what, precisely, the relationship between her and the Duchess will be. She asks the spirit to bring her the Duchess’s soul, “which the Spirit did; and after she came to wait on the Empress, at her first arrival the Empress imbraced and saluted her with a Spiritual kiss; then she asked her whether she could write?”

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