John Dee, as Imagined by Margaret Cavendish

What are we to make, though, of the attention Cavendish grants to John Dee and Edward Kelly? She knew of the pair’s angelic conversations through Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist. Dee and Kelly were the inspiration for the play’s characters Dr. Subtle and Capt. Face. Margaret’s husband William was one of Jonson’s patrons.

If I were to enter the John Dee rabbit hole opened by my wanting to follow up on his appearance in The Blazing World, I could practice for students the keeping of a captain’s log. Into this log I would register three semi-recent biographies of Dee: Benjamin Woolley’s from 2001, Glyn Parry’s from 2012, and Jason Louv’s from 2018. Dee will make an appearance again later in the course when we discuss the Golden Dawn.

Retrocausation

The hyperstition I’ve imagined draws upon the process of “retrocausation.”

Like a descendent reaching back and saving an ancestor, as in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred, the fiction I’m writing arrives from the future to affect-effect the past.

At the center of the story are the journals trance-scribed at the height of my high in years prior. “Words came to me as if whispered to me by a me of the future,” mutters the Narrator. “I was so attentive in those days. And I encountered near-zero need to edit or cross out. The pages of the journals are pristine.”

Science writer Eric Wargo explores the topic of retrocausation in his 2018 book Time Loops: Precognition, Retrocausation, and the Unconscious. To know more, one must be like Batman descending to his Batcave. Let us to our memory palace go, there to converse with Wargo.

Through a Glass, Darkly

In her utopian fantasy The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish conjures up a convocation of bird-men. Cavendish’s lady protagonist, by now Empress, asks of these myopic bird-men that they share with her what they know of sun and moon, and of stars and air. That they do, in very learned and philosophical ways: though oftentimes in error. The Empress grows irate with the bird-men for their reliance on telescopes and other “optic lenses,” saying “now I do plainly perceive, that your glasses are false informers, and instead of discovering the truth, delude your senses; wherefrom I command you to break them, and let the bird-men trust only to their natural eyes, and examine celestial objects by the motions of their own sense and reason” (141). Cavendish herself, unfortunately, would go on to be savaged by her critics, much as the bird-men are here savaged by the Empress. Male contemporaries like Samuel Pepys ridiculed her for refusing to speak during her appearance before a gathering of the men of Britain’s Royal Society in May of 1667, six months after The Blazing World’s first appearance in print. Yet surely these critics are mistaken, one realizes now, reading the above-quoted passage again in retrospect. Cavendish didn’t refuse to reply; she replied in advance.

Magic as Paralogical Retort

Early on in the semester ahead, we’ll need to discuss magic, positing the latter as a paralogical retort to the patriarchal Royal Society and its imperial science. Also a coping strategy, a response to lives disrupted by war, authors displaced and dispossessed, as in the case of Cavendish. Magic is a way of knowing and doing that persists and evolves alongside the New Science, refusing and contesting the latter’s bid for supremacy. Tolkien takes up much the same cause in his poem “Mythopoeia,” written following a discussion with C.S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson. In the course of this famed discussion, Lewis is said to have denounced myths, describing the latter as “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien’s poem replies in character, its words spoken by “Philomythos” (or “myth-lover”) to Lewis’s “Misomythos” (or “myth-hater”). Tolkien composed the poem in heroic couplets, the preferred meter of British Enlightenment poets, so as to critique the latter on its own turf.

The Politics of Fantasy

Fantasy is dangerous. The genre has its share of royalists, reactionaries, and racists. Tolkien and Lewis, who taught together at Oxford, were devout Catholics. Writers of the Left sometimes dismiss the genre as ideologically suspect, preferring science fiction in its stead. But no such distinction holds. Science fiction writers of the Left have written works of fantasy, and rightwing fantasists like C.S. Lewis wrote works of science fiction, like the latter’s WWII-era Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945). Each genre remains anyone’s game.

Movie Night

Home equipped with corkscrew, shelves stocked with groceries, laundry in the machine in the basement, I lay back with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World and await snow, the latter expected to fall this evening and to continue through most of tomorrow. A friend and I will make of it a movie night. A girl with glittery eyes tells me to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (2019), so I do. Tarantino includes within his film a remake of a scene from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Brad Pitt’s stunt double chauffeur character Cliff Booth arrives home and gives his dog a bone after caring all day for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, neurotic washed-up TV Western actor Rick Dalton. And already, we’ve seen the Manson girls — they’re in the neighborhood. For Dalton lives on Cielo Drive. Director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate live next door. “The year, then,” thinks the Narrator, “must be 1969.” Booth, meanwhile, lives crosstown in a trailer, preparing dinner for himself and his dog, like the manliest of men. Panning among houses in the hills, we see varying levels of wealth, right up to the Playboy Mansion. The Tate-Polanski car’s arrival there recalls the opening pages of The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Trailing after this day in the life of an actor and his stunt double, actors who appear later in the film playing “real historical figures” are likely to seem like stunt doubles of a sort themselves, as with the guy playing Steve McQueen. It’s all a bit morbid, thinks the Narrator — until suddenly, the film redeems itself with its shocking revisionism: its imagining of events other than as they occurred in real life.

Narrative Recap

Therapy allows for reflection, narrative recaps fitted to the hour of the therapeutic session. “What story do you wish to tell?” asks the Therapist. “A utopian one!” I attest, eyes gleaming. “A romance!” Afterwards, though, I sit around perplexed. “Why, then,” I ask myself in exasperation, “did I write it last summer as if it were a ghost story?” Here I am, now — ghosted. Why have I written a story that interpellates me as a bloody mother fucking asshole and former inhabitant of a haunted house? What was I thinking? Why were those the genres and tropes to which I was drawn? How instead might I proceed with my tale?

Uncle Matt’s New Adventure

“What about Oculus?” wonders the Narrator. “My nephews acquired an Oculus as a ‘family gift’ from Santa this past Christmas,” he explains. VR is here: available for those who can afford it. Off-worlding, world building: that’s what rich people do, rapturing themselves away like rocket scientists. “‘When in Rome…,’” mutters the Narrator, with scare quotes and a shrug.

“I could smoke weed and try it, setting out as Uncle Matt on a new adventure. A portal fantasy inspired by Fraggle Rock.”

Indeed, he could, notes the Author — but does he?

‘Tis a story as much about perception’s limits as about its doors. Writing is the site where an ongoing bodying forth occurs: where forms and objects arrive into the realms of the audible and the visible.

Let imagination have a crack at it, thinks the Narrator. Let us immerse ourselves in fantasies. Let us adopt together the practice of reading works of fantastic literature and watching works of fantastic cinema.

Our approach will be by way of “portal fantasies”: works that involve acts of portage, passage, portation, as through a door or gate connecting previously distinct worlds. The OED defines a portal as “A door, gate, doorway or gateway, of stately or elaborate construction.” The term enters English by way of French and Latin with the Pearl Poet’s use of it in the late-fourteenth century. Henry Lovelich uses it soon thereafter in a Middle-English metrical version of a French romance about the Arthurian wizard Merlin. And Milton uses the term in a remarkable passage in Paradise Lost:

Op’n, ye everlasting Gates, they sung,

Op’n, ye Heav’ns, your living dores; let in

The great Creator from his work returnd

Magnificent, his Six Days work, a World;

Op’n, and henceforth oft; for God will deigne

To visit oft the dwellings of just Men

Delighted, and with frequent intercourse

Thither will send his winged Messengers

On errands of supernal Grace. So sung

The glorious Train ascending: He through Heav’n,

That op’nd wide her blazing Portals, led

To Gods Eternal house direct the way,

A broad and ample rode, whose dust is Gold

And pavement Starrs, as Starrs to thee appear,

Seen in the Galaxie, that Milkie way

Which nightly as a circling Zone thou seest

Pouderd with Starrs.

Note how Heaven’s gates are “blazing,” as is the world in the first of our readings this semester, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World. Cavendish and Milton were contemporaries. Cavendish published The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World in 1666. Paradise Lost appeared one year later.

Notes from Another Past

Hiro Kone’s “Mundus patet” hisses out from floor speakers into the space of my living room as I sit and pack books for my journey. The plan is to leave early tomorrow morning, drive conjunct with Winter Solstice. “Others are awake, living wild magical lives,” thinks the Traveler. “Let us get with them.”

I walk the path of a time tunnel, listening intently, sight reduced amid the day’s cool air as I head to the beach. ‘Tis a somber tale, if all one hears is squawking — so listen. Laughter, wheels of strollers rolling on boardwalks, children conversing with caregivers, waves crashing along the shore. I gather shells along my approach and then toss them gently into the ocean. A makeshift offering. One does what one can. Shorebirds pass; seagulls dive down and collect. Other beachgoers share the beach with us, wandering solitary or in pairs. I close my eyes and meditate, awakening myself at a set interval with a timer. Languages confront me with occasional meaning — terms like “Moses,” “nope,” and “Sunken Meadow.”

My eyes fall upon Pringles potato chips, left behind in the upstairs bedroom in the wake of Frankie’s visit. “Eat, Eat, Eat!” I hear her saying. She brings such joy, such willful, day-shaping energy. Yet here I lie, feeling crumpled and broken, sleepless and alone atop a bed of crumbs. “Until summer, I’ll be running from one thing to the next, barely able to feel my face,” thinks the Traveler. Struggling to cheer up out of this self-administered genre/affect/mood. Struggling to awaken. Until it’s not really a struggle after all. One awakens all the time: birds fly by, light shines through. And there are companions! playgrounds! friends of the forest! an immeasurable capacity to forgive.