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.
“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.
I’ve talked myself back to a place where I’m co-producing my ideology in dialogic exchange with my surroundings. I’m still absorbing and responding to reality, but buttressed against its impositions in a way that leaves me proud and alive. I like, for instance, that my house contains stones, a record player, a beautiful, naturally-occurring mace made of an exploding galaxy of dead plant matter — little souvenirs that, like figs and grapes, Sarah and I have pilfered on our walks about town. As she naps on a couch across from me, I try to visualize as green and wooded village behind her eyelids a richly-detailed, richly-imagined early modern universe — a bit like the beautiful, soaring, godly perspective of the title sequence introducing each episode of Game of Thrones, mixed with close-up stage dramas of queens and poets: that whole, radically upswept 16th- and 17th-century world of cross-dressing thespians, New World explorers, merchants, reformers, pirates, colonists, peasants, witches, and slaves. I love that she has dedicated herself to the future preservation in consciousness of the unique shape, the unique imaginative geomorphologies and psychogeographies, of the early modern social totality and psyche. I love her way, too, of toggling between that and the news of the moment, while also maintaining a love for everyday beauty. To better understand me, however, I should probably treat myself to Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, particularly (as Bruce Jenkins of Vinyl Connection reminds me) the book’s ‘Pink Floyd’-influencing seventh chapter. I should probably also explore SCRAWL, Katherine Nonemaker’s “Illustrated Essay about Schizoaffective Disorder.” For the rest of you, I recommend you read Albert Mobilio’s Games & Stunts — but only if the spirit moves you. Smoke gives form to beams of light. Boxes, folding chairs, a yellow extension cord wrapped atop a green electric mower. I guess I’ve come to like this place, shut off for a few minutes each day from the larger global-political-ecological-economic totality, which, like a multi-level maximum security prison system, ultimately determines my fate. “Back up, though,” I tell myself, “You need to stop overacting yourself into hyperventilation like Christian Slater’s ‘Mark Hunter’ character in Pump Up the Volume.”
Whether because of introversion or insight, I have difficulty submitting or subjecting myself to an audience. I go rigid in the face a bit. My brain grows dense from lack of oxygen. Maybe it’s just these words, slipping through my fingers. “There you go, friend: that’s yer life!” Imagine standing before a closet or wardrobe and arranging from among countless possible arrangements of the self through an irreversible, improvised practice. And all of this, performed before a public! Regardless of whether to others it is broad or narrow, to me it is a life. Ticking away daily. Next thing you know, you’re someone else. How different would it be, I wonder, to be a webcammer. I certainly can’t promise total disinhibition. We all have our own little political consciences. But I can only spit fire to the extent that I allow myself to speak freely. But freely might also mean roundabout, as with GIFs. We’ll see.