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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday October 13, 2019

Birds and squirrels play outdoors, the world outside the window an infinite cosmology, plural worlds within worlds. Sarah sings to me from the next room about the ideas of Margaret Cavendish. World-building. Radical occult ontology. Can these be the way individuals imagine themselves in relation to a cosmos of many beings and worlds? By such means, we could design our own cognitive maps, could we not? Think of these latter as structures similar in scale to Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe. Only they’re not grasped as structures. We learn our cognitive maps, we study them as they unfold all around us: the great Happenings of the Multitude. The “cognitive map” is a Utopian object proposed by Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson — a “spur,” we might say, an aesthetic riddle, a challenge issued to artists of the future. The purpose of this object that doesn’t yet exist, Jameson says, is to represent the unrepresentable, so that individual subjects can once again find their way in a global totality that at present “transcends all individual thinking or experience” (“Cognitive Mapping,” p. 353). When I return to André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism,” I encounter aesthetic interventions of a different sort, ones that place their trust in “the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Allow language to air what needs airing, urge the Surrealists. Allow the unconscious to speak, no more cross-outs, just flow. To produce a “Surrealist composition,” one enters a receptive state of mind, allowing sentences to come either spontaneously or through games involving arbitrary constraints. Get weird, bring back the arbitrary, “so compelling is the truth that with every second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard” (Breton 30). Breton’s movement was a response to world war. Reason had led humanity toward destruction and tragedy; perhaps we should live in accord, then, with our imaginations and our dreams. It’s a shocking, scandalous proposal, as Breton the former Dadaist intended. This is, after all, an anti-art. Yet its results are sometimes marvelous and strange. “The words, the images,” as Breton wrote, “are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener” (35) — and each of us, of course, when creating and dialoguing through Surrealist art, gets to play the listener, “reason’s role being,” in this art, “limited to taking note of, and appreciating, the luminous phenomenon” (37).

Friday May 4, 2018

In the second episode of its second season, Westworld reaches dizzying new heights of allegorical richness and complexity. Through sympathy, or sympathetic identification with characters, consciousness gives itself to other points of view. We witness Being from the standpoint of the commodity, the proletariat. Created beings piece together truth by eavesdropping upon conversations they overhear among the god-beings they’ve been made to serve. The West is a world that seeks the end of history, the show suggests. A world that seeks to destroy itself in order to puzzle out the meaning of its making. And where Westworld ends, The Blazing World begins. We are immaterial spirits cloaked in material garments, says Margaret Cavendish — our true selves, I would add, as invisible to us as video game players are to their avatars. Identification, I would remind readers, is the principle that allows this forgetting, this trance-formation that occurs, the self’s ability to merge in imagination with what was formerly other. One could easily extrapolate an imaginary but plausible heretical form of Christianity based on these beliefs. We are each of us the Christ, might go its teachings, each of us the Creator-Being made incarnate, entered into the Creation in order to save it. Let us imagine ourselves thus. Let us feel rapid and jittery upon our evening walks as we exalt in prefiguration of our approaching freedom.

Sunday April 29, 2018

“Textual self-witnessing.” That phrase leaps out at me as I read about seventeenth-century author Margaret Cavendish. Is that part of what I’m after with this daily practice of mine, these trance-scripts? Speaking of self-witnessing: A student’s dream journal guides me to the “overview effect,” the sense of euphoria and self-transcendence reported by astronauts the first time they view the Earth from space. I don’t mean to diminish this blog’s readability or usefulness to others by calling it an act of self-witnessing. But I’m also not here to expound a position for an automatic crowd, a readymade audience that I can assume in advance shares the same habits of mind or standards of rationality as me. There are few positions I despise more, in fact, than those liberalisms (both classical and neo) that invent for their language-games cloaks of “rationality,” only to then demand (at gunpoint, at threat of starvation) that others play these games, while simultaneously denying the violence of this demand, not to mention the structural violence, the so-called “ongoing primitive accumulation,” on which all such liberalisms depend. There will be no communication, no “free, rational exchange of ideas,” with those who, with property, wage war on others. Fugitive minds will simply go elsewhere with their attentions, seeking temporary shelter, for instance, in soundscapes like YAK’s Bardo.

Reason and fancy are the names Cavendish ascribes to her twin cosmological hemispheres. As in the brain, she implies, so too on Earth, our stage. Since “Fortune and the Fates” have made a weapon of reason, transforming it through enclosure into the false dominion of the technocratic few, let us follow Cavendish and make worlds of our own.