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.

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.

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.