An arctic image makes news cycles from Russian occupied Yuznhy Island. In the township of Belushya Guba polar bears lie yellowing, prostrate in dunes of garbage. The photo is taken by the Instagram account friend_of_your_friend complemented with the hashtag: НОВАЯ земля "NEW land" "NEW earth".1 It's a scene far from National Geographic's more familiar 2017 cover story: "Heart-Wrenching Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land".2 The article shows a polar bear wandering a too warm ground (ribs protruding, fur soured by its own decaying body). It draws comparison to another famous photo: mother and daughter polar bear stranded on a prematurely melted shard of ice, floating out into the ocean forever until death (how much longer must they float?). Both pictures have received onerous attacks from climate change denialists. National Geographic issued a spineless apology: "we said 'this is what climate change looks like.' While science has established that there is a strong connection between melting sea ice and polar bears dying off, there is no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death."3
In 2019 Belushya Guba, white bears feast on rubbish. The new material vitality of the North Pole is plastic. Bottle and can and bag are ruby and gem and diamond. Constellation and aurora borealis are half-transparent orts. Although bears, these lucky ones look up at the camera smiling with mouths like us. In a mobile flash sunken eyes see food from the remains of our world. Trash caddies from the heartland filling fur-stomachs. Perhaps these bears are not hungry for the first time in their lives.
A fanciful imagination might consider these images evidence of the rational fulfilment of the last 353 years of Enlightenment progress. In 1666, two centuries before Bakelite, Margaret Cavendish published The Blazing World. She wrote this text as a fictional accompaniment to her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. She also wrote in opposition to the popular notions of scientific progress of her time. In the act of attaching fiction to her philosophical unpacking of the natural world, Cavendish hoped to show that fancy - the space and livelihood of the inventing mind and its descriptions - is just as important as physical observation and science. Some might label The Blazing World, thus, one of the first Western works of Science-Fiction. It was written a woman, a 17th century individual deemed incapable of intellectual, literary or scientific thought. Of equal import is its position as the only 17th century work of gendered natural philosophy. Cavendish speculated upon the future of technology and science. She described engines, submarines and motor boats long before they came to exist in the present world. She also advanced her unusual material philosophy, one which saw the inanimate around her as alive and wriggling, fused and mixt, burning and sparkling.
In 2019, 52 polar bears display a rare collective intelligence. They come thin and starving and they cross over from their world to our world. The Washington Post calls it an 'invasion', The Kremlin declares it a minor State of Emergency.4 Belushya Guba is at first evacuated, but then as the bears refuse to leave, human beings instead submit to a changed way of life. The town becomes cohabitated. Children are driven to kindergarten in armoured vehicles, hired guards protect places of work and the white bears feast and scavenge, driven to this island by melting sea ice, a warming climate and the struggle to find sustenance in the Anthropocene.
Cavendish's The Blazing World describes such a crossing as this, but in reverse. She narrates a woman's trauma: abducted by a supposed male 'lover', taken on his ship to the North Pole, and then during a storm - saved by Nature. Her abductor is frozen solid and the woman finds her escape, an escape to a new world called The Blazing World.
Within the catalyst for such a new invention, Cavendish comes up with creatures which are half-human half-beast fusions. There are Fish-Men, Meer-Men, Worm-Men, and most famously, the Bear-Men of the Blazing World's North Pole. Polar Bears in an alternate realm. Among utopian cities made of gems, the satire of experimental science in 'Paradise' and the feminist implications of a synergetic romance between a powerful Empress and her creator's authorial intrusion, The Blazing World is important because of its insistence that images of both scientific and fictional representation are of political concern. The Blazing World is significant today (in a world on the threshold of crossing over into another kind of dying world) because through fancy, Cavendish advances alternate ways of seeing, describing and caring for one's own cherished reality. This is a 17th century novel. It was written before the novel was a practiced form. It is not without its flaws. It is imperialist and colonialist (Cavendish was formally known as the Duchess of Newcastle), and it is at times arrogant, wildly paced and contradictory. Despite this, we republish The Blazing World because the imaginative vision, so decried for its time, alights historically, not as 'one of the first works of Science-Fiction', but as an overlooked and continually overlooked work of 'forked' description. A dissenting moment when Western natural philosophy could have taken another path. Here is a call to treat the geology of a new world not as a neutral and cold act of naming, but instead as a poetic and politically driven process. The material shock of seeing invaded Belushya Guba, the present's bear-shared trash-earth, is directed to the past, to those who rationally described the world with such ignorant surety that the origin of each name now foretells its death. In the following introduction to Margaret Cavendish's work, titled in full, The Description of A New World, Called The Blazing World, the aim is to retrace the line where brilliance was mistaken for madness, and where philosophical conventions were guarded against a radical new formling: philosophy as poetry.
1. By Optick Glass
The Bear-men, full of joy, returned their most humble thanks to the Empress; and to make her amends for the displeasure which their Telescopes had occasioned, told her Majesty, that they had several other artificial Optick-Glasses, which they were sure would give her Majesty a great deal more satisfaction. Amongst the rest, they brought forth several Microscopes, by the means of which they could enlarge the shapes of little bodies, and make a Lowse appear as big as an Elephant, and a Mite as big as a Whale. First of all they shewed the Empress a gray Drone-flye, wherein they observed that the greatest part of her face, nay, of her head, consisted of two large bunches all cover'd over with a multitude of small Pearls or Hemispheres in a Trigonal order… the Empress asked them, What they judged those little Hemispheres might be? They answered, That each of them was a perfect Eye, by reason they perceived that each was covered with a Transparent Cornea, containing a liquor within them, which resembled the watery or glassie humor of the Eye. To which the Emperess replied, That they might be glassie Pearls, and yet not Eyes; and that perhaps their Microscopes did not truly inform them. But they smilingly answered her Majesty, That she did not know the vertue of those Microscopes: for they never delude, but rectifie and inform the Senses; nay, the World, said they, would be but blind without them, as it has been in former ages before those Microscopes were invented.
Four years before The Blazing World, the first learned society for natural philosophy received royal approval by King Charles II. It was named The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Here men such as Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Robert Moray debated natural phenomena and experimented with new scientific apparatuses. As the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish exerted an unusual pressure upon this early iteration of The Royal Society. In her published writing (21 works to her name) she was often critical of experimental practice. Her margins of Observations upon Experimental Philosophy likens those who play with atoms, glass tubes and exterior figures to "Boys that play with watry Bubbles, or fling Dust into each others Eyes, or make a Hobby-horse of Snow."5 In spite of this 'anti-experimentalist' position, Cavendish was still driven by many of the same philosophical ambitions as her male contemporaries. After a few diplomatic attempts to gain entrance to The Royal Society, in 1667 there was a controversial vote put forth to its members: it was decided that they would grant the first woman a single visit. By a horse-drawn silver carriage Cavendish arrived amid a frenzy of onlookers. The diaries of military men, nobles, and those members of The Royal Society in attendance describe her physical and intellectual presence as the visitation of a wrongful otherness. According to Samuel Pepys, she was akin to the pied piper, instead of rats, one hundred boys and girls were said to run in her wake.6 He catalogued the topics of discussion and demonstration that day: "1. Those of colours. 2. The mixing of cold liquors, which upon their infusion grow hot. 3. The swimming of bodies in the midst of water. 4. The dissolving of meat in the oil of vitriol. 5. The weight of air in a receiver, by means of the rarefying engine. 6. The marbles exactly flattened. 7. Some magnetical experiments, and in particular that of terrella driving away the steel-dust at its poles. 8. A good microscope."7 By all accounts Cavendish remained mostly silent during these demonstrations. In such an absence of comment, the derision she had received from men towards her life's work can be inferred. In Pepys description of the event he declares that she has a "deportment so unordinary that I do not like her at all". Samuel Mintz who also wrote of that day describes Cavendish to have disrespect and "disregard for the methods and utilitarian aims of science". He goes on to say that she is "a figure of fun." Uttered behind her back, the nickname: "Mad Madge".8 She was a celebrity because she was an oddity. An outspoken and unnatural example of her assumed gender. Her philosophy enacts the position of being viewed as a cultural hermaphrodite, it is of messy dualities: seriousness and humour and of reason and of fabulation all at once. Even Virginia Woolf, who was partly responsible for sparking a renewed interest in Cavendish's writing, describes The Blazing World as a "giant cucumber" which has "spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and chocked them all to death." Woolf cruelly says the following of Cavendish: "She should have had a microscope put into her hand. She should have been taught to look at the stars, and reason scientifically."9
As Emma Wilkins recounts in her history of The Royal Society, Cavendish was clutching a microscope, many in fact.10 Although she was barred by gender from university, Cavendish purchased some of the few expertly made telescopes and microscopes of the time. Her critique was informed by these instruments. Despite their cost and rarity, the image produced by the 17th century microscope was often blurred, spurred inconsistent shapes under differing lights and played its own role encouraging a renaissance of criticism against empiricism. Cavendish's argument predated that of Hobbes, Locke and Sydenham who all found issue with early scientific practice. Even Robert Hooke, famous for Micrographia and for seeing, drawing and naming the smallest building blocks of life as 'cells', acknowledged the fallibility of the human senses, a fallibility not necessarily remedied by the invention of optick glass. When looking through a microscope, Cavendish made a simple claim - a microscope cannot see the inside of an object. This distinction between outside and inside extends throughout her work, and it is applied both geologically to the description of the world itself, and psychologically to internal life. "The truth is, our exterior senses can go no further than the exterior figures of Creatures, and their exterior actions, but our reason may pierce deeper, and consider their inherent natures and interior actions."11 In The Blazing World Cavendish makes clear this view through her Empress and her animal scientists. Debating the Lice-Men who are endeavouring to measure the world to within the breadth of a hair, she writes: "their weights would seldom agree, especially in the weighing of Air, which they found a task impossible to be done; at which the Empress began to be displeased, and told them there was neither Truth nor Justice in their Profession; and so dissolved their society." The Bear-Men, who argue over figures from their glass tools fight in factions bringing nearly "an utter ruin upon the state or government" and meanwhile the Ape-Men, the 'chymists' of this speculative world, search in vain for the philosopher's stone. By contrast, Worm-Men, Bird-Men and Fish-Men reason with their natural senses and are praised in turn for their discoveries.
Cavendish's anti-empiricism rests on the notion that surfaces may not only deceive, but bring civil chaos to those who argue over their differences of observation. More importantly, beneath such uncertain surfaces, Cavendish questions whether the insides of inanimate objects may in fact be alive and wriggling. Arguably, this material position is an evocation of her own existence as a thinking woman. At odds with the natural science of her time, Cavendish grappled with popular descriptions of the female mind as an anti-rational entity. In possession of a 'hidden' reason behind the surface of her physical form, she conceives of a natural world that defies empirical observation. Those distortions made by one of the most advanced technologies of the day, optick glass, only supported such a world view. For Cavendish, optick glass legitimises the possibility of a deeper female body and mind, a personhood at odds with surface cultural descriptions. In The Blazing World, it is these diffuse surfaces which are celebrated. The image of her Empress is degendered through such description. Rather than cataloguing the female body into body parts described by metaphor (what is called a 'Blazon' in a Shakespearean sonnet), Cavendish describes body parts by pure physical description: her empress is a shining, blazing, gleaming powerful warrior with a spear of white diamond. Her Empress is made of glittering surfaces which blind the onlooker.
In the myriad discussions of ice, frost, the heat of the middle of the earth, and the colourless forms of the soil, Cavendish writes of an Empress who exhibits not just an openness to being proved wrong, but also an openness to something hidden and lustrous, something important because of its mystery. "They might be glassie pearls and not eyes". In most descriptions of the world by her animal subjects, the Empress interjects with an alternate fantastical concept. This is a concrete evocation of Cavendish's politics. For many science fiction writers and thinkers to come, the processes of optick magnification really did inspire fantasy. The eyes of a fly cut looked like sliced hemispherical moons, the walls of a cell looked like a bee's honeycomb, the tip of a needle was not sharp but appeared as a great dull and flat plateau and the stars and planets outside the earth by telescope increased indefinitely in number as new dots and smudges in the sky. By seeing such unworldly things via experimentation, reality veered closer to dreams, wants and desires. The outside of an eye up close was as monstrous as any feeling inspired within a history of dispossession, as abject as a want desired in conflict with dominant society, like gender parity, like the underappreciated importance of being able to name something in the world, like a new born child. While the boys at The Royal Society were so exactingly flattening marbles and participating in the colonial naming of our world, which still holds today, Cavendish was considering the fantastical dominion of naming an object in itself. She was considering how the description of the world makes the world conform to those descriptions, and she was laying the groundwork for a philosophical and ethical position which rejects the implied hierarchy of privileging the understanding our own Blue Marble in the solar system, over the understanding of invented, internal worlds.
2. Naming something makes it your property.
In Kathryn Yusoff's A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, she states a claim which chimes sympathetically and antithetically with Cavendish's own: "I seek to undermine the givenness of geology as an innocent or natural description of the world, to see its modes of inscription and circulation as a doubling of the notion of property - property as a description of mineralogy and property as an acquisition (as a resource, land, extractive quality of energy or mineral)."12 From the mouths and pens of men at The Royal Society, descriptions of the natural world would become subjectifying things. So too would their words become and inspire new forms of property. It's not just the invention of a safety light to allow deeper excavations of coal mines, or the very misnaming of fossilised 'oil' to normalise its nearly edible rampant consumption, these beginnings of the Anthropocene, tied to The Royal Society, tied to the colonial discovery of the Americas and tied to the genocide of 80-95% of those indigenous populations, must be remembered and acknowledged so too because the naming of geology and geodesy brought with it White dominion over what Yusoff calls 'Global-World-Space'. By rigidly considering the natural world of a slither of European land as representative of the entirety of the Globe itself, definitions were terribly distorted. Global-World-Space is destructive hubris. What should be put forth instead is a notion that all descriptions of Geology (and by extension the natural philosophy of the forces of fire and wind and earth movements: descriptions of the planet itself) are never neutral. This isn't an argument akin to relativism, it is instead a call to acknowledge the historicity of a name and the hegemonies within the act of saying it. The flattening of the hierarchy between fancy and reason is one such acknowledgment.
Despite her challenge to the hierarchies of gender, Cavendish can be accused of committing what Yusoff (reading Édouard Glissant) calls the 'transformation of land into territory': "Territory is the basis for conquest. Territory requires filiation to be planted and legitimated. Territory is defined by its limits, and they must be expanded."13 The colonialist overtones of Cavendish's act of 'claiming of a new world' are not to be overlooked. There is often the sense when discussing texts like The Blazing World that the pre-modern work is allowed to commit crimes of erasure because it too commits significant invention. What is excluded from many accounts of Cavendish's oeuvre is the notion that the written world is her property and that her imagination is a claim to its territory. In The Blazing World, Cavendish writes of an Empress who comes to own one world, and then, not entirely satisfied, invades another world to own two for her apparent pleasure. In the entirety of her text, the emphasis is put on the origin of things, the act of bringing them into existence, and of thusly, having a right over them. What is erased, however, is the ending of worlds. For many subjects of colonial violence their old worlds were ended in the name of new White ones. To compare the world-building of Cavendish to a powerful sci-fi voice of today, N.K Jemisin begins her The Fifth Season with the following: "Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we?"14 The origin of an invention foretells the story of its end. And with every invention there is also erasure. With each meeting of The Royal Society worlds were both opened up and closed off by new descriptions.
This is not to say, however, that Cavendish's desires did not come from her own lived oppressions. In her writings, the fury, arrogance, and conquest of land into territory can be treated partly as a function of resistance. Her desire to name a land and make it her territory is forged against those who demean her. She begins with a note to the reader:
And if (Noble Ladies) you should chance to take pleasure in reading these Fancies, I shall account my self a Happy Creatoress: If not, I must be content to live a Melancholly Life in my own World… for, I am not Covetous, but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which is the cause, That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.
The tragedy of her opening 'Note to the Reader' is that her intended readership among those very noble ladies immediately expressed a disdain towards her work. Even an imagined equivalence, between men and women, inspired real fear. What is arguably discovered through her Blazing World is that a fanciful description can cause as many ramifications as a supposed scientific name. 'Description', as it stands in the title and all the chapter headings of this work, becomes a method for world-building a very real space for the oppressed body. Her geology of fancy is an act of de-neutralising the agency of a name. Bear-men and an all-powerful Empress are fanciful inventions which destabilise the real world. Unfortunately, it is through such efforts to destabilise scientific and gender norms that Cavendish places herself in a dangerous position: caught between two lands.
3. Borderland of the Lustrous
One way to conceive of a body at odds with dominant culture is to recognise it as existing in a borderland. Feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderland / La Frontera describes such a physical and metaphoric liminality between Texas and Mexico. As a work of poetic philosophy, Anzaldúa deploys a central motif, the 'taming of a wild tongue', to describe the fenced grammar of life caught between the stereotypes of gender and race. Through a description of a dentist who is angry with the narrator's disobedient tongue, Anzaldúa's retort is that "El Anglo con cara de inocente nos arrancó la lengua. Wild tongues can't be tamed, they can only be cut out."15 Speaking against injustice positions you as a wildling in a forever-between position. This position is often met with hegemonic violence which forces your language and body towards muteness. The grammar of The Blazing World is an evocation of an equally wild vitality. Cavendish's fearlessness to keep speaking alienated her both from men and from her female contemporaries who called her mad. Cavendish's unusual language, grammar and spelling is often the first criticism made of her work. But she was well aware of her written oddities, stating: "as for the grammar part, I confess I am no scholar, and therefore understand it not, but that little I have heard of it, is enough for me to renounce it." And discussing those of noble birth who adhere religiously to strict grammar, Cavendish writes that for them it is "as if wit were created in the inkhorn, and not in the brain." Wit she says, "should be wild and fantastical, and therefore must have no set rules; for rules curb, and shackle it, and in that bondage it dies."16
Grammar becomes one aspect of Cavendish's material vitality: sentences without end, conjunctions and capitalisation to excess. The other evocation of this vitality is in her natural philosophy. She conceives of the natural world as a state pertaining to three materials: Rational Matter, Sensitive Matter and Inanimate Matter.
Every material part has a material natural soul; for nature is but one infinite self-moving, living, and self knowing body, consisting of the three degrees of inanimate, sensitive and rational matter, so intermixed together, that no part of nature, were it an atom, can be without any of these three degrees; the sensitive is the life, the rational is the soul, and the inanimate part, the body of infinite nature.
In fiction like The Blazing World, Cavendish writes of an earth which sparkles, made lustrous through the nearly inexhaustible quantity of gems and crystals in its capital city. Our own ordinary world, by contrast, is described in her natural philosophy as a place of hidden lustrousness. This is a material position drawn from her own body. To come to terms with the borderland she inhabits, a body that was demonstrating reason despite being female, Cavendish sought to prescribe all matter with an innate rationality. This was what she deemed 'rational matter'. All things on the earth (animals, vegetables, minerals and women) are described to be made up of a matter which can feel, sense and reason in its own right. Hers was a materialist loophole: if the total body of a female was akin to an unthinking animal, then by her very own self-demonstration, animals must possess reason too.
Lisa T. Sarasohn in The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy During the Scientific Revolution" writes: "Cavendish's natural philosophy represents a gendered reading of the new science in which all of nature is invested with life, knowledge, and feeling… Instead of disenchanting nature, Cavendish wanted to unenchant it by incorporating soul and spirit into the material constituents of things."17 This 17th century precursor to today's New Materialism approaches the issue of the female body in nature from an opposing position. Instead of looking for non-human inspiration to enchant the human world, Cavendish made nature rational so that she could exit the borderland forced upon her by patriarchal science. By turning to the building blocks of the world itself, Cavendish found a way to legitimise her womanhood. By making minerals and animals sensing and rational things, she created a space for her own habitation.
In The Blazing World, Cavendish's Empress discusses the internal movements of minerals and vegetables with her invented Worm-Men. These worms tell the Empress that "their senses could perceive them after they were produced but not before" yet that "by their rational perception they may judg of them, and of their productions". As part satire and part self-deprecation, Cavendish often has us relate most strongly with the views and beliefs of the Worm-Men. When Cavendish's authorial opinions are said through worm mouths, she reflects her own sad treatment within the scientific community - treated like a dumb and lowly creature. Writing of a society where women are "denied education and not allowed to develop their higher faculties", Cavendish argues that women are forced into a bestial position: "We are become like worms that onely live in the dull earth of ignorance."18
In the Preface to The Worlds Olio Cavendish fights against this proscription through an evocation of an alive earth:
And though it seem to be natural, that generally all Women are weaker than Men, both in Body and Understanding…yet some are far wiser than some Men; like Earth; for some Ground, though it be Barren by Nature, yet, being well mucked and well manured, may bear plentifull Crops, and sprout forth divers sort of Flowers… So Women by education may come to be far more knowing and learned than some Rustick and Rude-bred men.19
The deception of a barren earth which is transformed into a lush one after rain and care is equivalent to a microscope which reveals a hidden and contradictory world upon observation.
When considering The Blazing World it is important to note that the planet of its description is connected to our own. Two worlds tied at their arctic axes. The invented world is a lustrous utopia. Our own is a place of war and poverty. Cavendish, writing from the wound of her body's borderland, describes a sapiosexual romance between two versions of herself, one an Empress, and the other, ridiculed. The space she reflects is between her pen and mind and between actuality and fantasy. The stars of each side can be glimpsed at the border. And importantly, both states are defined by that moment of crossing, of movement. Her philosophy is equally mechanistic, of all matter in motion. To imbue a vegetable with sense and reason is to give it internal movement. Of that time, popular conceptions of matter advanced by The Royal Society were in opposition to Cavendish's conception. As Robert Boyle suggests in The Excellency and Ground of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Philosophy, "Matter alone, unless it is moved, is altogether inactive."20 This position would of course be built upon by a later member of The Royal Society, Isaac Newton. But what are the ramifications of believing the opposite? Of all things, despite inanimate appearances, governed by movement?
For Cavendish, movement expresses an inherent spiritual importance. If all things secretly move and sense, then the ramification for such thinking flattens the privilege between human and non-human. When applied to a leaf or a tree, because it moves, it is as important as a human life, and is thus worth protecting. The proto-environmentalism evident in The Blazing World arises precisely through this optimistic mechanistic description. Of biographical importance is that Cavendish actually observed 17th century tree felling in Britain. Trees on the edge of Newcastle were being cut at an alarming rate: Wood for landowners, wood for ships of commerce, conquest and slavery. There is the sense in The Blazing World and in much of her other writing, that the destruction of Nature was an issue of personal significance. That invented communication with strange half-beast-half-human fusions speaks of a desire to explore the hidden rationality of non-human animals. In a discussion of Henry More's Antidote Against Atheism, Cavendish writes:
If we observe well, we shall find that the Elemental Creatures are as excellent as man, and as able to be a friend of foe to Man, as Man to them, and so the rest of all Creatures; so that I cannot perceive more abilities in Man than in the rest of natural Creatures; for though he can build a Stately House, yet he cannot make a Honey-comb; and though he can plan a Slip, yet he cannot make a Tree; though he can make a Sword, or Knife, yet he cannot make the Mettal. And as Man makes use of other Creatures, so other Creatures make use of Man, as far as he is good for any thing: But Man is not so useful to his neighbour or fellow-creatures, as his neighbour or fellow-creatures to him, being not so profitable for use, as apt to make spoil.
And of course, this levelled land between a non-human animal and a human is, for Cavendish, a sparkling one. Open to any page and the descriptions of non-anthropic nature are odes to their forces. Of ice not made by cool temperature but by the condensations of salt, of fresh water not made through evaporation but through the ebb and flow of liquids in cisterns of the deep earth. An animal's materiality guarantees its rationality, as a Cartesian mechanism, reason and inanimate matter comingling in their bodies. This is what provokes Cavendish's sympathy and empathy with animals. They are at once part of this broadened idea of the 'natural' world because of their very matter, and they are at once worth protecting because they can be seen with our eyes, and do see with eyes like us.
To underline this point, Sarasohn writes: "Women fit uncomfortably into this binary division. If they act like men, they are hermaphrodites; if they act like animals, they are bestial. But their otherness gives them power. They are opaque, just as nature in its totality is hidden from humankind."22 The paradoxical position Cavendish must have faced, attempting to understand the natural world while simultaneously being unable to position herself either within or outside of it, inspired her to invent a far kinder and compassionate natural philosophy. By grappling with dominant ideas of movement, matter and gender, and by speculating optimistically about the forces of nature which hide from us, she speaks of an alternative world-view which we should look to today for inspiration.
4. Poetry as Philosophy
The polemic of Cavendish's work is not an ontological hat trick, it's quite straightforward: all descriptions (including numbers and figures) are artificial when compared to that which they describe. Science and natural philosophy are not exempt. When her Bear-Men joyfully announce: "we take more delight in Artificial Delusions than in natural truths" the pleasure of their fantastical observations are satirised precisely because men at The Royal Society were drawing hegemonic consequence from blurry opticks. This is not to say that understanding and import should be immediate and without trial and error, instead Cavendish's is a call towards a science of observational humility. On this, the destabilisation of experimental practice is not a proto-deconstructionist critique resting on a notion that there is no such thing as truth. Instead, Cavendish's position is a humbling perspective. For her, truth is a difficult thing, an amorphous and mixt matter - an almost spiritual endpoint. To observe something that is so in conflict with the natural senses is to observe something powerfully other. These natural and mysterious forces of the world are argued to be treated too lightly. Huge egos are cut down by transforming men into half animals. Humans are levelled with the non-human. But more significantly, the consideration of women, as 'near beasts' is the most artificial of all delusions. It is a delusion that from our contemporary vantage point borders on farce, and for this Cavendish claims: "Learning is Artificial, but Wit is Natural."23
To unpack this statement it is useful to refer to Richard Rorty's book, Philosophy as Poetry.
Rorty argues that poetic imagination sets the bounds for human thought. What is conventionally understood as the primary tenant of philosophy - reason - is here problematized. Reason is described not as a truth tracking faculty, but instead as a social practice: "The practice of enforcing social norms on the use of marks and noises, thereby making it possible to use words rather than blows as a way of getting things done."24 What is implied is that there is an economics of philosophy and of science. Those ideas which are most useful are considered 'rational', not because they necessarily contain some innate quality, but instead because they either help generate wealth, better day-to-day life, or remove suffering from the world. This romantic perspective destabilises the differences between philosophy and poetry. Looking historically at the so-called progress of philosophy, mathematics, physics and geology, one might notice, as Rorty has, that famous thinkers often go through a cycle of being declared insane (for their imaginative and radical disruptions of past thought). However, when the market or sovereign empire finds a usefulness for their ideas, insanity is suddenly recast as genius. The question here is: what of those who come up with ideas which are not 'useful' to the hegemony of the market or State? What of those like Margaret Cavendish, who philosophise in the least 'useful' way, not of our world, but of the totally invented otherness of a new world? And what of poetry, a medium which has a heavily disguised use-value?
Like experimental observation, reason is perhaps best described as the practice of simply giving and asking for reasons. In this: "Romanticism tells us that reason would have nothing to do- that we would have had nothing to think about - had imagination not been at work." Rorty continues: "Romantics might say that politics and morality can be generated by the narratives of a particular society, but few romantics would also say that the concepts of natural science, or of natural philosophy, could also be generated by the imagination." 25
It is by this connection that philosophy becomes poetry and vice versa. The distinction between the two is added only at a later date by the market of usefulness. What is not added or taken away, however, is the importance of the very act of imaging something different in the first place. It is within the radical and pluralising differences of description - within imaginative forks - that a better path for us and our planet can be selected. The Blazing World is important because it stands alone as the first woman's published attempt to come up with such a pluralising description. It is important because it has been and is still considered 'bad' 'female' writing. Instead of being a 'good' male text of direct, effective, useful and clean philosophy, Cavendish has written something amorphous, indirect, impure, diffuse, fanciful and mixt. She writes of her contemporaries:
…their Artificial Arguments being as Clouds which Obscure the Natural Light of Information or Observation, for there is as much Difference between Logistical Arguments, and Natural Observations, as between Light and Darkness, and the best Natural Philosophers are those, that have the Clearest Natural Observation, and the Least Artificial Learning.26
Through wit and the mingling of poetry and philosophy, a combination which operates against the incessant desire for useful ideas, Cavendish has been ignored and categorised as mad. For her, natural observation is to acknowledge these unseen and unknown complexities. Artificialness, in her view, is the arrogant claim that we as a species truly understand the world and know exactly how to name and use it best. This arrogance is today choked in the throats of bears. As plastics float nearly un-decomposing basically forever until they bring about our own suffocation, there is the strong sense that 'usefulness', both scientifically and philosophically, has been severely guarded against radical and other imaginings. What's more, the patriarchal White 'usefulness' of 'Global-World Space' has not aligned at all with the betterment of the planet or with the betterment of our day-to-day lives. As Yusoff pointedly observes:
The social life of geology, then, is not a biographical account of geology but a praxis, a world making in the present, in light of the inheritances of past geosocial formations. In the blocked horizon of the Anthropocene in which geology emerges as an endgame negotiation with the planet and late liberalism, geology can finally be recognized as a regime for producing subjects and regulating subjective lives - a place where the properties of belonging are negotiated.27
This endgame is fully present in Cavendish's methods of description. The poetry of her world-building is inseparable from her other philosophical writing. World-building is her social praxis. In 1666, the same year in which Cavendish wrote, London burned. It was an apocalypse caused by unchecked progress, the unequal distribution of wealth and the utility of matchstick made closely-spaced homes. The Royal Society was forced to relocate. It was amongst the ruins of the fire that they offered Cavendish her only visit. There she failed to witness a science built upon observational humility. These geological descriptions made by The Royal Society have created an end-point trajectory of Climate Catastrophe which we seemingly remain unable to alter. In Cavendish's writing, her speculative world is blazing because it defies the world she lived in. It is shining in its satire because its origin, from the pen of a borderland, speaks to our own planet's end: 300-infinity more years of a dulling earth.
1 Friend_of_Your_Friend, Instagram, 10/2/2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/BttZMV6gT_9/
2 Sarah Gibons, 'Heart-Wrenching Video Shows Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land', National Geographic, 7/12/2017, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/12/polar-bear-starving-arctic-sea-ice-melt-climate-change-spd/
3 Christina G Mittermeier, 'Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong', National Geographic, August 2018 Issue, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/08/explore-through-the-lens-starving-polar-bear-photo/
4 Isaac Stanley-Becker, 'A "mass invasion" of polar bears is terrorizing an island town. Climate change is to blame.', The Washington Post, 11/2/2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/gdpr-consent/?destination=%2fnation%2f2019%2f02%2f11%2fmass-invasion-polar-bears-is-terrorizing-an-island-town-climate-change-is-blame%2f%3f&utm_term=.81ac9eee7de2
5 Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (London, 1666) 11.
6 See Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974) Vol. 8 196.
7 Ibid, p. 243.
8 Emma Wilkins, 'Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society', The Royal Society Publishing, 4/5/2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4123663/#FN7 quotes S. Mintz, 'The Duchess of Newcastle's visit to the Royal Society', J. Engl. Germanic Philol. 168-176 (1952) 51.
9 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harvest Books, 1989) 64-65.
10 Wilkins: "Her marriage to the Marquis of Newcastle -a man of immense wealth and a keen virtuoso-meant that Cavendish enjoyed greater opportunities than most when it came to experimenting with the latest instruments. During their exile in Paris during the 1640s, the couple acquired an impressive collection of microscopes and telescopes, two of which were made by Torricelli, the famous Italian experimentalist, and four by Eustachio Divino, of which the largest, the 'Great Glass', was 29 feet long. Cavendish owned her own microscope-'my Lady's multiplying glass'-which was 18 inches long, focused with a screw of 10 threads."
11 Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 59.
12 Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 2019) 10.
13 Yusoff quotes Ed Glissant pg 10 as well, glissant pg 151
14 N. K Jemisin, The Fifth Season (London: Orbit, 2015).
15 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderland / La Frontera (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 54.
16 Grammar Wit
17 Lisa T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy During the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 11.
18 Ibid, p. 7.
19 Sarasohn, quoting "The Preface to the Reader," in Cavendish's, The Worlds Olio (London, 1665), 8.
20 Quoting Robert Boyle Sarasohn continues: "and when natural philosophers 'tell us of such indeterminate agents as the soul of the world, the universal spirit, the plastic power, and the like… they tell us nothing, that will satisfy the curiosity of an inquisitive person.'", 10.
21 In discussion of Henry More's Antidote Against Atheism, Cavendish writes:
22 Sarasohn, 13.
23 Cavendish, "To the Reader", Observations upon Experimental Philosophy.
24 Richard Rorty, Philosophy as Poetry (Virginia: The University of Virginia Press, 2016), 4.
25 Rorty, 45.
26 Cavendish, "Preface", Philosophical and Physical Opinions, 2nd ed. (London, 1663).
27 Yusoff, 13.