“[A]s lightly as two thoughts”:Motion, Materialism, and Cavendish’s Blazing World
Published as the companion piece to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), Margaret Cavendish’s fantastical travelogue Blazing World (1666) dramatizes and interrogates many of the ideas that the author put forth in her philosophical writing. Cavendish might have chosen the travel genre as the companion piece to her treatise on natural philosophy for a variety of reasons. One primary motivation, this essay argues, is that travel has intriguing thematic and epistemological links to her organic-materialist theory of the universe. Indeed, travel is built into Cavendish’s ontology: motion is a precondition for being and knowing. With this in mind, Blazing World’s engagement with the voyage genre becomes particularly important. At the same time, Blazing World is more resolutely experimental than Observations in that it investigates the possible loopholes and ambiguities of her materialist theory of nature. Cavendish is fascinated by how material bodies compose ideas, and how ideas take material form, and it is some of her recurring questions about the materiality and mobility of thought that she explores in Blazing World.
“Thus those two female souls travelled together as lightly as two thoughts into the Duchess her native World; and which is remarkable, in a moment viewed all the parts of it, and all the actions of all the Creatures therein.”1 [End Page 1]
Appearing in one of the most strikingly “fantastical” sections of Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), the quotation above describes an intergalactic soul travel that, while overtly playful, raises many of the epistemological questions that fascinated Cavendish in both her fiction and her philosophical and scientific writing.2 Here, the minds of the Empress and the Duchess travel so effortlessly and so quickly that they access a kind of panoptic vision that allows them to view instantaneously every part of the world and every creature in it. Notably, it is their spectacular motion that enables this magisterial perspective. We see this type show-stopping transit in other parts of Blazing World as well—for instance, in one of many examples, when the Empress suddenly drops through the ocean and the core of the planet to return to the Blazing World near the end of the text. Taken in the context of Cavendish’s materialist philosophy of nature outlined in parts of Blazing World and, more fully, in its companion text Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), such passages raise provocative questions about Cavendish’s views of motion, materialism, and the imagination. Can minds travel without bodies? Can the rational parts of matter be distilled from the physical, and is the imagination material? Do immaterial substances exist—and if so, would they move faster than those encumbered with material bodies? These epistemological questions lead to a formal one: Does Cavendish’s fictional travelogue dramatize the philosophical program outlined in Observations, as many scholars have suggested, or does it operate according to a different set of rules?
Cavendish might have chosen a travel narrative as the companion piece to her treatise on natural philosophy for a variety of reasons. On one hand, of course, travel writing was a primary vessel of the experimental program that she wished to critique; in the late seventeenth century, travelogues became a primary site where the scientific method and rhetoric was tested and demonstrated.3 It [End Page 2] makes sense, then, that she would employ the travel genre to illustrate her competing theory of nature (especially since Cavendish sees motion itself as a primary point of contention between herself and the mechanical philosophers). Even more important, I suggest here, are the theoretical links between travel—a genre of motion—and Cavendish’s natural philosophy. Indeed, both Cavendish’s ontology and her epistemology are predicated on motion: for Cavendish, to be is to know and to move, and thinking itself requires the active motion of the rational parts of matter. Moreover, in much of her writing Cavendish considers the imagination a type of travel: like Hobbes, she understood fancy as “a Celerity of Imagining” that liberates the mind from “patterning” external stimuli (or from acts of perception).4 On a variety of levels, then, Blazing World’s genre and its thematic focus on mobility work to dramatize a universe (and, as we will see, a mind) that Cavendish sees in constant, ever-changing motion. Of course, Blazing World is also a piece of travel fiction, and while it expounds many of her philosophical ideas, it also explores concepts that she found uncertain or untenable in philosophical contexts. Cavendish understands that fiction better accommodates speculation and imagination (vital aspects of her rationalist approach to knowledge production that allow one to entertain ideas that might or might not be true), and it is in this genre that she explores the limits and ambiguities of her philosophical thinking. This, then, shows an astute awareness of both the conjectural nature of her philosophy and what genres can or should do, while at the same time demonstrating the value and necessity of speculative, imaginative thought, which she consistently figures in terms of travel.
In the past twenty years, Blazing World has become a decidedly canonical text; while critics still grapple with the narrative’s exuberant strangeness, they generally agree that it is important to literary and, increasingly, scientific history. Cavendish’s critique of the Royal Society of London and the experimental science of the 1660s [End Page 3] has been a particular focus of recent scholarship. This work began with literary critics interested in feminist reappraisals of the history of science and often understands Cavendish as a writer whose gender and class allowed her to construct a position from which to critique the masculinist intellectual debates of the era.5 Along this line of inquiry, several recent scholars have examined more closely the relationship between Observations and Blazing World, showing that the texts must be read in tandem to understand fully the epistemological claims of each. Eve Keller, for example, argues that Blazing World furthers Cavendish’s project in Observations by unsettling the discrete subject and object positions necessary to uphold experimentalism, while Elizabeth Spiller suggests that fiction itself is Cavendish’s anti-experimental philosophy.6 These critics emphasize that taken together, Observations and Blazing World are not just attempts to participate in contemporary intellectual debates, but valid contributions to seventeenth-century natural philosophy.
Even more recently, scholars have started to demonstrate how Cavendish’s later work is not only viable for its time, but startlingly prescient of many later developments in philosophy and science, particularly those that pertain to materialism, perception, and the brain. For instance, David Cunning has shown how Cavendish’s [End Page 4] materialist theory of the mind has substantial overlaps with current views on cognitive function and also “anticipates arguments and views that are found in some of the more famous philosophers that follow her—for example, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume.”7 Similarly, Gabrielle Starr has shown how Cavendish uncannily predicts many later developments in aesthetics and, eventually, neuroscience.8 Writing at a time when disciplines were taking shape, Cavendish has long invited multidisciplinary inquiry, although she has only recently attracted the attention of historians of science and philosophy, many of whom now view the author as a legitimate voice of the period.9 Such work represents a major shift in Cavendish studies, as scholars from across the two-culture divide strive to delineate her contributions to debates about the grounds of natural philosophy. [End Page 5]
Despite this erudite and ever-growing canon of criticism on the value and relevance, both then and now, of Cavendish’s scientific thinking, it is surprising how few scholars take her philosophical ideas seriously. I grant that Cavendish’s writing is by no means straightforward or easy to read; she is repetitive and prolix, and she sometimes makes confusing, contradictory, or capricious claims.10 However, by the time that Cavendish wrote Blazing World and Observations in 1666, she had wrangled with contemporary and ancient philosophy for two decades and had developed a salient theory of nature that is complex though fairly consistent. A flawed theory is still a theory (especially for Cavendish, who takes knowledge production as inherently provisional), and I refer to it as such throughout this essay. Of her various philosophical tenets one of the clearest is her theory of motion, and another is her thoroughgoing materialism. However, she is also fascinated by how ideas take material form, and how material bodies compose ideas, and it is some of her recurring questions about the materiality and mobility of thought that she explores in Blazing World.
Here, I want to explore how Cavendish’s natural philosophy—and more specifically, her material theory of motion—is both dramatized and tested in Blazing World. As mentioned above, travel is built into Cavendish’s ontology: motion is a precondition for being and knowing. With this in mind, Blazing World’s engagement with the voyage genre becomes particularly important. Taking motion as its most basic criterion, the travel genre thematizes movement and for Cavendish allows the representability of a universe in constant, self-directed flux. More specifically, travel for Cavendish aptly represents the mechanism of rational thought (which, like the universe, operates only through the motion of its material parts). At the same time, Blazing World is more resolutely speculative than Observations in that it functions as a thought experiment that investigates the larger implications and potential loopholes of Cavendish’s materialist [End Page 6] theory of nature: in her fiction, she imagines what imaginative thought might look and act like without the burden of material parts. Below, I briefly outline Cavendish’s natural philosophy as put forth in her later work—primarily Observations, but also Philosophical Letters (1664) and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668)—with special focus on her theory of motion.11 I then illustrate how Blazing World takes up and plays with the same ideas, while it also investigates what might occur if minds were freed of bodies.
Cavendish versus the Mechanists
Cavendish’s engagement with the scientific and philosophical movements of the late seventeenth century has been widely documented. Although she received no formal education, beginning with her 1645 marriage to William Cavendish, Marquess and eventual Duke of Newcastle, she began a philosophical and scientific tutelage under William and her brother-in-law, Charles Cavendish, and initiated her own extensive reading projects.12 The two years [End Page 7] prior to the publication of Observations and Blazing World were an especially intense period of scholarship for Cavendish. Her recent editor Eileen O’Neill explains: “Between 1664 and 1666, Cavendish was engaged in two intellectual projects. The first was her critical reading of scholars working in dioptrics, meteorology, hydrostatics, thermochemistry, and magnetic theory. . . . Second, she attempted to master the natural philosophy of the ancients.”13 Cavendish’s arguments in Observations indicate her deep familiarity with contemporary philosophies of nature and register an extension and refinement of her earlier philosophical ideas as put forth in such texts as Philosophicall Fancies (1653).14
A treatise of more than 400 pages, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy catalogs Cavendish’s many objections to the experimental program of the Royal Society, and more specifically to Hooke’s Micrographia (1665). She rejects mechanism as a model of nature, outlining instead her own system of organic materialism, which defines nature as infinite, continuous, rational, self-knowing, self-moving, sensitive, and alive. She also rejects the possibility of ever fully knowing nature on the grounds that humans are part of the system that they wish to evaluate (and thus lack the perspective to see it clearly). At best, humans produce informed conjectures and approximations, but never certain knowledge. Cavendish is thoroughly rationalist in that she posits reason (and not sensory perception) as the basis of all knowledge and in her disdain for scientific instruments. Like Hobbes, she is thoroughly materialist in that she denies the existence of incorporeal spirits in nature.15 Finally, because [End Page 8] all of nature consists of not only material, but self-knowing and perceptive matter, Cavendish’s natural philosophy collapses ontology and epistemology.
Unlike particulate theories of nature (such as atomic or corpuscular theories), Cavendish’s organic materialism posits nature as continuous, infinite, and interdependent. Everything in the universe is made up of an elemental substance, matter, that is not self-sufficient or divisible (like atoms), but codependent and part of a continuous, unified whole (something like a living cell network).16 All matter consists of both “animate matter” and “inanimate matter”; animate matter is further comprised of two subparts, “sensitive matter” and “rational matter.” Although perfectly blended (and again, not divisible), these three degrees of matter retain their own discrete characteristics. Rational matter functions like the “designer” or “surveyor” and conveys to the parts general knowledge of the whole; sensitive matter functions like the “laborer” or “workman” in that it follows the instructions of the rational and carries or moves the entire tripartite apparatus. Because everything in nature includes these inanimate, sensitive, and rational parts, Cavendish denies that rational matter exists only within the brain; instead, animate and rational parts are dispersed throughout nature, which is infused with “sensitive and [End Page 9] rational knowledge.” All parts of nature—and all parts of ourselves—are moving, knowing, and alive.17
Given that all of nature is imbued with knowledge and self-awareness, one natural question that arises is how Cavendish distinguishes the type of cognition that occurs in the human mind from that which occurs in all other parts of nature. While she acknowledges that the rational activity that takes place in the arm, for instance, is distinct from that of the mind, she views this as a difference in kind rather than in fundamental composition: “mistake me not,” she announces, “I do not say, that none of the other Parts of a Man have not Passions and Conceptions: but, I say, they are not after the same manner, or way, as in the Heart, or Head.”18 Different parts of nature produce different kinds of thoughts based on different types of interior motions.19 A stone “may have reason . . . as well as a man . . . because it is part of the same matter man consists of, . . . but yet it has not animal or human sense and reason, because it is not of animal kind; but being a mineral, it has mineral sense and reason.” This means that perception comes in various forms: humans and animals have “animal perception,” or what we would think of as sense perception, but perception also occurs as a more general, panpsychic phenomenon throughout nature, even in entities without sensory apparatuses.20
The only possible exemption from materialism that Cavendish acknowledges appears in her concept of the “Christian soul,” which because “divine” or “supernatural” falls outside the pale of natural philosophy and beyond the scope of our understanding.21 She tends [End Page 10] to mention the divine soul only in passing, perhaps because she has little interest in debating its existence, but wishes to avoid charges of heresy (like those swirling around Hobbes during the 1660s). For instance, she announces in Observations:
Of all the opinions concerning the natural soul, of man, I like that best which affirms the soul to be a self-moving substance; but yet I will add a material self-moving substance; for the soul of man is part of the soul of nature, and the soul of nature is material: I mean only the natural, not the divine soul of man, which I leave to the Church. And this natural soul, otherwise called reason, is nothing else but corporeal natural self-motion, or a particle of the purest, most subtle and active part of matter, which I call animate; which animate matter is the life and soul of nature, and consequently of man, and all other creatures.22
Sidestepping the idea of the divine soul altogether, which she “leave[s] to the Church,” Cavendish confines her study to the “natural soul,” aligning this entity with “reason” and the rational parts of matter, which are always material. What we perceive as our soul is simply “a particle of the purest, most subtle and active part of matter,” and therefore the natural soul is conflated with the mind and earns its special status through its extraordinary action. As I will soon discuss, the mind’s productions—thoughts, memories, dreams—are similarly material; in fact, Cavendish suggests that ideas, embodied in the mind, likely come in a whole range of colors.23
In addition to this thoroughgoing materialism, one other important hallmark of Cavendish’s system of nature is how change, or motion, occurs.24 In contrast with the mechanists, who claimed that all natural phenomena could be explained by the transfer of motion—usually in terms of force or impact—she explains motion in terms of self-determined configurational changes within organic [End Page 11] matter. In this nonmechanical system, motion is the consequence of the intentional configuration and reconfiguration of the three degrees of rational, sensitive, and inanimate matter. Take, for example, a billiard stick that hits a ball. Mechanism would explain the motion of the ball via collision: motion is transferred from the stick to the ball by force or impact. Cavendish argues instead that change occurs not through reaction—or the transfer of motion from one body to another—but through conscious action. While she does not deny “occasional causes” (such as the stick), she argues that the primary cause of motion occurs within the moving matter itself (or within the ball): the primary cause for the ball’s motion is the ball, which moves itself “freely,” or “by its own motion.”25
Cavendish offers many examples of this theory of motion across her later philosophical works. In Philosophical Letters, for instance, she takes issue with the mechanist account of a line with a weight on its end, “which being removed from the perpendicular, presently falls to the same again.” She explains the line’s return to the perpendicular as “the appetite and desire of the Line, not to move by constraint, or any forced exterior motion; but that which forces the Line to move from the Perpendicular, doth not give it motion, but is onely an occasion that it moves in such a way; neither doth the line get that motion from any other exterior body, but it is the lines own motion.” Again, while external factors might “occasion” the line’s movement (and thus we might see such forces as causal in the modern sense of the term), the primary cause for motion (in that it is necessary and sufficient) originates from within the line, which perceives its circumstances and consciously moves itself.26 As [End Page 12] Cavendish sees it, “Nature moveth not by force, but freely,” and this is a perpetual, life-sustaining process: “there is no such thing as rest in Nature.”27
Cavendish’s concept of motion has several notable metaphysical implications. First and perhaps most significant, her theory turns causation into an issue of volition.28 Each rational part of matter is cognizant of its surroundings and directs sensitive matter (the “muscle”) to move itself (that is, the entire tripartite apparatus, including the “burthens of [inanimate] parts”).29 Motion, then, is based on rational awareness and communication between parts within a unified and continuous organism. Indeed, Cavendish’s panpsychism provides “a sort of cooperative model of [object] interactions with which to replace the mechanist model of interaction as collision between mutually indifferent objects.”30 Moreover, in order to move intelligently (as nature does), matter must both perceive its surroundings and also know how and where to move itself. As Kourken Michaelian notes, “[i]f a thing is to ‘know’ how to move, then it must (literally) know how to move; this knowledge is the product of the knowledge the thing has of itself and of that it has of the things with which it interacts (1666a, 191–2). Self-knowledge and perception, in short, are central to her explanation of natural change.”31 Finally, because all natural change occurs solely as the result of the self-directed configuration and reconfiguration of organic matter, there is no entirely new matter in nature nor is there entropy.32 [End Page 13]
This account of motion as the result of self-knowing and self-moving matter is a point of great contention for Cavendish. As she comments: “I perceive man has a great spleen against self-moving corporeal nature, although himself is part of her, and the reason is his ambition; for he would fain be supreme, and above all other creatures, as more towards a divine nature: he would be a God, if arguments could make him such.”33 Cavendish links the rejection of self-moving, self-knowing matter to the desire for a privileged perspective (and, ultimately, to ambition and “self-love”).34 To her, such a perspective is impossible not only because nature is vast and all-encompassing (or because we are part of nature) and not just because nature is sentient and self-aware (and not simply an object of study), but also because nature is in constant, self-directed flux. Said another way: nature is a moving target.
Despite the indivisible and interactive nature of her tripartite apparatus of matter, however, there is a distinct hierarchy built into Cavendish’s materialism, and Cavendish tends to privilege the rational parts of matter over the sensitive and “the Inanimate, [which] being not Self-moving, are the Burdensome Parts.”35 This makes sense, perhaps, since the rational parts function as the brains of the outfit and direct the motion of the other two degrees of matter, which “endeavour to work” to satisfy the rational parts through “Imitation.”36 However, the rational parts of matter are superior not just because they happen to be in charge; Cavendish also describes these parts as the quickest, subtlest, smartest, and purest. In “Of the Power of the Rational; or rather, of the Indulgency of the Sensitive,” [End Page 14] Cavendish writes: “THE Rational Corporeal Motions, being the purest, most free, and so most active, have great power over the Sensitive; as to perswade, or command them to obedience: [e.g.,] though the Sensitive Corporeal Motions, in the Sensitive Organs, desire to desist from patterning of Objects, and would move towards sleep; yet the Rational will not suffer them, but causes them to work.”37 Even though she claims that all matter thinks, and that inanimate matter must agree to obey the direction of rational parts, Cavendish repeatedly describes rational matter as intelligent, quick, lively, and free, and considers sensitive and inanimate matter heavy, slow, and dull. She also tends to shift the burden of inanimate parts onto sensitive matter: rational matter is the most “perceptive,” “agil,” and “penetrating” and has the most “liberty,” while the sensitive, “incumbred with the Inanimate parts, is obstructed and retarded.”38 To her, rational matter excels in the speed, agility, and diversity of its motion.
The special status of these rational parts has important links to Cavendish’s concept of how the imagination works on a material level. According to Cavendish, all thought occurs as a process of either perception or conception. Perception takes place involuntarily and is tied to visible objects: our senses discern and our minds “pattern” external phenomena (though never perfectly); the material act of patterning gives rise to perceptive thoughts.39 Conception, however, is voluntary and occurs when the mind creates and recreates images from and within itself, without any obligation to pattern external reality (conception includes memories, inference, speculation, and so on).40 A type of conception, fancy is a voluntary quickening in the [End Page 15] motion of the rational parts of the mind that occurs independently of environmental triggers. As Cavendish explains,
all sorts of Fancies, Imaginations . . . are after the manner of Conceptions, that is, do move by Rote, and not by Example. Also, it is to be noted, That the Rational parts can move in more various Figurative Actions than the Sensitive; which is the cause that a Human Creature hath more Conceptions than Perceptions; so that the Mind can please it self with more variety of Thoughts than the Sensitive with variety of Objects: for variety of Objects consists of Foreign Parts; whereas variety of Conception consists only of their own Parts.41
When imagination works “by Rote,” it conjures and recombines internal images at will instead of patterning external objects. While both the sensitive and rational parts of matter can imagine and conceive, the rational parts “can move in more various Figurative Actions,” leading to “more variety of Thoughts.” The rational parts of matter are more adept at imagining, then, because they are more autonomous and because they move more variously and more quickly than other parts. The extent of one’s imagination varies by degree according to the flexibility and velocity of the rational parts of one’s constitution.42 Sometimes, Cavendish also posits that “Imagination or Conception” occurs when the rational parts of the mind move independently—without the sensitive and inanimate parts.43
Cavendish’s privileging of the rational parts of matter and her insistence on its lively, spontaneous motion function as a powerful defense of the creative power of the mind. Self-directed and acting via the most nimble, quick, and buoyant parts of matter, the imagination [End Page 16] is a potent generative force that supersedes sense perception, yet also remains material (in that it is an embodied process). Because the mind does more than respond to or reproduce its immediate environment, its productivity cannot be understood via sensory experience, memory, or the mechanist collision of parts.44 Because it is voluntary, it can be conjured at will. And because it causes delight, the imagination is a type of “autonomous pleasure.”45 For Cavendish, thoughts are powerful things: “they do not follow each other like Geese,” nor are they “like Water upon a plain Table, which is drawn and guided by the finger this or that way”; instead, rational matter is free to create “of its own accord” and therefore drives poesis.46
The imagination, then, consists of the fluid, quick movements of the mind guided by reason, and such motion is a positive sign of intellectual fecundity and ability. The more rational matter moves, the more it thinks. The materiality of the imagination, however, is a matter of slightly more ambiguity. On the one hand, Cavendish’s materialism is absolute: the imagination is material because it is produced by the material motions of the mind. As Lisa T. Sarasohn notes, “Cavendish assumed that minute parts of matter constituted both the real and the imaginary, the seen and the unseen. . . . She saw and imagined matter in everything, and in her thought, even the imaginary became concrete.”47 In Cavendish’s ontology, there is no fundamental distinction between thoughts and material bodies: fancies, however “improbable, or impossible,” “are not No-things, but as perfectly imbodied as any other Creatures.” On the other hand, Cavendish tends to describe thoughts as nearly immaterial: they are so delicately “imbodied” that we assume they are “substanceless.”48 [End Page 17] Moreover, although the process of imagining is material, what is imagined is not the same as what is real, and Cavendish often plays with this ambiguity: her fancies are not real, but are still material in some fundamental way (in her brain and, more overtly, in her texts).49 In Blazing World, she will go on to test the limits of this materiality.
The World of Blazing Wit
Blazing World picks up and dramatizes many of the ideas set forth in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and further extends Cavendish’s ontology, one that due to its inherently provisional and conjectural status is perhaps best represented through fiction. The narrative traces the adventures of a “Lady,” who, after being kidnapped and surviving a tempest at sea, passes through a portal in the North Pole to another, fantastical world, soon becoming the absolute Empress of this realm. Here, she establishes her own forms of government and religion, as well as scientific societies, which overtly satirize the Royal Society. Eventually deciding to create her own cabala, the Empress calls in the “Duchess of Newcastle” as scribe, which initiates a period of solipsistic mirroring between the Empress, Cavendish-the-character, and Cavendish herself, as well as a drastic slippage between worlds. Finally, after establishing control over the Blazing World, soul-traveling to the Duchess’s world, and, at the end of part 1, deciding to restore the Blazing World to its original condition (per the advice of the Duchess), the Empress subdues a revolution in her native world and the Empress and Duchess part ways.
Cavendish recognizes the discursive power of the voyage genre, as well as the new scientific investment in the form. Her text documents a “new World” like America, with all of the mythic potential this entails, but one that is superior to such territories because it is “made,” not “found.” In Blazing World’s prefatory poem, the Duke of Newcastle writes: [End Page 18]
Columbus then for Navigation fam’d,Found a new World, America ’tis nam’d;Now this one World was found, it was not made,Onely discovered, lying in Times shade.Then what are You, having no Chaos foundTo make a World, or any such least ground?But your creating Fancy, thought it fitTo make your World of Nothing, but pure Wit.Your Blazing-world, beyond the Stars mounts higher,Enlightens all with a Coelestial Fier.50
The Duke positions Blazing World within the discourse of discovery, and in doing so infuses it with both a sense of fabled wonder and the promise of important new information.51 Yet, while Blazing World is drawn into the discourse of discovery, it is also set apart: Cavendish’s “creating Fancy” has the power of fabricating, and voyaging to, a place of “pure Wit.” Unlike “Navigation,” “Skill,” and “Arts,” “Creating Fancy” has the capacity to produce a “higher” and purely rational world. Located “beyond the Stars,” the Blazing World is beyond the limits of human sight and thus beyond the bounds of contemporary scientific knowledge. The Duke’s diction in the poem also recalls Cavendish’s hierarchy of rational, sensitive, and inanimate matter as outlined in her philosophy; if it is possible to create a world of “pure Wit,” it is possible that the imagination has the unique power of distilling the “rational parts” of matter.
Blazing World’s “Preface to the Reader” directly addresses Cavendish’s reasons for attaching a piece of “Fancy” to her “Philosophical Contemplations.” She explicates that both philosophy and fancy “ground their Opinions upon Reason; that is, upon rational probabilities,” and “since there is but one Truth in Nature, all those that hit not this Truth, do err, some more, some less. For though some come closer the Mark than others, which makes their Opinions seem more probable and rational than others, yet as long as they swerve from [End Page 19] this onely Truth, they are in the wrong.” Cavendish suggests that both philosophy and imaginative thought are rational “opinions” based on “probabilities”; both, therefore, are speculations or approximations. While some inquiries might come closer to truth than others, all are bound within the limits of the “probable and rational” —or the knowable. Cavendish goes on to explain that while fancy and reason have different functions, both are “actions of the rational part of Matter”—that is, both stem from the same well: the rational parts of the mind. Such a dynamic does not subordinate the knowledge produced in Blazing World to that in Observations, but rather equates the two productions (which are, like nature, equably filled with “rational knowledge”). Cavendish points out, however, that she chose the genre of her companion piece carefully: “But lest my Fancy should stray too much, I chose such a Fiction as would be agreeable to the subject treated in former parts.”52 Why is Blazing World “such a Fiction” especially suitable to her natural philosophy? As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, one concrete answer is that the travel genre has intriguing thematic parallels to her system of nature, which envisions a universe in constant motion.
One might say that Cavendish’s concept of motion—where all matter exists in a state of perpetual, self-directed flux through the configuration and reconfiguration of its material parts—is built into the very structure of Blazing World, shape-shifting as it does from romance to philosophy to autobiography.53 While the published narrative consists of two parts (pp. 154–230 and 231–250), in addition to the prefatory letter and the epilogue, in her prefatory letter Cavendish announces that her fiction is broken into three sections: “The first part whereof is Romancical, the second Philosophical, and the third is meerly Fancy, or (as I may call it) Fantastical.”54 Of course, even within each section, however divided, narrative worlds [End Page 20] shift and shimmer before us. For example, initially, the world from which the Empress comes seems analogous to our own and we are led to believe the Blazing World is “Paradise,” but later in the text this changes and we learn that the Duchess’s world is closest to our own and that Blazing World is not paradise at all.55 Characters shift and bleed as well, and there seem no stable set of referents for worlds or personas. However, given that these realms are in constant motion, it makes sense that they morph and change, just as nature does. As the Bear-men in Blazing World announce: “Nature is Eternal and Infinite, and her particulars are subject to infinite changes and transmutations by vertue of their own corporeal, figurative, self-motions.”56 Cavendish has no responsibility to keep her worlds consistent or discrete because by nature—in nature—they undergo constant “transmutations.”
The trope of travel or transport has several vital functions in Blazing World, the most crucial of which is its capacity to represent rational and imaginative thought; indeed, Cavendish often plays up certain aspects of the genre to demonstrate the special mobility of ideas. Shortly after the Lady passes through the poles, she describes an invention of her ingenious rescuers, the “Bear- Fox- and Birdmen,” as well as the “Satyrs” and men “of a Grass-green complexion.” Cavendish says of these men,
very good Navigators they were; and though they had no knowledge of the Load-stone, or Needle, or pendulous Watches, yet (which was as serviceable to them) they had subtile observations, and great practice; in so much that they could not onely tell the depth of the Sea in every place, but where there were shelves of Sand, Rocks, and other obstructions to be avoided by skillfull and experienced Sea-men: . . . but above the rest, they had an extraordinary Art, much to be taken notice of by experimental Philosophers, and that was a certain Engine, which would draw in a great quant[it]y of air, and shoot forth wind with a great force; this Engine they placed behind their ships, and in a storm, before; for it served against the raging waves, like Canons against an hostile Army.57
Cavendish clearly situates reason and “subtile observations” above such experimental instruments as the “Load-stone” in this passage. Yet, although experimental instruments are dismissed, “scientific discovery” is not: these men are not experimentalists, but they still possess knowledge “much to be taken notice of by [the real world’s] [End Page 21] experimental Philosophers.” Thus, while instruments are not inherently useful for producing knowledge about the natural world, the characters in her fictive travel narrative—and implicitly her imagination—are useful for producing new ideas and inventions.58 The engine she creates is an instrument, technically, but one more useful than microscopes or needles in that it has the pragmatic application of transport. We can see this engine as having two important significations: first, of course, it showcases the productivity of Cavendish’s imagination; second, in that the engine transports the Lady from the “real world” (or an analog to it) into the realm of the possible, it functions as a powerful metaphor for the imagination itself. The “engine,” or the imagination, is what propels thoughts forward and links one idea to another, as well as what allows the individual mind to conceive of all that lies beyond its immediate context. The “experimental Philosophers” should take note of this engine because they have dismissed imaginative inquiry and, according to Cavendish, because the imagination powers science. As such, we can see this scene as a direct response to Cavendish’s complaint in Observations that experimental philosophers “busy themselves more with other worlds, . . . which to me seems strange, unless they could find out some art that would carry them into those celestial worlds, which I doubt will never be.”59 Above, her imagination performs precisely this function, transporting the Lady into “celestial worlds” otherwise inaccessible to human beings. Here, the concept of travel allows Cavendish to dramatize the propulsion and reach of imaginative thought. [End Page 22]
Descriptions of ingenious modes of transport are in fact common in Blazing World, from the fleet of stealthy submarines constructed by the Gyants to the earth-burrowing bodies of the Worm-men. Just a page after the aforementioned navigation scene, Cavendish describes the ships of the Blazing World, which “were so ingeniously contrived, that they could fasten them together as close as a honeycomb,” which makes them immune to both winds and warfare. While the emperor’s ships were “all of Gold, . . . the Merchants and Skippers [were] of Leather”—and both are built for speed. Notably, “the Golden ships were not much heavier then [sic] ours of Wood, by reason they were neatly made, and required not such thickness, neither were they troubled with Pitch, Tar, Pumps, Guns, and the like . . .; for . . . they were so well sodder’d, that there was no fear of leaks, chinks, or clefts.”60 In all these instances, Cavendish dazzles us with the mobility of her unique vessels of transport, which allow her to illustrate the fecundity and the profound usefulness of her imagination. Again, too, the ships seem synecdochic for thought itself: “gold to airy thinness beat” and lightning-fast, these imagined vessels thwart their own materiality.61 Later in the text, the Empress herself becomes a vessel of transport: after finishing her speech to the “Princes of the several Nations of that World, she desired that their Ships might fall back, which being done, her own Fleet came into the Circle, without any visible assistance of Sails or Tide; and her self being entred into her own Ship, the whole Fleet sunk immediately into the bottom of the Seas, and left all the Spectators in a deep amazement.”62 Dropping directly through the ocean and into the Blazing World, the Empress once again awes her audience through spectacular motion that seems to outpace materiality.
We see Cavendish investigate questions of motion and materiality even more directly in other sections of the text, as when the Empress interrogates the Spirits of the Blazing World about their “vehicles.”63 Of course, Cavendish denied the existence of spirits in [End Page 23] her natural philosophy (not only because they are immaterial, but because if they did exist, they would be supernatural and therefore unperceivable to natural beings), but she entertains the idea in Blazing World. In fact, she calls on the spirits expressly so that she can ask them speculative questions about supernatural topics that the “natural” anthropomorphic men cannot answer. That immaterial spirits are supernatural is consistent with her philosophy, but only in Blazing World does Cavendish devote significant time to investigating their possible composition. In this section, she initiates a question and answer session much like the one she conducts with the animal-men earlier in the text, asking “whether you Spirits give motion to natural bodies?” Appropriately for Cavendish’s philosophy, the spirits respond that “on the contrary, . . . material bodies give Spirits motion, . . . so that we move by the help of our bodies, and not the bodies by the help of us.”64 This leads, predictably, to questions about their extraordinary motion:
If this be so, replied the Emperess, How comes it then that you can move so suddenly at a vast distance? They answered, That some sorts of matter were more pure, rare, and consequently more light and agil then [sic] others; and this was the reason of their quick and sudden motions. Then the Emperess asked them, Whether they could speak without a body, or bodily organs? No, said they; nor could we have any bodily sense, but onely knowledg. She asked, whether they could have knowledg without body? Not natural, answered they, but a Supernatural knowledg, which is a far better knowledg.65
Again, the Empress is most interested in velocity: How might a spirit move “suddenly, and at a vast distance?” Again, too, while she claims that spirits can exist only in bodies, and that bodies are the criteria for life and motion, she is acutely interested in the possibilities of a matter that is “more pure, rare, and consequently more light and agil then others,” as well as its “quick and sudden motions.” Even though the spirits admit that they are “Supernatural” (and thus not bound to natural laws), they still deny that they can exist without bodies (which must abide by natural laws). Instead, they are made of the finest, lightest matter, an idea that seems to delight Cavendish because it merges materialism and supernatural speed and agility: housed in bodies of airy fineness, the spirits are as immaterial as one can become in a material universe. The Empress’s questions about the Spirits’ material makeup continue as Cavendish hypothesizes about what the very lightest, fastest, nearly nonmaterial [End Page 24] substances might look and act like without “gross” bodies to slow them down.66
Given Cavendish’s dogged materialism and her insistence that all thought and knowledge are also material, what are we to make of Blazing World’s ongoing, lengthy inquiries into speed, instantaneity, and immaterial motion? One possible answer lies in the structural hierarchy of matter that she articulates in her natural philosophy: as we saw earlier, Cavendish grants special status to the rational parts of matter (or the “natural soul”). Of the three “degrees of motion” in nature, “the rational parts are more agile, active, pure and subtle than the sensitive; but the inanimate have no activity, subtlety and agility at all, by reason they want self-motion.” Like the spirits above, the rational parts are lighter, freer, and faster, Cavendish explains, because “they were of a purer and finer degree of matter, and free from labouring on the inanimate parts.”67 While inanimate parts cannot move or exist without their sensitive and rational counterparts, we are left to wonder whether rational parts might be better off—might even thrive—without the burdens of inanimate and sensitive parts. This is precisely what Cavendish explores in Blazing World.
Cavendish’s preoccupation with the special mobility of thought is best illustrated in the soul-to-soul travel that appears immediately after the Empress interrogates the spirits in part 1 of Blazing World. After single-handedly converting all of her new subjects to her own religion, the Empress decides to fabricate her own cabbala, and calls on the soul of the Duchess of Newcastle (Cavendish-the-character) as scribe.68 The Empress and the Duchess travel into each other’s souls, visiting and chatting, and then begin creating new imaginary worlds for the other to view. Notably, the Duchess tests out a whole series of worlds, but ultimately rejects “patterns” (a term that denotes preexisting models, but also the “patterning” work of the senses) and decides to create a world from only the rational parts of matter:
she was resolved to make a World of her own invention, and this World was composed of sensitive and rational self-moving Matter; indeed, it was composed onely of the rational, which is the subtilest and purest degree of Matter; for as the [End Page 25] sensitive did move and act both to the perceptions and consistency of the body, so this degree of Matter at the same point of time (for though the degrees are mixt, yet the several parts may move several ways at one time) did move to the Creation of the Imaginary World; which World after it was made, appear’d so curious and full of variety, so well order’d and wisely govern’d, that it cannot possibly be expressed by words.69
First describing the Duchess’s world as composed of “sensitive and rational self-moving Matter” so as to align it with her natural philosophy, Cavendish decides instead that it consists “onely of the rational.” She goes on to justify the existence of a purely rational realm via her philosophy by saying that “though the degrees are mixt,” they might “move several ways at one time,” and so might separate just enough so as to achieve quasi-independent motion. In this setup, the rational parts operate autonomously and “move to the Creation of the Imaginary World”—one so well-ordered that it eludes description. The Duchess’s success in creating this world implies that Blazing World might also employ the imagination to such a degree so as to surpass the operative range of sensitive and inanimate parts.
Cavendish discusses this same possibility in her appendix to Grounds of Natural Philosophy, where she wonders “Whether it is possible there could be Worlds consisting only of the Rational Parts, and others of the Sensitive Parts,” but in this text the “Major part” of her mind rejects this idea in favor of a unified materialism: “though the Rational parts of Nature move free, without Burdens of Inanimate Parts; yet, being Parts of the same Body (viz. of the Body of Nature) they could not be divided from the Sensitive and Inanimate.” Indeed, “the Three Degrees being but as one united Body,” it is “impossible for a Body to divide it self from it self.” Tellingly, however, the “Minor Part” of Cavendish’s mind still clings to the possibility of purely rational worlds:
a World might be naturally composed only of Rational Parts, as a Human Mind is only composed of Rational Parts; or, as the Rational Parts of a Human Creature, could compose themselves into several Forms, viz. into several sorts and kinds of Worlds, without the assistance of the Sensitive or the Inanimate Parts: for, they fancy Worlds which are composed in Human Minds, without the assistance of the Sensitive.70 [End Page 26]
Thus, while Cavendish ultimately rejects the idea that the “rational parts” can operate independently, she indicates even in her dismissal that the idea fascinates and perplexes her. She adjudicates in favor of perfectly blended parts and thoroughgoing materialism, but still raises the possibility that the rational parts of matter might exist homogenously and might produce purely rational worlds; the minor part of her mind even claims that rational parts “fancy Worlds . . . in Human Minds, without the assistance of the Sensitive” (emphasis added). These recurrent philosophical musings about whether the imagination might have the capacity to outstrip materiality—in either its own workings or its ability to imagine other, nonmaterial worlds—take on formal and epistemological urgency in Blazing World.
As the soul-travel section in Blazing World continues, the Empress desires to see the world from which the Duchess comes and hence calls on one of the spirits in the Blazing World “to be Vice-Roy of her body in the absence of her Soul.”71 In a dizzying layering of worlds and minds that Cavendish seems to consider both tongue in cheek and technically possible, the two take off together for the Duchess’s former world in the soul of the Duchess and eventually voyage to England and into the Duke of Newcastle’s soul, where they engage in “all kinds of harmless sports.”72 As noted at the beginning of this essay, Cavendish makes special note of the swiftness of their voyage: “those two female souls travelled together as lightly as two thoughts into the Duchess her native World; and which is remarkable, in a moment viewed all the parts of it, and all the actions of all the Creatures therein.”73 Fascinatingly, Cavendish uses thought itself as her measure of speed: their souls travel “as lightly as thoughts,” so [End Page 27] quickly that they can access instantaneous, comprehensive knowledge of the entire world. Their minds move—traveling, discoursing, creating, and dissolving worlds—at a pace only rational matter could attain. Again, we might turn to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, where Cavendish explains that the “triumvirate of the degrees of matter” (the rational, sensitive, and inanimate) are “necessary to balance and poise nature’s actions,” as otherwise “the parts of nature would be too active and quick in their several productions, alternations, and dissolutions; and all things would be as soon made, as thoughts.”74 This describes precisely what happens above: the Duchess and Empress travel instantly and produce, modify, and dissolve worlds as quickly as they can think of them. As Cavendish predicts, we confront the vertiginous motion of a mind so “active and quick [that] all things [are] as soon made, as thoughts.”75
Cavendish explains this soul-to-soul travel in a variety of ways, although predictably no material explanations are quite sufficient for cosmic soul travel. When she does discuss its possible philosophical underpinnings, this is not so much to justify it as being literally true, but rather to test the operability of an idea she finds intriguing. Prefacing the soul-to-soul travel section with a discussion about the soul’s materiality, she explains that the soul needs a material body, as “souls having no motion of themselves, must of necessity be cloathed or imbodied with the next parts of Matter.” In addition, “there may be numerous material souls in one composed body, by reason every material part has a material natural soul.”76 Cavendish’s rhetoric is tricky here: she claims that all of nature is material and must be composed of “the three degrees” of matter, and thus that there is rational matter (or what she calls “the natural soul”) in everything (which opens up the possibility of multiple souls in a single body). At the same time, she claims that the soul cannot exist [End Page 28] without a body to house it, which seems to imply that a soul is composed of purely rational matter (which occupies, but is ontologically separate from, physical matter). Thus, she argues that everything, including the soul or mind, is material, but also allows the soul a special status as composed of only the purest and most rational parts of matter and as particularly mobile (since it can migrate from one body to another), both of which make it only quasi-material. Such theoretical ambiguity provides space for Cavendish to stage minds and thoughts in a type of dramatic motion that strains and ultimately exceeds her materialist model of nature.
After its mechanism is discussed the soul travel continues, but Cavendish soon interrupts the action again and interjects:
But one thing I forgot all this while, which is, That although thoughts are the natural language of souls, yet by reason souls cannot travel without Vehicles, they use such language as the nature and propriety of their Vehicles require, and the Vehicles of those two souls being made of the purest and finest sort of air, and of a humane shape; this purity and fineness was the cause that they could neither be seen nor heard by any humane Creature; when as, had they been of some grosser sort of Air, the sound of that Airs language would have been as perceptible as the blowing of Zephyrus.77
Once again in Blazing World, we find vehicles of “the purest and finest sort of air” (though “of a humane shape”) and thus very nearly immaterial. Although minds ordinarily use only thought to communicate, their new position in airy vehicles entails that they use a language of air so delicate that it eludes sense perception. These ephemeral, feather-light creatures who speak in dialects of ether again demonstrate the power of the imagination, and again raise the question of whether the imagination allows an escape from the material. In essence, Cavendish is uncertain about the unique capacities and the material makeup of thoughts and fancies (and, more precisely, whether materiality might limit or retard their dazzling action), and in Blazing World she tests the kineticism of rational thought by imagining what the imagination might do without a material body to slow it down. What emerges in this spectacular soul-to-soul transit is a fantasy of pure thought unencumbered by materiality.
While in Observations and Philosophical Letters Cavendish insists that nothing can “be conceived without body; for the Conception or Imagination it self is corporeal,”78 in Grounds of Natural Philosophy, [End Page 29] published just two years after Blazing World, she suggests that rational matter enjoys an autonomy and speed that other types of matter cannot mimic. She explains:
Notions, Imaginations, Conceptions, and the like, are such Actions of the Mind, as concern not Forrein Objects: . . . if those Motions be so subtile, that the Sensitive cannot imitate them, Man names them, Fancies . . . and when there are many several Figurative, Rational Motions, then Man says, The Mind is full of Thoughts . . . but, when there are but few different sorts of such Figurative Motions, Man names them Ignorances.79
Cavendish reiterates here that the more motion that occurs within the mind the better, as motion leads to “Thoughts” (and the lack of motion to “Ignorances”). She also suggests that rational matter produces imagination precisely when it escapes the other parts of matter (or when the “sensitive cannot imitate” its motions), even if it is still nominally material. This moment—this mental adroitness that outpaces imitation—is exactly what Cavendish dramatizes in Blazing World. Unencumbered by the other parts of matter, rational thought travels at a pace that material bodies simply cannot match.
Characteristically, and impishly, Cavendish includes one final twist relating to materialism, motion, and the imagination at the end of Blazing World. In her famous epilogue, she announces that everything she describes in Blazing World is of her own creation and that we can either “imagine” ourselves as her “Subjects” or “create Worlds of [our] own.”80 As Jay Stevenson has noted, “[t]his cagey relativist remark offers a choice among imagined realities and orders,” and our alternative to “Cavendish’s solipsistic empire is some other self-produced power.”81 Of course, this announcement is also a smoke screen of sorts, as we know that she considers the imagination and its productions both material and real. At the very least, Blazing World has gained material status through its embodiment in text and in our minds (especially by the time we reach the epilogue). Therefore, in her return to the “real world” at the end of the text, Cavendish feigns a lighthearted, noncommittal attitude when she is actually returning to her comprehensive materialism, which requires that everything in Observations and Blazing World is [End Page 30] also material. If “Poetical Fancies are Pictures of Ideas in the Mind,” then Blazing World is a physical portrait of an embodied cognitive process, one made material again each time time we read it.82
Intriguingly, Cavendish may have planned to attach to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and Blazing World one more generic fashioning of her ideas, thus creating a tripartite formal structure that would correspond to her tripartite model of nature. In the end, she abandoned her play after just two acts, although she published the incomplete version, “A Piece of a Play,” in her Plays, Never before Printed (1668). In the play’s “Advertisement to the Reader,” she announces that “the following Fragments are part of a Play which I did intend for my Blazing-World, and had been Printed with it, if I had finish’d it; but before I had ended the second Act, finding that my Genius did not tend that way, I left that design.”83 Cavendish’s suggestive comment that her “Genius did not tend that way” raises the possibility that she may have found drama an inappropriate genre for exploring the content of Observations and Blazing World, while it also implicitly emphasizes that Blazing World’s genre is suitable for her project. However, it is unclear what exactly Cavendish means by “intend for my Blazing-World”: “A Piece of a Play” was meant to be either a third rendering of her ideas or simply another play inserted into the narrative itself (perhaps the section where the Duchess and the Duke entreat the Empress to stage plays).84
The two extant acts of “A Piece of a Play” consist of a social farce with such characters as “Sir Puppy Dog-man” and “Monsieur Ass” and offer a commentary on modish, silly manners of the “Mode of Wits,” particularly as they pertain to love and courtship. While in this piece Cavendish does not directly investigate issues of materiality, [End Page 31] motion, or the imagination, she does introduce an alluring, imminent figure whom all the characters discuss and wish to meet: Lady Phoenix is rumored to be coming to town with so much splendor “as will astonish all her Spectators.”85 Sir Buzzard informs us that “she is clothed all with light, and the beams issuing from that light, makes her train many miles long, which is held up by the Planets; . . . her Chariot is made of air, in the fashion of a Ship, and that airy Ship is gilded with the Sun; She hath numerous Attendants, those that usher her, are Blazing-Stars, and those that follow her, are fiery Meteors.” Moreover, “She feeds only upon Thoughts.”86 Returning once more to the concept of immaterial speed and motion, and once more describing a stunning mode of transport (one that in fact overlays various types of transport in a ship-shaped chariot of air), Cavendish describes Lady Phoenix as an ethereal creature who travels in a weightless vessel “gilded with the Sun,” trailing blazing stars and meteors. Like the fantastic ships in Blazing World, Lady Phoenix and her air-ship might be seen as yet another figuring of the imagination: fast, feather-light, powerful, she is composed of the finest, most luminous parts of matter and feeds only on thoughts—like fancy, which, as we recall, occurs when the mind “work[s] upon its own parts.”87 Self-sustaining, generative, and infinitely mobile, Lady Phoenix anthropomorphizes the moment when the mind reconstitutes itself, from itself, and takes flight. This transmutation—from materiality to weightlessness, from reality to fiction, from constraint to absolute freedom—sublimates experience and nature into a purer, imagined “matter”: the phoenix that ascends from prior thought.
On a variety of levels, Blazing World’s engagement with the voyage genre is more significant than critics have yet acknowledged. Travel is perfectly “agreeable” to Cavendish’s ontology because it allows her to illustrate nature—and the mind—in full, electric motion. Yet, Cavendish’s travel fiction also extends beyond her philosophy because it allows the mind to imagine a realm where thoughts flash with a speed and adroitness impossible for material bodies to realize. Here, the imagination leaves behind the burden of sensitive and inanimate parts to test a spontaneity that belies its material composition. In Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, rational matter cannot operate independently and everything, even the natural soul, is resolutely material. In Blazing World, however, Cavendish explores a more intensely experimental set of questions: she wonders [End Page 32] whether imagination might escape materiality—or, more aptly, whether imagination is the escape from the material.
In many ways, it is precisely Cavendish’s epistemological and thematic focus on constant motion that enables her unique perspective in terms of both her philosophical thinking and her position as an author. Cavendish is a writer uniquely aware of subject positions and how different perspectives entail specific types of power, and she constructs varied perspectives from which to view nature and the self in much of her work. Blazing World allows her a position outside of Observations, and outside nature, from which to view her philosophy and herself. While we might have difficulty following the narrative and characters because they constantly change, like nature, Cavendish, through her perpetual, imaginative transpositions, sees more than a fixed, static, “particular Creature is able to enjoy.”88 As she proclaims, “Nature is but one Infinite self-moving body, which by the vertue of its self-motion, is divided into infinite parts, which parts being restless, undergo perpetual changes and transmutations by their infinite compositions and divisions. . . . there is no more but one Universal principle of Nature, to wit, self-moving Matter.”89 Both consisting of and dramatizing “self-moving Matter,” Blazing World is a travel narrative two or three times over: like the universe, the text is motion, and materializes motion, and imagines more motion. “Restless,” roaming, moving, Blazing World produces thoughts faster than blazing stars. [End Page 33]
Anne M. Thell is an assistant professor of English literature and culture at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her current book project, Minds in Motion, examines travel literature alongside shifts in eighteenth-century epistemology, and argues that travel texts played a fundamental role in the emergence of new concepts of truth, knowledge, and fact from the Restoration to the Enlightenment and beyond. She is currently president of the Southeast Asia Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (SASECS).
1. Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, p. 217. Throughout this essay I quote the Paper Bodies edition of Blazing World because it is both accessible and responsible. See Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson (New York: Broadview, 2000). Similarly, I cite Eileen O’Neill’s edition of Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), which illustrates Cavendish’s 1668 additions to the original 1666 text.
2. Cavendish, Blazing World, p. 153.
3. The discourse of travel and discovery was crucial to the experimental science of the 1660s, as was travel itself. For more on the Royal Society’s impact on travel reportage and on their now oft-cited guidelines for travelers released in the 1660s and ’70s, see Judy A. Hayden’s recent collection Travel Narratives, the New Science, and Literary Discourse, 1569–1750 (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2012); and Daniel Carey, “Compiling Nature’s History: Travellers and Travel Narratives in the Early Royal Society,” Annals of Science 54 (1997): 269–292. It is unlikely that Cavendish would have considered such travel reportage as possible or desirable; in fact, she goes to great lengths to illustrate that “scientific narrativity” is no less narratological than fiction. On “scientific narrativity,” see Michel de Certeau, “Travel Narratives of the French to Brazil: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” Representations 33 (winter 1991): 221–226.
4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 50. On the similarity between Cavendish’s and Hobbes’s views on the imagination, see Deborah Boyle, “Margaret Cavendish’s Nonfeminist Natural Philosophy,” Configurations 12:2 (2004): 195–227 p. 213. Unlike Hobbes, however, Cavendish does not believe that imagination is primarily a faculty of memory. On this, see note 44 below.
5. While such work played a vital role in bringing Cavendish to the attention of scholars and introducing her philosophical thinking, it does have its limits. In an especially rigorous recent article, Boyle has problematized the viability of understanding Cavendish as a feminist thinker by showing that her philosophy cannot be considered feminist or proto-feminist—nor even particularly invested in gender per se. See “Margaret Cavendish’s Nonfeminist Natural Philosophy” (above, n. 4).
6. See Eve Keller, “Producing Petty Gods: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental Science,” ELH 64:2 (1997): 447–471; and Elizabeth Spiller, “Reading through Galileo’s Telescope: Margaret Cavendish and the Experience of Reading,” Renaissance Quarterly 53:1 (2000): 192–221. In addition to Keller and Spiller, there is quite a bit of interesting work on the ways in which Blazing World models Cavendish’s scientific principles. See, for example, Rosemary Kegl, “‘The World I Have Made’: Margaret Cavendish, Feminism, and the Blazing-World,” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, ed. Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 119–141; G. Gabrielle Starr, “Cavendish, Aesthetics, and the Anti-Platonic Line,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 39:3 (2006): 295–308, esp. p. 299; Anna Battigelli, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998), pp. 85–113; Mary Baine Campbell, Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 202–213; John Rogers, The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 177–211; and Lisa T. Sarasohn, “A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish,” Huntington Library Quarterly 47:4 (1984): 289–307, and, more recently, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010).
7. As David Cunning notes, Cavendish’s “view is an important chapter in the history of materialism, and it may even be correct” (p. 127). See Cunning, “Cavendish on the Intelligibility of the Prospect of Thinking Matter,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 23:2 (2006): 117–136, quote on p. 119.
8. Starr contends that “Cavendish’s . . . insistence on materiality enables her to theorize form and imagination in a new way . . . [and] her materialist discussion of knowledge and form brings her oddly close to idealist aesthetics in their Shaftesburian or Kantian incarnations”; see her “Cavendish, Aesthetics, and the Anti-Platonic Line” (above, n. 6), p. 299. Jay Stevenson has also discussed Cavendish’s radically materialist view of the mind and soul in “The Vitalist-Mechanist Soul of Margaret Cavendish,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 36:3 (1996): 527–543.
9. In loose chronological order, Susan James, Stephen Clucas, Eileen O’Neill, Hilda L. Smith, Deborah Boyle, Lisa T. Sarasohn, Karen Detlefsen, David Cunning, Peter Dear, Catherine Wilson, and Kourken Michaelian have all studied Cavendish’s contributions to seventeenth-century natural philosophy. See James, “The Philosophical Innovations of Margaret Cavendish,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 7:2 (1999): 219–244; Clucas, “The Atomism of the Newcastle Circle: A Reappraisal,” The Seventeenth Century 9:2 (1994): 247–273, and “The Duchess and the Viscountess: Negotiations between Mechanism and Vitalism in the Natural Philosophies of Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway,” In-Between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism 9:1–2 (2000): 125–136; O’Neill, “Introduction” (above, n. 1), pp. x–xlvii; Smith, “Margaret Cavendish and the Microscope as Play,” in Men, Women, and the Birthing of Modern Science, ed. Judith P. Zinsser (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005); Boyle, “Margaret Cavendish’s Nonfeminist Natural Philosophy” (above, n. 4); Sarasohn, “A Science Turned Upside Down” and The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish (above, n. 6); Detlefson, “Atomism, Monism, and Causation in the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish,” in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, vol. 3, ed. Daniel Garber and Steven Nadler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006): 199–240; Cunning, “Cavendish on the Intelligibility” (above, n. 7); Dear, “A Philosophical Duchess: Understanding Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society,” in Science, Literature, and Rhetoric in Early Modern England, ed. Juliet Cummins and David Burchell (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 124–142; Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 27–32, 262–264; and Michaelian, “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17:1 (2009): 31–53.
10. John Rogers has famously noted that Cavendish’s ideas are embedded in writing of “baroque complexity”; see his The Matter of Revolution (above, n. 6), p. 189. However, several recent scholars have suggested that Cavendish’s confounding rhetorical strategies and unique mode of addressing her audience might be understood as an essential expression of her philosophy. Along these lines, see Ryan John Stark, “Margaret Cavendish and Composition Style,” Rhetoric Review 17:2 (1999): 264–281; and Stevenson, “The Vitalist-Mechanist Soul of Margaret Cavendish” (above, n. 8). On how Cavendish tends to represent the mind using tropes of war or dispute, see Stevenson, “Imagining the Mind: Cavendish’s Hobbesian Allegories,” in A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, ed. Stephen Clucas (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), pp. 143–155.
11. Grounds of Natural Philosophy (London, 1668) was published just two years after Observations and sums up much of what Cavendish put forth in Observations (1666), Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy (London, 1664), and Philosophical and Physical Opinions (London, 1663). But Grounds also devotes more attention to the workings of the mind and includes some more intensely speculative sections—for instance, one final segment on “Restoring Beds, or Wombs, viz. Whether there might not be Restoring Beds, as well as Producing Beds, or Breeding Beds” that can restore life to annihilated bodies (p. 292; emphasis in original). See Stevenson, “The Vitalist-Mechanist Soul of Margaret Cavendish” (above, n. 8), pp. 537–538, on how Grounds might intentionally complicate Cavendish’s arguments from Observations.
12. For details, see Battigelli, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (above, n. 6), pp. 3–9, 39; and O’Neill, “Introduction” (above, n. 1), pp. xii–xv. Her husband’s interest in natural philosophy led to the family’s direct contact with many of the scientific and philosophic luminaries of the era, in particular such continental philosophers as René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi and the “Newcastle Circle,” a group of exiled English philosophers that included Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, and Walter Charleton. See Sarasohn, “A Science Turned Upside Down” (above, n. 6), p. 290; and Sarah Hutton, “In Dialogue with Thomas Hobbes: Margaret Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy,” Women’s Writing 4:3 (2006): 421–432, esp. pp. 422–423. The Newcastle Circle became an epicenter of the English Epicurean revival; on this, see Richard Kroll, The Material Word: Literate Culture in the Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 156–164. Due to Cavendish’s extreme bashfulness, however, scholars are uncertain of her actual contact with the family’s illustrious friends. Notably, she did maintain a written correspondence with several prominent philosophers. On her correspondence with Joseph Glanvill, see Jacqueline Broad, “Margaret Cavendish and Joseph Glanvill: Science, Religion, and Witchcraft,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 38:3 (2007): 493–505; and Rhodri Lewis, “Of ‘Origenian Platonisme’: Joseph Glanvill on the Pre-existence of Souls,” Huntington Library Quarterly 69:2 (2006): 267–300, esp. pp. 287–288. On her correspondence with Constantijn Huygens, see Nadine Akkerman and Marguérite Corporaal, “Mad Science Beyond Flattery: The Correspondence of Margaret Cavendish and Constantijn Huygens,” Early Modern Literary Studies 14 (2004): 1–21. On Charleton’s surprisingly humane response to Cavendish’s work, see Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (above, n. 9), pp. 263–264.
13. O’Neill, “Introduction” (above, n. 1), p. xv; for more details, see pp. x–xxxvi.
14. Cavendish’s early work is deeply invested in the English atomism of the period. On how and why she moved away from atomism later in her career, see ibid. and Boyle, “Margaret Cavendish’s Nonfeminist Natural Philosophy” (above, n. 4), pp. 197–210.
15. Cavendish’s model of nature has some obvious similarities with several prominent seventeenth-century philosophies. For example, there is no doubt that Hobbes deeply influenced her. Although she rejected Hobbes’s mechanism, Cavendish was one of the few thinkers who agreed with him in denying the existence of incorporeal substances in nature; see O’Neill, “Introduction (above, n. 1), p. xiii. As Wilson comments: “Only one philosopher, Hobbes, the most thoroughgoing Democritean philosopher of the seventeenth century, . . . held to the view that there is nothing that is not material”; see Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (above, n. 9), p. 52. Like Cavendish, Hobbes also prioritized reason over sensory perception, and he similarly turned away from the Royal Society. For more on Hobbes and Cavendish, see Hutton, “In Dialogue with Thomas Hobbes” (above, n. 12); for more on Cavendish, Hobbes, and the debate about immaterial substances, see Stewart Duncan, “Debating Materialism: Cavendish, Hobbes, and More,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 29:4 (2012): 391–409. Cavendish was also clearly influenced by the vitalist movement of the mid-seventeenth century, which maintained that nature is living and self-aware (although she denied the vitalist “spirit” of nature). Because she views nature as continuous and indivisible, her system is also technically a monist system. For more on Cavendish and monism, see Rogers, The Matter of Revolution (above, n. 6), pp. 180–190. Finally, there are some obvious parallels between Cavendish’s thinking and Stoicism—and, perhaps more prominently, Epicureanism. See Wilson, Epicureanism (above, n. 9), pp. 20–32, 262–263, for how Epicureanism filtered into English seventeenth-century science, as well as Cavendish’s contribution to its positive reception. On Cavendish and Epicureanism, see also Starr, “Cavendish, Aesthetics, and the Anti-Platonic Line” (above, n. 6), pp. 297–299; and Emma L. E. Rees, “‘Sweet honey of the Muses’: Lucretian Resonance in Poems, and Fancies,” In-Between: Essays and Studies in Literary Criticism 9:1–2 (2000): 3–16.
16. For example, there are no “simples” that add up to form composite bodies; see Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 31. If atomistic, Cavendish contends, “nature would be like a beggar’s coat full of lice: Neither would she be able to rule those wandering and straggling atoms, because they are not parts of her body, but each is a single body by itself” (p. 129). As such, these three degrees of matter are ostensibly “not three kinds of matter, but rather (something like) three inseparable aspects of (the one kind of) matter” (see Michaelian, “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” [above, n. 9], pp. 35–36).
17. For the quotations above, see Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 158, 157, 207. Given this setup, it makes sense that Cavendish would have to defend her work from a type of deism that conflates nature and God. She specifically denies such ideas in her later work; see especially ibid., pp. 216–224, and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), p. 241. See Stevenson, “Imagining the Mind” (above, n. 10), on how her writing nonetheless suggests “that religious ideals are mental constructs conducive to psychic order” (p. 147).
18. Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), pp. 65–66.
19. Cavendish emphasizes that all three degrees of matter can perceive and think, but in different ways that are determined by the range of their different motions. Michaelian explains that “[o]ne might expect Cavendish to hold that only animate matter has life and knowledge, but she defies this expectation. . . . The difference between animate and inanimate matter lies, instead, entirely in their different capacities for self-motion”; see “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), p. 35.
20. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 221, 140.
21. Ibid., pp. 221, 190. God also falls outside the study of natural philosophy and outside our powers of discernment: finite, corporeal beings like ourselves “may have a perception of knowledge of the existence of God, yet they cannot possibly pattern or figure him; he being a supernatural, immaterial, and infinite being” (p. 88). For Cavendish, God and the divine soul are supernatural, immaterial, and unknowable. On this, see ibid., p. 88, and Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 34–35.
22. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 221 (emphasis in original).
23. Ibid., p. 88.
24. For details on Cavendish’s theory of motion, see ibid., pp. 199, 208–210; Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 21–25, 78–80, 442–448; and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), pp. 2–6, 69–71, 165–166. See also Boyle, “Margaret Cavendish’s Non-feminist Natural Philosophy” (above, n. 4), pp. 201–204, 206–207; O’Neill, “Introduction” (above, n. 1), pp. xxix–xxxiv; Michaelian, “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), pp. 45–50; and Rogers, The Matter of Revolution (above, n. 6), pp. 177–211.
25. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 27.
26. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 443. She is careful to point out that she does not deny occasional causes: “I do not say, that the motion of the hand [that throws a bowl] doth not contribute to the motion of the bowl; for though the bowl hath its own natural motion in it self, (for Nature and her creatures know of no rest . . .) nevertheless the motion of the bowl would not move by such an exterior local motion, did not the motion of the hand . . . give it occasion to move that way; Wherefore the motion of the hand may very well be said to be the cause of that exterior local motion of the bowl, but not to be the same motion by which the bowl moves. Neither is it requisite, that the hand should quit its own motion” (pp. 447–448; emphasis added). Michaelian adds: “Cavendish thus clearly permits that the hand exerts an indirect physical influence on the motion of the ball: the hand does not transmit its motion to the ball, but it does serve as a sort of signal that triggers the self-motion of the ball. . . . However, while the hand is in this sense a cause of the motion of the ball, it is, for Cavendish, importantly secondary”; see “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), p. 47. As an anonymous reader of this essay usefully pointed out, Cavendish’s views on occasional causes have intriguing links to will become Malebranchean occasionalism.
27. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 23, 25.
28. See Rogers, The Matter of Revolution (above, n. 6), p. 192; and Boyle, “Margaret Cavendish’s Nonfeminist Natural Philosophy” (above, n. 4), p. 201. Rogers argues that Cavendish rejects brute force as the governing principle of motion because she recognizes its gendered implications; by contrast, her system creates “an important conceptual model for female agency” (p. 190). Boyle has problematized understanding Cavendish’s theory of motion in gendered terms (pp. 217–220).
29. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 159.
30. Michaelian, “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), p. 36.
31. Ibid., p. 34.
32. Instead, in a process that Cavendish calls “translation,” substances appear “when the motions individuating a body are dissipated, so that the matter of which the body was composed can go to form new entities”; see Michaelian, “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), p. 36. Variety in nature appears due to the “Antipathy and Sympathy” between the varied motions of the “Infinite parts of Infinite Matter”; see Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 446, 443. All types of creatures exist “by a perpetual supply and succession of particulars,” and they change due to “perpetual alternations, generations, and dissolutions.” There is not “want or decay of general kinds of creatures, but only a change of their particulars” (see Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy [above, n. 1], p. 132). Even when a “particular motion” ends, it is “not annihilated, but changed” (p. 36).
33. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 209.
34. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 34; see also p. 41. In Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), Cavendish also makes special note of the violence of experimental practices in what might be seen as an early eco-critique of science. As she complains, the experimentalists “wast their Time and Estates, with Fire and Furnace, cruelly torturing the Productions of Nature to make Experiments” (p. 294).
35. See Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), p. 21. Rogers offers an interesting commentary on the “natural hierarchy” of rational, sensitive, and inanimate matter, which he sees as philosophically necessary to Cavendish’s political sympathies. If all degrees contained equal knowledge and reason, “they would all be governors, but none would be governed.” See Rogers, The Matter of Revolution (above, n. 9), pp. 202–203; and Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 129.
36. Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), p. 59. Although “the Rational Corporeal Motions of the Mind, will occasion the Senses to watch, to work, or to sport and play,” Cavendish emphasizes that the senses are not forced to obey “Rational Designs,” as “the Command of the Rational, and the Obedience of the Sensitive, is rather an Agreement than a Constraint” (p. 63).
37. Ibid., p. 62.
38. Ibid., p. 9 (emphasis in original).
39. For more details on Cavendish’s account of perception and patterning, see Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 22–25; and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 175–183. See also Michaelian, “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), pp. 38–45. Of course, perception is never perfect: as finite beings, we cannot know the whole of nature, and similarly we cannot have perfect knowledge of an external object.
40. Conception is a kind of “interior knowledge” or a “non-perceptive knowledge of external things.” Michaelian explains: “It should be emphasized that the distinction between perceptive knowledge, on the one hand, and interior knowledge of external things, on the other hand, is not (as one might expect) that the former is produced by the sensitive part of the thinking thing, while the latter is produced by its rational part, but, instead, simply that only conception is produced voluntarily.” Perception includes the action of both sensitive and rational parts, as does conception. However, “[t]his is not to say that the rational part does not play a more important role [in conception] than does the sensitive part, just as . . . the sensitive part plays the more important role in perception.” See “Margaret Cavendish’s Epistemology” (above, n. 9), p. 48.
41. Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), p. 58.
42. The mind is like all of nature “divideable and composeable, by which division and composition, men may have more or less wit, or quicker and slower wit; the like for Judgments, Imaginations, Fancies, Opinions, &c.”; see Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 49. She further explains: “For were the natural rational mind individeable, all men would have the like degree of wit or understanding, all men would be Philosophers or fools, . . . for it is not the several outward objects, or forreign instructions, that make the variety of the mind; neither is wit or ingenuity alike in all men” (ibid.). All conception “is occasioned by the various Motions of the rational self-moving matter, which is the Natural Mind” (p. 50).
43. See Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), pp. 251–252, and Philosophical and Physical Opinions (above, n. 11), pp. 47–51, esp. p. 49. In this latter text, she states that imagination occurs when “Rational Animate matter and motions make Voluntary figures” (ibid.). Cavendish’s view of the imagination has interesting Lucretian resonances. (On Cavendish and Epicureanism, see note 15 above.) Cavendish also seems to bridge the gap between earlier ideas of imagination as a kind of combinational faculty based on memory and later eighteenth-century ideas of the imagination as a celebrated creative force.
44. Throughout her various accounts of the imagination, Cavendish defends the faculty from a kind of “dumbing down” that she finds in mechanical accounts of the mind. For instance, see Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 26–35, on how Hobbes’s account of memory, imagination, and dreams is reductive. Cavendish argues against the claim that memory and imagination are essentially the same cognitive functions, and that memory—or “Imagination of the past”—is necessarily made weak over time (p. 26).
45. Starr, “Cavendish, Aesthetics, and the Anti-Platonic Line” (above, n. 6), p. 299.
46. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 31, 29 (emphasis in original).
47. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish (above, n. 6), p. 55. Starr adds: “In Cavendish’s drive towards understanding the utility of imagination and its creations, she insists the field of imaginative utility is not phantasmatic; fancy, coming from the brain, partakes of the materiality of the brain. It is always embodied, and changes our bodily experiences”; see “Cavendish, Aesthetics, and the Anti-Platonic Line” (above, n. 6), p. 299.
48. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 448.
49. Cavendish has a way of playing games with this ambiguity by positioning her work as both fanciful and empirically real. As Stevenson explains in “Imagining the Mind” (above, n. 10): “On one hand, the mind in Cavendish is so completely subject to empirical scrutiny that each thought is a concrete, physical symptom of itself. At the same time, mind is so completely prior to experience that nothing reliably exists except as thought. Indeed, Cavendish’s writings about the mind suggest that everything is thought and that all thought is the tangible figment of its own imagination” (p. 144; emphasis in original). Moreover, in her writing, Cavendish often stages dramas or disputes in her mind that are both fictional and empirical: “As dramatisations of the very thought they represent, her plays have an undeniably empirical reality” (p. 145).
50. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), pp. 151–152.
51. The rhetoric of discovery permeates Cavendish’s work, and she often likens herself to an explorer. As Sarasohn notes, “Drake’s circumnavigation around the world had touched Cavendish’s imagination”; see The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish (above, n. 6), p. 73. Further, Cavendish frequently draws on the trope to illustrate the power of conception (rather than mere perception); for instance, in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), she claims that rational matter “does inform itself of things which the sensitive cannot; as for example, how was the new world and the antipodes found out? for they were neither seen, nor heard of, nor tasted, nor smelled, nor touched. Truly our reason does many times perceive that which our senses cannot” (p. 192).
52. For all quotations in this paragraph, see Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), pp. 152–153; for “rational knowledge,” see Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 141, 207. In this section, Cavendish also distinguishes her travelogue from “Lucian’s, or the French man’s World in the Moon,” presumably because her fancy is guided by reason and complements her philosophy (Blazing World, p. 153). Lucian and Cyrano, perhaps, “trouble the mind, thoughts, and actions of life, with improbabilities, or rather impossibilities”; see Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 448.
53. Angus Fletcher argues that Cavendish seeks to harness the “power of irregularity,” a feature of nature that he claims she aligns with women’s dispositions. He goes on to study “Cavendish’s efforts to translate Nature’s qualities onto a mortal woman in The Blazing-World” (p. 125). See Fletcher, “The Irregular Aesthetic of ‘The Blazing-World,’” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 47:1 (2007): 123–141.
54. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 153.
55. Ibid., pp. 159, 160, 198.
56. Ibid., p. 181.
57. Ibid., p. 158.
58. On the whole, Cavendish is extremely skeptical about the type of information that can be obtained from scientific instruments (particularly optical devices), although she occasionally exhibits a conflicted attitude toward such developments. For instance, see Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 4, 9, and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), p. 294, on how scientific instruments obfuscate rather than elucidate truth; and Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), pp. 495–496, on how Robert Boyle’s work is “very beneficial to man.” It might be useful to think about Cavendish’s critique of experimentalism in terms of what Michael McKeon has called “extreme skepticism,” which appears in response to the early Royal Society and its “naïve empiricism.” Other skeptics like Henry Stubbe launched similar attacks, but this does not necessarily mean that such thinkers were “unalterably hostile to the new philosophy”: “In fact, Stubbe was a rather forward-looking physician whose announced ‘Aristotelianism’ did not preclude acknowledging the triumphs of modern science”; instead, “[c]ritics like Stubbe, . . . were driven by [the Royal Society’s self-congratulatory proclamations] to explore the limits of scientific observation. . . . This sort of criticism is fully representative of the posture of extreme skepticism.” See McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740, 15th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 71–72.
59. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 4 (emphasis added).
60. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 159.
61. John Donne, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” l. 24. Cavendish knew Donne’s poetry well, as she illustrates when she paraphrases a poem by “Dr. Donne” in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), p. 209.
62. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 243. After they drop through the sea, the group apparently finds an underwater portal back into the Blazing World that they wish to conceal from their audience, as the Empress would not “suffer any of her Ships to come above the Water until she arrived into the Blazing-world.” In a similarly mobile fashion, the Worm-men swiftly penetrate the center of the Earth, the Fly-men circle the globe with ease, and the Bird-men freely circulate the cosmos.
63. Ibid., p. 196.
65. Ibid., pp. 196–197.
66. Ibid., p. 197.
67. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 25, 33.
68. Rather comically, although she is chosen scribe, the Duchess cannot write “so intelligibly that any Reader whatsoever may understand it,” and therefore “Secretaries” must learn to cipher and translate her handwriting; see Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 209.
69. Ibid., p. 215 (emphasis added).
70. Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), pp. 251–253 (emphasis in original). Cavendish goes on to argue that the parts do not separate because they have a natural sympathy. While this idea is consistent with her model of nature in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, I should emphasize that Grounds is one of Cavendish’s most experimental pieces of philosophy; as such, it has many intriguing overlaps with Blazing World.
71. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 216.
72. Ibid., p. 223. The Duchess explains that the Duke need not be jealous of her new friend the Empress, as the three are “Platonick Lovers” (ibid.). The Duchess/Empress/ Duke convocation has interesting Lucretian resonances, separated from society as they are in a “soul,” where they have enlightened conversations. For more on this scene, see David Michael Robinson, “Pleasant Conversation in the Seraglio: Lesbianism, Platonic Love, and Cavendish’s Blazing World,” The Eighteenth Century 44:2–3 (2003): 133–166.
73. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 217. This ability to survey all the world at once has political implications beyond the scope of this essay. For a classic reading of Cavendish and political absolutism, see Catherine Gallagher, “Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England,” Genders 1 (1988): 24–39.
74. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1), pp. 25, 33.
75. In this episode, Cavendish presumably discusses “the natural soul,” which she uses interchangeably with “mind” in both Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and Blazing World. Throughout the soul-to-soul travel section, she describes disembodied minds that can communicate instantly without speaking.
76. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 203. She asks in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (above, n. 1): “Why may not the soul . . . change its vehicles, that is, leave such, and take other vehicles?” (p. 190; emphasis in original). Here, Cavendish claims that the natural soul can change its vehicle (as part of the process of transmutation) and that various souls can exist in one body (because all matter is composed of the intermixture of rational, inanimate, sensitive parts). In essence, then, soul migration is technically possible in her philosophy, but is treated far more comprehensively, and playfully, in her fiction.
77. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), pp. 219–220.
78. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 442.
79. Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (above, n. 11), pp. 69–70 (emphasis in original).
80. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 251.
81. Stevenson, “Imagining the Mind” (above, n. 10), p. 154. As Stevenson goes on to point out, this challenge suggests that all is imagined and “that power and order are always self-produced and imaginary.”
82. Cavendish, “A Piece of a Play,” in Plays, Never before Printed (London, 1668), p. 2. “A Piece of a Play” appears in the last twenty pages of the Plays, although the pagination starts anew.
83. Ibid., p. 1.
84. Though Cavendish states that she meant to publish the play “with” Blazing World, she also implies that she intended to insert the play into the narrative itself when, after “A Piece,” she adds another character list for yet another play with the comment: “The following Names were fitted for a Farse, intended to have been after the Play in the Blazing-World; But the Play being never finish’d, for the Reasons mention’d in the Front of the Piece of that Play; The Farse was not so much as begun” (ibid., p. 21). Arguably, Cavendish suggests that both “A Piece of a Play” (“that Play”) and this subsequent “Farse,” “being never finish’d” for the same reasons, were meant to be inserted “in” Blazing World.
85. Ibid., p. 3.
86. Ibid., p. 4.
87. Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (above, n. 11), p. 34.
88. Cavendish, Blazing World (above, n. 1), p. 213.
89. Ibid., p. 183.