Given ongoing debates and current controversies concerning misogyny and power, let us consider the case of a brilliant seventeenth-century woman who dared to challenge the gendered conventions of her day. A recent essay in The Public Domain Review by Emily Lord Fransee considers themes surrounding gender, imperialism, and the imagination in Margaret Lucas Cavendish’s 1666 work The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World–which happens to be this coming week’s reading and topic in Dr. Kathryn Morris‘s course The Origins of Science Fiction in Early Modern Europe. For those of you not familiar with The Blazing World, Fransee highlights just some of the bizarre and fascinating details of this early modern text of science fiction: ‘It is the middle of the seventeenth century and a Bear-man is helping an empress attempt to examine a whale through a microscope. After this task is found to be impossible, a group of Worm-men explain how creatures can exist without blood and how cheese turns to maggots. In her turn, the empress scolds an assembly of Ape- and Lice-men for their pursuit of tedious and irrelevant knowledge, such as the true weight of air, and commands they instead get busy with “such Experiments as may be beneficial to the publick”. Armed with such knowledge of the natural world and equipped with the resources of her vast dominions, she then sends flocks of Bird-men and navies of Fish-men to a parallel planet to make war on and conquer her many enemies.’
Cavendish (pictured above) was Duchess of Newcastle and writer of works of natural philosophy and poetry (as well as a play entitled A Comedy of the Apocryphal Ladies). The Blazing World was published as an appendix to her experimental philosophy. The latter recounts the tale of a young woman from our planet who ends up in a parallel world populated by animal-men; she eventually becomes empress of this new world, combining advancement of the arts and sciences with successful imperial domination utilising fire-stones dropped by Bird-men and submarines towed by Fish-men. The Blazing World might thus be regarded as an ’empress-ive’ early modern work of ‘science friction’.
She illustrates aspects of her vital materialist philosophy and royalist political views in The Blazing World, and champions the role of the imagination. Thus after the empress summons the soul of the Duchess (i.e., Cavendish herself) to the Blazing World, the latter is advised to create a world in her own imagination: as Fransee puts it, ‘In creating her own world according to her own rules, she may enjoy her power “without controle or opposition”, making “what World you please” that can be altered and enjoyed without limits’–a reflection of the circumscribed freedom available to women even of aristocratic status and learning such as herself.
Although this delightful fiction is now the subject of much scholarly interest, Cavendish’s learning as well as philosophical and literary output tended to be snubbed by contemporaries and later critics alike. Despite Cavendish’s impressive opus and the fact that she was the first woman to be invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, many of its members discounted her accomplishments and focused on her unusual appearance and deportment. Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn derided her outlandish behaviour (i.e., scandalously conversing with men about philosophical matters) and extravagant dress: Fransee comments that ‘Her “singular” clothing choices played with conceptions of gender…her penchant for masculine waistcoats contrasting with one notable incident in which she addressed the audience at one of her husband’s plays while wearing a self-designed dress based on ancient Cretan costumes that left her breasts “all laid out to view.”’ Such characteristics earned her the nickname ‘Mad Madge’. The men of her time could just not get over her Cavendishy outfits, even when she was dressed in her Sunday ‘breasts’. Her speculative fiction may have constituted a sort of literary revenge against such misogyny, such that the work could be the basis of a movie blockbuster entitled ‘Mad Madge: Fury World’.
Centuries later, Virginia Woolf perpetuated this image in A Room of One’s Own: Fransee quotes Woolf’s description of Cavendish’s writing as a ‘vision of loneliness and riot . . . as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.’ The old proverb Homo homini lupus est (‘a man is a wolf to another man’) played itself out in this work of feminist modernism: a woman was a Woolf to another woman.
EMSP events this week: On Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 4 pm in the KTS Lecture Room, Dr. Douglas Berger (University of Leiden) will be speaking on ‘Degrees of Willing: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Buddhist Thought‘. Dr. Berger will no doubt disclose how the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment to material cravings distances itself from ‘shopping hour’, as well as how the famous author of Thus Spake Zarathustra had a ‘kneejerk’ reaction to supposed Buddhist nihilism.
On Thursday, Oct. 25, at 4-6 pm in the Wilson Common Room, Dr. Jannette Vusich hosts an information session on the May 2019 study-abroad course on Early Modern Art, Literature, and Politics in Florence, Italy. Taught entirely on site in Florence, Italy, this month-long, full-credit (6 credit hours) course provides a unique opportunity for students to consider the art, literature, philosophy, and politics of Early Modern Italy (1280-1580) through daily visits to the city’s churches, palaces, and museums. Time permitting, Dr. Vusich may even take students to the little-known museum of underground Florentine cuisine, the U-Fix-It Galley. The Galley features a collection of culinary monster-pieces commissioned by the famous Renaissance Florentine patrons of Mediterranean fromage, the ‘Medi-Cheese’ Family Company. High- (but mainly low-) lights include the Dish-courses on Liver by the slavish Florentine cook of low-fat gelatin desserts, No-calo Make-him-a-jelly; Leonardo da Vinci’s moving depiction of Jesus’s leftover dishes, Last Night’s Supper; and a slender pasta-chef’s ‘wurst’ attempt at hot dog soup, Sandro Vermicelli’s Broth of Wieners.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Hot Dog Soup Studies Program