Returning from my recent concert tour in Oregon I was able to – finally – take this picture from I-5. This tag has puzzled me over the past decade. Who wrote this and why? The interwebs offer no enlightenment. Is it a sulky threat of karma? Some local feud? Whatever, it mirrors my current fascination, historic literature.
Authors from the past are not themselves reliable narrators, if you are to count their ghostly presence as another character. They don’t expertly guide us through our own questions and moral turpitude as we read. They’ll often lose favor, within decades of publication, as public mores drift in another direction. But their stories offer delicious evidence of time and place, warning us of who we have been and where we are going, in spite of our current thinking that we know it all. Narratives resurface, heard and felt anew.
I have been reading history (or herstory) analyses of Margaret Cavendish, 17th century philosopher and proto-science fiction writer. She is the subject of my long-term animation and music score project, “Blazing World”, slated for 2021. While in Portland I had the pleasure of meeting renowned scholar Lisa Sarasohn, who has written extensively on Cavendish, and what she means to us now.
Virginia Woolf and other writers were embarrassed by Cavendish’s eccentricities, and the way Cavendish would place herself at the center of her stories (though this was a device that male writers used in the 17th century also). And Cavendish is a royalist, not a revolutionary.
But I find Cavendish’s humor and vulnerability refreshing. She is a defender of women, witches and nature. She yearns for utopia, and celebrates eros, during one of England’s most violent periods. She was labelled Mad Madge by her peers, dressing outrageously when she went out on the town. But Cavendish reclaimed her power through her writing, specifically satirizing the gentlemen scientists in the Royal Society, and seriously challenging the scientific and philosophic approaches of her day. Sarasohn writes that Cavendish was able to reply to Descartes’ famous assertion with her own, “ I am, therefore I think”.
She imagined a world of tiny, living parts – atoms – that were essentially the same as fairies. Cavendish felt that Nature ruled, that matter and motion followed, and that matter itself had vitality and feeling. She loathed the arrogance of men and the presumption of superiority. She saw the experiments of gentlemen scientists as heartless and futile. Her perspective differs from Francis Bacon and other explorative writers at the time who wished to “penetrate nature”, and have nature “give herself to men”.
Cavendish’s story, “Blazing World” (1666), is a curious hybrid of both scientific discussion and “fancie”. Her heroine enters a portal at the North Pole, and meets animal-hybrids (lice-men, fox-men, bear-men etc.) who are scientific experimenters. Initially she ridicules their efforts and factionalism (a thinly veiled attack on Cavendish’s bête noir, the Royal Society). But when she is made Empress she harnesses their innate gifts, and eventually co-creates a harmonious world, even conversing with Cavendish herself! The hybrid animal-men are interesting in that they are not separate from their studies, (eg. the birdmen explore the atmosphere, the worm-men explore maggots) and that their knowledge is in a constant state of flux. Her birdmen regard the natural world as unfathomable – she herself questions “where is Paradise?” Their knowledge is therefore not an extraction, but an ongoing relationship to the world.
Cavendish anticipates the warning shots of writers like Mary Shelly and Ursula LeGuin, where literal and figurative monsters are birthed by ethically untethered science.
I think Margaret Cavendish would have enjoyed knowing about the true people of the North Pole, described in this Smithsonian article (along with its alarming title) “Why Scientists Are Starting To Care About Cultures That Talk to Whales).
She’d have delighted in how indigenous northern peoples have always had conversations with whales, mirrored in real-time events, and where hunting is a delicate relationship of respect and reciprocity. Whales are asked to sacrifice themselves, and the hunter must show good behavior and careful adherence to ritual, treating a whale body in a way that would allow it to be reborn.
Cavendish’s work is prescient to the modern climate fight, and the endless struggles of indigenous peoples to change the narrative flow. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, describes how science might be within mutual responsive relationship, not objectification (with its notions of objectivity and neutrality). Maori astronomy is a great example of uniting science and story-telling, where stories are not “myths”. They are instructions for how we might receive the information we get from the night sky through our own eyes, through our technology. Are we really going to “colonize” the moon and other planets, and treat our solar system as an empty wilderness? Are we going to keep treating others as Resource, as Other?
I have always loved the night sky, and sometimes wish our stars and planets could run and hide from grabby humans that litter the cosmos with our space junk. However, if we do this right, and listen to our ancestries, our sciences and “fancies” may bring joy, and calm the cancer of expansionism.