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Margaret Cavendish

Immaterial Lens: Leviathan Through the Eyes of Lady Margaret Cavendish

Lady Margaret Cavendish and her utopian novel, The Description of A New World Called The Blazing World, published in 1666, has received renewed interest as feminist academics and woke literary crusaders obsessed with presentism struggle to revise every footnote of the Western canon. Their effort to elevate Cavendish isn’t entirely without merit, though, as the ambitious work by the 17th-century aristocrat had gone overlooked for centuries and delights many modern readers with illuminating descriptions of bizarre realms that predate the futuristic settings explored in some of today’s best science fiction.

A few of her insights, often coated with a generous layer of snark, remain fresh even four hundred years later. And while the plot of Blazing World is decidedly uneven, that characteristic doesn’t disqualify it, as it’s one you’ll find in other great meandering works that were once disregarded, such as This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cavendish’s Blazing World is, if anything, an inspired screed that, had it been nurtured by the right editor, may have ended up on a list of classics with or without help from today’s petty revisionists. The most useful purpose of the text, however, might be the contrast it provides to Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, with whom Cavendish was enamored.

Narrative and Structure

In Blazing World, Cavendish handily exploits the utopian genre popular during her time and employs several other literary styles to scrutinize the era’s most debated philosophical, scientific, and theological concepts, reflecting a distinct, hermaphroditic voice. She is not the only prolific female author of the era, but her subject matter does help distinguish her “voice.” Sara H. Mendelson of Carnegie Melon University notes that “Contemporaries understood the term “hermaphroditic” in its cultural context to signify a fusion of sexual and literary bimorphisms, a joining together of male “reason” and female “fancy” or of other pairs of traits traditionally gendered male or female. This doesn’t mean Cavendish’s form or voice was “non-binary,” to use an ad-nausea phrase, but that she was able to elicit and balance both masculine and feminine aspects of her being when articulating her ideas.

“Besides, said they, a Monarchy is a divine form of Government, and agrees most with our Religion: For as there is but one God, whom we all unanimously worship and adore with one Faith; so we are resolved to have but one Emperor, to whom we all submit with one obedience.”

Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World

Mendelsohn, in her study of Cavendish, argues that Blazing World introduces new literary innovations, illustrated, for example, by its tripartite structure, which she insists is a “new departure compared to the works of Cavendish’s predecessors or near-contemporaries.” Against the backdrop of utopian or science fiction, Mendelsohn believes the structure provides a canvas from which the author more freely examines how humans may be constructed and deconstructed. This is a bit of a stretch, however, as inspired writers to this day often lack a disciplined adherence to plot structure, whether it’s utopian fiction or the modern screenplay. Cavendish may have been “innovative” with the tripartite model, but she seemed to ignore the other elements required for building suspense and propelling the narrative. I kind of see it as a three-act structure, which isn’t really original. And it’s likely that Cavendish was provided guidance to better shape her work, but that her status, not as a woman but as nobility, prevented her from taking it to heart and conforming the text to appeal to a wider audience. Samuel Pepys described the author as “mad, conceited and ridiculous,” which a number of brilliant minds are, but in reading Blazing World, it’s not hard to imagine her as being a little arrogant and beyond criticism. To this critic, the tripartite structure is not the real value to be found in Cavendish.

You can listen to the audiobook version of The Description of A New World Called The Blazing World in this YouTube video.
An Immaterial Lens

Despite her social status as the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and demonstrative knowledge of academic subjects from mathematics to chemistry, Cavendish was patronized by many of her peers, besides Pepys, during her lifetime, particularly members of The Royal Society, whom, perhaps intimidated by her intellect, fueled by their own bias, or simply unimpressed by her “self-described extreme bashfulness,” were dismissive of and even belittled her contributions. Other reputable thinkers, including Henry More and Thomas Hobbes, thought more generously of the author. Cavendish respected the latter so much as to refer to him in Blazing World as “one of the most famous modern Writers,” situating him with icons like Des Cartes and Galileo. Though Mendelson notes Hobbes worked for the Cavendish family as a tutor, her sophisticated treatment of materialism, the incorporeal, the social contract, and the human construct might have genuinely impressed Hobbes, from whose treatise Leviathan, she derived significant inspiration for Blazing World.

However, Cavendish was not merely a steadfast disciple of Hobbes’s theories but an intellectual that, eleven years following Leviathan, was able to relate and analyze his ideas in a narrative form that today could be argued is more accessible to certain readers. Through its framing as a meta-hermaphroditic and fictional text, Blazing World arguably enriches and gives color to some of Hobbes’s thesis on materialism, the social contract, and the various functions of our senses. Her fictional representation of Hobbes’s ideas utilizing character development, story structure, and dialogue affirm primary aspects of his philosophy, the story arc of the Empress, her protagonist being the most prominent example. Still, her imagery as a sovereign, providing order and meaning to her subjects, mirrors Hobbes’s skeleton in Leviathan. Each describes the body politic personified as a human, interconnected and stabilized by the central power, whether a man or a woman.

Margaret Cavendish

Yet Cavendish’s fictional treatise also offers the world contrarian views and critiques that differentiate her philosophy from Hobbes’s. At times, it is difficult to reconcile the whimsical “fancy,” with which Cavendish encapsulates or blends her scientific reasoning, with Hobbes’s dry resignation that imagination is essentially attributable to the decay of memory and deterioration of the senses. The very existence of Cavendish’s otherworldly characters, magical setting, and imagery in Blazing World seems to refute Hobbes’s theory about imagination resulting from the decay of the senses, doesn’t it?

A second divergence from Hobbes flows from her thoughts on the incorporeal aspects of the human race. That’s most evident in her novel throughout discussions the Empress has with the “Immaterial Spirits,” she visits and whom she summons after a series of probing discourses with the strange world’s natives. After interrogating them on the basis of the soul, motion of matter, and the immaterial, she requests that they facilitate her desire for conquest! While the request is granted, she pauses to understand those impulses from a spiritual perspective.

Divinely Inspired Cavendish

Jacqueline Broad, another Cavendish scholar, notes that while Hobbes and the Lady were both materialists and agreed philosophy should be kept separate from theology, she maintained an orthodox religious view that while there were immaterial spirits, she discovered them through faith, not reason, and “her arguments refer to divine matters only.” Hobbes, by contrast, seemed boxed in by his materialist philosophy, avoiding the heavier questions of how his faith contradicted it, at least in Leviathan. Cavendish, by contrast, explores the construction of our body and mind, the possibility of a spirit, and the role of the senses in a more interconnected way in Blazing World.

For example,  she examines the nature of the six senses through animals’ reactions in addition to how humans experience them, which Hobbes does address as creatively in his treatise. Those observations, though somewhat speculative and out of the box, help her craft an argument that while “immaterial spirits” are not movable or require physical vehicles and space, spirit exists in some form. Furthermore, while there is no emphasis on an afterlife in Blazing World, in exploring the notion of moving between worlds, Cavendish raises thought-provoking ideas that allow the reader to ponder the significance of deeply scientific and theological questions through her characters’ travels.

In providing the example of an Empress’ justified reign to endorse much of Hobbes’s overarching basis for the necessity of a monarchy and consolidated power in Blazing World, Cavendish is able to construct and deconstruct humanity within her imaginary hierarchical world far more fluidly and nuanced than in Hobbes’s largely regimented society. That may be a result of her gendered perspective and creative impulses, which her characters personify, notably the Empress, who struggles with defining herself between worlds and within them. She is, in one instance, a scientist and, in the next, an evangelist and, through engagement with her subjects, seems able to examine the basis for morality and intricacies of the “soul” more expansively than Hobbes is capable in his non-fiction work, Leviathan. Mendelson conjectures Cavendish would view today’s neuro-cognitive research as reflecting consciousness, which scientists have begun to propose is analogous to the notion of the soul. While presumptuous, it underscores Cavendish’s desire to explain life’s immaterial and incorporeal matter in a way her character’s scientific intellect seems unable to in Blazing World.

So, while Cavendish upholds the political argument in Leviathan that to maintain social stability, there must be one leader and that the best form of that governance is through a monarchy, the substance of Blazing World is more focused on unwinding and expounding his radical materialism and philosophy. She’s a lot more fun than Hobbes. And in her distinctly “non-binary” way, Cavendish’s efforts in Blazing World provide a contemporaneous counterpoint that should perhaps be studied alongside Leviathan, the same way we study the works of Zelda Fitzgerald and Scott.

Works Referenced

  • Broad, Jacqueline. Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Internet resource.
  • Cavendish, Margaret, and Sara H. Mendelson. The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. , 2016.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by J. C. A. Gaskin, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Additional Reading

Read more stories like Margaret Cavendish’s here.

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