The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World

This week I’ve been reading The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, a science-fiction “novella” of sorts by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, published 1666.

It’s quite… heterogeneous. It veers from charmingly naive escapism (which I keep mentally associating with Daisy Ashford although I’m not sure that’s quite appropriate; and bear in mind that Cavendish was 39 when she wrote this passage) —

No sooner was the Lady brought before the Emperor, but he conceived her to be some Goddess, and offered to worship her; which she refused […] At which the Emperor rejoycing, made her his Wife, and gave her an absolute power to rule and govern all that World as she pleased. But her subjects, who could hardly be perswaded to believe her mortal, tender’d her all the Veneration and Worship due to a Deity.

Her Accoustrement after she was made Empress, was as followeth: On her head she wore a Cap of Pearl, and a Half-moon of Diamonds just before it; on the top of her Crown came spreading over a broad Carbuncle, cut in the form of the Sun; her Coat was of Pearl, mixt with blew Diamonds, and frindged with red ones […]

— to a shotgun approach to Aristotelian natural philosophy —

Concerning the heat of the Sun, they were not of one opinion; some would have the Sun hot in itself, alledging an old Tradition, that it should at some time break asunder, and burn the Heavens, and consume this world into hot Embers, which, said they, could not be done, if the Sun were not fiery of itself. Others again said, This opinion could not stand with reason; for Fire being a destroyer of all things, the Sun-Stone after this manner would burn up all the near adjoining Bodies: Besides, said they, Fire cannot subsist without fuel; and the Sun-Stone having nothing to feed on, would in a short time consume it self; wherefore they thought it more probable that the Sun was not actually hot, but onely by the reflection of its light; so that its heat was an effect of its light, both being immaterial. But this opinion again was laught at by others, and rejected as ridiculous, who thought it impossible that one immaterial should produce another; and believed that both the light and heat of the Sun proceeded from a swift Circular motion of the Æthereal Globules, which by their striking upon the Optick nerve, caused light, and their motion produced heat: But neither would this opinion hold; for, said some, then it would follow, that the sight of Animals is the cause of light; and that, were there no eyes, there would be no light; which was against all sense and reason.

— and then she hits you with satirical passages reminiscent (premoniscient?) of Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

[The Empress] commanded the Bear-men, which were her Experimental Philosophers, to observe [the stars] through such Instruments as are called Telescopes, which they did according to her Majesties Command; but these Telescopes caused more differences and divisions amongst them, than ever they had before […]

After they had thus argued, the Empress began to grow angry at their Telescopes, that they could give no better Intelligence; for, said she, now I do plainly perceive, that your Glasses are false Informers, and instead of discovering the Truth, delude your Senses; Wherefore I Command you to break them, and let the Bird-men trust onely to their natural eyes, and examine Cœlestial Objects by the motions of their own Sense and Reason. The Bear-men replied, That it was not the fault of their Glasses, which caused such differences in their Opinions, but the sensitive motions in their Optick organs did not move alike, nor were their rational judgments always regular: To which the Empress answered, That if their Glasses were true Informers, they would rectifie their irregular Sense and Reason; But, said she, Nature has made your Sense and Reason more regular than Art has your Glasses; for they are meer deluders, and will never lead you to the knowledg of Truth; Wherefore I command you again to break them; for you may observe the progressive motions of Cœlestial Bodies with your natural eyes better than through Artificial Glasses. The Bear-men being exceedingly troubled at her Majesties displeasure concerning their Telescopes, kneel’d down, and in the humblest manner petitioned, that they might not be broken; for, said they, we take more delight in Artificial delusions, than in Natural truths. Besides, we shall want Imployments for our Senses, and Subjects for Arguments; for, were there nothing but truth, and no falshood, there would be no occasion to dispute, and by this means we should want the aim and pleasure of our endeavors in confuting and contradicting each other; neither would one man be thought wiser than another, but all would either be alike knowing and wise, or all would be fools; wherefore we most humbly beseech your Imperial Majesty to spare our Glasses, which are our onely delight, and as dear to us as our lives.

Posted 2018-04-05