Blazing trails

Fiction, especially science fiction, requires vision and imagination. Familiar themes of the modern SciFi, of travel to strange new worlds with outlandish peoples, are found in the work of Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, The Blazing World. It has been called the first work of science fiction, but while it has science and fiction, it is not science fiction.

The nature and origin of science fiction is a whole article. Margaret Cavendish deserves her own.

Many an educated lady read well, but Margaret, unusually, wrote also. She wrote a number of volumes on sciences and philosophy. The work by which she has become best known, The Blazing World, was minor in comparison and written as an amusement and a companion to her philosophical work: it is dedicated to other ladies who have read her philosophical work.

A slip of a girl when she married Thomas Cavendish, she knew Thomas Hobbes well – her brother-in-law was his patron and they were all with King Charles’s court in exile in Paris together. She read and became familiar with the ancient and modern philosophers, in particular Hobbes, though his picture of mankind was perhaps too uncomfortable in its reality.

The book is a fantasy, travelling to another world. There are strange creatures there and a strange mode of life, and a place of peace and paradise in comparison to our own war-torn world. The book is a thought-experiment. Most of the book concerns not adventures as one would expect in a science fiction novel, but dialogues and reflections on theories and discoveries in science. Overall, it poses the question “If a world had no previous experience of philosophy or science, and schools were erected to answer scientific questions, how would they answer without drawing on the understanding or the baggage of the ages?”

It is an odd world, certainly; calmer and without the torments as ours. Here the bird-men can fly up and dismantle a star in order that the Empress can light her temple and her headdress with star stones.

One new world is not enough: the Empress sets out to create worlds in her mind, and this is where the rival schools of philosophy play, the ideas of Descartes and Hobbes amongst them:

she endeavoured to make a World according to Des Cartes Opinion; but when she had made the Æthereal Globules, and set them a moving by a strong and lively imagination, her mind became so dizzie with their extraordinary swift turning round, that it almost put her into a swoon; for her thoughts, but their constant tottering, did so stagger, as if they had all been drunk: wherefore she dissolved that World, and began to make another, according to Hobbs’s Opinion; but when all the parts of this Imaginary World came to press and drive each other, they seemed like a company of Wolves that worry sheep, or like so many Dogs that hunt after Hares; and when she found a re-action equal to those pressures, her mind was so squeezed together, that her thoughts could neither move forward nor backward, which caused such an horrible pain in her head, that although she had dissolved that World, yet she could not, without much difficulty, settle her mind, and free it from that pain which those pressures and reactions had caused in it.

The world constructed by the opinions of Hobbes sounds just like our own, if not like the ordered society of Bolsover Castle.

Because of the fantasy and other-world element, the book has been looked at as a as a science fiction book, but it is not. Comparison is made with a satirical fantasy work by Lucian in the 2nd century : not only was Margaret Cavendish familiar with Lucian but refers to him. At the same time she takes a swipe at ideas from the fevered brain of Jan Baptist van Helmont, from which in fact the name of the book ultimately comes.

Lucian’s World of Lights, had been for some time in a snuff, but of late years one Helmont had got it, who since he was Emperour of it, had so strengthened the Immortal parts thereof with mortal out-works, as it was for the present impregnable.

Lucian again may need another article, and I would not want to lessen the lamp of Margaret Cavendish by comparison.

It has science and it has fiction, but The Blazing World is not science fiction. It is a philosophical game and a love-letter to her husband, and that is a fine think indeed.

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Go out amongst the land

Isolated for two years: it is not healthy, and you lose track of those usual social interactions that tell you what the neighbours’ are thinking; what their needs and worries are. Isolated in a Downing Street echo-chamber it is even worse. Boris needs to get out, to meet people.

He always used to be star value on the street – I have met people who had encountered him and who babbled enthusiastically about everything he did and said – he was a rockstar. That of course was before he had to take responsibility for things, and before we felt the lash of government in his name.

The Spads have been hurled out and replaced by doorstep politicians – good. The Number 10 machine is taking back control – good. There is red meat – aye but with some festering corners, and those taxes are still Labour-level crippling. Now the big reconnect is needed.

Others now in place can hammer at the priorities of efficiency and the opportunities of Brexit, of the Culture War in Whitehall, of combating Chinese state subversion, and of stopping the world blowing itself up on the steppe.  That is all within Whitehall.  The Prime Minister needs to eave it, and find out how the rest of us are getting on.

Open the gates at the end of Downing Street, step into the street, walk across Green Park and out into normal London, and then the rest of the work.  The nation does not live in that clustered officeworld behind, but in the terraced streets of Lancashire and the old mill towns of Nottinghamshire, and the back alleys of Glasgow and Belfast, and the lost-behind villages of the countryside. Here the mandarins do not make our priorities nor curb our dreams, or our worries.  Here we see what happens when politicians have bright ideas and try them out on us, and we have the scars and bankruptcies to prove it.

Reconnecting is vital to governing, and votes to be frank. As I wrote before, the ordinary people once adored and trusted Boris, and if they feel like a spurned lover, now is an opportunity for him to listen, to learn again what their doorstep concerns are, their worries, their aspirations, their petty jealousies and to remember from his far-back memory what once made him an icon of hope. There is hope, and we want to feel it again.

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Waiting for the Barbarians

This morning, C. P. Cavarty, translated by Edmund Keeley, reproduced here in blatant disregard for the copyright of both, to those who are directionless now we are free from the lockdown at last:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.


Melancholy, Madnesse and the Greeks

The opinions of the world, both in antient and later ages, concerning the cause of madnesse, have been two. Some, deriving them from the Passions; some, from Daemons, or Spirits, either good, or bad, which they thought might enter into a man, possesse him, and move his organs is such strange, and uncouth manner, as mad-men use to do. The former sort therefore, called such men, Mad-men: but the Later, called them sometimes Daemoniacks, (that is, possessed with spirits;) sometimes Energumeni, (that is agitated, or moved with spirits;) and now in Italy they are called not onely Pazzi, Mad-men; but also Spiritati, men possest.

There was once a great conflux of people in Abdera, a City of the Greeks, at the acting of the Tragedy of Andromeda, upon an extream hot day: whereupon, a great many of the spectators falling into Fevers, had this accident from the heat, and from The Tragedy together, that they did nothing but pronounce Iambiques, with the names of Perseus and Andromeda; which together with the Fever, was cured, by the comming on of Winter: And this madnesse was thought to proceed from the Passion imprinted by the Tragedy. Likewise there raigned a fit of madnesse in another Graecian city, which seized onely the young Maidens; and caused many of them to hang themselves. This was by most then thought an act of the Divel. But one that suspected, that contempt of life in them, might proceed from some Passion of the mind, and supposing they did not contemne also their honour, gave counsell to the Magistrates, to strip such as so hang’d themselves, and let them hang out naked. This the story sayes cured that madnesse.

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Masked unmasked

I think some people must like wearing a mask, maybe even getting a perverse thrill from it.

There was a time, when it was all novel, that a particular sort of person, and we all know them, would wear a plague mask aggressively, as a statement of their assertion of a moral superiority. The same people would theatrically cast their hands in front of their faces and cross the road on encountering a fellow human being. Before the epidemic, people rarely crossed the road to avoid me outside election campaigns.

There are fashions in masks, as there had to be, with ladies wearing masks to match their dresses, and businessmen in black masks matching their suits. A few medical masks persist, and I do not know if that is because they are easy to grab, or because wearers think they are somehow more ‘proper’. The muzzles are disappearing though. Masking is a minority pursuit.

It is wearing off. You still see people driving while masked, alone in their own car – is it superstition, or just  that they never take it off? On the London Underground there is still a command to go masked, and just over half of passengers do so on the morning; few in the evening. Even London Underground staff don’t bother – although reading station announcements though a muzzle would not help anyone.

This is a happier land being relaxed. We like a bit of panic and peril to add spice to life, but life must go back to normal. The disease has not gone, but it is no longer frightening:  you used to hear someone had got the Wuhan flu and pray for them in case it was their deathbed, but now we are vaccinated anyone still getting one of its 57 varieties will be assumed to have a snuffle if that.

This makes the recent scenes in Europe so bizarre. Riots, streets burning, a rebellion against lockdown – when lockdowns here seem unthinkable. Cities across Europe have deserted streets even as the shops were hoping to trade for Christmas, while our cities are buzzing. There is no excuse for violent scenes, even if the anger is understandable. Rotterdam, considered such a libertarian city that crime is a way of life and chuckled at, now has orders stay inside and fester, and that is intolerable, and in The Hague, and in Belgium too the story is the same.

The thing about the Netherlands (and its spawn, Belgium) is that while in form they are liberal and democratic, that is barely felt on the ground the way we understand it.  Those systems have succeeded in the principal aim of enfeebling the country to make it no threat to their neighbours, but the governing classes are far from the people their actions affect. The nation is disaffected: the rioting is just an outburst of a frustration that has been building for a generation or two and now finds its last straw. Perhaps the Dutch government is starting to fear the fate of Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary, who angered the people, so that he was seized by the mob in The Hague, murdered and dismembered  in the crowd (and allegedly subjected to cannibalism). Let us hope the winter calms the rioters’ ardour before they get such ideas.

All that is a world away though from the British experience.  We walk free, we laugh at the petty admonitions still proclaimed at us from dumb boards. Those Tube trains, once echoingly empty, now have standing-room only again. The city streets are packed, and the tills are ringing. Best of all, faces are smiling.

The fate of the European countries can only be speculation. (Perhaps their governments will run up so much debt from the endless lockdown that they will go bankrupt and a British consortium can buy them up cheap in a fire-sale. A private company ruling such countries could hardly do worse than their government have done.) Here, we are thriving, and as long as politicians are not swayed by panic then we will continue to lift, or will if taxes come down.

The masks are a sign of the the old epidemic which has passed. they mark imprisonment by fear. If they are of use, very well – wear it. They are a still vanishing phase, ebbing away. Ultimately, you have to be the change you want to see, and I want to see normality.

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