18b. Bonus: Liza Blake on Margaret Cavendish.

Even though the book starts out saying “Reason is one thing and Fancy is another; Imagination is one thing and Philosophy is another,” she’s then showing throughout the book how these are very similar kinds of actions. Epicurus was making a world too. Was he living in it? Unclear. But by imagining that he lived there, he led a different kind of life.

We were overwhelmed by Margaret Cavendish’s wild novel The Blazing World, so we needed to bring in an expert. Who did we turn to? Liza Blake, assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto. She works on literature and science, literature and philosophy, and, most recently, the books of Margaret Cavendish. Perfect! We talk about how to get past those first impressions of Cavendish, what parts of The Blazing World are satire, the importance of speculation to science and philosophy, and whether animals can philosophize. (You might hear some animals philosophizing in the background…)

Show Notes.

Liza Blake is on Twitter. You can find out more about her academic work on her faculty page.

Her critical edition of Margaret Cavendish’s first book, Poems and Fancies.

Cavendish poems mentioned in this episode:

Virginia Woolf on Margaret Cavendish.

Lara Dodds wrote thoughtfully about Cavendish’s “bad writing”.

Prince Rupert’s drops are pretty neat.

Robert Hooke: Micrographia (and its flea).

Margaret Cavendish: Sociable Letters and Philosophical Letters.

Henry More.

John Wilkins: The Discovery of a World in the Moone.

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18. The Blazing World.

The Duchess’s Soul [...] left her Ærial Vehicle, and entered into her Lord. The Empress’s Soul perceiving this, did the like: And then the Duke had three Souls in one body; and had there been some such Souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, only it would have been a Platonick Seraglio. But the Duke’s Soul [...] afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress’s Soul by his conversation, that these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonick Lovers [...] cast forth of her mind that Idea of Jealousie. Then the Conversation of these three souls was so pleasant, that it cannot be expressed.

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, more commonly known as simply The Blazing World, is a philosophical flight of fancy by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. This book was first published in 1666, and is often considered a piece of proto–science-fiction. It tells the story of a woman who is transported to another world, a marvellous world, which she is almost immediately made empress of. Part philosophical treatise, part power fantasy, and part exploration of the joys of “Platonick” love between women, The Blazing World is an encomium to our powers of invention and creation. And it is a very, very, very weird book.

Show Notes.

The Blazing World. [Project Gutenberg. 1668 edition at Archive.org. Librivox.]

Margaret Cavendish: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. [Or at EEBO.]

Our episode on Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies.

The Kabbalah.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Mary Sue.

With “Muñoz” we’re referring to José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia (and the conversations that followed it).

Our episode on Plato’s Symposium.

Suzanne Conklin Akbari: Seeing Through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory.

Virginia Woolf wrote (famously, but uncharitably) about Margaret Cavendish.

Our next book: Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast.

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17. Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

He kept up the fire with dry grass and a good supply of firewood, tending it day and night because it seemed such a wonderful thing. He liked it best at night when it took the place of the sun, giving warmth and light. It meant so much to him he fell in love with it and was convinced that of all the things he had, this was the best. Seeing how it always moved upwards, as though trying to rise, he supposed it must be one of those jewel-substances he saw shining in the sky.

Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan (sometimes translated as “Alive, son of Awake”—though the title is the main character’s name) is a curious philosophical thought experiment from twelfth-century al-Andalus (which is today southern Spain). Hayy grows up on a paradisiacal island where he is the only human, and through his increasing powers of observation and rational thinking he manages to reinvent both philosophy and religion. Chris and Suzanne explore this tantalizing, almost science-fictional work, talk about how it places Hayy in relation to animals, stars, and the divine, and ask what it tells us about the relationship of philosophy and literature.

[content warning: violence towards animals.}

Show Notes.

Ibn Tufayl: Hayy ibn Yaqzan, translated by Lenn Evan Goodman.

Emily Wilson, who spoke with us about her translation of the Odyssey, just won a MacArthur “Genius” Award!

Andrew Marvell: On a Drop of Dew.

The qissa (or “qissa qasira”, sometimes transliterated as kissa) is a term used by some classical Arabic literary scholars that can translate very loosely as “short story”.

Our episode on Plato’s Symposium.

Our episode on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Avicenna [Ibn Sina]: The Canon of Medicine.

Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia.

David Markson: Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

Christine Brooke-Rose: Subscript.

The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps on Ibn Tufayl.

An overview of Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Marwa Elshakry and Murad Idris.

Murad Idris: Producing Islamic philosophy: The life and afterlives of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan in global history, 1882–1947.

Murad Idris recently gave a talk about politics in Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a transcription of which should soon be made available.

Next episode: Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World [Gutenberg, Librivox].

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16b. Bonus: Michael Collins on Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is not necessarily interested in epistemology, but it absolutely is interested in the difference between objectively knowing a thing to be true and feeling the truth. And for most people the truth does not enter into their being until they have felt it.

As a bonus to our episode on Middlemarch, we invited writer, podcaster, and personal trainer Michael Collins to join us to talk about his favourite book. We discuss what keeps drawing him back to the novel—and which parts can be difficult to reread. We also finally get to talk about the opinionated narrator of the novel, as well as the striking life of its author, George Eliot.

Show Notes.

Michael Collins is on Twitter, and hosts the podcasts This Is Your Mixtape and Dear Reader. Some of his writings can be found on Medium.

The episodes of This Is Your Mixtape with Chris and Suzanne.

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love.

George Eliot: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.

Virginia Woolf: George Eliot.

For more information about the life of George Eliot, read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, or watch a talk that Mead gave while writing the book.

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16. Middlemarch.

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.

We begin our cluster on Philosophical novels with Middlemarch, George Eliot’s massive and masterful “study of provincial life”. A sometimes overwhelming number of characters populate a small manufacturing town in the English Midlands around 1830—but the novel focuses on a few “later-born [Saint] Theresas”. People like Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate aspire to do some good in the world, but what does “doing good” look like? And can good be achieved in the world without a nuanced ethical relationship to the others who make up that world? Chris and Suzanne explore how these questions play out in Eliot’s characters, and also look towards Baruch Spinoza, who is quietly behind Eliot’s philosophy.

Show Notes.

Middlemarch. [Project Gutenberg. Librivox.]

The portrait of John Locke.

Chaucer: Man of Law’s Tale.

Teresa of Ávila.

Bernini: Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.

Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics will be republished next year.

In the meantime, another translation of the Ethics.

In Our Time has a helpful episode about Spinoza, and they mention Eliot at the very end.

A.S. Byatt on Middlemarch.

Ibn Tufayl: Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

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