Day 68: Non-beings, or such as are between something and nothing

This week in my seminar on fictional worlds we’re reading Margaret Cavendish’s fantastical prose narrative about multiple worlds, The Blazing World (1666) and Thomas Pavel’s exploration of the poetics of fiction, Fictional Worlds (1986).

It’s been probably a decade or more since I read both of these works, but, rereading them, my original impression, in both cases, remains the same: Thomas Pavel is a level-headed guide through the dense thicket of twentieth-century philosophical and literary treatments of fictional worlds; Margaret Cavendish is off her rocker, in the most fantastic way. They’re a good pairing.

There’s a bit I love from The Blazing World, when the empress of the titular world (it’s a parallel world populated by variously-colored [1] half-beast half-human creatures [2] with a studious bent; [3]) decides she wants to make up her own “cabbala,” and requires a scribe to dictate her mystic thoughts. A spirit tells her that she can choose a scribe from all of the souls of the wisest dead philosophers. Awesome, she says, how about Aristotle, or Pythagoras, or Plato, or Epicurus, something in that line? [4] Trouble is, your majesty, the spirit says, those ancient types are awfully wedded to their own opinions … not really good scribe material, know what I mean? Oh fine, she says, get me a modern thinker then, let’s say a Gallileo, a Descartes, or a Hobbes. Thing is, your majesty, says the spirit, those modern types are awfully conceited … they’ll never agree to be a scribe to a woman. But, he goes on, there is a lady, the Duchess of Newcastle, not the most witty nor the most ingenious it’s true, but a good plain writer and, more importantly, I bet she’s available. Fine, says the empress with all the regal authority she can muster after having all her choices thus far shut down by this uppity spirit, “This lady then … will I choose for my scribe.” So then the spirit summons the Duchess to the Blazing World and she’s there in a jiffy and then this is the bit I like (sorry for the long preamble):

“Said the Empress, you were recommended to me by an honest and ingenious spirit. Surely, answered the Duchess, the spirit is ignorant of my handwriting. The truth is, said the Empress, he did not mention your handwriting.”

Here’s what I love about this moment. The Blazing World is this crazy Platonic inter-species inter-world philosophical narrative in which people go back and forth between worlds and in and out of other people’s minds like nobody’s business. But then, here, at this moment, poor penmanship proves to be a potentially insupportable obstacle to communicating the Empress’s thoughts. Ahhh, technology: driving a wedge between us since at least 1666.

Because one of the characters in Cavendish’s narrative is a character called “The Duchess of Newcastle” (the title held by Margaret Cavendish), The Blazing World raises interesting questions about the ontology of fictional characters. To paraphrase Pavel, is the generic Empress character less actual than the Duchess of Newcastle in The Blazing World?

Ever since the publication of Gilbert Ryle’s 1933 essay “Imaginary Objects” (or perhaps it goes back even earlier), Mr. Pickwick has been the exemplar of a fictional character in philosophical discussions of fictionality; that is to say, he is the test case for questions about the kinds of qualities that can be attributed to fictional characters.

In our household, however, it’s not Mr. Pickwick but rather Super Mario who has been the test case in recent discussions (well, OK, in one discussion) about the attributes that we may assign to fictional characters. When I woke up yesterday morning, the younger, who had spent the night tossing and turning next to me, was giggling …. she reached down under the covers and pulled out her beloved Super Mario ball, which she had brought to bed. [5]

“Make him talk!”

I groaned and croaked “ … my name is Marrrrrio,” rolling my “r”s in a manner I took to be vaguely Italian. But then I paused and propped my self up on my elbow, suddenly wide-awake.

“Hang on,” I asked He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved, “is Super Mario Italian or Italian-American?”

“He’s Japanese,” he said, without looking up from his phone.

This important question remains unresolved.

***

In the epilogue to the Blazing World, Cavendish writes, “if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies or Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please. But yet let them have a care, not to prove unjust Usurpers, and to rob me of mine: for, concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self.”

Yesterday evening He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved was giving the younger a geography lesson using a balloon as the earth and drawing continents on it with a marker. At a certain point the younger decided she had had enough of this boring real geography and started scribbling all over the balloon to make her own, superior world.

What’s your world called? I asked.

It’s called Cody, she said.

Cody, I said. How do you spell that?

A-N-A, she said.

That spells Ana, I said, not Cody.

The Empress stopped scribbling and fixed me with her haughtiest and most regal look.

“Then why did you ask?” she retorted.

The planet of Ana  (NOTE: Ana is pronounced "Cody").

The planet of Ana
(NOTE: Ana is pronounced “Cody”).

Notes

[1] “ … some appear’d of an Azure, some of a deep Purple, some of a Grass-green, some of a Scarlet, some of an Orange-colour, &c.”

[2] “some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish- or Mear-men, otherwise called Syrens; some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men, some Spider-men, some Lice-men, some Fox-men, some Ape-men, some Jack daw-men, some Magpie-men, some Parrot-men, some Satyrs, some Gyants, and many more, which I cannot all remember.”

[3] “they were as ingenious and witty in the invention of profitable and useful Arts, as we are in our world, nay, more …

[4] I guess Aristotle et al are famous philosophers in multiple worlds? Pretty impressive. Not just world famous but multiverse famous. The Empress is not a native of the Blazing World but neither is she a native of our world; rather she is a native of ESFI (England-Scotland-France-Ireland, scholars speculate), which is similar to but not exactly the same as our world.

[5] This is a rubber ball a bit bigger than a tennis ball that takes the form of an extremely rotund Super Mario. Lately the younger has taken to taking this ball to bed. It is the latest in a long line of unorthodox “transitional objects” that the younger has insisted on sleeping with. Others include a handful of poker chips; a water bottle; some coins; He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s toothbrush; a cheese sandwich; a snorkel and mask (we did refuse to let her wear the snorkel in bed, though.)

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