The Danger of the Unclassifiable Form: Hybridity, Rulership, and Knowledge within Cavendish’s Blazing World

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Kailey Bernard

(UBC Arts One, Miranda Burgess Seminar)


Margaret Cavendish’s science-fiction novel The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World can be read as evidence that a ruling class which places value on the perceivable world will struggle to remain in power. Cavendish’s Empress favours empiricism, and desires a complete understanding of the material world; however, the hybridity of her citizens and the immaterial world which she rejects are evidence of knowledge gaps within the Empress’s understanding. It is through these gaps that the citizens of the Blazing World could undo the Empress’s rule. Although empiricism benefits the Empress upon her arrival, it allows a wide-spread access to knowledge to endanger her rule. Unlike the producing class of Plato’s Kallipolis, the animal-men of the Blazing World have access to knowledge valued by the ruling class. Cavendish’s Empress values freedom for her citizens, but without her careful attention, their freedom could empower them beyond her control. While the Empress’s empiricism leads her to ask many questions in regards to the material world, she cannot truly know her citizens: the hybrid form of the Blazing World’s animal-men presents an unclassifiable outlier within the structure of the Blazing World. The Empress’s inability to classify the hybrid creatures within the Blazing World highlights the downfall of empiricism in an attempt to maintain a monarchical rule.

Within the Blazing World, valuable information is that which can be understood through the senses. As such, the Empress’s appearance allows her to gain power. The Empress is “conceiv[ed] […] to be some Goddess” by the Blazing World’s Emperor, and offered “absolute power to rule and govern all [the Blazing World] as she please[s]” (Cavendish 69; 70). The Emperor trusts his eyes to present an accurate understanding of the Empress, and therefore grants the Empress power according to his understanding of her appearance. Additionally, her being made ruler is not the first time that Cavendish’s Empress is benefited by her physical appearance: while travelling to the Blazing World, the other people aboard her boat “[freeze] to death”; the Empress, however, survives “by the light of her beauty and the heat of her youth” (Cavendish 61). The importance of appearance and knowledge drawn from sight is evident within the Blazing World even before the Empress’s influence, and in conducting her rule, the Empress continues to value sensory input as evidence of the truth. Her “accoutrement”—the clothing she wears upon being crowned Empress— includes “a Buckler, to signifie the Defence of her Dominions” and jewels which are reserved for the royal family (Cavendish 70). The Empress uses her appearance to communicate her importance and power to her citizens, asking them to trust their senses as evidence of the truth. The Empress’s “accoutrement,” however, holds additional meaning: in her journal article “Worlds within Worlds: Community, Companionship and Autonomy in Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World,” Bronwen Price suggests that the Empress’s attire is evidence that the monarchy is anticipating threat, and explains the weapon and shield as a suggestion of possible foreign invasion. Price suggests that “the Blazing World is underscored by anxieties about sedition” (5). I would like to suggest that the Blazing World’s anticipation of threat is evidence that a high value placed on sense-perception lessens the power held by a monarch. The empiricism within the Blazing World allowed the Empress to access power despite her being, initially, outside of the monarchy; the citizens of the Blazing World, through their access to knowledge, could similarly access power of their own.

The citizens of the Blazing World are intelligent hybrid beings: they are anthropomorphic animals which each have a part to play in their world’s search for knowledge. This wide-spread ability to access knowledge presents a problem for the Empress’s rule. The Blazing World’s animal-men are sorted into groups which each “follo[w] such a profession as [is] most proper for the nature of their species” (Cavendish 71). For the animal-men, what is “most proper” is determined by physical characteristics. Each species is in charge of learning aspects of the world that their form is best suited for, such as the winged bird-men, who are responsible for answering questions about the air and sky. For Price, the Empress’s animal-men advisors are evidence that her rule is in danger of collapse. Price explains, “the various internal communities over which the Empress presides are by no means ideal and signal the contingency of her self-determining powers” (5). Although the Empress has influence over what her advisors study, and is able to circulate between them to gather their knowledge for herself, she does not have the power to fully limit them. The Empress does not trust the bear-men’s telescopes to be truthful informers, as they “delude [the] senses”; however, the empress concedes and accepts the bear-men’s request to continue using the telescopes regardless (Cavendish 79). The Empress’s unwillingness to embrace the telescopes does not take away from the bear-men’s ability to utilize them as tools for gathering knowledge. Price explains, “the Empress’s scientific communities […] signal areas of potential disruption,” and I suggest that this disruption is maintained and strengthened by the Empress’s empiricism (5). Empiricism allows the Empress’s advisors to access knowledge without her approval. The divided groups of animal-men may begin to hold and develop ideas which contradict the Empress’s, and with their access to knowledge, the animal-men possess the ability to fight for their ideas. To successfully run a monarchy, the Empress would need to place the access to valuable information singularity within the hands of the ruling class.

A comparison between Plato’s Kallipolis and Cavendish’s Blazing World is helpful in understanding why the Empress’s empiricism weakens her monarchy. The leaders of the Kallipolis—the philosopher-kings—are alone within their population as the only gatherers of new knowledge. Although the citizens of the Kallipolis are, as similar to the Blazing World, separated into the occupation “for which [they are] naturally best suited,” Plato’s classification system does not pay any attention to physical attributes (Plato 433a). In order to be “best suited” to a certain task, the citizens of the Kallipolis must be led, within their soul, by the appropriate part; the lowest class is led by the “part of the soul with which it […] lusts, hungers, thirsts, and gets excited by other appetites” (Plato 439d). As the producer class is led by the appetitive part of their soul, and not the rational part, they do not possess the capacity to access the same knowledge as the philosopher-kings. The producers cannot access knowledge of the Forms, and therefore cannot fully understand the world as it is valued within their city-state. The animal-men of the Blazing World, contrarily, have access to the same knowledge as the ruling class. It may be possible to argue that the animal-men will be kept content within their search for knowledge, and therefore will have no impulse to push against the monarchy. The committees and schools created by the Empress will ensure that the animal-men have access to full lives, and their knowledge of the world may not pressure them to want to gain power. Nevertheless, the animal-men are shown to possess knowledge that the Empress dislikes and disapproves of. Should the animal-men decide that their value for their findings is greater than their loyalty to the Empress, they are in possession of the necessary means to overthrow the monarchy. The ruling class within the Kallipolis guarantee their continued power by holding all valuable knowledge within their own hands. As Cavendish’s Empress values knowledge found through the senses, she has no choice but to allow her citizens to access the same truths as herself.

The animal-men within the Blazing world possess more freedoms and power than the producing class of the Kallipolis, and this access to power is both supported by, and a danger to, the Empress. The power possessed by the animal-men is given to them by the Empress’s empiricism: every citizen is able to perceive the world through their senses, and therefore every citizen is able to access valuable knowledge. The ability for the animal-men to access knowledge, however, is not one that came about only as a direct outcome of empiricism. The Empress’s actions at the beginning of her rule are an effort to grant power and autonomy to her citizens: the Empress “erect[s] schools, and found[s] several societies” to encourage “the study of several Arts and Sciences” (Cavendish 71). The given reason for the creation of these schools and societies is to encourage “the invention of profitable and useful Arts” which may benefit the Blazing World (Cavendish 71). Nevertheless, the Empress is shown to maintain interest in improving the lives of her citizens alongside maintaining her rule: she questions why women are excluded from “religious Assemblies,” encourages their participation, and desires that her world is “peaceable, quiet and happy” (Cavendish 72; 139). In his book, Utopian Negotiation: Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish, Oddvar Holmesland suggests that the empress is a “promoter of female desire and individual freedom” who must also “maintain public stability” (83). Holmesland suggests that the empress’s rule is contradictory in nature: she must attempt to balance her impulse for freedom throughout the population together with the power that she herself must hold to maintain her rule. The Empress seeks to improve the lives of her citizens; however, should she allow them too much power, the animal-men’s ability to access knowledge would allow the citizens to break out of her control. The freedoms that the Empress allows within the population could easily become a catalyst for revolution or division; the Empress must use her rule to prevent this, therefore fighting to maintain both “individual freedom and public stability” (Holmesland 84). I would like to suggest that this contradictory, unstable rule is influenced by the Empress’s contradictory approach to knowledge: the Empress is, at the same time, in a constant search for knowledge while concurrently avoiding knowledge that cannot be understood through sense-perception.

The Empress of the Blazing World endangers her rule by ignoring information that does not inform of the physical world. Her rejection of certain knowledge, as it lessens her overall understanding, presents a challenge for the strength of her rule. While circulating between her advisors to learn of their findings, the Empress’s spider-men present her with a mathematical table, “which the Emperess, notwithstanding that she ha[s] a very ready wit, and a quick apprehension, [can] not understand” (Cavendish 97). The Empress decides her time is better spent elsewhere, and that, even if she were to spend time with the mathematicians, she doesn’t think “[she] should ever be able to understand [their] Imaginary points, lines and figures, because they are Non-beings” (Cavendish 97). The Empress is unable to find importance in the immaterial mathematical findings; she rejects knowledge that does not inform of the material, physical world. Although Plato’s philosopher-kings, similarly, reject a certain type of knowledge, their rule is not threatened by this rejection, as knowledge is not mobile throughout the Kallipolis. The producing class of Plato’s city-state can only access knowledge found through the senses; they are ignorant of Plato’s Forms. Within the Blazing World, the animal-men have access to understandings of both abstract and physical world elements. The Empress’s rejected knowledge, therefore, allows her citizens to be more informed that she, herself. Price’s suggestion that the Empress’s “various internal communities” present an unstable future for the Empress’s rule is made more evident when one considers that these communities not only access knowledge before the Empress, but that additionally hold knowledge which the Empress rejects (5). The Empress’s advisors have access to knowledge that could impact their world, and moreover, have access to knowledge that the empress herself overlooks. The math that the empress does not care to understand is not, as the Forms are, impossible for anyone to fully understand. While it is possible to argue that a knowledge of math alone is not going to lead the citizens to revolt against the Empress, a monarch who is less informed than her citizens is in danger of losing power.

The Empress rejects knowledge that does not fit into her empiricist understanding of the Blazing World; regardless of a rejection of certain knowledge, however, the hybridity of the animal-men prohibits the Blazing World from being known in its entirety by anyone. The animal-men are sorted based on their morphology, aligning the Blazing World’s classification system with that of Linnaeus. In his book, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, Thomas Richards explains that morphology provided a means for the Victorians to “locat[e] continuity within discontinuity,” as it allowed for the connecting of ideas together and “provided filler for the great gaps of knowledge” within the Victorian’s understandings (Richards 46). I would like to suggest that the utilization of morphology as a “filler” for knowledge gaps is utilized similarly by Cavendish’s Empress as she attempts to understand the physical components of the Blazing World. The animal-men, as they are hybrid creatures, do not truly fit into the morphological categories that the Empress recognizes. Richards examines how the monster form fits—or does not fit—into a morphological classification:

“The monster is the joker in the Linnean deck of cards, the undefined addendum, the blind spot in an otherwise compact system of order. […] By resolving irresolution into a category of its own, the monster-category is a tacit admission that all knowledge is neither comprehensive in scope nor logical in form” (Richards 52-53).

The animal-men within Blazing World fit into this “monster-category” of creatures which cannot be connected logically to any other. The Empress’s attempt to understand all material aspects of her world cannot take into account the hybrid form of the animal-men; she cannot classify her hybrid citizens truthfully, as they are non-classifiable. She therefore classifies them inaccurately in an attempt to force order where order does not exist. In the forcing of order, there is a cracking of the foundation of the Empress’s rule: how does a monarch maintain their rule when their citizens cannot be understood? The hybrid form of the animal-men is evidence that the Blazing World is unable to be completely known, and that the Empress’s rejected knowledge is not the only knowledge she cannot possess.

The animal-men, in their unknowable and hybrid forms which lead them to be classified untruthfully, could undo the power held by the Empress within the Blazing World. For Richards, the “monster-category” presents an ability for the governing party of a world to become detached from its citizens. Richards uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to explain the disconnect between form and function that can be caused by creatures which do not fit within a classification system. According to Richards, “the Queen [of Wonderland] has no control over the forms that the beings in her kingdom assume, for the simple reason that everything in Wonderland is singular and nothing is repeatable ” (Richards 54). In Wonderland, where hedgehogs are used as croquet balls and flamingoes as mallets, a form’s purpose is undone in a “carnival of form and function” (Richards 54). The Queen’s power vanishes along with any semblance of order within her kingdom. For the Empress of the Blazing World, her citizens are incapable of being properly sorted by form, and possess only a hastily assigned function. The function that the empress assigns her citizen, as dictated by her empiricism, is the activity that the creature should be most well suited for based on their appearance. The animal-men, as their forms cannot be fully classified, could easily fail to complete said assigned function. As the bear-men fought the Empress’s command and pleaded “that [their telescopes] might not be broken,” they stepped foot outside of their assigned function (Cavendish 79). Should the animal-men of the blazing world decide that they would be better suited for a function outside of that determined for them by their physical characteristics, they would already have access to the knowledge needed to exchange their function for another. Because of the Empress’s rejection of knowledge, and the knowledge that her citizens already hold, the “carnival of form and function” that Richards speaks of could easily become a reality within the Blazing World. The Empress, should the animal-men decide to take their roles into their own hands, would find herself as powerless as the Queen of Wonderland: unable to bring order to a world of forms without clear functions. The “monster-category” of animal-men within the Blazing World represents a gap of knowledge that could end the rule of the monarchy.

A complete knowledge cannot be held within the Blazing World, where the form of the animal-men prohibits the success of any sort of features-based classification system. The Empress of the Blazing World, however, attempts to classify the animal-men regardless. The Empress overlooks gaps within her own understanding in favour of creating an empirical understanding of the world around her; she rejects the hybridity of the animal men, and she rejects knowledge of the immaterial world. Although the Empress’s empiricism leads her to reject knowledge, it also places more knowledge within the hands of her citizens: the animal-men have access to knowledge which is valued within the Blazing World. The knowledge that the animal-men can gather through sense-perception allows them to access information without the Empress’s approval, and aligns the citizens with the ruling class in terms of power and ability. The Empress of the Blazing World, through her empiricism, grants freedoms to her citizens which, without her careful attention, could strip her monarchy of its power. The vulnerable monarchy of the Blazing World is evidence of sense-perception as a means to equalize.



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