As I discussed in my video about working on ‘Rediscover the Classics’ with Jellybooks, I have the exciting task of curating groups of classic books. My new selection has just been launched and it’s classic utopian novels! I’ve created original covers for all six of the books. You can see these covers, read more about them and join in here:

https://jbks.co/Utopia-reading-list

After registering for a free Jellybooks account you can select two free books from my selections to download and enjoy on your e-reader.

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I’ve always had a fascination with utopian literature and read a lot of it during my teenage years – as well as the darker side of the coin: dystopian fiction! It’s tantalizing to imagine how we’d build a society from the ground up and that’s just what a number of authors have done through the ages. In doing so, writers inadvertently or intentionally reflect both their own values and the values of their time period. In many cases utopian fiction seems a way of criticising the etiquette, morals or laws of the age they were written in. For instance, Thomas More points out corruption in the Catholic church that was occurring in the 16th century; Charlotte Perkins Gilman cites the injustice of women’s dependence on men being the primary breadwinners; and, in satirising popular travellers’ tales of the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift ironically wrote one of the most beloved and imaginative episodic journeys of all time! Throughout Margaret Cavendish and Samuel Butler’s novels there is also an interesting engagement with emerging technologies and scientific advancements of the 17th and 19th centuries respectively. As well as being engaging and imaginative stories, the six books I’ve selected for this Utopian Classics reading group also offer fascinating insights into history and the way people from the past dreamily gazed into imagined futures.

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It felt important to offer something of a balance (in gender at least) in choosing these utopian tales. The canon of classic literature is often top heavy with male voices and it’s exciting how there has been a recent resurrection of nearly forgotten female writers from the past such as Margaret Cavendish whose life was fictionally reimagined in Danielle Dutton’s fantastic novel “Margaret the First”. Many people will know Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” but not as many will have read her all-female utopian novel “Herland”. All of these novels also often hint at unconscious biases or dodgy ideas which many people will probably find appalling today. Slavery was an integral part of Thomas More’s utopia and Mary E. Bradley Lane vision of an all-female utopia was intentionally racist as it is composed exclusively of Aryan women. Rather than erase or gloss over these uncomfortable aspects of the fiction, I think it’s interesting to consider them in their historical context and just how much society’s ideals have changed since the time periods they were written in.

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Ever since I read Danielle Dutton’s novel “Margaret the First” which fictionalizes the life of Margaret Cavendish and Siri Hustvedt’s extraordinary novel about a misunderstood female artist “The Blazing World”, I’ve had a fascination with this pioneering writer of the 17th century and wanted to read her books. Earlier this year I attended a feminist book club meeting about Dutton’s novel and that reignited my interest in Cavendish. In the lead up to the announcement of this year’s longlist announcement for The Women’s Prize for Fiction, it seemed like a great time to explore this intrepid figure’s writing. “The Blazing World” was first published in 1666 and is often considered a forerunner to both science fiction and the utopian novel genres. It’s a totally bonkers story of a woman who is stolen away to the North Pole only to find herself in a strange bejewelled kingdom of which she becomes the supreme Empress. Here she consults with many different animal/insect people about philosophical, religious and scientific ideas. The second half of the book pulls off a meta-fictional trick where Cavendish (as the Duchess of Newcastle) enters the story herself to become the Empress’ scribe and close companion. It was impossible for me to read this novel without thinking of Dutton’s text which gives an impression of the real struggles Cavendish faced in her life as well as her eccentric personality.

I found the first half of the novel quite difficult to follow although I was entranced by the bizarre concepts and “chopt Logick” that it contained. The Empress is ruthlessly methodical in quizzing her anthropomorphic subjects who are the leaders in their field of study. It’s like she’s investigating the current trends in thought to either approve or reject them. Cavendish was privy to the debates and meetings of some of the most prominent minds of her era so it feels like in her novel she’s mulling over many new concepts and trying to connect disparate ideas. In her wilfulness the Empress demands that telescopes be destroyed because she calls them “false informers” and dissolves her society of Lice-men who are Geometricians because she finds “neither Truth nor Justice in their Profession.” It felt to me like her ruthless decision-making and domineering mentality were Cavendish’s reaction to being made to feel relatively voiceless amongst the egotistical learned men of her time. This could be a simplistic interpretation of her creative reaction and I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the ideas Cavendish works with in her novel.

Cavendish explores many fascinating concepts throughout the text concerning the natural world both at the macro level of astrology and the micro level where she seems to be striving to articulate a concept of subatomic physics. In one section she states “both by my own Contemplation, and the Observations which I have made by my rational & sensitive perception upon Nature, and her works, I find, that Nature is but one Infinite Self-moving Body, which by the vertue of its self-motion, is divided into Infinite parts, which parts being restless, undergo perpetual changes and transmutations by their infinite compositions and divisions.” It feels like she’s speaking here about the behaviour of matter and energy and gravitational forces. 

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As the ultimate leader, the Empress also contemplates how people should be ruled. I found it interesting how she rejects the idea of ruling through tyranny because she recognises its short-term effectiveness: “for Fear, though it makes people obey, yet does it not last so long, nor is it so sure a means to keep them to their duties, as Love.” Not only does she absorb and sift through scientific and political ideas, but also references many different religions and sacred texts to play off from before the Empress decides to write her own religious text or Cabbala. The Empress hilariously wants to summons the spirits of some of the greatest minds in philosophy and science such as Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Galileo or Hobbes, but it’s decided that they would be too “self-conceited” to agree to be her scribe. So instead she summons Cavendish herself. Neither are content to simply reside within this fantastical world so they create worlds within this world to travel to and the Empress appoints a “Spirit to be Vice-Roy of her body in the absence of her soul.”

In the novel there’s a frequent insistence upon the formation of one’s own imaginative world as a means of escape in a way that makes me feel Cavendish must have felt either bored or suffocated by the actual life she was trapped within. It felt as if the Empress’ freedom and vast riches played off from the fact Cavendish’s much older husband experienced varying amounts of financial and political trouble throughout their marriage. Dutton’s novel also suggests how Cavendish had such a restless spirit, boundless level of creativity and a monumental ego that she often felt discontent with the limitations of her reality. She also craved fame and sought it out by dressing outlandishly and self-publishing many books. Cavendish’s taste for fashion and cultivating a distinct image are reflected in the novel as well when the Empress daringly seeks to make a flashy garment made from “star-stone”. I think it’s safe to assume that if Cavendish were alive today she’d be a habitual social media user and would take countless selfies. Everything about her unique and multi-faceted personality suggests that she was someone who struggled with the many limitations of her time. 

“The Blazing World” is such an intriguing oddity that I found it a totally absorbing and bewildering read. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Our lives are a mess. Reading “The Blazing World” I’m reminded of a performance by the brilliant artist Bobby Baker I once attended. She delivered a monologue about her life that included a scattering of memories, disappointments, happy highlights and concerns about contemporary issues. With each subject she added dry ingredients into a pot collecting them all until it overflowed. She poured it over herself till her clothes, hair and face were completely soiled and a floury cloud floated around her head. She stared around at the audience solemnly proclaiming: “What a mess!” The sight was comical, but through the manner in which she delivered the monologue it was understood that her whole being had tragically unravelled. In a similar way, the life of this novel’s central character Harriet Burden (or Harry as many intimates call her) is a mess. The narrative reflects her state of mind as it is a loose collection of fragments: personal notebooks, statements from family, friends and an art critic as well as gallery show reviews. It is an assemblage which is incomplete, meandering and circuitous. But in its fragmentation it becomes a truer portrait of a person than any straightforward narrative could hope to represent. This account is a more meaningful reflection of the many facets of personality and the multi-layered ways in which a person can be viewed.

Harriet is an artist in her sixties living in New York City who is frustrated with the way female artists don’t get taken as seriously as men. She devises a grand artistic project to expose this prejudice and take revenge by exposing the art world’s sexist nature. Three living male artists are selected by her to present original shows as their own work when really Harriet is the true artist. Only after the third show does she reveal her grand prank through an indirect route by writing an article for an obscure art publication under the pseudonym of a fictional critic. With so much subterfuge going on, people naturally question whether Harriet has made all this up or if she’s created one of the most ingenious artworks of our time. The book begins with a preface from someone attempting to answer this riddle by compiling the various accounts about the late Harriet Burden into a somewhat chronological order. This may all sound exhaustingly convoluted, but it’s actually quite straightforward to follow the story once you get the gist. At it’s heart, “The Blazing World” is really about the more profound question of personality.

It’s as if “The Golden Notebook” were written by Susan Sontag, but of course the writing is totally unique and purely the innovation of Siri Hustvedt. It’s a brilliant assemblage of knowledge full of clever word play, innovative narrative technique, psychological insights and dramatic twists. It’s sparked by a feeling of real anger: about our complacency to accept things as they are when there has been so much hard intellectual work dedicated to progress. It’s a passion which burns on every page. Harriet is a voracious reader and thinker. Therefore, her notebooks are layered with a heady amount of references to great works by psychologists, artists, philosophers, writers, scientists and theologians. I love it when I finish a novel with a long list of books and authors that I want to look up and learn even more from. This novel has given me a list longer than most. But this isn’t a showy intellectual feat by Hustvedt. This knowledge is layered into her central character’s reasoning because it relates to the ontological issues which stir her heart and cause her to create such an elaborate complex deceitful artistic project.

Going even further, accounts from both Harriet’s friends and enemies offer counter arguments to the statements Harriet makes. For instance, the primary question at the centre of this novel asks if art by women is taken less seriously. On one side a psychoanalyst named Rachel said: “With almost no exceptions, art by men is far more expensive than art by women. Dollars tell the story.” Harriet echoes this thought when she says: “Money talks. It tells you about what is valued, what matters. It sure as hell isn’t women.” However, an art critic named Oscar states: “To suggest, even for an instant, that there might be more men than women in art because men are better artists is to risk being tortured by the thought police.” Whereas a bi-racial artist named Phineas muses upon the superficiality of the art in general world concluding that: “It was all names and money, money and names, more money and more names.” Later on Harriet suggests that the question of gender isn’t even her central preoccupation: “it’s more than sex. It’s an experiment, a whole story I am making.” Points of view jostle against each other until a multi-layered portrait of this and other questions are presented and the reader must come to their own conclusions.

The accounts which struck me the most in this novel are Harriet’s own recorded in her various notebooks. One of her preoccupations is her fight against time, against being marginalized forever as a footnote rather than having made a grand statement about life. She states: “I am writing this because I don’t trust time.” Her tireless efforts to create and communicate show how desperately serious she is about the issues she raises. Having spent her life living somewhat quietly as a wife and mother she has reached middle age and is now keenly aware that if she doesn’t make her statement soon time will defeat her. With great precision she observes that: “Time creeps. Time alters. Gravity insists.” The razor-sharp language used cuts right to the heart of what she means and is merciless in its exactitude. Through short dramatic fragments of memory she recollects scenes from her past: her father who didn’t want her, the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, the cruelty of schoolmates who misunderstood her and finally the pernicious betrayal which threatens to dismantle her grand artistic project.

There is plenty of humour to be found in this novel as well. The comedy is of a highly intellectual sort – plays on words and jokes that need a footnote about a French cultural theorist to fully understand them. But there is also humour of a more bawdy nature cutting down the ridiculous importance men place on their manhood “He worries over semen flow, a bit low, the flow, compared to days gone by. You’d think he had walked around with a volcano down there for years, conceited man” and a satirical humour that slices apart Harriet’s perceived enemies in a merciless way. Harriet pokes fun at the art world and its parade of ego-driven denizens, but somewhat sadly she finds little to laugh about in how seriously she takes herself. For it is perhaps the most important characteristic of Harriet’s personality that she takes the world so seriously and expects everyone else to as well despite her partner Bruno trying to tell her differently: “Harry’s magic kingdom, where citizens lounged about reading philosophy and science and arguing about perception? It’s a crude world, old girl, I used to tell her.” Because no one seeks to understand the world with as much intellectual vigour and passion as she does, she desires to take revenge upon the people who don’t take her or the world so seriously. The fact that she does this through an artistic prank so elaborate it can only be comprehended after her death is a tragic joke itself. What she really desires is recognition, not revenge. She daydreams that after her death someone will come upon her work and “nodding wisely, my imaginary critic will stare for a long time and then utter, here is something, something good.” The creation of any art is an act of faith that the artist's vision will be recognized and understood and influence the culture its a part of.

Siri Hustvedt is a supremely talented writer and this novel might be her great masterpiece. Feminism and experimental forms of narrative have always had a strong presence in her novels like “The Blindfold” and “The Enchantment of Lily Dahl” while in “What I Loved” she created a novel about the NYC art world and the breakdown of a family. “The Blazing World” seems to synthesize all her primary concerns and turns them into an astonishing story. The truth lies not in any one account in this collection of fragments, but in between the pages and how we construct an idea of Harriet/”Harry.” This is what novels artfully do for us when they are written as brilliantly as this book: give us an incomplete picture of the world to fill in with our own understanding of it. But in the end it's not the artist herself who really matters but the art she leaves behind. As Harriet notes: “I am myself a myth about myself. Who I am has nothing to do with it.” At a certain point personality dissolves and the integrity of the art work's ideas are what determine whether it will stand throughout time. It's my hope that this novel will survive to be read for centuries.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSiri Hustvedt