The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton

By John Rogers | Go to book overview

6
Margaret Cavendish and the Gendering of the Vitalist Utopia

Then she desired to be informed whither Adam fled when he was driven out of the Paradise. Out of this world, said they, you are now Empress of, into the world you came from.

-- MARGARET CAVENDISH, The Blazing World (1666)

I have examined the implications and the complications of the authoritarian takeover in the last two books of Milton's otherwise liberal, vitalist poem. I have not had occasion to mention, however, that Michael's largely authoritarian theology in Paradise Lost constitutes a discourse intended solely for the ears of Adam. Eve, for her part, had not been permitted an audience with Michael, who told Adam he had in mind for Eve something less lofty than Adam's visionary ascent to the "top / Of speculation" ( 12.588-89): "Ascend / This Hill, let Eve (for I have drencht her eyes) / Here sleep below . . . / As once thou slep'st, While Shee to life was form'd" ( 11.366-69). Milton does not inform us of the precise content of the dreams given Eve in her angelically induced state of sleep. But Eve's vague report that her dreams were "propitious" ( 12.612) invites our speculation on what a female- oriented counterpart to Michael's authoritarian pedagogy might look like. Michael, it is true, suggests to Adam, at the end of Book Twelve, that Eve's oneiric instruction has had the same imperious tenor as the vision offered Adam: the archangel has "with gentle Dreams . . . all her spirits compos'd / To meek submission" ( 12.595-97). But I would like, for a moment, to ascend my own top of speculation and put forward another, entirely conjectural, theory of the nature of Eve's undisclosed lesson in historical agency.

We have seen throughout this book the curious tendency of the various discourses of vitalist agency to figure the new autonomy of self-moving matter as an abstract principle of autonomous femininity. Van Helmont had championed women, including Eve, as the redemptive bodily force behind his vitalist theodicy; Harvey's vitalism had led to his discreditable thesis in the De generatione of the self-sufficient reproductivity of the female ovum; Marvell's alignment of organic autonomy and female virginity had suggested

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