Wilde and Cavendish

Reading Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” reminded me of some of the ideas Margaret Cavendish presents in The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World.  In The Blazing World, which was published in 1666, Cavendish embarks on a fanciful, philosophical journey through the character of a young lady who becomes the Empress of a new world.  In this world, the Empress uses her unconstrained power over the native inhabitants to uncover truths about the world through a variety of scientific fields.  While doing this, however, Cavendish satirizes the experimental science of her time, critiquing many aspects of the field and proposing what she considers to be a better way to seek truth.  Cavendish’s critique relies on her use of fiction to demonstrate what can be done when reason is combined with fancy.  Using the fictional form of The Blazing World, she presents possibilities in science beyond the constrained work of her time, and relies on character and plot to critique the narrowness of experimental science.

Much later than Cavendish, in 1891, Wilde relies on the form of a dialogue to perform a similar critique of the overuse of fact when understanding society and creating art.  He writes, “Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance.  Their chilling touch is over everything” (Wilde 980).  His character Vivian argues that there must be a place for fancy and lying in art, or it becomes boring and pointless.  Though Wilde is critiquing art rather than science, both authors use their work to point out the limitations of pure reason and observation, while showing their readers a better way to seek knowledge.  When Cavendish combines reason and observation with fancy in her work of fiction, she is able to ponder what the possible applications of science could be for society, or how technology could be advanced to learn more about the inner workings of creatures and objects rather than just what is visible on the surface.  When Wilde talks about fancy in art, he sees how it changes how one looks at nature and understands different cultures.  They show how fiction and reason are both necessary to find truth, and demonstrate the power of incorporating fancy into reason.