Thalesian Lessons: Mad Astronomers in British Fiction of the Long Eighteenth Century

in Reading Swift


Taking its cue from the representation of astronomy in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels and versions of Thales of Miletus’ stargazing accident circulating in eighteenth-century England, this essay examines ‘mad’ astronomers in fictions of the long eighteenth century. In Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, Swift’s Voyage to Laputa, Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Dr Johnson’s Rasselas, and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, it explores the links that stargazers establish between reason, represented by the practice of astronomy as a ‘pure’ observational science, and the imagination, represented by madness and fiction. Either overly cerebral or motivated by the most basic drives, fictional astronomers hold up for consideration various kinds of madness that offer insight into the developing relationship between science and the imagination, and in particular the legitimacy and dangers of fictionalizing.

Reading Swift

Papers from The Seventh Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift


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