Reading Pynchon #12

M&D Chapter 2

[2.1] Obedient servants, 12-13

The short second chapter introduces Mason and Dixon as they introduce themselves to each other, in letters that feature here as ‘traces of the past’.[1] A narrative commentary separates the two letters, perhaps a kind of surveillance in which the reader is complicit.

Chapter 1 dwells on Cherrycoke as storyteller and, in his own words, ‘untrustworthy Remembrancer’ (8); and the novel’s first (explicit) reference to Mason and Dixon (‘It’s twenty years …’ etc, 7) comes within a story told to entertain the children, where ‘poor Mason’ might alert the reader to the identity of ‘a Friend of years ago’ earlier (6), before the more explicit reference (‘And now Mason’s gone’, 8 – the paragraph that builds to Cherrycoke’s self-deprecation, above) a page later.

Just as the first chapter ends with Cherrycoke’s I liberated from the setting that has established him, the two letters feature the Is of Mason and Dixon; and the narrative goes on to challenge the (surface) veracity of both letters (‘A few months later, when it is no longer necessary to pretend …’, 12; ‘Mason in turn confesses …’, 13). If Cherrycoke introduces Mason and Dixon as names that are already significant, easily recognisable to the knowing reader of chapter 1, the letters re-introduce them as not-yet-significant; and the narrative insert exposes the two about-to-be protagonists, drawing attention to artifice (on Dixon’s part) and a less than sympathetic first impression (on Mason’s part), in each case information not immediately apparent to the letters’ (intended) readers. It is interesting that, when they first appear in the text, Mason and Dixon are, then, associated with the kind of region behaviour described by Goffman, specifically the difference between front and back regions (on- and off-stage).[2]

The point Jenkins makes is that history-writing recontextualises the trace; the letters, say, are no longer what they were, a private communication between two strangers negotiating a new relationship.[3] Another way to regard recontextualisation might be to go back to the furniture described at the beginning of chapter one, also traces that have been, so to speak, relocated (5-6). Not least, recontextualisation follows the narrative passage separating the letters. Dixon’s admission that he ‘[w]ent thro’ twenty Revisions’ (12) suggests a shift from one kind of introduction to another, revisions emphasising self-conscious performance designed to impress. Consider Cherrycoke’s storytelling and his need to perform in order to impress. Similarly, Mason’s letter refers to ‘your universally good Name’ (13), following the earlier (but subsequent) confession ‘to having nearly thrown the Letter away’. One letter (Dixon’s) can be reread by what comes after; while the other (Mason’s) might be undercut by what has preceded it. In each case the meaning of historical artefacts is both contingent and unstable.

[1] See Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History, London: Routledge, 2003 (first published 1991), 26; also Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, in Donald F Bouchard (ed), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, New York: Cornell University Press, 139-164. As a related example, consider the critical reception to M&D as traces – see Charles Clerc, Mason & Dixon & Pynchon, Oxford: University Press of America, 2000, 9-38.

[2] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin, 1990 (first published 1959). Goffman’s work in the 1950s and 1960s is certainly relevant to the evolution of Pynchon’s writing generally. In relation to surveillance and what impression management might mean in contemporary society, see Trevor Pinch, The Invisible Technologies of Goffman’s Sociology From the Merry-Go-Round to the Internet, Technology and Culture, 2010, 51 (2).

[3] Jenkins, 26-27. Hence the key role, he goes on, played by ‘epistemological, methodological and ideological factors’; the past (mistakenly called ‘history’) does not speak for itself, and historians are not innocent, disinterested reporters. This discussion of traces, of course, complements Smith’s introduction to Pynchon’s take on history-writing (Smith, Pynchon and History, 1-17).


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