Reading Pynchon #13

M&D Chapter 3

If the first chapter located Cherrycoke in the family home and set one kind of discipline against another, and the second offered, and problematised, historical traces, the new chapter finds Mason and Dixon in Portsmouth, negotiating their own new relationship as well as interactions with others.

[3.1.1] There’s this Jesuit, this Corsican, and this Chinaman, 14-18

The chapter begins with Cherrycoke admitting his distance from the events he describes, his I perhaps going back to where chapter 1 ended (11). At the very least he is dependent on recollections offered by Mason and Dixon, ‘how they remember’d meeting’ (14); or even his own memory, ‘too often abridg’d by the Day’s Fatigue’. If the previous chapter has questioned the way in which historical traces might be taken for granted, here the authenticity of so-called personal accounts might be undermined.

What follows that opening is a detailed account of the meeting in Portsmouth, Dixon very much the outsider on Mason’s beat. The narrative offers a commentary on constructions of ‘native’ and ‘foreign’, and Durham might even be another country – for example, Dixon ‘pronouncing the forms of You consciously, as if borrowing them from another Tongue’ (16), shortly after the joke designed to emphasise a shared identity based on constructed difference (15-16); and cf the subsequent distinction between ‘Grape people and Grain people’ (18).[1] To begin with, Mason, as putative expert, speaks of a ‘Contract between the City and oneself’ (14) – by which he means the learned behaviour of city life, the ability to interact with strangers on a regular basis without coming to blows.[2] One might infer that Mason, for example, is the author of, as presented in the text, ‘Dixon’s clear Stupefaction’ – a take in line with the dismissive attitude he demonstrated previously (13; and cf ‘some shambling wild Country Fool’ on 17). In chapter 2 the narrative invoked the region behaviour that, according to Goffman, governs interactions; here, there is another take on the way people might read each other. It is, therefore, worth noting (a) the narrative’s association of Mason (the astronomer) with a macrosociological approach to interaction; and then (b) the way Dixon picks on that ‘peculiar station in Life’ (16). And so Mason mocks the way Dixon speaks, in response to which Dixon wonders if Mason has spent too much time as a scientist (‘alone on top of that fam’d Hill in Greenwich’, 15), not enough time with people (experiences that would allow him to question generalising norms).

In the space of a couple of pages, Mason’s status has been questioned, Dixon’s subversive potential on display – for example: ‘Takes an odd bird to stay up peering at Stars all night …’ (16). Here, according to Dixon’s mocking line, what is ‘odd’ about Mason is the absence of oddity, another way of questioning the superior status accorded the scientist: ‘On the other hand, Surveyors are runnin’ about numerous as Bed-bugs …’ etc (17).

By the end of this first phase of the chapter, Mason and Dixon have negotiated a relationship based on the need to prepare, so to speak, for their departure: ‘We’re sailing to the Indies …’ etc (18). Whatever the differences that might separate them, they now have a something in common as they anticipate the privations of travel – hence the need to share a ‘civiliz’d Drink’.

[3.1.2] All at once, out of the Murk, 18-20

Without a formal section break, a new phase is signalled by the passage of time: ‘As the day darkens …’ etc (18). Artificial light is accompanied by noises imposed on the characters (‘the sounds of the Stables and the Alleys grow louder …’ etc); and what is signalled is shared experiences. Abruptly, the narrative is less concerned with characters’ perceptions of each other as the setting becomes one they must confront together. Hence, as the paragraph ends: ‘Mason and Dixon become aware …’ etc.

This transitional phase brings, ‘out of the Murk’, the ‘somewhat dishevel’d Norfolk Terrier’ – as though Mason and Dixon have, somehow, crossed over into another world. Here, the reader is positioned with Dixon, attention drawn to Mason’s ‘Magnetickal Stupor’ (19) and, down the page, his likening of the dog to ‘an Actress one admires’. If the first phase of this chapter, then, played with the discursive arrangement of cultural difference, not least the regional factors that would mark Dixon/Durham as somehow foreign, what has been introduced here is Mason’s openness to new, what might be called irrational, ideas: ‘Isn’t it worth looking ridiculous …’ etc. The reader is still positioned with Dixon (‘There is something else in progress …’ etc, top of 20) as he speculates; however, he does so on the basis of shared experience, ‘remember[ing] himself, after his father passed on’. The Dog will eventually lead them to ‘the one [Mason] must see’ (25) and the naming of Rebekah that will both conclude this quest of sorts and provide a narrative strain that distances Mason and Dixon from events that surround them.

[3.1.3] Provisions for survival in a World less fantastick, 20-23

As they pursue the Learnéd Dog Mason and Dixon are confronted by ‘a sudden, large Son of Neptune, backed by an uncertain number of comparably drunken Shipmates’ (21); at this point Mason and Dixon are exposed as ‘the ones with all the strange Machinery, sailing in the Seahorse’, their reputation, it seems, preceding them (cf Dixon’s earlier ‘odd bird’ reference to astronomy, bottom of 16). For Bodine, the dog provides a business opportunity, ‘to keep the Savages amused’ – cf Cherrycoke’s role in keeping the children similarly ‘amus’d’, or distracted (bottom of 6). However, a little later in this phase, the Dog will boast of his free-born status: ‘No one owns me’ (23).

The awareness of geographical distance already established when discussing Dixon’s northern origins is developed on a broader scale; but there is still an emphasis on how information might be transmitted. And so, ‘I’ve been out more than once … there’s a million islands out there’ (21), Bodine speaking with one kind of authority – cf Mason ‘coming the Old London Hand’ at the start of the chapter (14). Here, Bodine’s authority comes up against another kind, as displayed by Mason: ‘I’ve heard they eat dogs out there’ (21). Earlier, of course, Mason mocked Dixon over the missed opportunity to witness a hanging: ‘what’s the first thing they’ll ask …’ etc (15). Here, the Dog goes on to cite ‘[t]ravellers return’d from the Japanese Islands’ (22). And then a dispute between Dog and Lunarians (22-23) returns the reader to the opening of the chapter and Dixon’s fears: ‘How can Yese dwell thah’ closely together, Day upon Day, without all growing Murderous?’ (14).

[3.1.4] The net Motion of the Company, cries in Concert, 23-25

The Dog twice denies he is owned by anyone (23-24), which claim should be aligned, firstly, with the earlier reference to dogs ‘learn[ing] to act as human as possible’ (22); but also, secondly, with the subsequent reference to the Dog being ‘drawn by the smell of Blood in the Cock-Pit’ (24). One might see the latter as a reference to the Dog’s nature, that is, he shares with the fighting birds ‘this pure Edge of blood‑lust’. But any ‘blood-lust’ on display is that of the human audience also; and the Dog must ‘yawn yes of course, seen it all before, birds slashing one another to death’ – merely one kind of ‘Work’ (according to Mrs Jellows, 25) to be linked to another, the ‘assorted sounds of greater and lesser Ecstasy’. And so, in the rest of this paragraph, a soundtrack both avian and human in origin blurs any distinction that might easily be made between human and non-human, for example: ‘the demented crowing of fighting-cocks waiting their moment, cries in Concert at some inaudible turn of a card …’ etc.

However, none of this activity, it seems, is to involve Mason and Dixon, who remain, somehow disinterested (in spite of Dixon ‘growing increasingly desperate for a drink’, 24). What does interest Mason is Dark Hepsie (according to the Dog, ‘the one you must see’). Earlier, the Dog ‘recognises [Mason], tho’ now he is too key’d up to speak with any Coherence’ and arranges a meeting ‘later, out in back’ (19). A page later, he ‘leads them at a trot out of the stables, out of the courtyard, and down the street …’ etc (20). At the bottom of 21, following the appearance of Bodine and Lunarians, the Dog again prompts Mason (‘pushes [his] Leg with his Head…’ etc). There is momentum here, a sense of purpose that carries Dog and Mason/Dixon forward, until (‘the Dog butting at Mason’, 25) they reach their goal and the first direct reference to Rebekah. Finally, here: ‘Somehow the Learnéd Dog has led him to presume …’ etc.

Moreover, Mason is ‘[u]nable to abandon her’ and also ‘eager to be aboard a ship …’ etc. There is an echo, then, of Cherrycoke in the first chapter. Firstly: ‘he has linger’d’ and ‘finds he cannot detach’ (8). And then the account of his departure from England in 1.2: ‘Tho’ my Inclination had been to go out aboard an East Indiaman …’ etc (10-11).

If the purpose of the chapter has been to describe the first meeting of Mason and Dixon it has done so by linking them with reference to their respective family histories (go back to Dixon recalling his father on 20). The fast-forward to Mason’s ‘confess[ion] months later’ (25) recalls the intrusive narrative of the previous chapter: ‘A few months later …’ etc (12-13). In the current chapter, progression is inseparable from both the Learnéd Dog (as a guide – Hepsie is ‘this Dog-reveal’d Crone’) and distractions on offer at The Pearl of Sumatra (24-25).

Another key feature of the chapter is the role played by sensual, particularly aural, phenomena. Dixon’s perspective is prioritised at significant moments and the reader is aligned with him as an outsider in an alien environment. Throughout, the world imposes itself sensually and the reader is necessarily distanced by an inability, for example, to hear what is presented. One might understand dialogue as language, for example; one cannot hear it. In chapter one, Cherrycoke’s role as narrator emphasises an oral tradition in which storytelling requires a listening subject; and the current chapter opens with Mason mocking Dixon’s accent (15). The Dog’s appearance is signalled by ‘a dozen mirror’d Lanthorns [that] have leapt alight together’ and then ‘a sprightly Overture’ (18); they are interrupted by ‘[a] small, noisy party … working its way up the street and into Ear-shot’ (21); the impact on sailors of Mrs Jellow’s voice is noted (23). In The Pearl of Sumatra Mason/Dixon gradually make sense of what is happening, ‘after a while’ (24); and the subsequent paragraph begins with ‘the smell of Blood’, going on to ‘assorted sounds’ (top of 25).[3]

[3.1.5] Fate, meet Men of Science … Men of Science, meet Fate, 25-29

The Dog’s name is now revealed (‘Fang, as he now apparently wishes to be known’); and then ‘with an expressive swing of his Head, [he] makes a dignified Exit’ (26). The name, given here for the first time, draws attention to his canine status, while the ‘dignified Exit’ might be said to emphasise anthropomorphism.[4]

Hepsie goes on to talk of fate in association with the ship sailing on Friday before Dixon makes out her disguise: ‘a shockingly young woman’. His nature as a ‘country Lout’ means ‘he can’t keep from flirting’ and he will, when they separate, earn an amiable Nod’ (28). Given Mason’s distraction, this is another moment when the text reminds the reader of their alignment with Dixon. Down the page on 26, ‘she cackles, as the young fancy the old to cackle’, followed by ‘Hepsie [is] too ʼpert by Decades’; but Mason seems not to have noticed. Top of 27 Dixon is ‘nudging Mason urgently with his Toe’. Mason, meanwhile, remains distracted and ‘clutching his head’. If Hepsie is performing, so is he, it seems, albeit unawares. Hepsie is then described as ‘the young Impostress’ in the middle of a passage in which Dixon is trying to reason with Mason: ‘ʼtis the Age of Reason … we’re Men of Science’.[5]

When Bodine asks Mason and Dixon what Hepsie said, they can remember little (28). Which might be a reminder of Cherrycoke as narrator. The chapter opens with a reference to Cherrycoke and the twins (14) but there has been nothing since. The chapter ends with Mason ‘earnestly needing a further Word with Hepsie or the Dog’; but he ‘can find no trace of either, search as he may’ (29). Has he imagined all?

[1] On this reference to drinking and status see Colin A Clarke, Consumption on the Frontier: Food and Sacrament in Mason & Dixon, in Hinds (ed), Multiple Worlds, 85. Other discussions of characterisation and status relevant here include Kathryn Hume, Mason & Dixon, in Inger H Dalsgaard, Luc Herman and Brian McHale (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and David Seed, Pynchon’s Intertexts, in Dalsgaard et al (ed), Cambridge Companion.

[2] In the late-C19th Durkheim’s functionalism aimed to describe social change by distinguishing between what he called mechanical and organic solidarity, the latter being generally comparable to Mason’s contract here. See Emile Durkheim, Readings from Emile Durkheim, Kenneth Thompson (ed), London: Routledge, 2004, 23-47. For a recent discussion of Durkheim’s ideas, see Peter Thijssen, From mechanical to organic solidarity, and back: With Honneth beyond Durkheim, European Journal of Social Theory, 2012, 15 (4).

[3] One might refer to Pynchon’s (re-)writing of phenomenology here, just as earlier, he has borrowed from a range of sociological traditions. Any such discussion is impossible without reference to Martin Eve’s account in Pynchon and Philosophy, although I would not agree with the view that Pynchon shows himself hostile to critical theory. See Martin Paul Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2014. If Pynchon quotes from particular theories, plays with them as ‘ways of seeing’, the current chapter demonstrates that ‘seeing’ is always a problematic affair. If Mason/Dixon are presented as experts who have been taught to subscribe to objectivity and a scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, Mason as astronomer and Dixon as surveyor, each devoted to the kind of rigorous classification and measurement that positivism takes for granted (still – we live, after all, in the age of something called ‘big data’; and some will speak of ‘metrics’ with orgasmic delight), the current chapter offers a deconstruction of such certainties, just as chapter 2 challenges conventional notions of reliable historical sources (or traces).

[4] In this study, a key point of comparison will be the work of John Gray, so this might be a good time to quote him – in Straw Dogs, for example, he argues against any simplistic distinction between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ if that means a hierarchical arrangement. See John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, London: Granta Books, 2002. One might also cite Burns on the conflict between reason and imagination as a key feature of the narrative throughout, part of what he calls a parallactic method. See Christy L Burns, Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Postmodern Culture, 2003, 14 (1).

[5] On science and anti-science throughout, see William B Millard, Delineations of Madness and Science: Mason & Dixon, Pynchonian Space and the Snovian Disjunction, in Copestake (ed), American Postmodernity. The essay on Snow is part of the Pynchon middle period discussed earlier.


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