Reading Pynchon #14

M&D Chapter 4

This chapter begins with Cherrycoke’s storytelling in a family setting, but the narrative insists, as in chapter 1, on relocating characters outside the home in the context of a wider society. Juxtaposed to this process is the way in which relationships, firstly, on the Seahorse and, then, between that ship and the l’Grand are organised to construct alternative social units. Earlier references to Durkheim’s notion of social solidarity are revisited.

[4.1] Blood racing quietly, 30-31

The chapter opens with Cherrycoke’s ‘spiritual Contract with the World as given’ (30), perhaps a reminder of Mason’s ‘Contract between the City and oneself’ (14). The function of this short first section resembles that of the equally brief second chapter, a bridge that offers a reflective commentary of sorts. If chapter 2 undermines the truth claims of historical traces (letters that cannot be left to speak for themselves), this section focuses on family dynamics and what ‘[e]v’ryone “knows”’ (31) – even when reluctant, as Ethelmer is here, to openly address ‘past crimes’ that are ‘difficult to reconcile with the living Uncle …’ etc. If the ‘Contract between the City and oneself’ refers to the way in which strangers – by definition, they lack any kind of shared (personal) history but have been thrown together nonetheless – must negotiate their passage through an urban setting, here family members with that shared history must also negotiate and renew ongoing relationships. Later in this chapter, the Seahorse and the l’Grand will demonstrate another kind of interaction, to do with the warlike posturing that is necessarily based on an agreed recognition of foreignness.

At the outset (30), Cherrycoke returns to the end of chapter 1 and the ‘engine of Destruction’ (11). The two chapters intervening have introduced Mason and Dixon, making them aware, eventually, of the same dangers; and now Cherrycoke’s audience has increased with the appearance of Ethelmer, whose reference (bottom of 30) to ‘anything that sets the Blood a-racing’ perhaps recalls the Dog’s ‘pure Edge of blood‑love’ (24) – effects of a certain kind of entertainment. The allusion here to a sea battle sees Ethelmer ‘amiably pollicat[ing] the adults’ (30) – as though their presence, rather than that of children, might require him to moderate his speech – in contrast to more fearful references preceding it. Firstly, one might wonder at the discrepancy between the narrative as it appears on the page and whatever version is offered to Cherrycoke’s audience – it is plausible, for example, to accept that earlier descriptions of The Pearl of Sumatra and Hepsie would have been edited/bowdlerised. However, in the writing, Ethelmer’s gesture here has usefully distinguished between Cherrycoke (‘amiably’) and LeSpark (‘less certainly’). The latter’s business selling arms to all comers is described on 31, just after Brae’s response to her cousin: that ‘Blood may “race” as quietly as it must’ acknowledges what cannot be put into words, and the line is then followed by Mr LeSpark’s ‘Fortune’. Cf LeSpark’s introduction (in his absence) in chapter 1: ‘a respected Merchant active in Town Affairs’ (6). Brae’s ‘quietly’ might also remind the reader of the association of violence‑as‑entertainment and The Pearl of Sumatra’s noisy soundtrack. The section ends with Ethelmer, introspective, struggling to match ‘the living Uncle’ to ‘a Saga’ that would explain the accumulation of wealth.

Ethelmer‑as‑storyteller, then, is set against Cherrycoke to highlight what can be said. What they have in common is an outsider status based on roles played outside the family. Cherrycoke is introduced as a ‘far-travel’d Uncle’ (6) who can trade in stories accumulated on those travels, while a key moment for the introspective Ethelmer is meeting his uncle outside the family (31).

[4.2] You’d think there’d be a Team from somewhere, 31-34

On the Seahorse Captain Smith, introduced here in his absence, is denounced as ‘a Privateer’ (32), guilty perhaps of ‘petty Extortion’ and ‘adopting the ways of Street Bullies’ – cf his reputation here with that of Wade LeSpark in 4.1. Not least, Smith’s ‘Approach to … guests’ (32) might recall the way in which Cherrycoke must necessarily earn – that is, pay for – his own guest status in the wealthy LeSpark’s home. Eventually introduced in person, Smith offers an alternative reading, one (‘the fancy of a Heart unschool’d in Guile’, 33) that prioritises his own need for the right kind of company and ‘plenty of Philosophickal Conversation’. If 4.1 closes with Ethelmer’s ‘Innocence … long, even enjoyably, departed’ (31), here Smith hopes to presents himself as genuinely innocent. However, the section ends with a hint (‘as gently as possible’) of superior knowledge (34).

The previous section alludes to family history and 4.2 focuses on another kind of family, the group brought together by circumstances aboard ship. Conflict based on social status – the formulation of a ship’s hierarchy, Mason and Dixon ‘tak[ing] their turns with the other principal Officers in dining with the Captain, whose dreams …’ etc (33) – is succeeded by a reference to conflict with France. The construction of some kind of national identity is here inseparable from international relations and the likelihood of warfare. Moreover, these constructions and an unavoidable bellicosity are ways of dealing with the status anxiety engendered by squabbles over the seating order at dinner. One might think back to chapter 3, Mason and Dixon anticipating the voyage: ‘It may be our last chance for civilis’d Drink’ (18).

[4.3] A nearly unsensed ghost, 34-37

The captain is now ‘this Lad’ (34), even if ‘young Smith’s been around forever’. Earlier, it was suspected that he might try to take advantage of his position; now, if there is any likelihood of battle, an apparent youthfulness and lack of seagoing experience are brought to the fore, along with evident disrespect from ‘a Youth of loutish and ungather’d appearance’ (35). Blinky and his advice arrives in a flashback (‘He’d been greeted …’ etc) as Smith recalls his first impressions of the Seahorse, disappointed by a ‘remote scruffy Sixth Rate throwing itself like a tether’d beast against its anchor-cables’, the descriptions of sailor and ship of a kind – one wonders if, elsewhere, ship and crew have been deemed expendable if he proves incapable of taking Blinky’s advice. If Smith does lack the gravitas that, supposedly, goes with age, his youthfulness is not on a par with that of ‘the young salt’. Practical experience is the issue and there is, perhaps, an echo of the earlier exchange between Mason and Dixon regarding the latter’s credentials (16-17). And then, looking ahead a little, Cherrycoke’s introduction to Mason/Dixon (36) will emphasise his youth. The significance of this recollection, here, might well be that it follows the earlier reference to Smith’s yearning for the right kind of company (33); in his eyes, therefore, any shortcomings of his command are exaggerated.

What follows (‘The vessel herself …’ etc, 35) is to do with experience, but also personifies the ship, its ‘Reputation for Nerve’ more properly belonging to its crew. Such anthropomorphism recalls the Learnèd Dog but also emphasises a unity vital for survival. Moreover, Dixon’s proficiency (17) and that of Smith here on 35 indicate the kind of specialised labour that characterises modern society. Interestingly, then, the ship’s motto invokes a past age, one where honour has meaning in a closed society, one where social rank is fixed (36) and corresponding to a ‘spiritual Contract with the World as given’ (30) rather than a ‘Contract between the City and oneself’ (14).

And so to the top of 37, where the captain differentiates between ‘how very Scientifick we are here’ (when referring to the officers) and how ‘ancient Beliefs will persist’ (when referring to ‘a group of Sailors holystoning the deck’. Bongo might be patronised here, but he has nonetheless learned to refer, a few lines down, to ‘Frenchies’, as though he can thereby earn membership of the national group, here defined by its opposition to those living the other side of the Channel.

[4.4] Death making itself sensible in new ways, 37-38

Another brief section returning the narrative to Cherrycoke and his audience, the battle (lasting ‘an hour and a half’) summarised, initially, in a couple of lines (37), most likely because, as he admits, Cherrycoke ‘was well below, and preoccupied with sea‑surgery …’ etc, 37-38). The lengthy account that follows on 38 is heavily dependent on what can be heard, for example, ‘close enough to hear the creak and jingling …’ etc, or ‘the cries of the injur’d and dying’, or ‘until we’d hear the Gun‑Tackle being shifted …’ etc. Here and elsewhere, this passage draws the reader’s attention to human activity, either suffering or the doing of battle-related work that will produce suffering … and the power of smell is also featured (‘so as not to be the first to foul his breeches in front of the others’, 38). Eventually, ‘the Ship’s hoarse Shrieking, a great Sea‑animal in pain …’ etc takes the narrative back to the earlier anthropomorphism (35). And one might also have in mind here the passage describing events at The Pearl of Sumatra (24-25).

In this section Cherrycoke’s audience is identified as Brae (as on 8 her role is to admonish his excesses) and the twins. Elsewhere, other family members have been identified if/when they speak – no one’s presence is recorded otherwise, for example, listening quietly: Uncle Ives in chapter 1 (9), and then Ethelmer and Wade LeSpark as this chapter opens (30‑31). Hence, it has been established that the reader can have no way of knowing who, at any given time, might also be in the room. Moreover, each character, when introduced, is immediately tied to a life outside the family and the room that hosts Cherrycoke’s storytelling.[1]

[4.5] It has occurred to me, 38-41

As the section opens, Mason and Dixon must find a role: ‘It takes an effort to act philosophickal, or even to find ways to be useful’ (39). Cf Captain Smith earlier, as 4.3 concluded: ‘Gentlemen, ʼtwould oblige me if you’d find ways to be useful below’ (37). Or earlier still, news of the fate of Bencoolen impacting on plans made – and taken for granted – by Mason and Dixon (33-34). The battle ended, Smith goes on to speculate as to their importance (39). The question here is, perhaps, rhetorical: cf Smith’s ‘[p]erhaps there is’ (top of 34).

At the bottom of 39 ‘the perfect ellipse of the l’Grand’s stern dwindle[s] into the dark; and then, a page later, there is an abrupt transition (‘A Year before …’ etc, 40) to a French perspective, one that introduces speculation in the form of ‘Invisible Gamesters’. One might think of the ‘gaming’ described on 24-25. One might also recall the reference to ‘riots of sailors’ (15): on that occasion they would have been anxious to prevent the exploitation, as they saw it, of dead comrades.[2] In chapter 3 sailors are found ashore; in the current chapter they have been seen as necessary (if expendable) elements in battle. Here, ‘a crew so melancholick’ (40) can be set against earlier anthropomorphism: ‘The Vessel herself … enjoys a Reputation for Nerve …’ etc (35).

The chapter ends with Mason and Dixon now ‘reluctant to part company’ (41); they have finally found a role as a pair, drinking and speculating, for example: ‘what else did they know?’ The unity expressed here is inseparable, then, from shared suspicions, a moment that returns them, and the reader, to Smith’s comment at the end of 4.2 (top of 34).

[1] In my commentary on chapter 3 I introduced the distinction Durkheim made between mechanical and organic solidarity. The way adult characters are, quite arbitrarily, inserted into the family setting established in the novel’s opening pages – Cherrycoke entertaining niece and nephews – seems another way of addressing the writing of social solidarity. As well as Thijssen’s article I also have in mind here an older article comparing Durkheim and Tönnies – see Joan Aldous, Emile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Tönnies, An exchange between Durkheim and Tönnies on the nature of social relations, with an introduction by Joan Aldous, American Journal of Sociology, 1972, 77 (6). Not least, one can argue that, for Durkheim, organic solidarity meant a productive (beneficial) confrontation with difference, necessary for a functional social change. It is this feature that sees common ground of sorts emerge between Durkheim and Foucault. See for example comparable discussions of crime and punishment in The Division of Labour in Society and Discipline and Punish.

[2] The use of ‘riots’ as a collective noun here should recall Thompson’s essay on the morality of riot. See EP Thompson, The Moral Economy in the Eighteenth Century, in Customs in Common, Penguin, 1993, 185-258 (essay first published 1971). In Customs in Common, see also the following chapter, The Moral Economy Reviewed (259-351). Thompson shared with Foucault an interest in resistance. In the earlier scene, the sailors lack the legitimacy afforded their actions when aboard ship. In this chapter, scenes on the Seahorse have allowed the construction of an ‘imagined community’ – see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 2006 (first published 1983).



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