Reading Pynchon #16

M&D Chapter 6

[6.1] Leaving things dirtier than they were before, 47-48

The chapter opens with Cherrycoke and Brae discussing the Royal Society’s instructions to Mason and Dixon. They are interrupted when speech introduces another family member, Uncle Lomax. The first half of this brief section, then, deals with a contract that cannot be broken (‘the Royal S. … threatening legal action …’ etc, 47); while the second half of the section deals with a contract broken, soap ‘of low Quality’ that ‘often leaves things dirtier than they were before its application’. There have already been significant references to contracts – chapter 5 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); one might note here the absence of capitalisation in a reference that is more prosaic.

It is also interesting that Cherrycoke refers to ‘more Earthly Certainties’ (47) when he means, contra science, ‘a warning … from Beyond’. Cf Captain Smith’s juxtaposition of ‘Scientifick’ to ‘ancient Beliefs’ (37). If science is defined by, and depends on, empirical evidence that can be scrutinised objectively, this ‘warning’ is more of a gut feeling to do with fear. The Royal Society, meanwhile invokes a system based on legality and the need to compensate those who judged to be injured parties; while those consumers buying soap from Uncle Lomax have no such safeguards. On the Seahorse, hierarchical relations are informed by an imagined community that is rendered ineffective, or untrustworthy, when relations must be regulated by the law and the market.[1]

[6.2.1] Rebellion and immoderate desires, 48-50

If Captain Smith desires the right kind of company and conversation (32-35), Cherrycoke here demonstrates the downside of being ‘quarter’d with … a rattle‑head’ (48). Aboard the Seahorse characters are confined in a closed world that emphasises status and the importance of knowing, so to speak, your place. One might think back to the passage describing the ship’s motto and the ‘Code as strict as that of any ancient Knight’ (36). Cf Grant’s ‘feckless Youth, a Source of pre‑civiliz’d Sentiment’ (51).

Previously, Unchleigh was singled out as one of the ‘boil-brain’d subordinates’ Captain Smith would like to distance himself from (36). Unchleigh’s reappearance on 48, then, sharply contrasts the closed society of the Seahorse and the open society governed by contract law. Subsequently, impromptu signalling between ships (49) is followed by ‘a mysterious seal’d Dispatch’ (50): the former as transient as speech, the latter a record that has legal status.

Unchleigh’s antipathy to ‘Print’ (48) is to modernity, of course, as well as a reminder of Cherrycoke’s introduction in chapter 1, and his role here as a narrator, in association with oral traditions of preliteracy – cf the legal system that confines Mason and Dixon (47) precisely because agreements have been recorded. In chapter 1 Cherrycoke is interrupted by the first adult to join his audience, Uncle Ives ‘lately return’d from a Coffee-House Meeting’ (9) – his interruption is to ask what Cherrycoke was found guilty of, ‘strictly professional interest, of course’ and Unchleigh, here, fears ‘Civil Unrest’ as the consequence of discussion, the promotion of thinking, and quite unacceptable in a closed society. The ‘mysterious seal’d Dispatch, handed to the Captain at Plymouth just before they cast off’ (50; or ‘seal’d Sheaf of Papers’, 51) requires, of course, no thinking or discussion.

The interaction between Cherrycoke and Unchleigh is followed that between the two ships (and their respective captains), again raising the question of personal space, or ‘Standard Interval’ (49). This brief passage provides a bridge to Mason/Dixon, whose bickering seems ongoing. Not least, the reference to beer and wine returns the narrative to their first meeting (17-18).

[6.2.2] Your first damn’d fool’s errand, 50-54

The introduction to Grant’s thoughts (‘well, almost any Ship’, 50) might recall the similar introduction to Smith, ‘oblig’d at last to accept the remote scruffy Sixth Rate …’ etc (35). Each man expects more. However, reference here to ‘the Immortality of Ships’ (50) through constant transformation would appear to include crew and, specifically, its captain, given the replacement of Smith by Grant: another way of thinking about the imagined community as an abstract notion. Nonetheless, given his orders in writing (‘a seal’d Sheaf of Papers’, 51), Grant must confirm delivery by signing ‘an instrument of Receipt’ – making him personally responsible, of course.

Odd behaviour, as observed, links Grant and Mason (51-52). However, ‘Madness at Sea’ (52) is hardly worrisome (cf Unchleigh’s concerns earlier on 48);[2] and the crew now comes to the fore. Half way down 52 the paragraph beginning ‘This ship’s history …’ etc introduces ‘[t]he Frigate life’. The loss of musicians here follows the earlier description of ‘the Immortality of Ships’ (50). If the rebuilding of ships suggests one kind of tradition, musicianship suggests another, ‘Slowcombe … having learn’d the Art of his Instrument from the fam’d Hanoverian Fifer Johann Ulrich …’ etc (53). The ship is ‘a Village’ (52; repeated, 53) marked by the ability of its inhabitants to coexist peacefully: Soames’ solitude, followed by Veevle’s sleepfulness (54), undisturbed by noise that would awaken others. This passage provides another take on the ship as a closed society, following earlier descriptions of rank. Officers – and the claustrophobia indicated by their interactions – are absent; and authority is represented by the intrusion of the reward offered to anyone who can wake Veevle. Cf the way in which Grant and Mason/Dixon have earlier been disciplined from afar by written orders and a contract enforceable by law, respectively.[3]

[6.3] A Royal Museum of Work, 54-56

The new section begins with Grant’s introduction (kind of) into ‘the shipboard routine’ (54), speaking, then identified by a response. Similarly, on the next page, it appears to be Grant asking after Bodine (55), although he is not identified by name here either. In this section, then, with the emphasis on work, Grant is marginal to the action. Down the page on 54, Higgs is ‘an ideal Subject to practise being insane upon’; but this opening statement comes to nothing, succeeded here by a detailed account of Higgs’ ‘Obsessedness’ (55). A further connection between ship and society is identified with ‘the Project of tidying up the work of the Riggers at Plymouth …’ etc. Hence: ‘a Thousand details, each nearly invisible, all working together …’ etc, a succinct description of the division of labour, one that quickly morphs into national pride expressed as a job done well.[4] Again, as with the description of the sea battle in 4.4 (37-38), work is war-related: regarding, that is, the ship that will most impress the enemy (55). Cf the earlier passage on ‘the Immortality of Ships’ (50), where the work in question is that which Higgs is here so critical of.

Nonetheless, work is here fetishised, promoted as an empty ritual. Higgs’ fastidiousness is a distraction, one of the ‘alternatives to Ennui’ (55) that include Bodine’s ‘Penis in the Jewel Block’. The section deals with boredom as the obvious alternative to battle, and ‘the Prospect of crossing the Equatorial Line’ is also obsessed over, ‘grow[ing] unnaturally magnified’. Cf the earlier ‘ancient Beliefs’ (37).

[6.4] But imagine, 56-57

The previous section ends with an allusion to ‘the Ceremony of Initiation plann’d for those new to this Crossing’ (55), that is Mason, Dixon and Cherrycoke, the first time they have appeared here – and the new section begins with the twins’ response to the version of events Cherrycoke has offered them (56). At a distance they are unable to appreciate the role played by distraction, perhaps ironic, given that, in chapter 1, Cherrycoke’s story began as just that. In this section he alludes to another aspect of storytelling, ‘the part that no one ever tells you about’. One might wonder what kind of account the twins have just heard of, for example, Bodine ‘quite enjoying the Friction’ (55), or ‘Posterior Assault’. Uncle Ives has tried to stifle any curiosity the twins might have – ‘ignoring ʼem’s best’ (56) – to avoid embarrassment, one imagines. This attempt at censorship recalls the earlier scene opening chapter 4 (30-31). Here, the detail revealing unspeakable horrors has become Spotted Dick up the nose (56); and the twins are silenced in contemplation of horrors they think they can appreciate (57).

[6.5] A game, 57

The previous section begins, then, with the twins’ curiosity, their desire for knowledge; and ends with their silence. Job done. Above the break, ‘the Lull’; below it, ‘the Seahorse gallops’, phrasing that, following the graphic description of Spotted Dick effects, draws attention to Cherrycoke as a creator of the stories he tells. He has escaped the interrogation the twins intended and, this goal achieved, the second paragraph returns him to being a character: from I to ‘the Rev’d’. Here, Mason and Dixon become the narrative focus: if their ‘game’, as a ritual dependent on the power of repetition, recalls ‘the Ceremony of Initiation’ (55), the reference to children here (‘consol[ing] themselves when something is denied them’, 57) recalls the twins but, more generally, the need for distraction. The ‘spoken Map of the Island they have been kept from and will never see’ is a forceful imagining of that which is absent, all of which serves the purpose of making Mason/Dixon absent from the ship that, currently, confines them (as well as invoking the storyteller telling the story).

[1] Again one thinks of Thompson’s writing of resistance and a moral economy based on a consensus regarding some notion of ‘fairness’ that, in a pre- or early-modern context, has widespread currency. Against that, there is the way in which legality is seen to supplement and confirm state power. For example, Weber’s view that the state is defined in relation to the legitimate use of violence might be set against Foucault’s description of governmentality and docile bodies. If Mason and Dixon might be sued by the Royal Society, for example, they would come up against state power in the form of a legal system allowed to punish them. This is the first reference in the novel to this kind of coercion – earlier references to ‘a Contract between the City and oneself’ (14) or a ‘spiritual Contract’ (30) invoke learned behaviour and docile bodies; but Cherrycoke’s employment, so to speak, rests on kinship.

[2] Another indication, perhaps, that the ship’s community is a throwback. Cf the way in which definitions of madness (that is,medicalisation) have signalled modernity. See, for example, Michel Foucault, History of Madness, Routledge, 2006 (first French publication 1961); and Roy Porter, Mind-Forg’d Manacles, Penguin, 1990 (first published 1987). See also Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness, First Syracuse University Press, 1997 (first published 1960); and then Szasz, The myth of mental illness: 50 years later, The Psychiatrist, 2011.

[3] Veevle is policed informally by his peers rather than threatened with punishment. See Foucault on governmentality and docile bodies. Moreover, in a village where people can easily ignore each other … If the urban community that requires a Contract etc is marked by organic solidarity, the village is marked by mechanical solidarity.

[4] The writing here of ‘a Thousand details, each nearly invisible’ recalls Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the almost magical co-ordination of independent factors. See: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. Currently, of course, the Adam Smith Institute exists to persuade us that Smith was an advocate of neoliberalism, which view might be contested. See Emma Rothschild, 1994, Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand, The American Economic Review, 84, 2, 319-322; and Gavin Kennedy, Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth, Econ Journal Watch, 6, 2, 2009, 239‑263. Of more interest is the way in which Smith’s invisible hand relates to Durkheim’s division of labour within the writing of modernity.

  1. Thanks for writing this, really looking forward to reading the other parts. Such an intense attention to detail reveals so much that I missed the first and second times round.

    • Thanks for your comments, Richard. I’ve been distracted recently, but I’m getting back to M&D …

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