Reading Pynchon #17

M&D Chapter 7

If the novel, thus far, has found a range of ways to invoke elsewhere – Cherrycoke’s storytelling, throughout; a stereotyped Other (London and Durham, 14ff; the Indies, 21); the juxtaposition of Emerson’s telescope (17) to ‘Gate-ways to Futurity (19) – it has also seen Mason and Dixon venturing forth from here on the Seahorse. In this chapter, then, they finally land elsewhere, in Cape Town, witnessing colonialism’s need to discipline a native population, as well as the rivalry between European powers represented (Chapter 4) in terms of military power at sea. Earlier, relations between states were framed in terms of warfare; here, another kind of conflict is displayed. As I suggested at the outset, the context for the novel at the time of publication includes the construction, after 1989, of humanitarian intervention as a key feature of international relations; so the writing of subjection here must surely be related to the emergent world order of the 1990s.[1] Moreover, it is significant that, at different times, Mason/Dixon and the native population will be described as innocent, a way of constructing naivety and a lack of experience, but also dependency justifying the exercise of power. Cf earlier descriptions of ‘Savages’ as childlike (21); or the reference to sailors’ ‘ancient Beliefs’ (37).

In earlier chapters the relationship between Mason and Dixon has foregrounded the way they constantly bicker (Chapters 3 and 5); here, for the first time, they are seen apart from each other, their experiences of this elsewhere markedly different, before they come back together to compare notes.

[7.1] A certain Bonk, 58-59

From ‘a sort of spoken Map of the island’ (57) at the end of the previous chapter to ‘the unreadable Map-scape of Africa’ (58) opening the new chapter: it is, in each case, a question of interpretation, of putting into words, what must, what can only, be represented – here, ‘this haunted and other half of ev’rything known’. Which of course begs the question: how is the known known? Moreover, what they see is colonialism, the imposition (‘a precarious Hold upon the Continent, planted as upon another World’) of a power relation.

Further, the introduction of the VOC is of an alternative to traditional state power. Previously, the narrative has featured Anglo-French hostility; here there is a first mention of the kind of global governance Pynchon’s readership is more familiar with.[2] In the opening paragraph, the narrative offers the relationship between what is seen (‘Cape Town’s fortifications’) and what must be inferred (‘the Continent’). If reading is inseparable from fortifications, consciousness is inseparable from the rivalry between states. The defensive measures on display are less to do with defence against an outer world, an external threat, than with ongoing political conflicts between competing outsides.

There is then the introduction of ‘a Functionary …, whose task it is to convey to them an assortment of Visitors’ Rules, or warnings’. Note the way in which ‘Rules’ become ‘warnings’. On 51 Grant is confronted by ‘an Admiralty fopling’ with a ‘young Phiz’ etc; his youthfulness emphasises the power delegated to him and, as seen by Grant, it must appear somewhat humiliating. Here, Bonk offers a kind of paternalism masking the implied threat: with ‘nowhere to escape to, best to do as the Captain and Officers request’ (59).[3] Mason and Dixon have to be disciplined (a process that continues throughout the chapter); the rules have been designed to integrate them and neutralise any threat they might present. Note that Bonk is jealously protective of ‘Our Fortifications, Our Slaves’. He then mocks ‘English Whiggery’, the notion of an irresistible progress, when Mason (‘no master but Him …’ etc) hopelessly invokes common ground with a fellow Christian. In the section that follows, Mason, having failed in this attempt, will be made strange to himself.

[7.2.1] Passion knows me not … alas (60-66)

This long central section organises the narrative round passion and the need for discipline; at different times the Vroom daughters and Mason will be used to discuss innocence as something that must either be lost or taken away (due to the requirements of a disciplinary society).

The first part of the section covers a couple of days in which Mason is confronted by five women, the mother and three daughters, and then, eventually, Austra, ‘the only one in the House [he’ll] be allowed to touch’ (65). When Mason finds her in his bed (bottom of 64) he recognises her as someone ‘[h]e recalls having seen in the company of various Vroom Girls’ (top of 65). On previous pages, then, whenever Jet/Greet/Els have been encountered, Austra might have been present yet invisible: now visible, she speaks, confronting Mason with an unwelcome truth about ‘English Marriage’ and gender inequalities.[4]

If Austra is retrospectively revealed as having been there-but-invisible, the section begins with ‘the sudden defection of half the Zeeman kitchen Slaves’ (60), their absence signified by work that will not be done. The Cape Dutch, as outsiders, are therefore introduced in relation to both problems faced – ‘Company Prices, collaps’d Roofs, sand in the Soup’ – and the fact of slavery, here ‘just one more Domestick Calamity’. The kitchen slaves enter the text by marking the power of resistance; and this passage will conclude a few pages later with Austra’s resourcefulness: her power to manipulate others (‘I’ll tell them I couldn’t wake you up’, 66) being what distinguishes her from the Vroom women. In positioning herself between Mason and the Vrooms, she recalls Greet’s ‘Rôle as Eternal Mediatrix’ (62): Austra is a slave and therefore exploited by the women of the colonial power as by the men. On 65 she explains the business – the logic of exchange value – as characterised by, in Mason’s words, ‘no Sentiment, no Love’. Mason wishes to claim the superiority of English values, but Austra (‘how is English Marriage any different from the Service I’m already in?’) is having none of it: cf both Mason’s earlier speculative reference to the shared values of European religion (59) and his subsequent description ‘of this place as another Planet whither we have journey’d’ (69). Along the way, Dixon has been scrutinised and found wanting, ‘his unconceal’d attraction to the Malays and the Black slaves …’ etc helping to justify Mason’s designation as ‘another story’ (61). Considering Johanna’s interest in him, Mason is bemused, wondering how far he might have changed ‘[b]etween Greenwich and the Cape’ to merit the label ‘exotic’; his awareness of his own qualities (‘in any mirror he’s consulted’, 62) is thus brought into question. Dixon, of course, will experience no such doubt: ‘rude, disobedient …’ etc, he appears to make little attempt to ingratiate himself, perhaps aided by the suspicions provoked – inspired? – by his religion: ‘the English Quaker’ is not to be trusted (61).

In the first instance, Mason/Dixon’s unanticipated move from the Zeemanns’ home to ‘the house behind’ for food (60), the Vroom home initially hidden, exposes them to ‘a strange combination of unredeemably wretched food and exuberantly charming Company’; different kinds of desire will, therefore, be both acknowledged and denied, the satisfaction of food and sexual desires associated with the untrustworthy native population.

Cornelius the patriarch is a storyteller, ‘a bottomless archive of epic adventures’ who perhaps echoes, or even parodies, Cherrycoke’s own role. Given that Cherrycoke remains the narrator, however distant, one might see Cornelius here introduced as a narrating Other, an ‘Arm-chair Commando’ who tells stories he cannot have personal experience of. Similarly, if Chapter 1 introduces Cherrycoke as the means by which children will be disciplined, one might now consider the disruptiveness of the three daughters, as Jemima, Kezia and Kerenhappuch, perhaps demonstrating limits to patriarchal power, quickly become Jet, Greet and Els. At the bottom of 62 Cornelius is ‘anxious as others in the House upon the Topick of Nubility and its unforeseen Woes …’ etc; on 63 ‘he has known it [Lust] to appear’ etc; but then, on 66, seemingly ignorant, perhaps wilfully so, of the farce concerning Mason and his wife/daughters, Cornelius spends his time ‘screaming at the Slaves’, reaffirming his authority, as Mason must ‘[pop] in and out of doors …’ etc.

[7.2.2] He but happens to have stumbl’d into it (66-70)

The long central section can be conveniently divided with the new morning on 66, ‘Dixon wolf[ing] down griddle cakes and Orange-Juice, whilst Mason glumly concentrates upon the Coffee and its Rituals,’ confirming the divergent paths taken by the two characters here. And: ‘There is knowledge that must be suppressed.’ Mason-the-Other now thinks ‘he but happens to have stumbl’d into [the common Life of the House] as some colourful Figure from the Fringes of the World’ – he is both central to ‘some fiendish Asian parlour-game’ and curiously marginal, ‘here for a while and then gone, just enough time for ev’ryone … to make use of him’. His erection ‘is more or less visible to the Publick’ – but how much of this matter does Cornelius know? Is it something the women are able to keep from him?

At this point, the narrative shifts to Dixon and his ‘assortment of Companions native to the Dutch Indies’ (67): his advice to Mason (‘get out of thah House’) is to do what he himself has done. When they meet in Chapter 3, Mason is on home territory, so to speak, Dixon the traveller/outsider; here, it is Mason who must learn to accept outsider status. When Mason asks Dixon for help it marks another shift in their changing relationship, and any illusions he might have here (what ‘unhappy grown Englishmen’ are supposed to believe in) recalls the self-image challenged earlier: on 61 he is the scientist attempting empirical observation, whereas now he finds Dixon mocking beliefs based on ideology. Dixon’s denial of native ‘Innocence’ recalls the reference to Cherrycoke’s storytelling in Chapter 1, when he shifts from the fantastical to the (supposed) realism of ‘a Tale about America’ (7); he brings to the fore a ‘world of Sorcery’ (67) that Mason, desperate, is prepared to consider. If his ‘inflexible Object’ (66) recalls Slothrop, the undermining (or stripping) of scientific certainty he undergoes here might also recall that earlier protagonist’s periodic loss of clothing. Referring to the Learned Dog passage in Chapter 3, Burns suggests that ‘Mason struggles to hold onto the magical, even as Enlightenment thought was calling for its extinction’;[5] a similar point can be made here as Mason finds the science that would confirm his professional status wanting. However, on 68, the native magic that Mason thinks he wants is exposed as just another capitalist enterprise, ‘a lively Market’ where ‘Imitations and Counterfeits abound’.

Earlier in this chapter Dixon is deemed untrustworthy for political reasons (61); Mason, however, is ‘the widower with the Melancholic look …’ etc, a reference to his dead wife, an absence he will continue to struggle with. Here, whatever happens later in the novel, it is the invisible-made-visible Austra who has appeared in his bed: ‘Mason is awakened …’ etc (64). If sexual desire has, indeed, reminded him of Rebekah, it is the not-Rebekah who offers herself to him, Mason telling Austra she ‘must marry an Englishman’ to see how free English wives are (65).[6] In Chapter 3, it is suggested that Mason is trying to escape Rebekah (25), which point informs his request here to Dixon: ‘Emphatickally not a Love-Potion … quite the contrary’ (67). As Dixon then ‘search[es] the Malay Quarter for an Elixir to meet Mason’s specifications’ he encounters cockfights that return the narrative to Chapter 3, the same passage where Rebekah and Mason’s melancholy are introduced.

It transpires that the ‘Indifference-Draught’ Mason has requested (67) is intended for ‘the Soup-Bowl of his Hostess’ (68). However, interactions earlier between Mason and the four Vroom women make it clear they have no interest beyond making it impossible for him to resist Austra; who should be rendered indifferent, then, remains in doubt, unless he supposes Austra will eat the same food. He fails to see, as Dixon does, ‘’tis the Slavery, not any form of Desire, that is of the essence’ – and cf Mason’s reference, a page later, to ‘another Planet … where these Dutch-speaking white natives are as alien to the civilisation we know as the very strangest of Pygmies’, 69); while, on 71, there is no difference between the ‘other villagers’ who populate the real world and those ‘fantastical beings and events’ found in dreams.

If Mason, despairing, insists ‘the Dutch Company … is ev’rywhere, and Ev’rything’ (and cf his dreams on 71), Dixon points to the limit of the VOC’s hegemony, citing popular resistance, ‘routes of Escape, pockets of Safety’. On 67 Mason says Dixon is ‘out rollicking’ etc; here he asserts his own joyless regime (70). As they are, then, reunited, Dixon refers to ‘too much Sand in the Air tonight’, a reminder that, thus far, ‘there [has been] plenty of time for Mischief to shake her Curls …’ etc (62). Bottom of 60, there is, perhaps, an allusion to observation when ‘the Clock having misinform’d him of the Hour … Mason only just avoids a collision with Johanna’ – all of which sets the tone for the following pages. Top of 61: the ‘Melancholickally‑smok’d Lenses’ and subsequent reference to Mason’s observation (and measurement) of himself in mirrors confirms the shift to subjectivity. Mason meets Austra when ‘the Sky [is] too cloudy for Work’ (bottom of 64) and then ‘prays for clear nights’ (66). Dixon then reasserts himself when Mason needs him: ‘For an instant both feel, identically, too far from anyplace …’ etc (70). A little later, they will ‘agree to share the Data of their Dreams …’ etc (71).

[7.2.3] One of us must provide a Datum-Line of Sanity (70-75)

Out ‘in search of Lustful Adventure’ (70) Mason proves ‘a difficult carousing partner’, so one might think of Portsmouth in Chapter 3, Dixon ‘increasingly desperate for a Drink’ (24). On 70, ‘this side of Sumatra’ recalls The Pearl of Sumatra in Portsmouth (24). Here, Mason is ‘a Curiosity of Nature’; earlier he was ‘some colorful Figure from the Fringes of the World’ (66). Again cf: ‘you have been observing me in a strange … way’ (16). Mason is on display, to be scrutinised. Dreaming, ‘wak[ing] up screaming, repeatedly’ (70), he must be disciplined. If he hoped, earlier, for a native potion to control others, he must now be ‘sen[t] … to talk with a certain Toko …’ etc. As on 64 Austra is here associated with his waking from sleep, returning to the narrative to manage Mason on behalf of ‘both Houses’ (70). One might also note the ambivalence regarding native belief systems that might be exploited, even while native cultures are, elsewhere, deemed beyond the Pale.

The new phase of their relationship sees a renewal of the bickering that has gone before as Mason declares himself ‘the Master’ and Dixon ‘his own sly ʼPrentice’ (72); he advises Dixon to ‘take Notes’ in anticipation of, ‘someday … bearing all the weight of Leadership’. If the chapter, thus far, has seen little in the way of scientific observation, and consequently a distance of sorts between Mason and Dixon, this passage confirms a coming together while Mason accepts tuition from Toko. Professional insecurity is undeniable as they discuss the possibility that they are pawns in someone else’s scheme. Mason insists he has ‘earn’d’ his ‘Station’ (73); whereas Dixon, ‘[a] collier’s son, – a land-sale collier at that’ must have been the beneficiary of some kind of advocacy, ‘the decisive word’.

Squabbling here is based on class differences that Mason at least remains sensitive to, replacing the earlier concern for local cultures, both Dutch and native – Mason, having defeated ‘the tall figure with the wavy Blade’ of his nightmares (71), can now confront the ‘snarl’d and soil’d web of favors, sales, and purchases’ he hopes Dixon ‘may ever remain innocent of’ (74). Earlier, innocence was associated with either the Vroom girls (less innocent than they should be) or the native who, generically, will forever provide local colour. The narrative comes back to the tension between Mason and Dixon as though they have yet to leave England and its class system: Dixon can now be designated foreign, ‘the mystery’ one of ‘a different sort’ (74).

There follows a parenthesis (‘As Maskelyne will later tell Mason …’ etc) that exposes Cherrycoke as the hidden narrator. And then, Mason and Dixon no longer squabbling but trying to work out what is happening, they feel as though, in Dixon’s words, they are ‘Lodgers inside someone else’s Fate …’ etc (75). This line, coming after Mason’s ‘not a Dream, yet …’ hints at an alternative reality that sees Mason and Dixon ‘[h]aunting this place, waiting to materialize’.

[7.3] Simple folk (75-76)

In a brief concluding section the narrative returns to Cherrycoke as narrator. He suggests Mason and Dixon appear ‘disingenuous’; not only are they ‘innocent’, they are unaware that they might appear otherwise. He goes on to point out (‘As Savages commemorate their great Hunts …’ etc) that cultural practices might differ, the necessity of such practices cannot be denied. On 76 LeSpark claims innocence (‘we are simple folk’) to deny Ethelmer’s ‘millions of lives, the seas of blood’ – cf the opening of Chapter 4, Ethelmer’s self-censorship and LeSpark’s ‘Fortune’ (30-31). That Christ might now be invoked to justify foreign policy has morphed, in the 1990s, into humanitarian intervention, ‘God on our side’ now the assertion of universal values that have been challenged throughout the chapter.

[1] In the first instance one might note the liberal triumphalism of Fukayama’s ‘end of History’, followed a few short years later by Huntingdon’s somewhat hysterical ‘clash of civilisations’. See: Francis Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man, first published in 1993; and Samuel L Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order, first published in 1996 (after essays first published by Fukayama in 1989 and Huntington in 1993). See also Edward Said, The Clash of Ignorance, in The Nation, 4 October 2001. For brief mentions in Pynchon scholarship, see: Christy L Burns, Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in Postmodern Culture, 14, 1, 2003; and Samuel Cohen, Mason & Dixon & the Ampersand, in Twentieth Century Literature, 48, 3, 2003. Pynchon’s novel invokes a time when global politics was dominated by European colonial powers, a time well before the bipolar world that followed World War 2; yet its emergence at a time when ‘the West’ was in desperate need of a new enemy should not go unremarked.

[2] Stacey Olster, A ‘Patch of England, at a three-thousand-Mile Off-set’? Representing America in Mason & Dixon, in Modern Fiction Studies, 50, 2, 2004; Ian Baucom, Globalit, Inc; or, The Cultural Logic of Global Literary Studies, in PMLA, 116, 1, 2001.

[3] If paternalism is a key feature of colonial rule, one can see here the way in which Bonk – ‘I know what is best for you’ – implicitly links Mason and Dixon to colonial subjects and, specifically, the slavery mentioned here in passing. Not least, Mason’s volubility undermines any membership that might be supposed of ‘us’. See Edward Said, Orientalism (first published 1978); and Descola and Pálsson, eds, Nature and Society, 1996.

[4] On Austra’s ‘voice’, see: Deborah Madsen, Captivity without Redemption: Pynchon’s Allegories of Empire in Mason & Dixon (online).

[5] Burns, Postmodern Historiography, para 4.

[6] Beginning with Mason’s bereavement/melancholy, Wallhead discusses connections between Mason and Shakespeare’s Hamlet; however, she doesn’t consider the role played, in this chapter, by his melancholy. See: Celia Wallhead, Mason & Dixon and Hamlet, in Orbit, 2, 2, 2014. Online:

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