The Nation - John Leonard

Mason & Dixon Review by John Leonard

The Nation - 12 May 1997: 65-58

More than 700 pages later, when this splendid eighteenth-century beast of a book seems to have hunkered down for a dying fall of grace notes—after the melancholy Gothic-depressive Charles Mason and the sporty manic danger-junkie Jeremiah Dixon have sailed rough seas to Cape Town, St. Helena and Delaware Bay; after an excess of salt, pitch, pipe smoke, bag pipes, sheep fat, caffeine abuse, darkling beetles, Apparitions and Mirages; after slave colonies, opium dens, spirit villages, Stonehenge and the gallows; after Hottentots, Malays, Presbyterians, Dutch Calvinists, Jesuit priests, Mohawk Indians, Jenkins's Ear and Rebekah's ghost; after Ben Franklin, George Washington, Tom Jefferson, Captain Volcanoe, a French chef, a Chinese geomancer, a Viking spy, a giant cheese, a giant beet, a giant worm, talking dogs, electric eels, mechanical ducks and an American Golem; after a Transit of Venus, a Vector of Desire, a Purity of Azimuth, Realms of Velocity and Spleen, many Enigmata of the Invisible World and an Epsilonicks of Damnation—our stargazing heroes are reunited back in England, some-the-wiser and gone fishing. Mason tells Dixon about Ulster, where there were faery lights in the infernal bog and coffins disguised as claviers. Dixon tells Mason about the Arctic, from which aliens abducted him.

Well, more like elves, trolls or gnomes. Go with the floe. Under the North Pole's ice cap, inside Earth as we think we know it, is another, hollow world— a Terra Concava where the lakes are ceilings, secured by centrifugal whirl; in whose inner void the Little People hang upside down like bats. They have been sending messages by magnetic compass and other Telluric mediations. They are curious: How can Dixon bear to live topside, so exposed to terrible Lights and Outer Darkness? Hasn't he noticed that in his convexity he is always leaning away from everybody else, while these insiders are forever, in fellowship, pointed toward one another? But they are also fearful, especially of Masons and Dixons: "Once the solar parallax is known ... once the necessary Degrees are measur'd, and the size and weight and shape of the Earth are calculated inescapably at last, all this will vanish. We will have to seek another Space."

This is the Pynchon who just can't stop himself, who ups antes and lowers booms. Like his mechanical duck, if he keeps flying we won't see and can't catch him. I should be telling you that Mason & Dixon is shapely and coherent. That you will care about a baffled astronomer and a horny surveyor in the grip of forces they can't even locate, much less modify. That for the first time in Pynchon we get extended families (difficult fathers and lonely children), magnanimity instead of mockery, closure instead of dissolution. But already, to prove myself worthy of a masterwork, I'm haring down absurdist wormholes.

Underground! In V. there were channels, tunnels, sewers, trollfolk, a besieged Malta and a Borgesian Vheissu, hiding out at the other Pole. In The Crying of Lot 49, as if in the mid-sixties he'd already imagined e-mail and Microsofties, there was Tristero, that subterranean signal-system of the dispossessed in a "separate, silent, unsuspected world." In Gravity's Rainbow there was Dora, the prison camp and underground Mittelwerke city of rockets and salt; and white lunar latitudes where "there is always the danger of falling"; and "the invisible kingdom" of crematoria on "the other side" of Pokler's vacuums and labyrinths; and Schwarzkommandos who believed the souls of their dead waited in the Arctic; and the last V-2, launched with its Aryan payload at that very same Pole. In Vineland, there were Thanatoids and the dolphin-like woge, who hid beneath the ocean to see what we did with their world—as well as Frenesi's dream of a Flood and phantom divers who would bring back up for us whatever had been taken, whatever had been lost.

"Signs and symptoms," said Pointsman the Pavlovian in Gravity: "Could Outside and Inside be part of the same field?" Follow the bouncing ball...

From historical odds and ends and the Field Journal they left behind, Pynchon re-imagines Mason and Dixon before, during and after the four-plus years, 1763 to 1767, they took to draw their 244-mile-long line through the American wilderness, dividing the proprietorships of the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland, ordaining our North and South. From his omnivorous reading, with his diabolical genius for mimicry, he also re-creates their tumultuous era—an Age of Reason crazy with divine kingship, chartered monopolies and the trading in human flesh; French Encyclopedists, Royal Society astronomers, genocidal colonizers, seething religious sects; pornography and revolution. And from the depths of a jaunty disenchantment, he calls into brilliant question the very ways we measure, map and misconstrue history, landscape, time, space, stars and self—as if by pin, needle, pencil, lens, plummet, clock, pendulum and compass, we will ever settle on an Angle of genuine Repose, or achieve orbit, or abstract anything important about women and comets, or see the sailing shapes of love and death and wind and light.

"Geometry and slaughter!" says Squire Haligast in Mason & Dixon, on being advised of the Prussian victory in 1757 at the Battle of Leuthen: "The future of war, yet ancient as the mindless Exactitudes of Alexander's Phalanx."

To do all this, Pynchon has written his own eighteenth-century novel, as though by a Jonathan Swift gone elsewhere than Lilliput and Brobdingnag, or a Dr. Johnson improving greatly on Rasselas by shifting it from Abyssinia. (Sam will even show up at the end of Mason & Dixon to call Mason a lunatic.) There is a Henry Fielding stream-of-consciousness and, unless I'm mistaken, also some borrowings from the Noble Savage woo-woo of Chateaubriand's Atala. (You'll recall the heavy-breathing Vicomte had a hard time finding a Northwest Passage because nobody'd told him there were Rocky Mountains.) The Mary Wollstonecrafts, mother and daughter, seem to have been consulted, along with their husband and father, William Godwin, and his Adventures of Caleb Williams. Nor would a familiarity with Cotton Mather come as a surprise. Or the John Williams who wrote The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, the Joel Barlow who wrote The Hasty-Pudding and the Charles Brockden Brown who wrote Wieland, Ormond and a terrific essay on somnambulism (and who, like Dixon, was a radical Quaker). And this is not to mention everything Pynchon had to know about Aristarchus, Laplace, Kepler, Newton and Celestial Mechanics; Clive of India, Baron Munchausen and Danse Macabre; Matteo Ricci (Jesuits in China), Anton Mesmer (using Ben Franklin's glass harmonica to stupefy the ladies), Hyperthrenia (an "excess of mourning"), comparative religions (including Mithraic cults), revolutionary politics (Franco-American), Dutch sado-masochism (with its odd emphasis on the Black Hole of Calcutta), baking bread (Mason's father), mining coal (Dixon's father), class, race, Freemasons, Illuminati, Feng Shui and the Kabbala, astrolabes and spices, Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, balloons, automata and sorcery.

Anyway, as in the Peregrinations of Dr Diocletian Blobb, a text he imagined for The Crying of Lot 49 (along with a seventeenth-century Jacobean revenge play in which characters perished of "every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man, including a lye pit, land mines [and] a trained falcon with envenom'd talons"), Mason & Dixon is "full of words ending in e's, s's that looked like f's, capitalized nouns, y's where i's should've been" and many, many comma/dash/space splices,—as, for instance,—

Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?—in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen,—serving as a very Rubbish-tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,—Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied in, back into the NetWork of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,—winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair. (p. 346)

But Pynchon is also very much a modern, who not only knows from narratology, but who has always obliged with blind trails for pomo burrowers into the palimpsests. Thus, on a snowy Philadelphia Christmas in 1786, after Mason and Dixon are both dead, their story is told Joseph Conrad-style, by the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, who was with them in Cape Town and then again on the Mall they made of America, though he skipped St. Helena. (There's a Cherrycoke in Gravity too. Does it matter? Not as much as several appearances by "Fender-Belly" Bodine in M & D: the template of Pig.) While Cherrycoke was seen to take lots of notes, his young listeners are aware that some of this stuff he couldn't possibly know. These lines get further tangled when a character from a popular 1786 pulp serial, on the lam from a Jesuit brothel in Quebec, shows up and stays put in the Ur-Novel twenty years before her fictitious time. (If Pynchon has his fun with The Ghastly Fop, he even more enjoys playing Timothy Tox, the Rudyard Kipling of colonial PA, a producer of doggerel by the pound. Besides the usual dogs, there are also the usual puns—e.g., "Dutch Ado about nothing.")

If I stop to explain the Jesuit brothel in Quebec; or what Mason did during the eleven days the Gregorians stole from the Julians in England in 1752; or how Dixon happened to learn to fly at The Cudgel and Throck; or the difference between "The Daughters of the End of the World" and the Girls on call in the Black Hole of Calcutta at the Cape Town Slave Lodge; or how come George Washington has a black Jewish slave who makes kasha varnishkies and sings "Havah Nagilah"; or why Zsuzsa Szabo wears the dress uniform of the Nadasdy Hussars; or whether it is possible for anybody else to read Aristotle on Comedy, Shakespeare's Tragedy of Hypatia and "all the good bits that Thomas left out of the Infancy Gospel"; or whatever possessed Jacques de Vaucanson's Mechanickal Duck to flap away to a New World of "savage Women, giant Vegetables [and] Buffalo-Herds the size of Paris"; or how to date The Third Sex, who are Dead; or the Surinam Torpedo, the first British pizza, runic Ogham and Dark Hepsie, the Pythoness of the Point—there won't be space left over to answer the question Mason on his deathbed asks Ben Franklin ("What Phantom Shape, implicit in the Figures?"), nor to explain why M and D, at the conclusion of their Iliadic Wandervogel "into Futurity," should wind up feeling like "a Pepper-corn in the Stuffata, stirr'd and push'd about by any Fool who walks by with a Spoon."

Somebody else is pulling their strings, that's why. Certainly the Royal Society, to which neither will ever be elected because of their lower class origins, has an investment of prestige in stargazing and "lunar Obs" to devise "a reliable way to find the true Longitude at Sea." (This problem, eventually solved instead by John Harrison's chronometer, has been the excuse for two recent books, Dava Sobel's nifty cultural history Longitude and Umberto Eco's self-indulgent novel The Island of the Day Before.) But for whom is the fixing of marine longitudes such an urgent issue? The British Navy, for one. The British East India Company, for another. The whole colonial enterprise, for a third. Which means the French, Dutch and even the Levantines are suspicious. To whom we must add a conspiracy of what Ben Franklin calls "the two most powerful sources of Brain-Power on Earth,

the one as closely harness'd to its Disciplin'd Rage for Jesus, as the other to that Escape into the Void, which is the very Asian Mystery. Together, they make up a small Army of Dark Engineers who could run the World. The Sino-Jesuit conjunction may prove a greater threat to Christendom than ever the Mongols or the Moors. (p. 288)

Such puppet masters jerk and scatter our hapless hirelings, who are more like Hansel and Gretel than Addison and Steele, in "an Herodotic Web" of Enigmatic Tangents—to Cape Town, where they'll set up "Snouts" to track the eclipse of a Transit of Venus; to St. Helena, where they traffic with convicts, madmen, slaves and chartered company "Perpetuals," while also enduring "the spookish fug of Maskelyne's Sermons upon the Unknown"; and to America, "when the World was yet feudal," to hew by ax a "Visto" through the heart of darkness, eight yards wide and due west, in a Decameron of misfits who might as well have time-traveled to enlist after the last V-2 obliterated Vheissu—Children of the Rainbow as mad and motley as the midgets, clairvoyants, telekinetics, lobotomizers, Behaviorists and vaudevilleans in the White Visitation, pioneer Slothrops on a lonesome and perilous range. If V. was Henry Adams and Ludwig Wittgenstein shooting alligators in New York City sewers, and Gravity a conjoining of Spengler, Freud, Rilke, Celine and S.J. Perelman, and Vineland a lysergic-acid Icelandic saga, Mason & Dixon is a "Westward Ho!" to the Culture of Death, with Joseph de Maistre, Frantz Fanon and their Merry Pranksters in a DayGlo Conestoga Wagon. "Was there a mistake in the Plan of the Day?" Mason wonders. "Did we get a piece of someone else's History?"

And what do they find in their perpetual motion of departure and return, at the margins? On the one hand, everywhere: commerce, covetousness and imperialism's greedy profit-taking—"Something richer than many a Nation," explains mad Maskelyne, "yet with no Boundaries,—which, tho' never part of any Coalition, yet maintains its own great Army and Navy,—able to pay for the last War, as the next, with no more bother than finding a Key to a certain iron Box." On another hand, also everywhere, depressing Mason and enraging Dixon: slavery, oppression and a geometry of violence "more permissive than Euclid"— markets in half-breed babies; nightmares of reprisal; smallpoxed Indians. As Maskelyne also explains: "for Commerce without Slavery is unthinkable, whilst Slavery must ever include, as an essential Term, the Gallows,—Slavery without the Gallows being as hollow and Waste a Proceeding, as a Crusade without the Cross." On the third hand, all over the globe: lunacy—in great winds, blown sands, seas of blood and unsealed coffins; a Jenkins's Ear hearing confessions and a Wolf of Jesus in a hot-air balloon; "Suicide-Banks," "Madness-Pools" and magic pearls from the brains of cobras.

Finally, these four hands count ghosts: shadowland shapes of the shamefully martyred, silently repressed and nameless dead; borders transgressed, cries unheard. Against such a spectral teem—Invisible Hands of another kind of Market, Dream-bodies, Ghost-fish, Guardians, Black Dogs, Indian Glow, Werewolves and Gnostic remnants; Prophecies, Fetches and Deep Creatures with a Stare; hallucinatory passages down forbidden trails through darkness primeval into burial mounds and Radiance; the capital, dividends, trust funds and charged terrain of Magic—all the profane states of Europe with their "Machines, Powders, Rays, Elixirs," their leagues of philosophers and their crazy reasonings, must quail in fear. "Invisible yet possessing Mass, and Velocity, able not only to rattle Chains but to break them as well," Mason thinks in Cape Town. And, after returning from an America that should have been innocent:

Mason has seen in the Glass, unexpectedly, something beyond simple reflection,—outside of the world,—a procession of luminous Phantoms, carrying bowls, bones, incense, drums, their Attention directed to nothing he may imagine, belonging to unknown purposes, flowing by thick as Eels, pauselessly, for how long before or after his interception, he could never know. (p. 770)

Imaginary space! Sacred borderlands! Rapture and Vertigo! So, in the eighteenth-century world according to Pynchon, instead of waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon hit the road. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in Gulliver's Travels instead of Stoppard's Hamlet. Yet bless Tom, for he has Magick'd. Haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, Mason starts a second family and bequeaths his own sons to the New World, though it was Dixon who had wanted to stay in America. And Dixon, "the unwaverring Larrk of the Sanguine," gone nymphing by moonlight for sea trout in a stream of English consciousness, will see through his pride into the minds of the secret sharers of the Earth. What a pity that he dies before Romantic poetry or grand opera or psychoanalysis or Hollywood movies. In Wagner, he might have been a bassoon. The pair of them, pointing toward each other in their Terra Concava, are even better at buddy-bonding than Gilgamesh and Enkidu. And Mason & Dixon — like Huckleberry Finn, like Ulysses — is one of the great novels about male friendship in anybody's literature.

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