Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow
by Ariss DerHovanessian
....."Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs..." These words begin the wondrous passage that introduces us to the world of Thomas Pynchon's latest masterpiece, Mason & Dixon. In an obvious parody of "A screaming comes across the sky," the opening of Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon sets the mood and pace for the rest of the novel. In contrast to the mindless pleasures, hopeless desperation, and ubiquitous death that dominate virtually every page of his apocalyptic earlier work, this novel begins with a joyful snowball fight between children on the streets of eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Indeed, the rest of the novel generally maintains this playful and happy tone. Unlike the sexually disturbed and socially displaced isolates that make up Pynchon's cast of prior heroes (or more aptly "anti-heroes"), the book focuses on the relationship of two normal men, Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason, who form an incredible bond of friendship. Needless to say, this has lead critics to wonder precisely what has happened to Pynchon in the last twenty years. Has marriage softened the author? Is this a "kinder, gentler" Pynchon for the nineties? To some extent, the fact that critics are still scrambling to explain the extreme differences between his previous work and Mason & Dixon may explain the relative paucity of literary criticism available on the new book to date. .....I would like to take a small first step towards a better understanding of Mason & Dixon by considering Pynchon's conception of history, a theme which is crucial to both it and Gravity's Rainbow. In spite of all the differences, Mason & Dixon remains a scathing indictment of conventional history as true to Pynchon as any of his other works. Furthermore, beyond setting the mood and providing self-parody, the opening is the first of many passages which both link the book to Gravity's Rainbow, and suggest that beneath the happy surface of the novel lie omens of a bleak future. In this context, Mason & Dixon can be read as a meditation on the era in which the technology, philosophy, politics, and economics that plague the twentieth century were just being conceived. For Pynchon, modern history has a destructive trajectory like that of a rocket, a path that begins around the time Mason and Dixon are working on their line, and ends in the nightmarish world of Gravity's Rainbow. .....Despite the fact that most of Pynchon's views remain a matter of constant debate in literary circles, scholars of Gravity's Rainbow seem to agree that Pynchon views history with a harshly skeptical postmodern eye. "History" is equated with the act of imposing a sense of directionality on the past. According to Thomas S. Smith, "the 'epistemological' bias that insists that language must represent the world also operates in our consciousness of the past, violating its anarchistic integrity by transforming it into orderly, understandable patterns" (Smith 247). The dilemma is that the past, appropriated in this way as "history" by our culture, becomes a means of subjugating the present because the act of writing history inevitably supplements the controlling cultural apparatus. Invariably, our culture then influences us to continue making history, thereby forcing us into a self-propagating cycle of self-deception and control. As Pynchon suggests, the "mass death" of war "provides raw material to be recorded into History...Best of all, mass death's a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try 'n' grab a piece of that Pie while they're still here to gobble it up" (GR 105). What is even more disturbing than the notion that historical accounts of war serve as means of control and stimulation, is the horrific possibility that "They" may be willing to create wars simply to supply fodder for these accounts. "The true war is a celebration of the market" (GR 105). Smith proposes then that Pynchon's view denotes a form of "reverse Hegelianism: 'History' represents not a slow progress toward freedom but irrational violence, exploitation, and bondage" (Smith 247). .....A second devastating consequence of conventional history is that once consolidated, the voices of Pynchon's beloved "preterite," the suffering and powerless masses, are written out and covered-up. "What passes is a truth so terrible that history--at best a conspiracy, not always among gentlemen, to defraud--will never admit it. The truth will be repressed or in ages of particular elegance be disguised as something else" (GR 164). Antonio Marquez suggests that for Pynchon, history is a "system of illusions, an enormous con-game that shields grotesque lies and conspiracies" (Marquez 55). But beyond the fact that so many crimes, like the extermination of the Hereros in Africa, are virtually written out of official histories, a philosophy of history that tends to focus on events, causes, and effects, rather than on people, completely disregards human suffering. Ultimately, such a perception perpetuates a deceptive aggrandizement of the past. When students of history are forced to painstakingly memorize a series of meaningless facts, names, dates, and places, it becomes easy to neglect the real pain that real people experienced. .....Just as in Gravity's Rainbow, questions regarding the value of linear history are raised a number of times in Mason & Dixon. Chapter 35 presents us with a debate over that very issue between members of the framing narrative. The epigraph by Wicks begins, "Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers,-- Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin" (MD 349). It goes on to warn against the notion of history as "a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All." The argument then begins between Uncle Ives and Ethelmer (along with the Reverend). Ethelmer, the college youngster, eloquently asserts that, "Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,-- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been" (MD 350). This leaves Ives, the conservative from an older generation, absolutely flustered and irate. His only response is, "Facts are Facts, and to believe otherwise is not only to behave perversely, but also to step in imminent peril of being grounded, young pup" (MD 350). By the end of the scene, it is clear that Ives is closed-minded and inflexible, while Wicks and Ethelmer embrace a more open-minded and tolerant stance. The language Pynchon uses here may lack the vehemence and extreme ire of similar passages in Gravity's Rainbow, but the irony should not be lost. Ives, being Ethelmer's father, is in the position of power. When presented with a somewhat subversive viewpoint, he takes advantage of his power, and threatens to ground his son, thus terminating the dialogue. The actions Ives takes in the debate exemplify the very evils that Ethelmer and Wicks argue against. On a deeper level then, the debate also mirrors the suppression from history of the many voices that share Ethelmer's powerless status. .....Later in the novel, Captain Zhang whose paranoia, escape from captivity, and vacillating identity, all mark him as a counterpart to Tyrone Slothrop, declares: "To rule forever...it is necessary only to create, among the people one would rule, what we call...Bad History. Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People,-- to create thus a Distinction betwixt 'em,-- 'tis the first stroke.-- All else will follow as if predestin'd, unto War and Devastation" (MD 615). This is yet another restatement of what has repeatedly been driven at in both novels. Pynchon's work is no doubt extremely complex, but in his view this point should be about as subtle as a sledgehammer. If we fail to see history as a possible realm of control, we face dire consequences. Insidious members of the elect, such as Father Zarpazo are forever bent on "controlling the very Stuff of History," strengthening their grip on all those they control (MD 530). The above passage also brings the Mason-Dixon line into a historical context. It is the geographical embodiment of a social and philosophical rift constructed by the controlling elite. Zhang warns that once the line is drawn, "War and Devastation" are inevitable. He is of course prophesying the bloody Civil War that takes place a hundred years later along that line, and suggesting that perhaps the real driving force for the war was not as noble and high-minded as so many historians were eager to propose. Sadly the reaction of the surveying party, which includes our two heroes, is to discount Zhang's admonition as insane gibberish. .....There are plenty of other passages in the novel that serve as harbingers of a dark future and links to Gravity's Rainbow. In commenting on Zarpazo, who represents the drive towards building walls, dividing humanity, and self-destruction, Zhang says, "his Vows include the one sworn to Zero Degrees, Zero Minutes, Zero Seconds, or perfect North. He is the Lord of the Zero. The impurity of this Earth keeps him driven in a holy Rage" (MD 544). In the context of the rest of the passage this "vow" seems out of place and somewhat nonsensical. But consider the pseudonym for the deranged Captain Weissmann, "Dominus Blicero." A "lord" of death, his mindless obsession with destruction leads him to launch the sacrificial Rocket 00000 in a trajectory due north (GR 707). Clearly on many levels the character of Zarpazo can be mapped onto that of Blicero. This suggests that perhaps Mason and Dixon's world is already being threatened by those, like Blicero and Zarpazo, who have the power to create history and destroy lives. .....In another passage from Chapter 29, Benjamin Franklin plays the role of Death, a "Scythe-bearing figure in Skeleton's Disguise," in "Danse Macabre!," what can only be described as a bizarre circus-magic show (MD 294). His volunteers hold hands to form a circuit which he closes by the scythe, shocking the unsuspecting attendants. The chapter is wrought with cutting imagery, from the scythe to strange beheadings in effigy, all of which point to the cut along the frontier which Mason and Dixon have been commissioned to make. Yet the image of Franklin as Death is too intriguing to leave at that. He is the "Euclid of the Electrick," the man who first discovered and harnessed electricity. In a way, this makes him the father of all the electronics that dominate the twentieth century, most notably the circuitry required to launch and control rockets. Dr. Franklin played a key role in the development of not only our weapons of mass destruction, but also our systems of communication, and by extension, control. Augmenting the irony of this image is the fact that he is one of the most likeable characters in the novel, completely unsuspecting of the events he has helped set into motion. .....These and other passages in the novel suggest a strong connection between the world of Mason & Dixon and that of Gravity's Rainbow. Indeed, it becomes foolish to distinguish the two. They do not occupy two distinct comic-book universes invented by an author to provide disparate views on the same issue. In attacking secular history, Pynchon is aiming at a problem which has faced humanity since the first moment that an attempt was made at ordering the past. To consider Gravity's Rainbow a novel about the horrors of World War II completely misses the point then, because it undermines the ubiquity of the "structures favoring death...Death converted into more death" (GR 167). These structures, our own creations, are at the heart of all the devastation in Gravity's Rainbow, but they are universal and timeless, and large enough to cast their shadows on Mason & Dixon, as well. .....Nonetheless, the novels are set two centuries apart and are admittedly very different, motivating one to wonder how they relate to one another, and to question why pre-Revolutionary America is so important to Pynchon (enough to deserve eight hundred dense pages of his reverie). I propose that this question should be approached using one of Pynchon's own metaphors from Gravity's Rainbow. The narrator speculates that "if tensor analysis is good enough for turbulence, it ought to be good enough for history. There ought to be nodes, critical points . . . there ought to be super-derivatives of the crowded and insatiate flow that can be set equal to zero and these critical points found" (GR 451). In other words, as Pynchon scholar John Stark suggests, "history has crucial points that for long periods of time determine its direction" (Stark 114). These points often represent eras of particular upheaval or cataclysm, just as calculus defines certain critical points as unstable. These singularities in history are transition points where there exist innumerable possibilities for change. .....The mid to late seventeenth century, the era of Mason & Dixon, exemplifies one such period. At this point Imperialism and Mercantilism, including the work of organizations such as the East India Company, have setup most of the trade routes and infrastructure for the modern global economy. Adam Smith was busy working on his economic philosophy, which is encompassed in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Companies such as IG Farben and General Electric, which play a sinister role in Gravity's Rainbow, were built in an economic system founded on the developments of this era. At the same time, the social philosophies that Kant and Hegel were developing, supplied absolute standards for judging the level of "civilization" a culture had achieved (Schmidt). Of course these standards placed those who set them at the top of a chain of Social Darwinism, providing the ideological justification for much of the West's abuse of foreign resources and people. It would come as no surprise to find that von Trotha had read his fair share of this "Enlightenment" philosophy before exterminating the Hereros, or that Nazi policy makers had done the same before they proposed a final solution to the Jewish problem. Furthermore, in the realm of science, Franklin and his followers paved the way to vastly more powerful forms of communication and war, as has already been noted. Finally, not to be lost in this whirlwind of crucial events is the birth of a new nation that will dominate the next few centuries, the same nation that Mason and Dixon must survey. In short the seeds of many plants that bloom in the era of Gravity's Rainbow are sown in the era of Mason & Dixon, or as Wicks hints, "the Line [of Mason & Dixon] and the Arc [of Gravity's Rainbow] approach one another, one may imagine almost sensibly" (MD 469). .....What sets Mason & Dixon apart though is that at the moment its heroes begin their line, none of these forces have fully taken shape. Mason and Dixon stand both figuratively and literally at a frontier between their Western world and an undefiled realm of possibilities. One of the most striking differences between Pynchon's two novels is that, if anything, Mason & Dixon is filled with a sense of innocence and wonder. Often it reflects the type of magical realism one might find in One Hundred Years of Solitude, another encyclopedic tome. "'Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf?" barks the Learned English Dog (MD 22). Yet as the irony of a dog making such a comment suggests, there is still time before new dogma crystallizes into cold certainties. Beyond a talking dog, the surveyors come across an animated mechanical duck, a mystical mound, eleven displaced days filled with pigmies, vortices in time, five and a quarter lost degrees of latitude, a population living inside the earth, several ghosts, a-and a werewolf or two. Despite all the talk of "reason," these bits of magic seem as "real" as anything else in the novel, and often far more powerful and moving. .....One possible way to interpret this phenomenon is through an unrelated comment once made by William Gaddis. In his own postmodern masterpiece, The Recognitions, he notes that, "As it has been, and apparently ever shall be, gods, superseded, become the devils in the system which supplants their reign, and stay on to make trouble for their successors, available as they are, to a few for whom magic has not despaired, and been superceded by religion" (Gaddis 102). In line with Pynchon's philosophy, this quotation marvelously alludes to the fact that when ideological torches are past, old beliefs often become enchanting alternatives to new views. Forced to face the new "rational" ways of looking at the world, the characters of Mason & Dixon, share a nostalgia for what could have been, for all the magical possibilities. .....These possibilities come to stand for the hope of a better future, in which people are not isolated, divided, and controlled by lines and their makers. It is a hope for an existence expressed by the beings Dixon encounters in the Terra Concava, "Here in the Earth Concave, everyone is pointed at everyone else,-- ev'rybody's axes converge,-- forc'd at least thus to acknowledge one another,-- an entirely different set of rules for how to behave" (MD 741). In the modern world, we can walk the streets, sit in subway cars, stand in elevators, and do countless other things, always surrounded by people, but never acknowledging their humanity. In Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon condemns this isolation. He writes, "We will never know each other . . . we're strangers at the films, condemned to separate rows aisles, exits, homegoings" (GR 663). But in Mason & Dixon the prospect of a more humane global village still exists, and it is indelibly linked with the undiscovered frontier. Dixon relates, "'Once the solar parallax is known,' they told me, ' 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'" (MD 741). In other words, our hopes, symbolized by the Terra Concava beings, always exist just beyond the reach of what we consider "inescapably" certain. To some extent, the drive towards discovery, towards "knowing" our planet and our universe, is fostered by the hope for such possibilities. Yet ironically, this same drive forces our hopes to continually seek other "Spaces," year by year receding away from us until all the mysteries of the world have been dissected away. .....In the context of history then, a society bent on the type exploration that is taking place in Mason & Dixon is a society whose hope becomes self-destructive. In describing Allègre, the French chef, Zhang notes, "Heaven has permitted him to see the distinction between Blade and Body,-- the aggressive exactitude of one, the helpless indeterminacy of the other" (MD 545). As has already been said, the metaphor of cutting is repeatedly used to describe the creation of the Mason-Dixon line itself. It suggests that by constructing this boundary, Mason and Dixon are attacking the "helpless indeterminacy" of the American frontier. In its current pristine state of uncertainty, America embodies a "Refusal of all further Belief in Boundaries or British Government,-- a will'd departure from History" (MD 579). It is seen as a precious chance to transcend the maleficent cycle of secular "Bad History," not by covering the land with a horrific grid of walls and boundaries as Zarpazo desires, but by embracing it in its natural state of disorder. In Cherrycoke's Undeliver'd Sermons, he suggests that the path to spiritual salvation is through "the America of the Soul" (MD 511). Wicks goes on to assert that the path to the "final pure Christ" is a path to "pure uncertainty." Consequently America can be seen as a means to achieve a pure historical uncertainty in which we acknowledge the dangers of imposing a false sense of order on the past. .....In Gravity's Rainbow, this dilemma of uncertainty recurs in the interplay between Roger Mexico and Pointsman. Mexico, who is perhaps the most endearing character in the novel, embraces uncertainty in his love of statistics. The megalomaniacal Pointsman, one of the many malignant controlling forces of the novel, shudders at the thought of such a possibility: "How can Mexico play, so at ease, with these symbols of randomness and fright? Innocent as a child, perhaps unaware--perhaps--that in his play he wrecks the elegant rooms of history, threatens the idea of cause and effect itself. What if Mexico's whole generation have turned out like this? Will Postwar be nothing but "events," newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?" (GR 56). Joseph Slade aptly describes Pointsman as a character, "Frightened of the chaos that randomness and charisma imply...conditioned to trust in cause and effect, control and linearity" (Slade 30). This description can clearly be extended to a wide variety of characters in Mason & Dixon, from Zarpazo to Uncle Ives to even the two protagonists at times. .....If secular history is to be overcome, realistic alternatives that embrace uncertainty must be found. Smith suggests that Pynchon's own form fiction serves this purpose to some degree. According to him, Pynchon's work takes a "Sophistic hermeneutic stance, unconcerned with finding answers and interested instead in the continual play of contrasting discourses" (Smith 246). Both Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon present a flood of events and characters, voices that often seamlessly overlap, dissipate, and reemerge, and language ranging from the intensely vulgar to the esoterically scientific. The encyclopedic novel becomes a soapbox from which an overwhelming polyphony of perspectives can be expressed. At their heart then, the novels are not concerned with reducing history to formal coherence. Instead they strive to broadening our consciousness to events like the Herero extermination, the V-2 bombings, the Dutch exploitation of South African natives, and all of the other incidents that are swept under the carpets of linear history. When confronted with a disorderly tangle of stories, "Too many possible Stories," perhaps as one character suggests, the "Best thing's draw up a Book, for there's certain to be wagering upon the Question" (MD 552). This is precisely what Pynchon does, and when his tale is done he goes on to acknowledge the fact that despite all his efforts, an endless procession of voices have still been left out: "When the Hook of Night is well set, and when all the Children are at last irretrievably detain'd within their Dreams, slowly into the Room begin to walk the Black servants, the Indian poor, the Irish runaways, the Chinese Sailors, the overflow'd from the mad Hospital, all unchosen Philadelphia,-- as if something outside, beyond the cold Wind, had driven them to this extreme of seeking refuge..." (MD 759). .....As Pynchon ends his novel with this admission, I would like to close this essay by suggesting that what is presented here can in no way encompass all of Pynchon's complex vision of history. There are countless passages in these books, as well as his other works, which not only can be understood through the speculations made here, but can also contribute additional insight into these speculations. The only thing we can be certain of is the genius and creativity with which Pynchon handles these difficult issues.
Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. New York: Penguin Books, 1952.
Marquez, Antonio. "The Nightmare of History and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow," Essays in Literature 18 (1981): 53-62.
Pynchon, Thomas. Mason & Dixon. New York: Henry Hold, 1997.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.
Schmidt, Peter. Line, Vortex, and Mound: On First Reading Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon. http://www.swarthmore.edu/Humanities/pschmid1/essays/pynchon/mason.html.
Slade, Joseph W. "Escaping Rationalization: Options for the Self in Gravity's Rainbow," Critique 18 (1977): 28-35.
Smith, Thomas S. "Performing in the Zone: The Presentation of Historical Crisis in Gravity's Rainbow," CLIO 12 (1983): 245-260.
Stark, John. Pynchon's Fictions. Athens: Ohio UP, 1980
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