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    Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon

    Christy L. Burns
    College of William and Mary

    © 2003 Christy L. Burns.
    All rights reserved.

  1. In 1997, Thomas Pynchon published Mason & Dixon, his much anticipated history of America written from the perspectives of the astronomer and surveyor sent over from England to draw the famous boundary line. Their work was necessitated by a long-standing dispute between overlapping land grants of the Penns, of Pennsylvania, and the Baltimores, of Maryland[1]; the job took nearly five years, from 1763 to 1768, and during that time the journals and letters of these two men record alternating shock and fascination with the functioning of society in the New World (see Mason). Pynchon draws on this historical material to create a fantastic, comedic, and at times seriously political novel. Pynchon's work has always inclined toward the voices of cultural dissent--the counterculture of the 1960s being one of his more obvious inspirations, and the rebellion of the Luddites against mechanization a subtle revelation.[2] In Vineland, however, Pynchon's critique of governmental authority takes on a more central role, and in Mason & Dixon--which was some twenty-four years in the making--he develops an important new method for postmodern political insight.[3] Pynchon introduces a parallactic method that allows him a full and yet contentiously dialectical representation of "America" as it was in the mid- to late eighteenth century and as it is now, by various implications. In his use of parallax, Pynchon interweaves a critical representation of imperialism's oppressive practices alongside a history of science and exploration. While other writers, like James Joyce, have invoked parallax as a perspectival method in order to challenge univocal narrative form, Pynchon works the concept more radically into his fictional treatment of historiography.[4] Avoiding any semblance of an apolitical sketch of the past--or simple didactic critique--he uses the same method that Mason and Dixon employed to chart the transits of Venus and to draw their boundary line, applying parallax to a series of triangulated views, starting with Mason's and Dixon's attempts to assess the New World and eventually delivering a temporal form of parallax, a synchronization of the past with the present.

  2. In her review of positions on postmodernism's politics, Susan Rubin Suleiman identifies three general clusters among intellectuals and writers: those who pursue a "postmodernism of resistance" through experimental work that allows previously silenced groups to speak in contra-normative modes of representation; those who argue that postmodernism lacks a firmness of values and principles and so fails to have any political effect (that is, it disavows universals); and finally those whom Suleiman identifies as "cultural pessimists," who believe neither in the efficacy of decentered experimentation nor in the claims of universals (the project of modernity, and so on), leaving to the postmodernist only the role of critic and never that of future visionary.[5] Writers like Louise Erdrich and Ishmael Reed would qualify for the first category, Jürgen Habermas for the second, and Jean Baudrillard for the last. Pynchon's work has straddled groups one and three; while his novels have implicitly supported a politics of resistance--and have employed experimental and decentering forms of representation--they have recently begun to engage not only in critique (the "pessimist" block) but also in future re-visioning.[6] Vineland moved more directly into political critique, with its look back at the government's means of breaking down the 1960s counterculture. But in Mason & Dixon Pynchon creates a parallactic intersection of perspectives and time frames, which allows him to engage in critique while also pointing toward a different possible future in which imperialist elements of American history are not comfortably edited out but are critically worked back in to national awareness.
  3. I am suggesting that in Mason & Dixon Pynchon's temporal or historical coordinates are the mappable difference, measurable via his synchronization of the 1760s charted alongside the 1990s. His readers thus will interpret history as a dialogue between the differences and the uncanny similarities of that time's "angle" and their own. Pynchon initially establishes this method in his politicized readings of the Cape, where Mason and Dixon chart the first Venus transit, and he then follows the two as they return to England and are shipped off on another venture, to draw their famous line in America. Employing a homology between spatial and temporal assessments, parallax and synchronism, Pynchon recasts Mason and Dixon as implied historians, developing through the novel's language an oddly contemporary perspective from within the eighteenth-century context. The novel is, for example, marked by an uncanny tone, which is an eccentric combination of both eighteenth- and late-twentieth-century colloquialisms. In one of the initial reviews of Pynchon's novel, Louis Menand praises Pynchon for drawing each of his characters, even the least, with "the same deft touch [. . .] recognizable types in eighteenth-century dress. They come onto the page with an attitude, and Pynchon's success in getting them to sound contemporary and colonial at the same time is quite remarkable" (24). At times Pynchon seems bent upon anachronism, injecting contemporaneity into this portrait of the past. These differences are not so radical, however, as many of Pynchon's readers might think. Take for example one of the more striking transpositions of contemporary life into Enlightenment culture: when Dixon, hearing a rumor of "a Coffee-House frequented by those with an interest in the Magnetic," locates his destination, he passes into what is clearly an eighteenth-century tobacco den, and is asked "what'll it be?" He glibly responds, "Half and Half please, Mount Kenya Double-A, with Java Highland,--perhaps a slug o'boil'd Milk as well[...]?" (298). However postmodern and Starbuck-esque this scene might be, coffee houses are not an exclusive artifact of the twentieth century. They proliferated in seventeenth-century Europe, and when in the next century Boston Tea Party activists insisted that it was an American duty to forego tea, coffee's popularity peaked (see Pendergrast 15 and passim). Pynchon's seemingly anachronistic introduction of the contemporary attitude in his narrative of America's past allows him to deliver a comical portrait of the nation's early history, joking that in its nascent history Americans were even then as we are now.
  4. Mason's and Dixon's potential agency as historical observers has long been overshadowed by their role as mapmakers, aligning them with science and relegating them to a "neutral" position in history. Yet Pynchon casts this neutrality in ironic relation to the position of knowledge assumed by Hegelian Enlightenment thought, drawing out the dialectics more than emphasizing the vantage point outside of history. Central to Pynchon's consideration of what America is now (postmodernly) and what it was then (at the rise of modernity) are the combined traits of these two British astronomers, who constitute a pious Anglicanism (Mason) alongside Quaker sensibility (Dixon). While Mason paces around, haunted by the ghost of his wife Rebekah, who has been deceased already two years when the book begins, Dixon, a man of senses and desires, indulges merrily in drink and those fleshful desires that Mason's mourning heart cannot allow. In terms of magic and social interpretation, Dixon is a pragmatist who sees abuse, while Mason is drawn most readily to the remarkable magic around them. Thus the forceful cohesion of future vision and social critique in the novel. Tending toward the metaphysical, Mason speculates upon their friend the talking dog, whom they first meet in London. He becomes agitated when Dixon wishes to shrug off the dog's oddly magical skills: "mayn't there be Oracles, for us, in our time?" he asks, "Gate-ways to Futurity? That can't all have died with the ancient Peoples. Isn't it worth looking ridiculous, at least to investigate this English Dog, for its obvious bearing upon Metempsychosis if nought else--" (19). Comically, the Learnèd Dog rebuffs Mason, "I may be praeternatural, but I am not supernatural. 'Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an Explanation at hand" (22). Mason thus struggles to hold onto the magical, even as Enlightenment thought was calling for its extinction. Pynchon, in his inclusion of the Talking Dog and other miraculous forms, also mocks the drier form of reason with the pleasurable addition of high-flown imagination.
  5. On the cusp of reason's advent and magic's eclipse, America arises. Mason's and Dixon's differences echo a divided perspective that is the constitutive tension within America's identity; through it the Puritan and Quaker ethics and often contrary drives meet, much as Mason and Dixon eventually meet up with one another as they chart the line from different ends. Their personalities seem at times to be tethered extremes for Pynchon. Even late in their acquaintance, we find still that "the most metaphysickal thing Mason will ever remember Dixon saying is, 'I owe my Existence to a pair of Shoes,'" as he describes how his parents met (238). Towards the book's end, "Mason is Gothickally depressive, as Dixon is Westeringly manic" (680). They finish drawing a line through America, but as Pynchon's narrator surmises, they "could not cross the perilous Boundaries between themselves" (689). They part ways, unable to figure out their friendship. Their odd and interesting relations suggest two opposite forces still present in U.S. culture--Dixon's pleasurable pragmatism and his Quaker values (equality, acceptance) in tension with Mason's Puritan posing, his starkness and formality, and his metaphysical inclination. Stargazer and surveyor, they effectively take the measure of America, both cartographically and morally, while they simultaneously reflect its constitutive differences.
  6. If Mason and Dixon stand for the differences that make up America's complex and at times contradictory consciousness, early in the novel they are alike in their dismay at the abuse that takes place in the colonies. In 1761, when Mason and Dixon travel to Cape Town to measure the first Venus transit, they find the Dutch in the early stages of exploiting African labor and resources, which they then export to the American colonies (Danson 7). Their host at the Cape of Good Hope is Cornellius Vroom, "an Admirer of the legendary Botha brothers, a pair of gin-drinking, pipe-smoking Nimrods of the generation previous whose great Joy and accomplishment lay in the hunting and slaughter of animals much larger than they" (60). The faux-Botha and his fellows see Mason and Dixon in distinct lights, admiring Mason's potential contribution to the local gene pool and worrying about Dixon's apparent sympathy for the oppressed in their society. They note "his unconceal'd attraction to the Malays and the Black slaves,--their Food, their Appearance, their Music, and so, it must be obvious, their desires to be deliver'd out of oppression" (61). While Dixon develops a great fondness for "ketjap" and things sensual in the novel (146), he also exhibits the Quakerly desire for equality, a politics that lends him a special sympathy for the slaves and a tendency to speak (and act) out of this sentiment, much as the Quaker community historically did in America (Danson 2, 8, 80-81). Mason, in the meantime, becomes the target of the Vroom family's attempt to impregnate their slave, Austra, with valuable European sperm. Mason cannot let himself have sex with Austra, however, not because he sees clearly, as Dixon does, the machinations of the Vroom matron, Johanna, as she teases Mason's desire and then propels him toward her slave. Rather, he finds himself repulsed by the thought of participating in any event that would add to the "Collective Ghost" that arises in his metaphysical eyes from the "Wrongs committed Daily against the Slaves" (68). Mason sees that

    Men of Reason will define a Ghost as nothing more otherworldly than a wrong unrighted, which like an uneasy spirit cannot move on [. . .]. But here is a Collective Ghost of more than household Scale,--the Wrongs committed Daily against the Slaves, petty and grave ones alike, going unrecorded, charm'd invisible to history, invisible yet possessing Mass, and Velocity, able not only to rattle Chains but to break them as well. (68)

    Mason observes the furious futility of religious and social codes, which still give rise not only to slaves committing suicide "at a frightening Rate," but also to suicides among whites. If these wrongs remain "charm'd invisible to history," he suspects that the future will bear the burden nonetheless.

  7. In America, Mason and Dixon join in their shock at the treatment of American Indians, but diverge in their means of assessment. Mason, for example, is compelled by reports of a massacre of Indians in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and so visits the site. "'What brought me here,' Mason wrote in the Field-Record, 'was my curiosity to see the place where was perpetrated last Winter the Horrid and inhuman murder of 26 Indians, Men, Women and Children, leaving none alive to tell'" (341). Dixon, it is gathered, tags along to keep Mason from venturing into such wilds alone, and they pick up a curious guide, who charms Mason but arouses suspicion in Dixon. As he talks on, "Mason soon enough on about how quaint, how American, Dixon rather suspecting him of being in the pay of the Paxton Boys, to keep an eye upon two Hirelings of their Landlord and Enemy, Mr. Penn" (341). Historically, Mason and Dixon had already witnessed bigotry in Philadelphia, where the worst fanatics pronounced Indians no better than animals and "Canaanites whom God had commanded Joshua to destroy" (Danson 83). While they were in Philadelphia, news arrived of the unprovoked massacre in Lancaster, some sixty miles west, where a band known later as "The Paxton Boys" attacked a small Conestoga village and killed and mangled the bodies of the inhabitants. Outraged, local officials gathered up the few survivors and promised them safe haven in a local jail in Lancaster, until they could be moved farther away. The Paxton Boys, however, broke in and murdered the refugees as well (Danson 88-89). Mason's journal reflects his outrage, and Pynchon expands upon his fascinated horror and Dixon's more cynical suspicions of their guide. What both discover, in his novel, is that excessive desire (whether for sex or for blood) motivates much of the nature of the New World.
  8. Desire to chart the sky is not neutral, any more than the mapping of the colonies is without political interest. Indeed a young character, DePugh, at one point identifies the Venus transit as "A Vector of Desire" (96). Pynchon's own text repeatedly swerves into long tangents about a range of desires; eventually the role of reading itself becomes a way to desire. In one of the novel's subplots, the Rev'd Cherrycoke's young niece, Tenebrae, is seduced by (or seduces) her older cousin Ethelmer when she convinces him to read an erotic novel to her (526-27). Ethelmer has earlier been chided by Aunt Euphrenia and Uncle Ives on the absurdity of recognizing more than one version of any tale, as well as on the dangers of reading literature. Ives announces that "I cannot, damme I cannot I say, energetically enough insist upon the danger of reading these storybooks,--in particular those known as 'Novel.'" (350-51). Pynchon's own novel proliferates tales of sexual seduction and romantic pining, ranging from Mason's devoted mourning of Rebekah to the comical insistence of an automated duck to have a female, Frankensteinian equivalent invented for him to love and take as a mate (377). In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson famously invented a duck complete with an automatic digestive system. Pynchon portrays the famous duck as the emblem of suppressed desires and overweening ambition gone awry. Mason and Dixon initially hear of the duck when they encounter Armand, a first-tier French chef who has had to flee his country because of the unwanted hostile, and then affectionate, attentions of the mechanical duck. According to Pynchon's reconfiguration of Vaucanson's experiment, the inventor encounters disaster when he endeavors "to repeat for Sex and Reproduction, the Miracles he'd already achiev'd for Digestion and Excretion" (373). Desire, however, produces life, so that the duck becomes independent, with desires and demands of its own. Flying around with such speed as to make it invisible, the duck haunts Armand, having discovered his infamy of cooking such delectables as Canard au Pamplemousse Flambé, Canard avec Aubergines en Casserole, and Fantaisie des Canettes (374). Developing a strange affection, following the chef over to America, the duck makes various verbal demands, requesting finally and especially that he convince Vaucanson to make him a mate, much like a Frankenstein bride (377). Vaucanson refuses, wanting (according to the duck) total control of his pet's affections. "His undoing," the duck surmises, "was in modifying my Design, hoping to produce Venus from a Machine" (668). Here the "Venus" of love is teasingly linked to the "transit of Venus" measure yet again. Pynchon is also citing his earlier wariness of the combination of humans and machines, in V. In that, Pynchon's first novel, he negotiates between two modes of history, using entropy as a touchstone definition. As Marcel Cornis-Pope observes, Pynchon attempts to find a middle ground between "the drifting disorder of 'posthistory' and the deadening burden of history's grand narratives" (104). What Pynchon develops, between determinism and pragmatism, is a kind of "postmodern gothic paradox" in which the truth of history always finds us too late (102). In Mason & Dixon, the grand narratives seem to swirl around sexual and cartographical possession, in tension with a plurality of cultures and ethical systems. This tension lies within European imperialism's fierce attempt to control local inhabitants and its excesses of desire that spill over into decadent forms of capitalism.
  9. Such desires circle around Mason and Dixon's constitutive mapping of America; the country that emerges is marked by their contradictions, as it reaches for high ideals, energetically seeks investment of capital and power, and often seems to revel in its identity as a boundary-less place of unprohibited (secret) behaviors. Sexual desire is exploited and marketed, becoming a common by-product of the colonial drive. In Cape Town, their host, Vroom, attempts to "seduce" Dixon's class-conscious politics by taking him to a place where a "menu of Erotic Scenarios" is offered, among them the "Black Hole." In this scenario, a European may be taken and locked in a room, at very close quarters, with a mass of slaves dressed as Europeans. It is a "quarter-size replica of the cell at Fort Williams, Calcutta, in which 146 Europeans were oblig'd to spend the night of 20-21 June 1756" (152). In the replica of this "Night of the 'Black Hole,'" all are naked and, pressed tightly together, and the sex tourist can find "that combination of Equatorial heat, sweat, and the flesh of strangers in enforc'd intimacy [which] might be Pleasurable [...] with all squirming together in a serpent's Nest of Limbs and Apertures and penises" (152-53). These "sex Entrepeneurs" thus use history as a means to an erotic imaginary, even as one might indignantly point out (just as Cherrycoke reflects) that "an hundred twenty lives were lost!" (153). Re-imagining, in Pynchon, may often be a way of progressive revisioning, but it can alternately be co-opted for exploitive forms of entrepreneurship.
  10. Indeed, capitalism seems here to work off of an extreme oppositional dichotomy: that of moralism (Puritan) bound resistantly to an urge to transgress all morals. The chant of self-denial that, through repression, elicits a yearning for extremes of indulgence emerges repeatedly in Pynchon's novel.[7] And lust is only one aspect of limitless desire in this tale of national "origins." In this prescient history, capitalism is a compulsive American trait, and episodes of eager consumerism and entrepreneurial manipulations of desires proliferate. Humorously, Pynchon "predicts" America's collapse into opportunism; as a band enlightens Dixon,

    this Age sees a corruption and disabling of the ancient Magick. Projectors, Brokers of Capital, Insurancers, Peddlers upon the global Scale, Enterprisers and Quacks,--these are the last poor fallen and feckless inheritors of a Knowledge they can never use, but in the service of Greed. The coming Rebellion is theirs,--Franklin, and that Lot,--and Heaven help the rest of us, if they prevail. (487-88)

    Benjamin Franklin's writings have arguably shaped early American entrepreneurial consciousness, in its best and worst lights.[8] And in this America, lawyers also abound, as Mason is warned by his family, who jokingly tell him that "ev'ryone needs Representation, from time to time. If you go to America, you'll be hearing all about that, I expect" (202). Pynchon's poke at litigiousness seems to be an extension of his mockery of many Americans' commercial opportunism and their monetarily motivated sense of rights. Pynchon's point may simply be that a particularly intense form of desire lies at the root of American identity itself, with its tensions between pragmatism and metaphysics, its cynical commercialism combined with youthful vision. Moreover, Pynchon constitutes the historical desire (and its narrative effects) not merely as subjectivized or psychologized; he understands it as this parallactic construct, which is measured and split between two roots or objects, defying will and clarification of any singular agency.[9] This parallax draws on a series of oppositions, not only between Mason and Dixon, but also between the future's backward glance (its historical gaze) and the point at which it intersects with a historical moment or event. Each present perspective (of past events and narrated histories) is always in a tense dialogue with some distant or distinct point. In this way, parallax also suggests a particular configuration, wherein historical agency, compelled by the desire to narrate history and formulate identity, must mediate its willful and subjective vantage point with that of some other, radically distant point-of-view in order to produce a true "measure" of the past.

  11. Pynchon's parallactic method is appropriate to the eighteenth century not only because of Mason and Dixon's use of it, but also because it was then "the rage"--a famous innovation being put to tremendously ambitious use. The method reached its most significant application in 1761, when scientists all over the world used it to measure Venus's transit of the Sun. This transit was a major event for astronomers, and despite the Seven Years War in Europe, several scientists from a variety of European countries traveled to locations around the world to help compile data on Venus's distance from the earth and, more importantly, the solar distance from Earth.[10] Once astronomers had the solar distance, they could use it as an astronomical unit that would, according to Allan Chapman, operate as a "measuring rod to work out all the other dimensions of the solar system from proportions derived from Kepler's Laws" (148). The parallactic method used to measure the Venus transits had been developed by Edmond Halley to observe Mercury's transit of the sun in 1677. Mercury had moved too quickly to allow a measure, however, so Halley had to turn his attention to Venus's transits of the sun, which, lasting eight hours, would enable more precise determinations. Although he published his findings through the Royal Society between 1691 and 1716, Halley did not live to measure a Venus transit. His parallactic method was therefore used for the first time by Mason and Dixon and their fellow astronomers in 1761.[11]
  12. To the Vroom girls, who teasingly inquire about their work at the Cape, Mason and Dixon explain their method:

    Parallax. To an Observer up at the North Cape, the Track of the Planet, across the Sun, will appear much to the south of the same Track as observ'd from down here, at the Cape of Good Hope. The further apart the Obs [observations] North and South, that is, the better. It is the Angular Distance between, that we wish to know. One day, someone sitting in a room will succeed in reducing all the Observations, from all 'round the World, to a simple number of Seconds, and tenths of a Second, of Arc, --and that will be the Parallax. (93)

    Drawing a triangle with its base on the earth and its apex in the sky, one can determine the distance of a heavenly body from the Earth. The first successful use of parallax was executed by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who observed the sun's eclipse on March 14, 190 B.C. from what we now call Istanbul and also, with help, from Alexandria in northern Egypt. Measuring the angles to the moon from these points, Hipparchus could calculate that the moon's distance from the Earth was approximately 71 times the Earth's radius (Trefil 48). In 1761 and 1769, equipped with finer instruments of measurement, astronomers would set up a one-foot-radius quadrant, by which they could determine their local latitude. They also regulated a pendulum clock to establish local time. Precise coordinates enabled them to relate their various transit times to the home coordinates in Europe (Chapman 150).

  13. While the mapping of the sky (and earth) may, in some ways, be yet another imperialist effort, the parallactic method subjectively frames the supposed objectivity of science in Pynchon's work.[12] As Richard Powers, in his invocation of Joycean parallax, suggests, "the act of looking is powerful, if you can see the look. And for that you need some device that gives you parallax" (Birkerts 62). Powers explains it quite simply: if one holds a finger before one's face, and then closes (and then opens) first the right eye and then the left, the finger appears to move slightly. One can thus "see the look" by virtue of the two different locations, different "points of view." Pynchon is interested in more than the modernist emphasis on subjective narration and perspectival distortion, however. He examines the difference not merely between two "I"s but between two moments of national (self) perception: 1671 and 1997. Collective culture, at both points, seems to be spurred on by scientific curiosity and an intense capitalistic drive.
  14. If Mason & Dixon initially separates science and capitalism, by the novel's close the two surveyors begin to suspect their work's collusion with some hidden political agenda. They fear that they have been so used by the British Royal Society as to perhaps be "slaves" themselves (692). Having gradually become acquainted with the American politics surrounding the line for which they are responsible, they feel merely "We are Fools" for being used by the Society in a matter that may have been more political than either had realized (478). Here science fears being controlled by the government; previously, Pynchon focused more on the individual's fear of being controlled by science.
  15. As readers of Gravity's Rainbow will recall, that novel's hero, Slothrop, is the hapless victim of a scientific conspiracy. Jamf, one of the inventors of Imipolex G, has paid off Slothrop's impoverished father so that he might be allowed to experiment on the baby son's tiny member. All this occurs under the umbrella of two commercial interests (a Swiss cartel and IG Farben) that have invested in Imipolex G. Himself unaware and unable to recall such early trauma, Slothrop now suffers the effects of having been conditioned to respond sexually (in the form of an erection) to the smell of the new plastic, which will eventually be used in rocket insulation (249-51). The result is that, during World War II whenever an A4 rocket approaches London, Slothrop as a full-grown man finds himself compelled toward a frantic search for sexual interludes. Sadly, he is the unwitting subject of the bawdy song "The Penis He Thought Was His Own" (216-17). Pynchon elaborates the ways in which postmodern society, through commercialism and science, has severed desire from its more intimate connections, taking away the supposed agency of sexual exchange. We become now merely the means of the drive, drawn on by false advertising and a world that conspiratorially manipulates our epistemologies (as in The Crying of Lot 49) and desires (as in Gravity's Rainbow). We are, like Vaucanson's mechanical duck, ever more machine-like in our impulses--yet always propelled by greater animating desire.
  16. If in Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon suggests that science might be cruelly manipulating--and even inventing--our desires so that they are not our own, in the swirl of science and culture presented in Mason & Dixon, he asks if our very scientific certainties are not politically predetermined. Pynchon prods science's hesitation to see its own desires and the imbalance its supposed objectivity creates in postmodern culture.[13] In Mason & Dixon, he reveals the political compromise even science itself can make, regardless of whether its practitioners believe themselves to be beyond societal and ethical measure.
  17. In reviewing Mason & Dixon, Michael Wood poses one of the crucial questions raised by this novel; he asks, "why we should care about this amiably imagined old world, this motley and circumstantial eighteenth century smuggled into the twentieth?" Or, more broadly still, "what are we doing when we care about the (more or less remote) past?" (Wood 120). Differently put, one might ask: what is the historical impulse, that it should feed the desires of fiction? What is the historical desire, and is it linked to the scientific quest for knowledge? Pynchon's novel would imply that it is, that the drive for an objective vantage point and insight--whether into the past behind us or the stars beyond--is an ambition far from alien to any of us. And yet those who serve as the conveyers of the drive--Mason and Dixon, for example--may neither be aware nor in control of its manifestation.
  18. Finally, one might ask if there is some impetus for history to fictionalize, even in its root-like resistance to anything beyond the empirical. Or, conversely, should one engage in projects like Pynchon's, which so broadly fictionalize histories? It may be recognizably postmodern and so of our time to insert fiction into history, as Edmund Morris does in Dutch, his controversial memoir of Ronald Reagan. But that practice, as well as the art of fictionalizing history, still troubles U.S. culture.[14] Pynchon has always had an uncanny penchant for disguising history as fiction. In The Crying of Lot 49, he invokes the sixteenth-century postal service operated by the noble house of Thurn and Taxis, and in both V. and Gravity's Rainbow he portrays the struggle of the Herero, an oppressed group of blacks in a southwest African group, who are still defined today in part by the German culture of their colonizers.[15] In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon transposes current awareness over previous erasures to produce an odd sense of both the differences and yet also the complicity between eighteenth-century racism and our own erasures (or de-racing) of the past.
  19. Rather than writing a counternarrative of history, Pynchon creates a form of history that stages an exchange between the past and present, so that the historian's perspective, as Dominick LaCapra explains, "attempts to work out 'dialogical' connections between past and present through which historical understanding becomes linked to ethicopolitical concerns" (9-10). This makes no sense, of course, if one conceives of the past as static fact, rather than as a hybridized discourse composed of varying modes. However, in Jacques Lacan's configuration of history, it is a form of rememoration that begins in material bits that have been left aside. Once these fragments are shaped by narrative, the nation may fold its history into identity with a sense that it is always what it now is (Lacan, Speech 17). When history is understood as destabilized and fragmentary from the start, Pynchon's parallactic perspective is less a theft or distortion of some "honest" or "true" past. It is instead a conversation with its erasures, and a process of recovery. For psychoanalysis, the subject and the nation must be taught to grasp that this seemingly necessary history has been written around scars, "turning points," and traumatic events (Lacan, Speech 22-23).[16] Pynchon's project offers a way of bringing lost fragments of history into a disruptive dialogue that could jolt his American audience out of assertive forgetting and the repeated aggressions that are propelled by the social-psychological work done as a whole culture endeavors to lock out memory of disturbing elements embedded within its national narrative.
  20. Mason & Dixon represents an impulse to write history through the imaginary field, to crosshatch its narrative with a realization of culture's desire to find its identity in the realm of the imagination. It thus argues, implicitly, for the importance of artistic imagination alongside scientific and historical work. Pynchon rejects the harsh realism and more cynical parodies employed by many contemporary authors, using humor and even magic as modes of transformation.[17] Talking dogs, sexually aroused mechanical ducks, and nighttime apparitions and ghosts haunt Mason and Dixon in America; perhaps the country that combines technical invention with capitalistic enterprise might be equally mythologic in Pynchon's ambivalent history. My suggestion is that this magical aspect of his narrative necessarily--and politically--interferes with the drive to fix and control knowledge and "truth," which, coming out of the Enlightenment project, has nonetheless produced streaks of "darkness" that Pynchon uncovers and sets in dialogue with the more celebrated aspects of America's historical guise. Ultimately, Pynchon's novel produces a duality, between comic acceptance of American commercialism, with all its lovable foibles, and careful scrutiny of its political roots and past. Mason and Dixon may not be revolutionary agents, in terms of toting guns and instigating liberatory wars, but their perspectives raise questions about slavery, genocide, commercialism, and gender oppression. In this manner, the novel both critiques the past (and present) while also recasting history, reinterpreting it in a way that might influence future trajectories. In so doing, Pynchon continues to interrogate pragmatic American optimism about agency (one's ability to effect change singularly at a historical juncture), while he implicitly invokes the power (and hence "agency") of a larger cultural imaginary that influences the country's self-image and the more minute actions of a community and nation.
  21. Department of English
    College of William and Mary

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    1. Edwin Danson's recent history of the drawing of the line describes the details of this project as well as those of the two Venus transits. Mason and Dixon were brought in after several failed surveys (on which the Penns and Baltimores could not agree) in 1763 and departed in 1768, after four years and ten months in America. See Danson 3-4, 18-26, 77-78, 183, 191.

    2. Pynchon's interest in politics is explicit in his essay "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?," in which he recounts the vehement worker's rebellion against the advance of machinery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England. His paranoia also points alternately to the pervasive powers of capitalist ventures, in The Crying of Lot 49, and to the government's extensive surveillance (potentially) in Vineland and (through science) in Gravity's Rainbow. David Cowart discusses Pynchon's essay on the Luddites and its importance to Mason & Dixon, demonstrating the relevance of this rebellion for Pynchon's own project of rethinking the influence of science on American culture and politics.

    3. According to Michael Dirda, in his review "Measure for Measure," Pynchon signed contracts for two future books in 1973, the year Gravity's Rainbow appeared. One book seems to have been Vineland and the second was provisionally titled "The Mason-Dixon Line."

    4. If Pynchon's use of parallax is unique in its form, his is not the first literary appropriation of the concept. In Ulysses Leopold Bloom thinks of parallax while wandering near the Liffey in "Lestrygonians" (U8.110), recalling a book by Sir Robert Ball that discusses the concept. References to parallax surface briefly in other episodes, but it is more forcefully acted out in Stephen Dedalus's and Bloom's relative apprehensions of Shakespeare in the mirror in "Circe," whereby we measure their different senses of the Bard (and so perhaps ideals) (U15.3820-24). It also appears in "Ithaca," where the two men famously urinate beneath Molly's window after silently "contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellow faces" (U17.1184). Joyce uses two perspectives--at times a proliferation of them--to undermine monocular views and to register the difference between two (or more) interpretive angles. Pynchon's use is more pervasive, as I argue here, and more explicitly political. (Ulysses citations refer to episode and line numbers from the Hans Walter Gabler edition.)

    5. See Suleiman's "Epilogue: The Politics of Postmodernism After the Wall; or, What do We do When the 'Ethnic Cleansing' Starts?"

    6. Two exceptional reconstructions of Pynchon's political project have appeared to date. Jeffrey S. Baker argues that in Gravity's Rainbow the author both critiques and holds up the struggle for true democracy. Pynchon exposes the Puritans' divisive roots in American ideology, where to be a member of the chosen few (the preterite) of Christianity is a dream opposed to our call for radical equality. Turning to John Dewey's works, Baker argues for their importance to 1960s radicalism and in Pynchon's own writing. Baker must, however, launch this argument through a reading of Vineland. Prior to that text, I am suggesting, Pynchon's radicalism was less easily recognized. Jerry Varsava, as well, reads backwards from Vineland, finding a plea for rationalism and consensus politics in The Crying of Lot 49.

    7. Lady Lepton's party (which Mason and Dixon stumble upon in America when lost in the dark one night) has one servant who is startlingly familiar to the two, and Lord Lepton informs Dixon that he "purchas'd her my last time thro' Quebec, of the Widows of Christ, a Convent quite well known in certain Circles, devoted altogether to the World,--helping its Novices descend, into ever more exact forms of carnal Mortality [...] not ordinary Whores, though as Whores they must be quite gifted, but as eager practitioners of all Sins. Lust is but one of their Sacraments. So are Murder and Gluttony" (419).

    8. Max Weber uses Franklin as an example of the American capitalist imperative to accumulate wealth. See Weber 48-51 and passim.

    9. My understanding of agency here derives primarily from psychoanalysis and a deconstructive understanding of consciousness and action. That is, agency does not arise from an indivisible subject nor from one who (fantasmatically) claims full consciousness and wholly controlling intention. Instead, action arises from an ability to manage the tensions between unconscious pulls and conscious directives, an ability to encounter and embrace the ambivalence of fractured belief. Perhaps the most cogent defense of this notion of subjectivity comes in Jacques Lacan's essay, "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis," and I have more extensively developed it in my book Gestural Politics: Stereotype and Parody in Joyce.

    10. See Chapman 149. Mason and Dixon were initially on their way to Sumatra to observe the 1761 transit of Venus. The Seven Years War in Europe was still underway, however, and so their ship, the Seahorse, was set upon by the French. The attack left eleven men dead, and Mason and Dixon turned back to port. They traveled eventually to Cape Town instead and set up their equipment to view Venus's transit of the sun.

    11. Transits occur in pairs every 105 or 122 years. While Venus transits could never be seen without the help of a telescopic apparatus, Johannes Kepler predicted the transit of 1631, working from planetary observation data. Jeremiah Horrocks was the first to observe a Venus transit in 1639, having realized that a second transit would occur eight years after the first, despite Kepler's prediction otherwise. Even before the parallactic method was developed, he was able to attain enough data on the transit to calculate the precise value for the node of the planet's orbit, taken from the known position of the Sun's center. He also calculated an accurate figure for the angular diameter of Venus, which proved to be smaller than previously believed. Most significantly, he extracted a solar parallax figure of 14 arc-seconds, which allowed him to calculate the mean distance of the Earth from the sun more accurately than any to date. Horrocks had informed other scientists, and his friend William Crabtree had also observed the transit. Both died before publishing their work, and the findings were eventually published by Johannet Hevelius in Poland in 1662 (Chapman 148).

    12. Graham Huggan points out that a map can function as a tool of persuasion, demonstrating, at its most extreme, the fantasy that the world can be turned into a simple object. He argues that, the "new 'scientific' cartography" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while informed by more precise means of measurement and of attaining accuracy, still operated primarily as a tool of the colonialist imagination (5).

    13. Michel Serres presents a fairly powerful analysis of the drive to "win" or conquer and control imbedded within various discourses on science and reason (Baconian and Cartesian, particularly) in "The Algebra of Literature: The Wolf's Game."

    14. Morris apparently is inspired by Reagan's own tendency to create fictions. What outraged some readers, however, was Morris's decision to insert his own narrative persona into the biography as if he were a "real" historical presence in the past. The memoir stirred more than a little controversy. See Morris and Weisman.

    15. The New York Times ran an article on the Herero on 31 May 1998, documenting its attachment to German dress and history, despite Germany's abusive treatment of the Africans in 1904 (see McNeil). As for Thurn and Taxis, they operated both as an imperial and later private postal system throughout Europe. They were only nationalized in the late nineteenth century.

    16. This analogy between the subject and nation is Lacan's, and also seems to operate in some portion in Pynchon. If it is a simplistic and potentially ellisive move, belying the differences between intersubjective and national psychologies, my suggestion here is that it helps Pynchon describe, in his fictional form, a new postmodern mode that addresses politics explicitly.

    17. In this, Pynchon is balancing between the parodic or hyperrealist branch of postmodernism and that of magical realism, which appears in postmodern novels by writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed, and Gloria Naylor. While these writers may link magical moments to cultural specificity and the possibility of cultural or personal transformations, for Pynchon magic is the mythological prehistory of science. As such, it is the necessary focus of postmodernism, if it is to have some futurity.

    Works Cited

    Baker, Jeffrey S. "A Democratic Pynchon: Counterculture, Counterforce and Participatory Democracy." Pynchon Notes 32-33: 99-131.

    Birkerts, Sven. "An Interview with Richard Powers." Bomb (Summer 1998): 148-51.

    Burns, Christy L. Gestural Politics: Stereotype and Parody in Joyce. New York: State U of New York P, 2000.

    Chapman, Allan. "The Transit of Venus." Endeavor 22.4: 148-51.

    Cornis-Pope, Marcel. Narrative Innovation and Cultural Rewriting in the Cold War and After. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    Cowart, David. "The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon." American Literature 71:2 (June 1999): 341-63.

    Danson, Edwin. Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. New York: Wiley, 2001.

    Dirda, Michael. "Measure for Measure." Rev. of Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon. Washington Post 27 Apr. 1997: X01.

    Huggan, Graham. Territorial Disputes: Maps and Mapping Strategies in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994.

    Joyce, James. Ulysses: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1986.

    Lacan, Jacques. "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis." Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 8-29.

    ---. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1968.

    LaCapra, Dominick. History, Politics, and the Novel. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

    Mason, A. Hughlett. Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. Vol. 76. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1969.

    McNeil, Donald G. Jr. "Its Past on Its Sleeve." New York Times 28 May 1998: 3.

    Menand, Louis. "Entropology." Rev. of Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon. New York Review of Books 12 Jun. 1997: 22-25.

    Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random, 1999.

    Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic, 1999.

    Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper, 1965.

    ---. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

    ---. "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?" New York Times Book Review 28 Oct. 1984: 1, 40, 42.

    ---. Mason & Dixon. New York: Holt, 1997.

    ---. V. New York: Harper, 1961.

    ---. Vineland. New York: Penguin, 1990.

    Serres, Michel. "The Algebra of Literature: The Wolf's Game." Textual Strategies. Ed. Josué V. Harari. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979. 260-76.

    Suleiman, Susan Rubin. Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

    Trefil, James. "Puzzling Out Parallax." Astronomy 26:9 (September 1998): 46-50.

    Varsava, Jerry. "Thomas Pynchon and Postmodern Liberalism." Canadian Review of American Studies 25:3 (1995): 63-100.

    Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1930. Trans. Talcott Parsons. London: Routledge, 1992.

    Weisman, Steve R. "The Hollow Man." Rev. of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris. New York Times Book Review 10 Oct. 1999: 7-8.

    Wood, Michael. "Pynchon's Mason & Dixon." Rev. of Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon. Raritan 17:4 (Spring 1998): 120-30.

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