By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 30, 2010

12. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 349-381

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 35-37
Cherrycoke and his audience fall into a dispute about the nature of history, which is more or less appropriate, given the nature of his fabulating narrative, in which he reports quite vividly on scenes he can't have seen. But now he rejoins Mason and Dixon.

He tells his listeners that he was traveling in a coach, "a late invention of the Jesuits ... wherein the inside is quite noticeably larger than the outside." (Perhaps it was the TARDIS.) They encounter, walking along the roadside, "two Women, who prov'd to be mother and daughter." They invite them to ride with them, and the mother, who identifies herself as Frau Luise Redzinger, informs them that they're going to Philadelphia to consult with a lawyer. They warn her against the city, but she insists, "Philadelphia, Sirs, can hold little to surprise me. My sister lives in the most licentious Babylon of America, though they are pleased to call themselves 'Bethlehem.'" She disapproves of her sister, Liesele, who has married a Moravian, which she regards as "a gaudy Christianity ... a wonder their minister is not addressed as Pope," at which "the daughter gives a small gasp." One of the passengers, Mistress Edgewise, advises her to forgive her sister.

It seems that Frau Redzinger's husband, Peter, had an accident in which he fell into a pit of "dried hops nearly twenty feet deep, hot from the Kiln," and that the experience transformed him:
As weeks passed, she tells us, Peter Redzinger's account chang'd, from a simple tale of witness, to one of rapture by beings from somewhere else, "long, long from Pennsylvania," as he expressed it, -- and always at the center of the Relation, unwise to approach, an unbearable Luminosity.
He has become an itinerant preacher, with followers known as Redzingerites. But her problem is that their farm is on the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, so she doesn't know for sure which territory it belongs in. "Luise has been been paying the Quit-rents to Pennsylvania," but her neighbor, Grodt, has his eye on the property and claims that "she dwells in Maryland and owes more back taxes there than she can ever pay," in which the land will fall into escheat and Grodt may be able to get his hands on it.

As they discuss Frau Redzinger's problem, the coachman spots an inn up ahead. As it happens, Mason and Dixon are headed there too. "Bickering energetickally, they make their way toward the lights and at length enter the very Inn where your Narrator, lately arriv'd is already down a Pipe and a Pint, -- only to be brought to dumbfounded silence at the Sight of one whom they've not seen since the Cape of Good Hope." Cherrycoke then reveals to them that he has been commissioned as chaplain to their expedition.

The tavern of the inn, which is run by a Mr. Knockwood and his wife, begins to fill up with people coming in out of the snow.
Here congregate all the Agentry of the Province, Land-Jobbers and Labor Crimps, Tool-Mongers and Gypsy Brick-Layers, as well as the curious Well-to-do from further East, including all the Way back across the Ocean. The Waggoners keep together, seeking or creating their own Snugs, and the Men of Affairs arrange for Separate Rooms. Those that remain, tend to run to the quarrelsome.
Mrs. Edgewise, it seems is a magician with "a diverting repertoire of conjuring tricks" who always attracts an eager audience. Her husband is a gambler. Meanwhile, Luise Redzinger's daughter, Mitzi, is asserting her independence, particularly with regard to her hair: "'I want it all different lengths,' fiercely, 'I don't want to fasten it close to my head. I don't want to cover it. I want people to see it. I want Boys to see it.'"

Knockwood, the landlord, greets the astronomers and tells them that Cherrycoke has been talking about them. They explain that they have taken the American work to fill in between the first transit of Venus and the next anticipated one, which Mr. Edgewise pleased to be "able to utter a recently minted word," refers to as a sandwich. But the word causes the inn's French chef, Armand Allègre, to come screaming from the kitchen, proclaiming that the sandwich, "To the Sacrament of the Eating, it is ever the grand Insult!"

The next morning, Luise Redzinger is surprised by the odors of the chef's cooking, though scandalized by his croissants, with their "shameless over-usage of Butter in place of Lard." She is friendly with the chef, however, won over by his offer to show her how he makes his croissants and his demonstration of his rolling-pin. She asks if his job pays well, and he sighs that it wouldn't matter if it were thousands: "Once the most celebrated chef in France, -- now alone, among foreign Peasants and skin-wearing Primitives, with no chance of escaping." Frau Redzinger is fascinated and "has miss'd completely his effect upon Mitzi, who is sitting there flush'd and daz'd." And before an audience "of what, to his mind, must seem unfeeling barbarians," Allègre begins his tale of exile, "his Iliad of Inconvenience."

He was apprenticed to "the greatest chef in France, -- which is to say, in the World," which elicits protests from his audience, but he continues. After years of work he became a chef and "Paris was at my feet." One day a detective, "let us call him Hervé du T.," came to see him. But he breaks off his story when he notices Mason and Dixon, to whom he says, "I was about to advert to your Brother in Science, whom perhaps you have even met, the immortal Jacques de Vaucanson." After a moment Dixon recognizes the name: "the Lad with the mechanical Duck." Allègre tells them that Vaucanson's robotic duck had been provided with "a Digestionary Process, whose end result could not be distinguish'd from that found in Nature." In the audience, a Mr. Whitpot scoffs at "A mechanickal Duck that shits," but Allègre continues.

One day, a servant found the mechanical duck flapping its wings, and "Within an hour, the Duck was well flown." In his "vainglorious Intent" to provide the bird with mechanisms for "Sex and Reproduction," Vaucanson had "somehow nudg'd the Duck across some Threshold of self-Intricacy, setting off this Explosion of Change." So "now the Duck is a Fugitive, flying where it wishes," and it has become so fast in its flight that it becomes invisible.

The detective has come to warn Allègre that the duck has "somehow, quite recently, become aware of you." The chef may be in special danger because of his fame for his duck dishes: "your Canard au Pamplemousse Flambé ... is unique in Civilization." Allègre is advised to wear leather or even chain mail, "its Beak being of the finest Swedish Steel." He realizes that what the detective wants is for him "to act as a sort of ... Decoy? to attract the personal Vengeance of a powerful and murderous Automaton." They they hear "a loud terrifying Hum outside" and the detective runs away. But when the duck arrives, it speaks to him "in a curious Accent, inflected heavily with linguo-beccal Fricatives, issuing in a fine Mist of some digestive Liquid, upon pure Faith in whose harmlessness I was obliged to proceed." The duck addresses him as "the terrible Bluebeard of the Kitchen, whose Celebrity is purchas'd with the lives of my Race."

But instead of assaulting Allègre, the duck wants him to go talk to Vaucanson, who "has hired an Attorney, -- an infallible sign of Hatred." The problem is that the inventor has given him the power to love, but there aren't any other mechanical ducks for him to love -- except for the backup duck Vaucanson created in case this one failed to work. The duck, who reveals itself as female, wants the chef to ask Vaucanson to give his permission to take the other duck, which is "yet sexually unmodified," to the opera. When the duck leaves, Allègre is baffled: "I was a Chef, not a Match-maker for Automatick Ducks. Merde!"

But finding Vaucanson turns out to be not so easy, not to mention that there are others who would like to get their hands on the duck.
Mysteriously, from about that date, I found myself beneath a Protection unseen, yet potent. Thugs who approach'd me in the Street were suddenly struck in mid-Body vigorously enough to throw them for Toises along the Cobbles, where they lay a-cowering, trying to remember their Prayers.... I could attribute such a degree of Protection (in which I fail'd, till too late, to see the component of Love) to nothing but the Duck.... if Angels be the next higher being from Man, perhaps the Duck had 'morphos'd into some Anatine Equivalent, acting as my Guardian. 
Finally, his friends advise him to flee -- he has developed a reputation that makes it no longer possible for him to work. "Paris is no longer for you, my Friend, you belong somewhere else, -- in China! in Pennsylvania!" And so Allègre leaves, and by taking a variety of vessels, "ev'rything from Pirogue to Pirate Ship," finally arrives in Delaware during the dark of the moon. And at this point his story is interrupted:
"Here then, you wretched little Frog!" The Company groans. It is Mr. Dimdown, Hanger in hand. The Frenchman picks up his Hachoir, and raises one eybrow.

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