By Charles Matthews

Saturday, August 21, 2010

3, Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 58-93

Mason & Dixon: A NovelOne: Latitudes and Departures; 7-9
A change in plans has deposited Mason and Dixon at Cape Town, where they take rooms at a house owned by the Zeemanns, but have their meals -- because the Zeemanns' slaves have run away -- at the neighboring home of Cornelius Vroom, his wife, Johanna, and their three daughters. The Dutch mistrust Dixon "as unreliable in any white affairs here. They have noted 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." But Mason, the somberly dressed widower, is considered safe.

He is not safe, however, from the attentions of the Vrooms' daughters, Jet, Greet and Els. Jet, the oldest, is 16, but "Els, tho' a mere twelve by the Calendar back home, down here in the Southern World began long ago the active Pursuit of Lads twice her age, not all of them unwilling." When he finds himself alone with the girls, Jet asks him to brush her hair -- "There's a bit in back I can't reach" -- while Els sits (not very still) on his lap and say, "shall I tell you what she really wants you to do with that Hair-Brush?" Their mother enters, sends them away, and proceeds to flirt with him herself, taking note of the erection that the girls have inspired.

That night a slave girl named Austra slips into his bed. She explains that "their Wish is that I become impregnated, -- if not by you, then by one of you.... All that the Mistress prizes of you is your Whiteness, understand? Don't feel disparag'd, -- ev'ry white male who comes to this Town is approach'd by ev'ry Dutch Wife, upon the same Topick. The baby, being fairer than its mother, will fetch more upon the Market." She warns him that "the Mother will set her three Cubs upon ye without Mercy, and make her own assaults as well, all of it intended to keep this rigid with your Desire, -- and the only one in the House you'll be allowed to touch is me."

She's right about the continued efforts of the Vroom women, so Mason asks Dixon, who has been exploring the native culture, about "the various sorts of Magick, that they are said to possess." What he wants, he explains, is "Emphatickally not a Love-Potion, you understand, no, no, quite the contrary indeed." He wants something he can put in Mrs. Vroom's soup that will tame her appetites.

Dixon tries to get Mason to join him in exploring the town outside the Vrooms' house.
They do, to be sure, go out that Evening, as into various others together, in search of Lustful Adventure, but each time Mason will wreck things, scuttling hopes however sure, frightening off the Doxies with Gothickal chat of Headstones and Diseases of the Mind, swilling down great and occasionally, Dixon is told, exceptional Constantia wines with the sole purpose of getting drunk, exploding into ill-advis'd Song, losing consciousness face-first into a Variety of food and Drink, including more than one of the most exquisite karis this side of Sumatra, -- that is, proving a difficult carousing partner, block'd from simple enjoyment in too many directions for Dixon to be at all anger'd, -- rather marveling at him, as a Fair-goer might at some Curiosity of Nature. 
Mason begins to have bad dreams about being threatened by "some Presence with a Krees or Malay Dagger." He blames it on Cape Town, which he calls "one of the colonies of Hell," but Dixon disagrees, blaming Mason's dreams on "all this Malay food we're eating ev'ry day." Mason is upset that Dixon is "enjoying this miserable Viper-Plantation! Why, Damme if you're not going to miss it when we're shut of it at long last." Austra suggests that he consult "a certain Toko, a Negritoe, or Asian Pygmy, of a Malay tribe call'd the Senoi," who advises him that the dream world is as real as the waking world, and that he should ask the figure in his dream for "Some solid Gift you may bring back with you." So Mason asks the dream figure for the dagger, and is shocked to find it in bed with him the next morning. Dixon observes, "Happen 'twill be those Girls, teasing with thee....?" Which sends the two off into a heated (and very funny) dialogue.

The days until the transit pass slowly in Cape Town.
Temporally, as geographically, the End of the World. The unrelenting Vapor of debauchery here would not merely tempt a Saint, -- Heavens, 'twould tempt an Astronomer. Yet 'tis difficult, if not impossible, for these Astronomers to get down for a Chat upon the Topick of Desire, given Dixon's inability to deny or divert the Gusts that sweep him, and Mason's frequent failure, in his Melancholy, even to recognize Desire, let alone to act upon it, tho' it run up calling Ahoy Charlie.
At dinner with the Vrooms, Johanna observes that Dixon has "discovered another Cape delicacy ... our Malays call it ketjap." Dixon has brought his own bottle of to the table, where a particularly nauseous and fatty mutton is being served: "'Girls, don't even want you looking at it. Filthy Asian stuff,' Cornelius commands thro' clouds of aromatic pipe-smoke.  'Even' (puff) 'if something has to be done' (puff) 'to cover up the taste of this food.'" As is usual with ketchup, Dixon has a problem "with its slender Bottle, out of whose long neck he finds he has trouble getting the stuff to flow. 'Strike her upon the bottom,' whispers Els, 'and perhaps she will behave.' Dixon does a quick triple-take among the faces of the women, a Jocularity poised upon his Tongue but peering our warily, not quite trusting the open."

After dinner, the family retires to the porch, the Stoep, where the girls draw the attention of the local boys, whose "talk is of Roof-tops, Arch-ways, Sheds, and Warehouses -- any place secure from Traffick long enough for a Skirt to be lifted or Breeches unbuckl'd. Johanna keeps looking over at Mason, as if offering to translate."
Soon enough Mason and Dixon are desperate. Pretending astronomical Chores up at the Observatory, Bowls and Cutlery conceal'd in their Cloaks, they steal away, thinking of Oceanick Fish, African Game, hot Peppers, spices of the East. "I believe in Vibrations," declares Mason, "-- I believe, that Vibrations from that horrid family get into their food, which is difficult enough to enjoy to begin with." 
They learn that ripe mangoes will be available the next morning, and when they arrive at the market they find Cherrycoke there. The Seahorse has left him behind, explaining that Christian ministers are not welcome where they are going.

Mason finds himself trapped in an upstairs bedroom by Johanna Vroom, who tells him she has "chosen to be a very wicked woman" and starts undoing her bodice. Then Jet knocks on the door, and Mason takes the opportunity to jump out of a window. Then the rainy season begins, and Mason is trapped: Cornelius is up-country and "prevented by floods from returning" and Dixon has been rained in "across town at a certain Malay establishment." Much chasing about ensues.

The girls follow Mason and Dixon up the mountain to the observatory. "They are ascended into Africa. At some point alll note that they can no longer hear the Town. That is all it takes, to deliver them into Africa." At the observatory, which was built by the carpenter of the Seahorse, Mason takes it on himself to try to explain the nature of the transit and their observation of it.
"Thro' our whole gazing lives, Venus has been but a tiny Dot of Light, going through phases like the Moon, ever against the black face of Eternity. But on the day of this Transit, all shall suddenly reverse, -- as she is caught, dark, embodied, solid, against the face of the Sun, -- a Goddess descended from light to Matter." "And our Job," Dixon adds, "is to observe her as she transits the face of the Sun, and write down the Times as she comes and goes." 
They also explain about parallax, and the need for observations from everywhere around the world. "The Girls keep their Glances each looping 'round the others, like elaborately curl'd Tresses, trying to see if they should be understanding this, or, -- being cruel young beauties ev'ry one, -- even caring."

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