By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

6. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 158-182

Mason & Dixon: A NovelOne: Latitudes and Departures; 15-17
Maskelyne now insists that he and Mason must move to the other side of the island, which is exposed "to an unremitting and much-warn'd-against Wind," because he needs to correlate readings from that side with the one from the leeward side. And in fact the windy side is so bleak that the soldiers stationed on it set up "various Suicide-Banks and Madness-Pools," and "the Post-Surgeon ... tries never to stir too far from the deepest rooms of the Fort, where the Wind may oppress him least, and is careful to include it in each daily Prayer, as if 'twere a Deity in itself, infinitely in Need, ever demanding." Maskelyne encounters there a German soldier named Dieter who "Enlisted in ignorance that anyplace like this could exist" and desperately wants to leave. Dieter, having learned that Maskelyne is Clive of India's brother-in-law, begs his help in making his escape. But Maskelyne says he can't prevail upon Clive in the matter and offers to pay the twenty pounds Dieter needs to buy his way out of his contract.

Things go badly for Mason, too: He begins seeing the ghost of his dead wife. He's afraid to tell Maskelyne who, he fears, might use it against him someday. But he's sure that once Dixon arrives, he'll tell him the whole story. He'll tell Dixon how he met Rebekah on May Day at "the annual cheese-rolling," when the Gloucester cheeses are "blessed and ritually rolled thrice 'roud the churchyard, and thence down a Hill." Except that this year someone has taken it upon himself to create a giant cheese, an "Octuple Gloucester, ... but actually octupled in all dimensions, making it more like a 512-fold or Quincentenariduodecuple Gloucester, -- running to nearly four tons in weight when green and even after shrinkage towering ten feet high." It is loaded onto a sturdy wagon for transport.

Mason has come to Randwick Church, the site of the cheese-blessing, hoping to see Susannah Peach, daughter of Samuel Peach, "a silk merchant of some repute, and a growing power within the East India Company." His infatuation is such that he has gone to her house when she wasn't there and "knelt by her Bed and press'd his face to the Counterpane of Silk to inhale what he could of her Scent." But while he is waiting, the wagon carrying the cheese breaks down and the great orange wheel starts rolling toward where Mason is standing: "The Victim of a Cheese malevolent, being his last thought before abrupt Rescue by way of a stout shove, preceded by an energetick Rustling of Taffeta. It is Rebekah, and "If she was not, like Susannah, a Classick English Rose, neither was she any rugged Blossom of the Heath."

Here Cherrycoke's audience interrupts, or rather Uncle Ives does: "There are no records of her in Gloucestershire.... Mason was baptiz'd at Sapperton Church, as were his children, -- yet he and Rebekah were not married there. So mayn't they have met elsewhere as well, even a Greenwich?"

Cherrycoke resumes his narrative, with another appearance by Rebekah's ghost to Mason in the wind. After she disappears, he is unable to sleep. Maskelyne finally awakens in the middle of the day to ask him if he had come into the tent about dawn. Mason, not willing to talk to him about his visions, denies it. But Maskelyne asks, "Might it've been Dieter, d'ye think?" And then confusingly asks Mason to forget about Dieter, so that Mason "is abruptly certain that Dieter is a Ghost as well." He realizes that he has to get away from both the wind and Maskelyne for the sake of his sanity, so he builds a bonfire to signal a ship to pick him up.

The fishing boat carries him to a port two or three miles from James's Town, where the absence of the wind "stuns him." Walking toward the town, he spots a sign advertising "the Jenkin's Ear Museum, dedicated to the eponymous Organ whose timely Display brought England in against Spain in the War of '39." Mason decides to visit the museum, but discovers it is surrounded by a wall whose only entrance seems to be through "a tiny Portico and Gate, no more than three feet high." He enters "a sort of Ramp-way leading downward, with just enough height to crawl" and finds himself in a room carved out of the volcanic rock. He is greeted by the museum's proprietor, Nick Mournival, who proclaims, "Helen of Troy's face may've launch'd a thousand ships, -- this is but one Ear, yet in its Time, it sent navies into combat 'round the Globe." He recognizes Mournival as a friend of Florinda, whom he met in a tavern. He endures Mournival's spiel until he finally shows the Ear, which Mason is startled to perceive is listening. Mournival explains that Ear "can't get enough of human speech ... 'tis Ear's great Hunger, that never abates."
"Oh? What would you call her? 'Nose?'" 
Encouraged by Mournival to whisper his fondest wish into Ear, Mason decides against wishing for Rebekah's return to life and asks, "A speedy and safe passage for Mr. Dixon, back to this place. For his personal sake, of course, but for my Sanity as well." Then, having paid Mournival, he escapes from the museum, though he later can't remember how, "Unless the real Mason is yet there captive in that exitless Patch, and I but my Representative."

Dixon finally hears this tale when they are "a few days out in their Passage back to England." And he tells Mason, "as near as I can calculate, at exactly the instant you spoke into this Object, I heard, as out of a speaking-trumpet, your message." But Mason quickly realizes Dixon is teasing: "Ahrr! You almost persuaded me, -- why can you never just let it be? -- you had the hook right in my Mouth, Sir."

They speculate on why Maskelyne stays on St. Helena, and decide that he may be hoping for some astronomical breakthrough.
They would rather discuss Maskelyne's Affairs, than what waits in England, in their own Futurity. Through his Correspondence, Maskelyne has heard of one Possibility, tho' 'tis far from a Reduction to Certainty. Following the Chancery decision the year before, as to the Boundaries between the American Provinces of Pennsylvania and Maryland, both Proprietors have petition'd the Astronomer Royal for assistance, using the most modern means available, in marking these out, -- one of them being a Parallel of Latitude, five degrees, an Hundred Leagues, of Wilderness East to West.
Mason suggests that Maskelyne would "rather see us permanently abroad," but he doubts, when Dixon suggests it, that they would send them again as a team.

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