By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

7. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 183-214

Mason & Dixon: A NovelOne: Latitudes and Departures; 18-21
Mason and Dixon return to London, where "They address the Council of the Royal Society, and find they have nothing but good to say of all they have met at St. Helena and the Cape." Dixon makes his way home, as does Mason, though more reluctantly: He wants to see his sons, but "he dreads the Re-Union." His son William is five, and Doctor Isaac (apparently his real name) is three. They are shy when he arrives, bringing them toy ships that he picked up at the last minute.

James Bradley, the royal astronomer to whom he was assistant, dies on the thirteenth of July, and Mason decides to go to his funeral, remembering how close -- perhaps too close? -- he and Rebekah were to Bradley and Susannah. But Bradley's family -- Susannah's brother Sam Peach and seventeen-year-old Miss Bradley -- "advise him, as gently as they've ever known how, that Bradley wish'd only the Family near." Mason feels like "a Warrior who has just lost his Lord."

Bradley married Susannah Peach in the year of a comet, 1744, and she died in 1757, "another Comet-year." Mason reflects that two years separated her death from Rebekah's and that those years "were rul'd by the Approaching Comet of Dr. Halley." Bradley's death leaves his valuable "Volume of Observations Lunar, Planetary, and Astral" in the hands of the Peach family, and Mason wonders if Susannah had been "but a means of getting those Obs into the Peach family, and the eager Mittens of Sam Peach, Sr." He wonders if, because of his contributions to them, he should put in his own claim, but decides that he had really given them to Bradley "for nothing more than, 'Thank you, Mr. Mason, and well done.'"

He goes to a bar, where he finds a heated topic, related to Bradley's death, is the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, which took place in 1752 and necessitated skipping eleven days -- so that Wednesday,  Sept. 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, Sept. 14, 1752. "Mason pretends to examine his shoe-buckle, trying not to sigh too heavily. Of the many Classics of Idiocy, this Idiocy of the Eleven Days has join'd the select handful that may never be escap'd." Mason's own father had argued with him about whether losing eleven days made one younger or older. In the pub, a Mr. Swivett is complaining, "Not only did they insult the God-given structure of the Year, they also put us on Catholic Time. French Time." For the audience in the pub, Mason crafts a fiction that the time was not lost; it was given to a race of beings with a different approach to time than ours. They continue to inhabit the lost eleven days, "and wherever they are, temporally, eleven days to the Tick behind us. 'Tis all an Eden there, Lads, and only they inhabit it, they and their Generations." And he buys everyone another round.

Mason's sons "live with their Aunt Hester, Mason's sister, and her husband, Elroy." Returning there, he is set upon by Delicia Quall, who "suffers from that uncontroll'd Need to be a Bride, known to Physicians as Nymphomania, in whose cheerful Frenzy nuances vanish, and ev'ry unattach'd man is a potential Husband." He tells them all that "there's something else up" and that he "may be off again, and fairly soon." His sister Anne, just "turn'd seventeen and eager to be out of the House, where she is an unpaid 'round-the-clock Menial" asks where he's going, and Mason says, "America." He explains, "They want Boundary-Lines, hundreds of Miles long, as perfect as they can get 'em. For that, someone must take Latitudes and Longitudes, by the Stars." Hester informs him that if he's away when the boys come of age, they'll be apprenticed to his father at the mill.

So Mason goes to see his father, who says that he told Elroy that since he's been paying for their upkeep he feels entitled to "their services, when they're old enough to work." But Mason can't tell whether his father is joking or not. Mason's father also says that when he heard of Bradley's death, he knew that Mason would be going to America. He had warned Mason that Sam Peach was not a friend of his.

"In fact, far from the Ogre or Troll his son makes him out to be, Charles Sr. is a wistful and spiritual person. He believes that bread is alive." This creeps out his son a bit:
The baker's trade terrified the young man. He learn'd as much of it as would keep him going, -- but when he began to see into it, the smells, the unaccountable swelling of the dough, the over door like a door before a Sacrament, -- the daily repetitions of smell and ferment and some hidden Drama, as in the Mass, -- was he fleeing to the repetitions of the Sky, believing them safer, not as saturated in life and death? If Christ's Body could enter Bread, then what else might? -- might it not be as easily haunted by ghosts less welcome? Alone in the early empty mornings even for a few seconds with the mute white rows, he was overwhelmed by the ghostliness of Bread. 
Mason had wooed Rebekah with his own fantasies of escape from this provincial life, planning to take her with him when he went to view the transit of Venus. But he also knew that even astronomy was subject to the whims of politics. And now he meets with Maskelyne about the proposed survey in America.

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