By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 23, 2010

5. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 125-157

Mason & Dixon: A NovelOne: Latitudes and Departures; 13-14
Returning from seeing Dixon off, Mason encounters Maskelyne, and they fall into conversation. Mason asks, "if someone wish'd to disappear for a while, yet remain upon the Island," where would they go, and observes from Maskelyne's answer that he has "certainly thought this out." Maskelyne demurs: "No need for me to disappear. Oh, Dear, the Royal Soc's quite forgotten about old N.M., Esq. Lounging his life away waiting at the King's Expense for the Home Planet to move along." His assistant on St. Helena, Robert Waddington, had left as soon as he could after the transit took place, saying that further observations weren't in his contract. Mason agrees to help, though as Maskelyne observes, St. Helena is "not ev'ryone's Brochette of Curried Albacore, is it?" And Maskelyne's manner leaves Mason "sweating heavily, thinking, Dixon has left me alone with a dangerously insane person. And why did Waddington really have to leave so quickly?"

They go together to a tavern whose proprietor, Mr. Blackmer, is one of those people who pride themselves on knowing everything about everyone on an island where "anyone newly arriv'd is feasted upon with an eagerness match'd only in certain rivers of South America." Blackmer is, of course, delighted to point out Maskelyne as "Clive of India's brother-in-law." This celebrity allows Maskelyne "to run up a Tab, already legendary even in a hard-drinking port like this, that might finance a small War."

Then they go to the Upper Observatory, where Mason tries to get a look at the plumb-line suspension that Dixon noted was defective. But aware that Maskelyne remains touchy about his failure to observe the transit -- a cloud had appeared just before it began -- Mason tries not to irritate him. Maskelyne makes envious remarks about how Mason and Dixon had been "chosen for the Cape" -- even though it was second choice after the original Sumatran posting -- and "had the Pearl of the Lot" of places assigned for observing the transit. And he goes on about "being confin'd upon the Summit of a living Volcanoe whose History includes violent Explosion, hey? which might indeed re-awaken at any moment, with nought to escape to in that lively Event, but thousands of Leagues of Ocean, empty in ev'ry direction."

One day they visit the last orange grove left standing on the island, and Maskelyne speculates that St. Helena may have been the Earthly Paradise that St. Brendan claimed to have discovered, and that the Serpent dwells within the volcano. They talk a bit about how astronomy is confused with astrology, and Maskelyne confesses to have drawn people's charts at Cambridge for sixpence. Mason replies, "You got sixpence? I never did better than three." Maskelyne quotes Kepler as saying "that Astrology is Astronomy's wanton little sister, who goes out and sells herself that Astronomy may keep her Virtue." He offers to do Mason's chart if Mason will do his. "Mason blinks. Is it the Altitude? Hardly do to get into a Kick-up with Clive of India's brother-in-law, he supposes." And anyway, "what else is there to do in this miserable Place, but smoke Pipes and discuss God, -- as newly met guests at some Assembly might discuss a common Acquaintance but lately withdrawn?"

Maskelyne tells him that despite his relationship to Clive he rarely sees him. "He's not yet ready to make use of me, that's all. Someday he must ... I've been paid for ... it shan't cost him anything." Mason recalls how Maskelyne had written to Bradley, the astronomer royal whose assistant Mason was, and how confusing the letter was. Bradley and his wife, Susannah Peach, had only one child, a girl, though he wanted a son. And Mason recalls how "craz'd had he been after Susannah Peach." And Mason casts Maskelyne's horoscope, telling him, "Refrain from struggle, allow your Life to convey it to you when it will, and as in all else, Bob's your Uncle. Or in this case, Brother-in-Law."

Meanwhile, back in Cape Town, Dixon finds himself being shot at by Cornelius Vroom, "as if the Dutchman has decided to accept him as a fair substitute for Mason," there having been some gossip about Johanna's pursuit of Mason. They adjourn to a tavern where Cornelius recounds "the Vrooms' domestic Sadness." They then go to a brothel, where Dixon is surprised to see "Austra, in a black velvet Gown and a leather collar, being leash-led by a tiny, expressionless Malay Sylph." Cornelius refers to it as "our Garden of Amusement." One room is where "the town Madmen are kept."
Sometimes for their amusement the Herren will escort a particularly disobedient employee to a Madman's cell, push her inside, and lock the door. Next to each cell is a Viewing Room where the gentlemen may observe, through a wall of Glass disguis'd as a great Mirror, the often quite unviewable Rencontre
Another room is rumored to be "nine by seven feet and five inches, being with Dutch parsimony reduc'd to a quarter-size replica of the cell at Fort William, Calcutta, in which 146 Europeans were oblig'd to spend the night of 20-21 June 1756 ... the sex Entrepreneurs reasoning that the combination of Equatorial heat, sweat, and the flesh of strangers in enforc'd intimacy might be Pleasurable."

Apropos of this erotic re-creation of the Black Hole of Calcutta, Cherrycoke quotes from his journal:
 The British in India encourage the teeming populations they rule to teem as much as they like, whilst taking their land for themselves, and then restricting the parts of it the People will be permitted to teem upon. Yet hear the Cry, O Lord, when even a small Metaphor of this continental Coercion is practis'd in Reverse, as 'twas in the old B.H. of C.  "Metaphor!" you cry, -- "Sir, an hundred twenty lives were lost!" I reply, "British lives. What think you the overnight Harvest of Death is, in Calcutta alone, in Indian lives?"
When Cornelius leaves for a room he fancies, Dixon wanders about in search of Austra, but encounters only former police agent Bonk, who has resigned his position and is joining the trek to the interior. At dawn, he carries home "an equally, tho' perhaps not likewise, exhausted Cornelius." The daughters emerge to greet them, and Dixon remarks on their superstitious character.
One by one the girls have grown up believing the Vroom Clock, a long-case heirloom brought from Holland, to be a living Creature, conscious of itself, and of them, too, with its hooded Face, its heartbeat, the bearing of a solemn Messenger.... When Mason and Dixon arrived with the Ellicott Clock, the Girls assum'd it was a Traveling Companion of the Englishmen.
Now Greet warns him that since he's brought a new clock, "They think Charles and you've something to do with the Longitude" and that the clock may arouse suspicion that they have "a British State Secret." But Greet is also putting the moves on Dixon, ripping open her bodice. Dixon backs off, and she says, "Mr. Mason was never so cold." "Mason is naturally affectionate," he replies. "Tho' he appears not to to know one end of a Woman from another, yet 'tis all he thinks about, when he has a moment to think." He asks if she is going to betray him to the "Company Castle" -- i.e, the Dutch authorities. She just tells him to "Go carefully."

And in fact, Dixon is under suspicion for being "'connected dangerously,' allowing him to go on as ever at the Cape, running before any wind of Sensory delight, as the Church-Faithful carouse, Slaves conspire their Freedom, and Functionaries flee the Castle, and head for open Country." 

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