By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 3, 2010

16. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 491-524

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 51-53
Dixon begins wearing a coonskin cap and surprising Mason, who has "a lower order of Snakes-and-Bears Jumpiness," by showing up in the tent with the cap on backward. "Mason's reactions are all he is hoping for, and more." But both are unnerved when "From the Forest now proceed Sounds, real ones, that neither Surveyor has heard before, and that each is too embarrass'd to mention to the other." Dixon thinks it's Indian drums, while Mason thinks it's a dog -- "A particular Dog, with a syncopated Bark.... Oh yes, a Dog well known and much fear'd in this Region." The overseer agrees with Mason: It's the Black Dog, an infamous British incarnation of the devil. Finally, Dixon goes to investigate and returns with the information that it was the Glowing Indian of South Mountain, "Walking down toward Antietam, last I saw. Seem'd a pleasant enough Lad. Not much to say. Too tall, of course...."

On September 1 they hear of a "remarkable Cavern beneath the Earth, about six miles south of the line. In the winter, English Church services are held in it." They go to investigate and Mason records his impressions in his journal, that it strikes "its Visitants with a strong and melancholy reflection: that such is the abodes of the Dead: thy inevitable doom, O stranger; soon to be numbered as one of them." But Dixon's impression is different: "where Mason saw a Gothick Interior, Dixon saw 'pon ev'ry Surface, ancient Inscriptions, Glyphs undreadable, -- Ogham, possibly."

They cross Conococheague Creek and at North Mountain they leave their instruments with Capt. Evan Shelby and begin their return eastward for the winter. "Not till they turn and head east again, do they find any time for rememb'ring anything. Going west has been against all Futurity. Now, moving against the Sun, they may take up again the past." Dixon, trudging into a chill wind, recalls Emerson, who wore his coat backward because "won't half the walking I'm to do in my Life, be into the wind?" He argued,
"The Modern Coat, as we know it, ... is bas'd upon the attire of the Nobility and Gentry and other assorted Thieves, who could ever afford Servants to put their clothes on for them. At such intimate moments, 'twas believ'd more prudent to keep a Servant in front of one, than allow him behind."
Mason, meanwhile, is flashing back to the suppression of the weavers of Stroud: "Some aspir'd to be master-weavers, most would have settl'd for a living wage, but their desires how betray'd, when in 'fifty-six the Justice of the Peace, upon easily imagin'd arrangements with the Clothiers, reduced by half the Wages set by law, and the troubles came to a head." He surprises Dixon by revealing that "Rebekah's people were weavers." And he recalls that the conflict between the weavers and the soldiers was what finally persuaded his father to encourage him to leave for Greenwich and his work as an astronomer.

Mason and Dixon have a common fear of open spaces. Mason recalls "Bisley Common, haunted by wild men and murderers, and its Wind never ceasing, -- a source of limitless Fear." Dixon's was Cockfield Fell: "Ev'ryone put in great effort to avoid crossing it." But Emerson assured his students that they could "get above it" -- i.e., by flying, "but before they learn'd to fly, they had to learn about Maps, for Maps are the Aides-mémoires of flight.... one can apprehend all at once the entire plexity of possible journeys, set as one is above Distance, above Time itself." The students, however, worried about witches such as "the Old Hell-Cat of Raby with her black Coach and six? She can rise above the Land-scape too, -- how does an innocent Cartographer deal with that?" Emerson's answer: "Professional courtesy." But Emerson chided Dixon for "squandering [his] precious Skepticism, over at Raby, upon this Gothickal Clap-trap."

Dixon admits his fascination with "the Old Hell-Cat of Raby, ... Elizabeth, Lady Barnard, who'd died back in '42 after a life of embitter'd family warfare over who was to inherit the Castle, whose Battlements she continued to walk, with a pair of brass knitting-nedles, whilst awaiting her Coach." One night when he was young, Dixon decided to get a closer look at the lady, scaling the castle roof to hear her mutter about the lateness of her coach. When it arrives, the coachman complains of traffic: the swarms of Emerson's flying students. She leaps into the coach and "leans then to stare back out, unmistakably and directly at Dixon, and calls, 'Perhaps another time, Jeremiah.'" That was the first he heard of Emerson, and his motive to study with him so "that 'another Time' [might] happen some Evening when he and Lady Barnard were both aloft."

While still in the mountains, Mason and Dixon "take to sledding in the Year's early snow-Falls, upon folded pieces  of Tent-Canvas" and nearly come to grief when the snow grows so thick that they can't see ahead of themselves. Mason bails out, but Dixon glides uncontrollably on until he collides with the mattresses that are used to cushion the instruments. They spend Christmas at the Harlands' before going their separate ways.

And now the narrative shifts to the story of a woman -- unnamed at least for now -- who is kidnapped by Indians. "The further they took her through the Forest, away from her home and name, the safer she began to feel." They reach the Susquehanna and take to boats, "not Indian Canoes but French-built Battoes, fram'd in Timbers, she was later to learn, that grown only in the far Illinois." They travel northward. "They did not bind, or abuse, or, unless they must, speak to her. They were her Express, -- she was their Message." The snow begins to fall, and they reach "the Shore of some vast body of water that vanishes at the Horizon" where she gets into a bark canoe. "When they arrive at last in Quebec, the Winter is well upon them." She is taken to the Jesuit College, and then, "barefoot, still in Indian Dress, into a room fill'd with books. Père de la Tube, a Jesuit in a violet cassock, speaks to her with a thick French accent, and will not look at her face. Nearby, in smoothly kept Silence, sits a colleague whose relentless Smile and brightness of eye only the Mad may know." De la Tube tells her that the man is a Spanish philosopher who takes an interest in "heretick Women who turn to Holy Mother the Church." Another man enters, and she is told that he is Chinese.
The College in Quebec is head-quarters for all operations in North America. Kite-wires and Balloon-cables rise into clouds, recede into aerial distances, as, somewhere invisible, the Jesuit Telegraphy goes ahead, unabated.... Whenever the Northern Aurora may appear in the Sky, rooftops in an instant are a-swarm with figures in black.... Rumors suggest that the Priests are using the Boreal Phenomenon to send Messages over the top of the World, to receiving-stations in the opposite Hemisphere."

There is some bargaining among the Jesuits, and finally it is determined that she is to become "A novice in Las Viudas de Cristo" -- which is the convent from which Capt. Dasp purchased the slavewoman Mason and Dixon encountered at Lepton Castle whom they took to be Austra. In the convent, she meets Sisters Blondelle, Grincheuse, and Crosier. She tells them that the Indians didn't mistreat her, but she "star'd often at the many ways they had inscrib'd their own Skins, some of the Pictures being most beautiful, others arousing in me strange flashes of fear, mix'd with ... it perplexes me to say ... with feelings of Desire." Thereupon they decide she needs "the Las Viudas Cilice ... a device suggested by Jesuit practice, worn secretly, impossible, once secur'd, to remove, producing what some call Discomfort, -- enough to keep thoughts from straying far from God." It is
the Hothouse Rose, deep red, nearly black, whose supple, long Stem is expertly twisted into a Breech-clout, to pass between the Labia as well as 'round the Waist, with the Blossom, preferably one just about to open, resting behind, in that charming Cusp of mostness and heat, where odors of the Body and the Rose may mingle with a few drops of Blood from the tiny green Thorns, and Flashes of Pain whose true painfulness must be left for the Penitent to assess.
Her hair is shorn and she is promised a wig someday if she's good. "Having already seen other Sisters going about in elaborate Wigs that she imagines must be quite in the current Parisian Mode, she is soon wondering how she might look in one of those powder'd Confections." She sneaks into the wig-room and tries one on, but is caught. And when she replaces the wig on its stand, she realizes that the wig-stand is a skull.

We shift to a scene in which a Jesuit known as "the Wolf of Jesus" is talking to "a roomful of students" about matters such as the Jesuit quarrel with feng shui: "'Why prevent the Chinese from practicing Feng Shui? Because it works,' the Wolf of Jesus is explaining.... "It carries the mark of the Adversary, -- It is too easy. Not earn'd. Too little of the Load is borne by the Practicioner, too much by some Force Invisible, and the unknown Price it must exact."

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