By Charles Matthews

Monday, September 6, 2010

19. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 597-622

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 61-63
Capt. Shelby leads them to a mound that he insists must be seen at sunrise. Dixon is surprised to find that it is "a great Cone!" There is an entrance to the mound, which Shelby surmises was made by someone mistaking it for a pyramid and hoping to loot it, but there's nothing inside, "for Indians never built it." They find that it is made of layers of what Mason says "seem but different kinds of Refuse, -- dirt, ashes, crush'd seashells." Dixon says that things constructed with "alternating Layers of different Substances are ever a Sign of the intention to Accumulate Force, not necessarily Electrical, [but] suited to Forces more Tellurick in nature, more attun'd, that is, to Death and the slower Phenomena." Mason shakes his head dubiously. Dixon produces his compass, whose "Needle is swinging wildly and without pause, rocking about like a Weather-Vane, Dixon pretending to gaze at it knowingly."

Shelby informs them that the mound is "quite in the projected path of your Line" ad that when the "Visto" reaches that point "the Mound will become active, as an important staging-house, for ... whatever it may be." He also claims that the mound is "Welsh in origin."
The Cymry, Capt. Shelby explains, having first come to Britain from far to the East, -- some say Babylon, some Nineveh, -- their Fate ever to be Westering, -- America but one of their dwelling-places, the Ocean nearly irrelevant.
At the top of a hill, he points out "what seems to be the Ruin of a Wall," with a stone on which are some markings that he claims to be ogham. Asked what the markings say, he replies, "Well ... as nearly as I can make out, -- 'Astronomers Beware, Surveyors too. This means you.'" 

Back at camp, they fall into a discussion of the mystical, magnetic and telluric powers of the Line and the Visto, with Zhang persisting in his insistence that they invite Sha and on his belief that the planet itself is a living thing.
"Exactly as the creatures Microscopic upon your skin believe you to be a Planet. They may be arguing even now about whether or not you are a form of Life. Each time you step into a Tub, there comes upon them another universal Flood, with its Animalcular Noah, and another Reinhabiting, another Chain of Generations, to them how timeless, till the next Wash." 
Dixon wonders why "that Bottle isn't moving more briskly." But then he proceeds to twit Mason, as Mason had earlier done with his tale about being trapped in the missing eleven days, with his theory that the Earth is hollow. "Dixon on now like a tree-ful of ravens, with his Hollow Earth, an enthusiasm, Mason judges, too developed to be argued away without investing more time and patience than he possesses." Zhang joins in with the theory that China was once another planet, "embedded into the Earth thro' some very slow collision." When Dixon asks if the Jesuits believe this, Zhang replies, "Zarpazo does," and "beams and nods as if Dixon has just understood a Joke."

Captain Shelby foments another mystery, by asking "Where is the Third Surveyor?" The question puzzles Mason and Dixon, until Shelby proclaims, "you are Wise Men from the East, -- and ev'ryone knows they come in Threes!" The joke is laughed at, "Yet reported sightings of the Supernumerary Figure now begin to drift in. He is seen often in the Company of an Animal that most describe as a Dog, though a few are not so sure, for its Eyes glow as if all the Creature's Interior be a miniature of Hell."

On April 22 it snows, and as they sit around trying to warm themselves after a snowball fight, Dixon tells about his dream "of a City to the West of here, ... at some great Confluence of Rivers, or upon a Harbor in some inland Sea, -- a large City, -- busy, prosperous, sacred." But Mason insists that "Philadelphia is as sacred as anything over here will ever get." As they move west, away from civilization, they encounter more of "those Forces, which Cities upon Coasts have learn'd to push away, and leave to Back Inhabitants, -- the Lightning, the Winter, an Indifference to Pain, not to mention Fire, Blood, and so forth.... We trespass, each day ever more deeply, into a world of less restraint in ev'rything." He sees the western city Dixon has dreamed as "an Anti-City, -- some concentration of Fate, -- some final condition of Abandonment, -- wherein all are unredeemably alone and at Hazard as deep as their souls may bear."

Dixon scoffs at Mason's response to his dream, and says he knows that the dreams Mason has just before he awakes are good ones because he has listened to Mason talking in his sleep, though he doesn't understand the language Mason is speaking. Mason is appalled:  "I'm talking, another Language, in my Sleep, -- Dixon?" When Dixon shrugs this off, Mason says, "somebody else's soul, possessing my body, whilst I sleep, -- that's what it's about!" Dixon suggests that he have Zhang listen in to see if he can understand what Mason is saying, but Mason protests, "Too intimate." Dixon replies that "Half the Camp hears it. Some take it for Indians. Axmen say, if so, 'tis a Nation they have not yet encounter'd."

Then one of the men, known as Light-Fingers McFee, is caught meddling in the sea-chest of the Swedish axman, Stig. McFee responds by showing what he found: "an un-roll'd Sheet of Parchment cover'd with elaborate Seals and antiquated writing in some other Language, possibly Swedish." He runs away, pursued by Stig, until Capt. Shelby's co-officer, Joseph Warford, rounds them both up and asks about "the mysterious Parchment." Stig says it's in Latin, and that he is "here on behalf of certain Principals in Sweden, who believe that the Penns, being secretly creatures of Rome, took illegally the original Svånssen land 'pon which Philadelphia would later come to sit, -- and thus that the whole Metropolis has never ceas'd to belong, rightfully, to Sweden." Stig goes on to assert that he's not really Swedish,that his "people are of the North, Northern, and very White, so white in fact that you British to us appear as do Africans, to you." And that his people learn "to impersonate Swedes, -- fr our Nation much prefer to remain unmolested."

Settlements begin to thin out as they move further west, and when they complete another ten-mile segment, they turn east so the axmen can widen the Visto. Mason tells Zhang, "this unremitting Forest, -- it disturbs me. Far, far too many trees."
"Consider," replies the Geomancer, " -- Adam and Eve ate fruit from a Tree, and were enlighten'd. The Buddha sat beneath a Tree, and he was enlighten'd. Newton, also sitting beneath a Tree, was hit by a falling Apple, -- and he was enlighten'd. A quick overview would suggest that Trees produce Enlightenment. Trees are not the Problem. The Forest is not an Agent of Darkness. But it may be your Visto is.... Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People, -- to create thus a Distinction betwixt 'em, -- 'tis the first stroke, -- All esle will follow as if predestin'd, unto War and Devastation." 
Mason objects that the provinces being separated are too much alike to provoke conflict. "'Except for the Negro Slavery upon one side,' Dixon points out, less mildly than he might, 'and not the other.'"

On June 14 they reach the Allegheny Divide, the point at which rivers begin to run west. And they encounter a group of frontiersmen, "holding long Rifles with octagonal barrels, and packing a Pistol or two each. Even the horses are glaring, all but carnivorously, at the Party." But they are mollified by the offer of any of the timber being felled and by the possibility of joining the team chopping down the trees. And soon the party encounters Zepho Beck who, when the moon is full, turns into a were-beaver, chopping down trees with his teeth. "'Kastoranthropy,' Professor Voam shaking his head. "And haven't I seen it do things to a man. Tragick.'" Zapho's wife, Rhodie, agrees. "I love him, but Zepho's no Carpenter."

But she has an idea: She'll wager that Zepho can fell more trees than "that Swedish Axman Stig." But once the full moon has risen on August 5, something happens: "Mason looks at Dixon. Dixon looks at Mason. 'The Eclipse!' both cry at the same time. They have only now remember'd the Eclipse of the Moon, due to start later tonight. Zepho is 'morposing back to Human, and not enjoying it much."

Rhodie has some consolation: "There is a promising Lawsuit in this, if we can prove those Astronomers knew about it in advance." Mason and Dixon both vow innocence. But the incident reminds Zhang of a story....

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