scispace - formally typeset

Journal ArticleDOI

Pynchon's Age of Reason: Mason & Dixon and America's Rise of Rational Discourse

22 Sep 2003-pp 185-207

Abstract: By drawing upon astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon for the unlikely protagonists of Mason & Dixon (1997), Thomas Pynchon develops a revisionist history of these two Englishmen as they come to terms with America in the so-called Age of Reason, which was informed by a European philosophical movement with its roots in rational discourse aimed at cultural and political intellect that eventually served as the foundation for American independence and democracy. But as Thomas Paine suggests, time wields a stronger power than does reason, and what history calls the Age of Reason may remind one of an ideal time in America when, in theory, rational discourse converted people into better citizens. However, as Mason and Dixon create their Line, recognizing that it will, in effect, divide North from South, they begin to realize that America consumes them with irrational discourse.
Topics: Age of Enlightenment (51%)

Summary (6 min read)

Introduction

  • South Dakota State University Open PRAIRIE: Open Public Research Access Institutional Repository and Information Exchange English Faculty Publications Department of English 9-2003 Pynchon's Age of Reason: Mason & Dixon and America's Rise of Rational Discourse Jason McEntee South Dakota State University, jason.mcentee@sdstate.edu.
  • Follow this and additional works at: http://openprairie.sdstate.edu/english_pubs.
  • This Article is brought to you for free and open access by the Department of English at Open PRAIRIE: Open Public Research Access Institutional Repository and Information Exchange.
  • For more information, please contact michael.biondo@sdstate.edu.
  • Recommended Citation McEntee, Jason, "Pynchon's Age of Reason: Mason & Dixon and America's Rise of Rational Discourse" (2003).

Jason T. McEntee

  • Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.
  • By drawing upon astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon for the unlikely protagonists of Mason & Dixon (1997), Thomas Pynchon develops a revisionist history of these two Englishmen as they come to terms with America in the so-called Age of Reason, which was informed by a European philosophical movement with its roots in rational discourse aimed at cultural and political intellect that eventually served as the foundation for American independence and democracy.
  • But as Thomas Paine suggests, time wields a stronger power than does reason, and what history calls the Age of Reason may remind one of an ideal time in America when, in theory, rational discourse converted people into better citizens.
  • Human nature and rationality, for Pynchon, are given to deontology: a Kantian pursuit of good will while obeying moral obligation despite the presence of irrationality.

Kant writes,

  • Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will.
  • In fact, allusions in Mason & Dixon to the 1860s and the 1960s suggest that America has yet to experience a true Age of Reason, or at least that what constitutes the Age of Reason is not what the authors have imagined.
  • Pynchon's novel challenges readers to rethink and redefine ideas of reason and rational discourse, not only in colonial America but also in contemporary America.
  • But in working toward an explication of Kant, I will also discuss other theoretical issues.
  • Jurgen Habermas, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, identifies the public sphere as that public place, such as a coffeehouse, where people-mostly property owners-came together to share rational discourse:6 [As early as the thirteenth century, citizens) claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.

Rational Discourse in the Public Sphere: Mason and Dixon in America

  • The nearest Coffee-House, The Restless Bee, lies but a block and a half distant.
  • Of course, Mason and Dixon, while at the Cape of Good Hope on a separate observing assignment, encounter slavery before they reach America.
  • ,Furthermore, these processes of elimination and control suggest that "rational" discourse often takes the form of rationalization-political arguments as excuses meant to justify such atrocities.
  • Both men exhibit traces of misology: Mason's disregard for reason in dealing with the Indians and Dixon's realization that reason is probably not going to help in this situation.
  • Pynchon couples the ideas of westward expansion and Indian eradication to make a sweeping comment on American policy toward the indigenous inhabitants of the land.

Son of Liberty Philip Dimdown, ""Tis not how British treat Americans

  • [ . . . ] 'tis how both of You treat the African Slaves, and the Indians 194 Pynchon Notes 52-53 Native here, that engages the Friends more closely,-an old and melancholy History"' (568).
  • Indeed, a melancholy history dogs white America, as Mason and Dixon's journey through the public sphere illustrates.
  • Discourse occurs, but its rationality remains in question.
  • That Mason and Dixon participate in many discussions either in coffeehouses or in public meetings diminishes the romance with which many historians (See Habermas and Shields) tend to surround such places in tracing their contribution to the rise of rational public discourse.

Janvier's,

  • Has ever provided a venue for the exercise of Proprietarian politics[ . ... ).
  • By the end of each day, finely divided coffee-dust will have found its way by the poundful up the nostrils and into the brains of these by then alert youths, lending a feverish edge to all they speak and do.
  • Conversing about politics, under such a stimulus, would have prov'd animated enough, without reckoning in as well the effects of drink, tobacco [. .. ) and sugar.
  • Referring to Mason, Dixon and the Line crew, Pynchon writes, "When they may, they drink.
  • 1 3 The day after shopping for opiated pharmaceuticals with the help of Benjamin Franklin, Mason and Dixon visit Col. George.

Washington, who advises them,

  • But on no account, ever discuss Religion.
  • By portraying Washington as involved with drugs, Franklin and "that Lot" as greedy, power-hungry opportunists, genocide, Westward expansion and slavery, Pynchon rewrites history in terms that are perhaps more realistic and more rational because not over rationalized.
  • Indeed, one cannot rationalize such things, though many versions of history have tried to: Revolutionary leaders were righteous and without serious fault; Indians had to be eliminated because they hindered national expansion; slavery was essential for their country to become the economic power it was destined to become.
  • In the tavern, Mason and Dixon 196 Pynchon Notes 52-53 not only encounter discussions of real American politics but also continue their observation of rationality.
  • Religious bodies here cannot be distinguish'd from Political Factions.

He pushes the idea of virtual representation even further by

  • Applying it to what would become, and remains, America's political scheme.
  • (6 1 5) Composing and consuming bad history (rationalizing what has no rational end-the purely irrational) makes the evils America commits appear necessary.
  • Slavery is very old upon these shores, -there is no Innocence upon the Practice anywhere, neither among the Indians nor the Spanish nor in the behavior of the rest of Christendom, if it come to that.".
  • Having finished the Line, Mason and Dixon (now in Delaware, "Tavern-crawling" [687) ) come to terms with their adventures and reach conclusions about the public sphere.
  • Dixon does not use violence only for the sake of violence; his desired ends remain equivalent to good will.

Toward the Twentieth Century

  • Schudson suggests that the oft-idealized public sphere rich with rational discourse never existed: "It does not appear that in any general sense rational-critical discussion characterized American politics in the colonial era " ( 1 60).
  • By taking us over two centuries into the past, Pynchon suggests that the absurdity of the twentieth century actually makes more sense if the authors recognize that the Age of Reason replete with rational discourse never happened-that they have yet to experience a truly enlightened era of rational discourse.
  • As Habermas writes about the British model of the public sphere, "this constitutional state came with one crucial drawback : publicness became the organizational principle for the procedures of the organs of the state themselves" (83) .
  • America saw (and continues to see) domination and power as negative constants .
  • A]s you must appreciate how even your sort of Musick is changing, recall what Plato said in his "Republick" , - "When the Forms of M usick change, 'tis a Promise of civil Disorder'" " (261 -.

1 960s, constel lating what Benjamin calls "a conception of the present

  • As 'the time of the now . "' 202 Pynchon Notes 52-53 Cherrycoke begins his tale (and the novel) by recounting a sinister conversation prior to his embarkation on the Seahorse.
  • One of the controllers of his fate tel ls h im, "Madness has not impair'd your memory.
  • Keep away from harmful Substances, in particular Coffee, Tobacco and Indian Hemp.
  • If you must use the latter, do not inhale.
  • Have a safe Voyage. " ( 1 0) We can read Mason & Dixon as Pynchon's dream of a safe voyage -an invitation to depart from an often rigid and inaccurate history, to examine its negative constants and to reexamine America's past.the authors.

Mason by his sons:

  • William and Dr. Isaac, Rebekah's Sons, would stay, and be Americans. [ . . . ) Mr. Shippen, Revd Peters, Mr. Ewing, all Commissioners of the Line twenty years earlier, now will prove, each in his Way, their Salvation upon this Shore. [ . . . ).
  • "The Stars are so close [out where you were) you won't need a Telescope.".
  • And you too ." (772-73) When Mason tells Johnson and Boswel l that he has "'ascended, descended, even condescended, and the List's not ended , - but haven't yet trans-cended a blessed thing' " (746), Pynchon may be commenting on behalf of those Americans struggling to figure out the very essence of America in relation to anything rational .
  • Mason has yet to figure it out: he (unl ike Dixon) and the authors have yet to embrace the uniting of rational and i rrational.
  • Of Mason's death Pynchon writes, '"tis possible, after all, down here, to die of Melancholy" (762) .

Mason recognizes that

  • There may be found, within the malodorous Grotto of the Selves, a conscious Denial of all that Reason holds true.
  • Something that knows, unarguably as it knows.
  • Flesh is sooner or later Meat, that there are Beings who are not wise, or spiritually advanced, or indeed capable of Human kindness, but ever and implacably cruel, hiding, haunting, waiting.

I s Mason ultimately a misologist? Overall , perhaps not, assuming he

  • (and of course Dixon) learns that hating and shunning reason, and Spring-Fall 2003 203 favoring and embracing reason are forever linked, forming the necessary bond between the irrational and the rational.
  • The novel offers the Kantian suggestion that the authors are given to emotion and reason, and cannot function without both of them working together-that reason alone cannot be "the governor of their will.
  • Realizing such a goal (if the authors can do so) depends on their willingness to unite the rational and the irrational, reason and passion/emotion.
  • These possibilities grace the pages of this complex homage to two unlikely sources of inspiration.

Notes

  • 1Pynchon follows other critics and theorists who have used Kant.
  • Recent Pynchon scholarship has worked with Kant as well: see Jim Neighbors's "Kant, Terror, and Aporethics in Gravity's Rainbow.".
  • 2See Charles Clerc's Mason & Dixon & Pynchon, and Thomas H. Schaub's Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity for more-detailed discussions of Pynchon's treatment of history.
  • Both agree that Pynchon's treatment of historical information allows him to explore the very nature of how the authors view history.
  • That is unfair, for they were heroic, in a quietly dogged way, and you feel by the close that they deserve a medal for surviving not just the rigors of their professional task but the incalculable travails of Pynchon's fiction. (98).

Rick Moody wrote,

  • Pynchon seems to have learned even more about these subjects [death and decay] as he has gotten older.
  • It's hard not to read of Mason's passing, and of his son's rhapsodic but sadly ironic depiction of an American continent in which "the Fish jump into your Arms," without being both moved and remorseful about the dwindling promise of their American enterprise.
  • ( 1 1 01 5Russ Castronovo discusses such narratives as those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs in arguing that "the Mason-Dixon line ... provides a site for examining the pitfalls of racial ideology and the cul-de-sacs in inescapable nationalism predatorially inherent to borders" ( 1 98).
  • 7Pynchon, ever the student of history, has Mason and Dixon spend much time in Philadelphia, "the greatest of North American cities," the site at which.

Shields starts his study (xxxii).

  • ... [W]here Kant seeks to reduce empirical contingency through the use of a regulative ethics, Pynchon in GR writes a non regulative ethics grounded on contingency" (275-76).
  • Death, defeat, and the New World: not exactly what Columbus, the Pilgrims, Mason and Dixon, and the Founding Fathers had in mind" (75). (78) Pynchon plays these tensions beautifully, for example, by juxtaposing destruction in progress and to come with such flattering descriptions of America as the following:.
  • From the shore they will hear Milkmaids quarreling and cowbells a clank, and dogs, and Babies old and new, - Hammers upon Nails, Wives upon Husbands, the ring of Pot-lids, the jingling of Draft-chains, a rifle-shot from a stretch of woods, lengthily crackling tree to tree and across the water.
  • Pynchon connects then and now, affording us a hilarious look at their forefathers, who the authors might believe could not possibly have used drugs.

Castronovo, Russ. "Compromised Narratives along the Border: The Mason

  • Dixon Line, Resistance, and Hegemony. " Border Theory: The Limits of Cultural Politics.
  • "Thomas Pynchon and the Fault Lines of America." Horvath and Malin 73-83.
  • The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.
  • Longmans, Green, 1 883. 1 -84. Lane, Anthony, also known as London.
  • "Kant, Terror and Aporethics in Gravity's Rainbow.".

Schudson, Michael. "Was There Ever a Public Sphere? If So, When? Reflections

  • On the American Case. " Habermas and the Public Sphere: Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought.
  • Shields, David S. Civil Tongues & Polite Letters in British America.
  • Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. " Horvath and Malin 1 00-11, also known as "Dimming the Enlightenment.
  • "Pynchon's Mason & Dixon." Rev. Raritan 17.4 (1 998): 1 20- 30.

Did you find this useful? Give us your feedback

Content maybe subject to copyright    Report

South Dakota State University
Open P"IRIE: Open Public Research Access Institutional
Repository and Information Exchange
,%*'0&!2*152 *'!1'-,0 #./1+#,1-$,%*'0&

Pynchon's Age of Reason: Mason & Dixon and
America's Rise of Rational Discourse
Jason McEntee
South Dakota State University(0-,+!#,1##0"011##"2
-**-31&'0,"""'1'-,*3-/)01 &9.-.#,./'/'#0"011##"2#,%*'0&.2 0
/1-$1&# +#/'!,'1#/12/#-++-,0,"1&# '1#/12/#',,%*'0&-/1&+#/'!
-++-,0
8'0/1'!*#'0 /-2%&11-5-2$-/$/##,"-.#,!!#00 51&##./1+#,1-$,%*'0&1.#,7.#,2 *'!#0#/!&!!#00,01'121'-,*
#.-0'1-/5,",$-/+1'-,4!&,%#1&0 ##,!!#.1#"$-/',!*20'-,',,%*'0&!2*152 *'!1'-,0 5,21&-/'6#""+','01/1-/-$.#,
7.#,2 *'!#0#/!&!!#00,01'121'-,*#.-0'1-/5,",$-/+1'-,4!&,%#-/+-/#',$-/+1'-,.*#0#!-,1!1
+'!&#* '-,"-0"011##"2
#!-++#,"#"'11'-,
!,1##0-,5,!&-,0%#-$#0-,0-,'4-,,"+#/'!0'0#-$1'-,*'0!-2/0# English Faculty
Publications. .#/
&9.-.#,./'/'#0"011##"2#,%*'0&.2 0

Mason Dixon 
 
Jason T. McEntee
     
 
        
       
        
       
      

 
 
Mason  Dixon 

  
         

    


         
     
           
 
          

        
         
        
         

1
  

           
          
         

186
nchon Notes 52-53

  
       

       
   


          

          
          

  
Mason Dixon   
         


        
   
       

  

 
             
    

  


 
            


    349-51)



2

         


          
 

 

          
 
3
    
  
 
        
   
4

 

      


 
5
   
         

          
 (48).       
         

    

     

 

        
         
        
 
       
progress in the Age of Reason. 


     
  

 
         
 
 
       
 
         
    

   
            
 
  
 

         



nchon Notes 52-53

         


        
          

      
 


     

 
6
          
  

 
 
     
         
         
         

   
     

         

     
         
 

         
        
       
          
         
   
     
         
  

Citations
More filters

Journal ArticleDOI
Abstract: Although Thomas Pynchon has continued to publish long after the postwar American countercultural era, his politics are critically characterized in relation to that movement's values. The dominant critical positions associate power with rationalism and functionality, and political opposition with creativity and pleasure, positioning Pynchon's novels at a politicized intersection between postmodernism and the counterculture. This article problematizes this dominant critical position, taking Mason & Dixon (1997) as exemplary of Pynchon's reconsideration of the nature of power and potential opposition to it in response to the countercultural movement's failures and successes, and to developments in capitalist social organization in the 1980s.

24 citations


Journal ArticleDOI
Abstract: Through Pynchon-written songs, integration of Italian opera, instances of harmonic performance, dialogue with Plato’s Republic and Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica performance, Mason & Dixon extends, elaborates, and investigates Pynchon’s own standard musical practices. Pynchon’s investigation of the domestic, political, and theoretical dimensions of musical harmony in colonial America provides the focus for the novel’s historical, political, and aesthetic critique. Extending Pynchon’s career-long engagement with musical forms and cultures to unique levels of philosophical abstraction, in Mason & Dixon ’s consideration of the “inherent Vice” of harmony, Pynchon ultimately criticizes the tendency in his own fiction for characters and narrators to conceive of music in terms that rely on the tenuous and affective communal potentials of harmony.

6 citations



References
More filters

Book
22 Oct 1997-
Abstract: Border Theory was first published in 1997 Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editionsChallenging the prevailing assumption that border studies occurs only in "the borderlands" where Mexico and the United States meet, the authors gathered in this volume examine the multiple borders that define the United States and the Americas, including the Mason-Dixon line, the US- Canadian border, the shifting boundaries of urban diasporas, and the colonization and confinement of American Indians The texts assembled here examine the way border studies beckons us to rethink all objects of study and intellectual disciplines as versions of a border problematicThese writers-drawn from anthropology, history, and language studies-critique the terrain, limits, and possibilities of border theory They examine, among other topics, the "soft" or "friendly" borders produced by ethnic studies, antiassimilationist or "difference" multiculturalisms, liberal anthropologies, and benevolent nationalisms Referring to a range of theory (anthropological, sociological, feminist, Marxist, European postmodernist and poststructuralist, postcolonial, and ethnohistorical), the authors trace the genealogical and logical links between these discourses and border studiesA timely critique of a field just now revealing its explosive potential, this volume maps the intellectual topography of border theory and challenges the epistemological and political foundations of border studies Contributors are Russ Castronovo, Elaine K Chang, Louis Kaplan, Alejandro Lugo, Benjamin Alire Saenz, and Patricia Seed Scott Michaelsen is assistant professor of English at Michigan State University David E Johnson is lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages at the State University of New York at Buffalo

142 citations