The Rocket

Mason & Dixon and the Enlightenment

By Erik Ketzan
April 1, 2000

Many contemporary historians are concerned with the tension they see between Postmodernists and the Enlightenment. There are few literary postmodernists as great as Thomas Pynchon, and few works of the stature of his latest novel, Mason & Dixon. The present study traces the book's dialogue with the Enlightenment, and finishes by trying to place that argument within the critical spectrum of modern historical thought.
To begin with the book's very publication, we find in a little promotional blurb from Henry Holt, Pynchon's publisher: "We follow the mismatch'd pair […] on a grand tour of the Enlightenment's dark hemisphere, as they observe and participate in the many opportunities for insanity presented to them by the Age of Reason." Half a year after its arrival, we see Ted Mooney's insightful book review, which states: "Mason & Dixon […] is a vast, indeed encompassing, meditation on the Enlightenment and its consequences."
Although summarizing any of Pynchon's works can be chaotic, the story runs generally as follows: Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon are paired together to perform surveying and astronomical work for England's Royal Society. Their first mission, to observe the transit of Venus from the tip of South Africa, is an absurd but damning portrait of that land and its institution of slavery. They next journey to American to settle once and for all a boundary line to run between Maryland and Pennsylvania, in the meantime running into a vast assortment of weird settlers, Indians, cranks, criminals, and Founding Fathers. Although Pynchon's knack for teeming his books with forgotten slang, historical trivialities, and everyday occurrences (of little interest to academic historians) gives them an amazing degree of reality, there are nonetheless impossible absurdities on every page. Dogs sing and dance, characters appear with names like Vrou Vroom, and so on. Yet it is in this very contrast between rationality and absurdity that we may find Pynchon's message regarding the Enlightenment.
But what Enlightenment? This question will also be traced in the present study, as Pynchon's interlocutor is not necessarily Voltaire and Rousseau, but the ideal of reason, the Age of Reason as he so often puts it. One of the first instances occurs when Mason is heeding the prophesies of a fortune-teller:

"Mason, pray You,-- 'tis the Age of Reason," Dixon reminds him, "we're Men of Science." (27)

It is a statement uttered throughout the novel many times, always because one is succumbing to the temptation of irrationality:

"Get a grip on yerrself, man," mutters Mason, "what happen'd to 'We're men of Science'?"(669)

It is a conflict which Mason and Dixon face throughout the work, as did most of their eighteenth-century contemporaries. Mason feels this most acutely when receiving visitations from the ghost of his dead wife, Rebekah:

He tries to joke with himself. Isn't this suppos'd to be the Age of Reason? To believe in the cold light of this all-business world that Rebekah haunts him is to slip, to stagger in a crowd […] But if Reason be also Permission at last to believe in the evidence of our Earthly Senses, then how can he not concede to her some Resurrection?-- to deny her, how cruel! (164)

Pynchon perhaps chose the characters of Mason and Dixon because they represent what he sees as an admirable questioning of Reason. This hits close, however, to one of the Enlightenment's own inner conflicts: Rousseau and Voltaire preached that one must trust his own senses, and yet obey the laws of reason.
The Encyclopédie is mentioned more than once in the narrative. The first instance is as follows:

These times are unfriendly toward Worlds alternative to this one. Royal Society members and French Encyclopaedists are in the Chariot, availing themselves whilst they may of any occasion to preach the Gospels of Reason, denouncing all that once was Magic, though too often in smirking tropes upon the Church of Rome,-- visitations, bleeding statues, medical impossibilities,-- no, no, far too foreign. One may be allowed an occasional Cock Lane Ghost,-- otherwise, for any more in that Article, one must turn to Gothick Fictions, folded acceptably between the covers of books. (359)

Let us carefully decode this passage. First of all, though we today are often unsure of the true connection between "Enlightenment" and the "Age of Reason," to the narrator there is no ambivalence. Names are named; the philosophes are without question the determined knights of Reason, rooting out the dragons of magic and putting them to the sword. The narrator, however, scoffs at their attacks on church irrationalities, suggesting that it is all too easy for the philosophes to dismiss them in the radical (and absurd, we are suggested) manifestations of bleeding statues, etc. It is also all too easy for the philosophes to accept magic in its least harmful manifestation, as in Gothic novels. What is the message here? The attacks on the church are of no importance -- the narrator implies magic and the church have little in common. But what would "magic" be if not such things as visitations and medical impossibilities? In this passage we see that Pynchon falls into that category Darnton criticizes -- postmodernist critics of the Enlightenment who are not averse to rationality as much as authority. After Reason replaced Church as the primary world authority, one must, as a postmodernist, naturally rebel against Reason.
The next direct mention of the Encyclopédistes comes as Mason and Dixon are in discussion with a Feng-Shui master, regarding men such as themselves who are mapping land for distant powers:

Encylopédistes in Expeditionary Costume […] taking these exquisitely precise Sights […] Thos' Degrees of Longitude and Latitude in Name, yet in Earthly reality are they Channels mark'd for the transport of some unseen Influence, one carefully assembl'd chain […] when these are dispos'd in a Right Line aim'd at Ohio, it is natural to inquire, what other scientifick Workings may lie in the area… Who'd benefit most? (546)

In this passage, we again see Enlightenment as subordinate to earthly powers, who would, of course, "benefit most." On a more abstract level, there is also the suggestion that all sorts of jargon and sets of terminology, which the Enlightenment produced in abundance, necessarily are used to conceal some type of power or other, although not necessarily king or queen. Also in this passage, science in a sense becomes a type of magic -- Mason and Dixon's carefully-surveyed lines become what occultists call "ley lines," waves of "telluric energy," which are mentioned on that very page.
Now that we have examined the instances of the Encylopedists considered as a group, what of individuals? There is Voltaire himself, who is mentioned in the text four times. The first of these occurs when Mason and Dixon first encounter the French chef, Armand Allègre (a characteristically Pynchon pun: "arm and a leg"), who is being pursued by Vaucanson's Duck. This begs a bit of explanation, but is certainly one of the book's key moments.
Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) was a master craftsman and a civil servant. He was appointed inspector of silk manufacture in 1741, and attempted much in the way of modernizing and streamlining this industry. Late in life he became a member of the Academie des Sciences. His fame, however, rested on his marvelous creations, automatons which mimicked the living: a life-sized man who played the flute, another who played the tambourine. But the most curious of all was his mechanical duck, which could move its incredibly intricate wings and simulate the digestion of food. Armand informs Mason and Dixon,

[Armand:] "Voltaire called him [Vaucanson] a Prometheus,-- to be remembered only for having trespass'd so ingeniously outside the borders of Taste, as to have provided his Automaton a Digestionary Process, whose end result could not be distinguish'd from that found in Nature."
[Mr. Whitpot:] "A mechanickal Duck that shits? To whom can it matter, […] who besides a farmer would even recognize Duck Waste, however compulsively accurate? And when might any country person get to see this Marvel to begin with, if its only engagements were in Parisian Hotels?" (372)

Even if this were all, we have here a symbol of the Enlightenment, an unlikely one to be sure (although one with Voltaire's seal of approval): the utterly absurd end result of applied science: a duck that shits. But this is not all. In Pynchon's novel, the duck, no longer confined to its mechanical base, has come alive with great powers, and has been pursuing the hapless Armand Allègre to the very ends of the Earth, namely America.
The way the duck comes alive, Armand tells, is that "'twas this very Attention to Detail, whose Fineness, passing some Critickal Value, enabl'd in the Duck that strange Metamorphosis, which has sent it out the Gates of the Inanimate, and off upon its present Journey into the Given World." (372) Presented here is a vision of reason gone too far, science which, once it reaches a certain complexity, forces its creations to run amok. But was it complexity alone which gave the duck that spark of life? No, Armand continues. It was only when Vaucanson, through his hubris, desired to engineer not only digestive, but sexual capabilities.
The duck became alive and went rogue. It could fly so fast as to become invisible,

its Beak being of the finest Swedish Steel, did I mention that, yes quite able, when the Duck, in its homicidal Frenzy, is flying at high speed, to penetrate all known Fortification, solid walls being as paper to this Juggernaut…. One may cower within, but one cannot avoid,-- le Bec de la Mort, the… 'Beak of Death' (374)

We now have an image of the Duck as an all powerful weapon. The implications are fairly clear -- science gone too far produces The Bomb (or the Rocket, as Pynchon shows in Gravity's Rainbow). Couple that with sex and we have almost a Dr. Strangelove statement. This, then, is Pynchon's (weird) symbol of the Enlightenment.
The Duck is hunting Armand because he happens to be the greatest chef in Paris, and has, of course, cooked thousands of his fellow ducks. Further, one character tells Armand that he remembers the chef's "Canard au Pamplemousse Flambé. It is unique in Civilization." (374) We see here a statement that reason, Enlightenment, and the Duck seek to destroy Armand as a artist of creating unique experiences. The conflict of the unique and the mass-produced is shown.
The last we see of the Duck is late in the novel. It flies, back and forth in the air, tracing Mason and Dixon's line East to West, then back again, soaring, as if a distant aerial bomber, out of sight but bound to the line of Reason.
Along with Vaucanson's Duck, the other character which contains this crucial coupling of reason and absurdity is the Learned English Dog, which we meet early in the novel. Mason and Dixon encounter him in a London tavern. In true Pynchon fashion, as unexpected musical number breaks out, with, in this instance, a singing, dancing dog. There were often such wonders advertised in that distant century: pigs capable of addition and subtraction, horses who waltzed, and certainly dogs who mimicked humanity in one way or another. Thus Pynchon appropriates a curio of eighteenth-century England and uses it to comment on the Enlightenment. But how?
The Learned English Dog's song demonstrates the depth of his knowledge:

Ask me anything you please / The Learned English Dog am I, well- / Up on ev'rything from Fleas / Unto the King's Mon-og-am-eye, / Persian Princes, Polish Blintzes, / Chinamen's Geo-mancy, / Jumpi-ing Beans or Flying Machines, / Just as it suits your Fan-cy. / I quote enough of the Classickal Stuff / To set your Ears a-throb, / Work logarith-mick Versed Sines / Withal, within me Nob, / --Only nothing Ministerial, please, / Or I'm apt to lose m'Job, / As, the Learned English Dog, to-ni-ight! (18-19)

The Dog is, in fact, nothing short of a polymath of the Age of Reason, well-versed in biology, history, and mathematics. And yet…this polymath is a talking dog. Mason gains an audience with it to ask whether the Dog is a reincarnated spirit. He gets an inconclusive answer, but the Dog elaborates as such:

But please do not come to the Learned English Dog if it's religious Comfort you're after. I may be praeternatural, but I am not supernatural. 'Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an Explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog,-- Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns. What there are, however, are Provisions for Survival in a World less Fantastick. (22)

This, then, is the novel's statement on the irrational, that they are "provisions for survival" in a drab, boring world. This passage does not, it seems, directly implicate the Enlightenment for this dreariness -- it cites the Age of Reason, but offers little comment.
It may be timely to point out that the way Pynchon presents the Learned English Dog and Vaucanson's Duck is very Voltaire-esque. Is Pynchon's very mix of reason and absurdity so far from the "smirking tropes" of the philosophes which he earlier denounced? It is an open question, but it must also be pointed out that Pynchon, whom Daniel Gordon would no doubt label an "enemy of the Enlightenment," has a great reputation as the greatest of the contemporary "Encyclopedic Novelists," not so far in ideology, perhaps, from Diderot and his fellows.
Before continuing to the book's portrayal of Benjamin Franklin, there is one short reference to the great Edward Gibbon which must be examined. It occurs that the novel's narrator, Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, informs his audience his opinions on how to write history:

"Why," Uncle Ives insists, "you look at the evidence. The testimony. The whole Truth."
[Cherrycoke:] "One the contrary! It may be the Historian's duty to seek the Truth,yet must he do ev'rything he can, not to tell it. […] 'Twasn't Mr. Gibbon's sort of History, in ev'ry way excellent, that I meant,-- rather, Jack Mandeville, Captain John Smith, even to Baron Munchausen of out own day […] History is hir'd, or corec'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power […] She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government." (349-50)

Although one should never rashly equate a narrator with its creator, we can clearly see Pynchon's own philosophy of presenting history here clearly elaborated. Pynchon's breed of historical novels, as seen in Mason & Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow, are fictions -- so rich with inventions and anachronisms no one could possibly believe their historical accuracy. Yet these works are intensely engaged with the past, arguably in more approachable form that traditional, academic history. Pynchon is commenting on the Enlightenment, to be sure, but, as Daniel Gordon suspects of many such postmodernists, Pynchon is less concerned with the Diderots than what he sees they represent.
As for Franklin, Mason and Dixon meet up with him at an apothecary's, where Dixon is busily trying to purchase laudanum in bulk. Franklin is, in true Poor Richard fashion, constantly uttering pithy bits of advice, as with, "Strangers, heed my wise advice,-- Never pay the Retail Price." (267) He then proceeds to treat the surveyor and astronomer team to a musical recital. Later the Founding Father entertains them with an electrical play, with himself in the role of Death. There is, in fact, little in Pynchon's portrayal of Franklin which cannot be ascribed to the general eccentricity of the historical figure.
To conclude, the great absurdity of the novel is the drawing of the Mason-Dixon line itself. Its authority would last only 25 years, until the Constitutional years, and, as Mason asks, "Shall wise Doctors one day write History's assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-à-vis the not-so-good? I wonder which List will be longer?" (666)