Ducking the Snovian Disjunction:
The 'both/and' logic of Mason & Dixon

Bill Millard

Editor, 21stC, Columbia University
Ph.D. candidate, English and American literature, Rutgers University

Presented at International Pynchon Week, London, June 12, 1998

The deconstructionists have made the binary oscillation of Western decorum a desperate affair. It is not a desperate affair; it is an error-checking operation. It represents...a way in which style can control content, formal pleasure balance conceptual thought, self-consciousness satirically ventilate out hierarchical urges. --Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word

Slightly over a year after the publication of Mason & Dixon, critical approaches to the book are as unsettled as rapidly cooling matter must have been shortly after the Big Bang. Meeting here in 1998 to discuss this unique book, we occupy a privileged moment in the history of its reception, as transitory as any delta-t, nearly unconditioned by any ossified patterns of critical discussion, and conducive--at least to a degree that time is sure to diminish--to interpretation with a minimal level of anxiety over influences. (Such moments of temporary freedom from the determining vectors of history are, of course, a recurrent Pynchonian concern; but more on that later.) I won't venture to predict what shapes the inevitable critical consensi about Mason & Dixon will take, except to speculate that they will most likely be multiple. Perhaps one defining quality of a Pynchon book is its potent and dogged resistance to being assigned any single defining quality.

Like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, unable to declare which component of its tactical arsenal is its "chief weapon," Mason & Dixon offers so many descriptive possibilities that we are likely to hear the following and more: that Mason & Dixon is a novel of America; that Mason & Dixon is a novel of friendship; that Mason & Dixon is a novel of deep ecology, or of Luddism; a novel of religion; a novel of colonialism and its discontents, as Louis Menand has argued in one of the most insightful early assessments, in the New York Review of Books; a novel of the psychology and pathology of modernity, defining the cripplingly acute introspectiveness of the Romantic self through exploration of the mind of Charles Mason, in continuously useful contrast with that of Dixon; contrarily, a novel of the post-paranoid mindset, arguably a kind of anti-Gravity's Rainbow, conjuring its conspiracies (Jesuitical, Royal-Societal, or American Revolutionary) only to dispense with them or even make sport of them; and a novel of language itself, not only an elaborate text so polyvalently allusive that it forces a reader to take quite literally the overfamiliar Derridean precept that "there is nothing outside the text" (in other words, that absolutely everything is in some degree connected to what resides here inside it) but also a vast Wittgensteinian game or toolbox, performing operations on the reader that make constructive use of the experiences of disorientation, saturation, resistance, obliquity, and irresolution. In these respects and more, Mason & Dixon is both consistent with its precursors in the Pynchon canon and unique in its expansion and enrichment of that canon.

For my own purposes, I would like to argue that Mason & Dixon is a novel of science and antiscience, a novel that asks its readers to use the heuristic of history to rethink the Enlightenment's dichotomy between scientific and nonscientific activities of the mind. Of the many polarities Pynchon has examined, this particular schism is of enduring social importance, not only because it cleaves the intellectual community in half, as C. P. Snow observed in his 1959 Rede Lecture "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," but because it generates--through effects that one might usefully metaphorize in terms of sympathetic vibration, cellular metastasis, or changes in quantum information states--social divisions far more destructive than mere misunderstandings between academic departments. Antagonism between secular scientific reason and nonsecular systems of belief is intertwined with some of the most profound cultural conflicts of our time. In view of the accelerating changes being wrought by research in molecular biology and biotechnology, electronic communications, neuropharmacology, artificial intelligence, and other well-funded endeavors--not to mention the weapons industries, including our old friend the Bomb, which, as last month's nuclear tests by two states divided over (among other things) theology reminds us, has not vanished as a global reality even as its cultural shadow has receded after the end of the Cold War--it would seem pathologically naive to posit a future in which scientific and nonscientific ideologies did not continue their fascinating and dangerous dance.

If Gravity's Rainbow ranks with Finnegans Wake and A Brief History of Time among books that large numbers of readers have obtained, and maybe begun reading, but never finished, Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture may hold pride of place in a related category: works that are cited as intellectual touchstones or even commonplaces by large numbers of scholars who have never actually read them. Judging from his New York Times Book Review essay "Is It OK to Be a Luddite?" Pynchon is one of the diminishing number who have read Snow's text deeply and aggressively; before moving on to consider Luddism itself, he strives to make sense of the problems Snow's lecture crystallizes, even while taking Snow to task over the "immoderate, and thus celebrated, assertion" that "[i]ntellectuals, particularly literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites" (Snow 22). Before moving on to examine the fictional bodying-forth of some of Pynchon's ideas about science and its alternatives in Mason & Dixon, I would like to return momentarily to Snow's text, not only to differentiate his observation of a cultural chasm from some of the interpretations that have accumulated around it (e.g. the charge by some contemporaries that Snow approved of the chasm, though his entire polemic expresses the opposite intent; his name is now historically linked with something he deplored) but also to re-embed his best-known idea in the explicit context of its origin, much as Pynchon historicizes the concept and practice of Luddism.

Snow's explicit purpose in decrying the poor communications between the literary and scientific intellectual cultures was to remove obstacles to the spread of industrialism into the Third World for the express and singular purpose of alleviating poverty, and to marshal more of the resources of intellect and opinion in the service of equalizing the worldwide distribution of wealth. He originally thought of calling the entire lecture "The Rich and the Poor," the subhead for its final segment, and in his 1963 re-examination "The Two Cultures: A Second Look" he expressed the wish that he had used that title instead (79). Snow minces no words about these priorities, in either the lecture or the follow-up piece, and thus it behooves the commentator on the Snow-Pynchon relation to keep in mind that both writers, despite their glaring disagreements over the social benevolence of industrialism and secular science, share an antipathy toward the forces that are so eloquently and succinctly named, in Gravity's Rainbow, as "Them." Like Vineland's Beckers and Traverses holding fast to family history, Snow directs his historical attention (discussing the views of his grandfather, a self-educated artisan, about the life of his own grandfather, a peasant) to the ways class shapes one's tone toward industrialization:

[My great-great-grandfather] was a man of ability; my grandfather thought; my grandfather was pretty unforgiving about what society had done, or not done, to his ancestors, and did not romanticise their state. It was no fun being an agricultural labourer in the mid to late eighteenth century, in the time that we, snobs that we are, think of only as the time of the Enlightenment and Jane Austen.

The industrial revolution looked very different according to whether one saw it from above or below.... To people like my grandfather, there was no question that the industrial revolution was less bad than what had gone before. (27)

Snow also challenges American and English novelists to begin considering applied science and its attendant social structures as a worthy topic for fiction (31)--a challenge to which it is easy to imagine the Pynchon of the 1960s, with Gravity's Rainbow in gestation, replying directly. And, intriguingly, Snow even identifies the nascent field of molecular biology (72-73) as extraordinarily promising, anticipating Pynchon's own enthusiastic predictions for the same discipline as part of a potentially revolutionary convergence (more on that later). Snow and Pynchon obviously part company at important points; in particular, Snow's sanguinity over what industrialism would bring about in the Third World becomes ever harder to see through the smoke of an Indonesian or Brazilian forest fire. Still, the objectives and priorities he has in common with Pynchon are far from trivial.

Leaving aside Pynchon's comments about the proliferation of specialist cultures rendering the dualistic Snovian scheme obsolete (another point that Snow took up proleptically in the original lecture [8-9, 65-66]), a gulf of incomprehension nevertheless remains between the worlds of empirical science and of literature or critical theory. Whether one identifies a dipole of cultures, as Snow does, or the Brownian motion of myriad microcultures, there are still a small number of broad personality categories defined by attitudes toward science, as Pynchon credits Snow with observing "with the reflexes of a novelist after all." I should mention in passing that my own personal experience editing an interdisciplinary research magazine, pursuing an explicit mission of improving communications among disparate fields, provides ample anecdotal evidence that misunderstandings across the Two Cultures are rife, sometimes even extending to a reluctance to admit that another field's most rudimentary terms of art may be admitted into the English language. It may be tempting to relegate Snow's delineation of the Two Cultures--or, as Pynchon dubs this line, the "Snovian Disjunction"--to the realm of bygone controversies, of enduring interest only to historians of the donnish disputes of the mid-century; certainly Pynchon treats Snow's lecture more as a launching point for his discussion of the historical Luddites, and of other iterations of his archetypal figure the Badass, than as the object of sustained examination. Anyone who would dismiss Snow's idea outright, however, might find it productive to examine such contemporary documents as the manifestos of the online discussion group,1 a highly select set of futurists, digerati, technopundits, and interdisciplinary scholars. Edge organizer John Brockman's ambitious essay "The Third Culture," in particular, explicitly and aggressively identifies Snovian literary intellectuals as an irrelevant rump group whose exit from center stage in the public discourse is under way and long overdue:

[T]he playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time....

[Snow] noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others.... How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of their work. Second, while many eminent scientists ...also wrote books for a general audience, their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the reigning journals and magazines.

Brockman now identifies a "third culture" arising not from a synthesis of the other two or from improved communication between them, as Snow came to envision in "A Second Look," but from the simple combination of intellectual vigor and direct communication with the public on the part of the ascendant scientific culture. Nonscientific intellectuals in this scheme are practically Thanatoids, dead without quite being ready to admit it.

About one point Brockman is certainly accurate: science is now well within the purview of journalism lowbrow and high-, providing a reliable stream of copy and hype for daily newspapers, and books on science are regularly considered in the book review sections of at least major newspapers and magazines, indicating an incursion of one Snovian culture onto the other's media turf. Still, these developments hardly imply that the gap has been erased, that sustantial proportions of the members of one culture speak the languages of the other. The merits of Edge's broadly triumphalist position are probably best assessed in other contexts, but such writings indicate, at the very least, that the depth of the Snovian Disjunction persists, and may be increasing, no matter what shifts occur in the forms and degrees of cultural capital accrued by either side.

None of this has ever been news to Thomas Pynchon, who has crossed the Snovian Disjunction more often, with more expertise and more confidence, than any literary figure alive (and it is plausible to extend this observation into superlatives involving the entire realm of shades, saints, and Thanatoids as well). One of the first inferences he draws from his aghast rereadings of his early stories, as recounted in the introduction to Slow Learner, is the fruitlessness of adherence to canonical literary values, such as conscious allusion to recognized and academically sanctioned precursors: in "The Small Rain," he confesses, "I was operating on the motto 'Make it literary,' a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took" (SL 4). Though he would never shake his allusive habit, he has aggressively expanded it into nonliterary realms, following alternative versions of that motto to make it technical, make it mathematical, make it chemical, make it musical, make it historical, make it cybernetic, make it cinematic and even televisual, make it mass-cultural, make it critical-theoretical, ad infinitum. Literary references remain part of Pynchon's enormous database, but only one of many parts; the privileged position implicit in the slogan "make it literary" was one of the first stages to be jettisoned as the multistage rocket of Pynchon's career lifted off. (By 1984, in the Luddism essay, he would note that American culture at large treats "literary intellectual" as a term of opprobrium, half-apologetically adding that "it doesn't sound so bad if you broaden the labeling to, say, 'people who read and think.'")

The central question of whether the Enlightenment is ultimately a liberatory or repressive idea, whether scientific rationality advances or retards human freedom, has always occupied Pynchon's attention. About some matters he is maddeningly or delightfully obscure, and about others he has left little doubt: his allegiances and aversions regarding economics, politics, social organization, and the ethical gravity of humanity's treatment of its planet need no explication, particularly to this audience. Pynchon's take on science and antiscience, however, is complex, contextualized, and riddled with conflict. I believe he both is and is not a Luddite, depending on how one defines that loaded term, and the work he performs in the Luddism essay redefining the term and reclaiming it from its Snovian usage creates a conceptual foundation for both novels that have followed it. His texts clearly encourage suspicions about the degree of inevitability that science and technology must be enlisted in enterprises that can only damage the biosphere and dull the noösphere, worsen the imbalances of class, and reduce the possibilities for human freedom, surprise, and love. At moments when those suspicions seem incontrovertible, when Enlightenment reason appears to lead only to the lies of the corporate state (or perhaps--worse--to some truth too dark to admit into human belief, a pessimism as unspeakable as the name of the Tristero), a form of Luddism may be the only sane response. But Pynchon's fascination with the sciences is too pervasive and too deep, too integral to the intellectual underpinnings of each book, to be compatible with technophobic or pastoral Luddism. He critiques secular reason, science, and technology not by rejecting them but by historicizing them.

In a maneuver that should really surprise only those who retain Snow's definition of Luddism in its condescending Lawrentian form, Pynchon closes his Luddism essay with an explicit wish not for any renunciation of scientific progress, but for a revolutionary technological change, the kind of revolution that he, as a longtime celebrant of the animate over the inanimate, of the carbon-based over the silicon-based, might plausibly cheer on:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come--you heard it here first--when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long. Meantime, as Americans, we can take comfort, however minimal and cold, from Lord Byron's mischievously improvised song, in which he, like other observers of the time, saw clear identification between the first Luddites and our own revolutionary origins. It begins:

As the Liberty lads o'er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we; boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

Though it is possible to quibble that Pynchon ironizes his own statement by first making a prediction ("you heard it here first") and then describing the result as "unpredictable," one may more confidently note that after tracing the rise of 'King' Ned Lud and the assaults of his troops against stocking-frames--and, more to the point, against the frames' worker-downsizing, capital-concentrating owners--he has so thoroughly reinscribed the term Luddite in a socioeconomic, not technophobic, context that in our own era "all good Luddites" may now look to a technological convergence, of all things, for salvation from the apocalyptic bumbling of the big brass. Pynchonian Luddism is not the same thing as Snovian Luddism; it is an attitude toward governance and class, not toward technology per se. We are back in the Zone with Enzian, hearing the voice of Technology, a voice impossible to ignore, urging a recognition of human responsibility on the part of both the obviously culpable and the would-be Counterforce:

"[...] do you think we'd've had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn't wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block full of civilians? Go ahead, capitalize the T on technology, deify it if it'll make you feel less responsible--but it puts you in with the neutered, brother, in with the eunuchs keeping the harem of our stolen Earth for the numb and joyless hardons of human sultans, human elite with no right at all to be where they are--" (GR 607)

However problematically or unproblematically the reader of Gravity's Rainbow might take this screed--since it shares with other Pynchonian manifesto-moments, including a few I'd like to examine in Mason & Dixon, a discursive context in which it is uttered by a figure whose reliability is imperfect--its rhetoric remains strong enough to make it impossible henceforth to take the simple position of the Snovian Luddite. Though Pynchon's moments of moral suasion are never uncomplicated, it is safe to say that a position metaphorized as castration is no longer tenable. A Pynchonian Luddism will have to be a Luddism that acquaints itself with both history and hardware.

After examining Western technoculture ascending toward its deathly apogee in Gravity's Rainbow, then in various decadent and comic forms in Vineland, Pynchon extends his ongoing critique back to the origins of that culture in Mason & Dixon, to a period when the line that became the Snovian Disjunction was in the process of being drawn. (The book's recurrent invocation of the phrase "as above, so below" might be transferred from the spatial continuum to the chronologic: "as yesterday, so today," as it were, or "because yesterday, therefore today"--not to suggest that time brings no real changes in either interpretive frameworks or social practices, but merely that correspondences exist and certain patterns recur.) Considering the centrality of scientific inquiry as a philosophical focus for the novel as well as Mason and Dixon's profession, historicizing the empire of reason carries radical implications. After all, one interpretation of scientific discovery (held not only by the naive-realist contingent among scientists but by many humanists unfamiliar with real scientific practice) holds that science is essentially an attempt to escape from history: in other words, that the history of science is a series of ever-closer asymptotic approximations to objectively true, rationally comprehensible, mystery-free knowledge, and that if this complex but coherent goal could ever be reached, humanity could transcend and cast away the accidents, irrationalities, and woolly externalities of history. An implicit faith in the theoretical attainability of knowledge independent of belief systems underlies the processes of scientific method: testing hypotheses through observation and experiment, repeating studies to confirm results by ruling out fluke, bias, and artifact, and sharing those results and the conclusions based on them through peer review and publication, so as to subject each new theory to the most thorough scrutiny and correction an expert community can provide.

Thomas Kuhn's observations of the actual practices by which the communal correctives of scientific method has led to shifts between phases of "normal science" and "revolutionary science" obviously qualify any foundational assumptions or nontrivial truth claims, but to the still-prevalent scientific objectivists--and those on the humanist side of the Disjunction who equate science with utter objectivity and rational control--the accidents of history are obstacles that science exists to overcome, and truth claims are entirely within our reach; the Age of Reason thus had a beginning but can have no end. Historicizing science and reason is obviously dangerous to this pre-Kuhnian paradigm, since one invariably uncovers conceptual shrapnel, falsified and discredited dogmas that were once considered unassailable. The strengths of scientific method include its conduciveness to both imagination and sanity in hypothesis generation, precision in logic and measurement, and progressive improvement in correspondence between theory and observation; its weakness is its foundational hubris, which tends to yield egregious error whenever investigators encounter data approaching the limits of what their physical and cognitive equipment can render sensible. (Astronomer Mason, an embodiment of the human consequences of such striving, pursues sidereal phenomena with great accuracy but is driven to melancholy, and the border of madness, over the impossibility of attaining other forms of knowledge, specifically regarding Rebekah. Mason & Dixon is thus not only a novel of what we can know, but of what it does to us to try to know it.)

If the question "When was the Age of Reason?" is unintelligible to the scientific realist on account of its verb tense, to students of the humanistic disciplines it is unproblematic, merely an inquiry about a recognized period bounded by eras of, first, orthodox supernatural belief and divinely ordained authority, then Romanticist striving and the Gothic renewal of supernaturalism in the face of reason's incomplete project. A requirement to redline the irrational, the supernatural, and the inexplicable does not automatically apply to intellectuals from Snow's nonscientific sector. With a few hedges and conditions, it is this populist view, older and more comprehensive (if less scrupulous over evidentiary matters) than upstart Reason, that Pynchon juxtaposes and superimposes with secular rationality in Mason & Dixon. The consequent crossings, blurrings, curvatures, and erasures of the Snovian line generate some of the book's most intriguing interpretive challenges. There are numerous points in the text (particularly when matters Snovian are in the foreground) where Pynchon's own voice appears either to break through the narrative frames and make a direct declaration to the reader or to entangle itself within those frames, sporting in traditional postmodern fashion with the reader's allegiance--and it is maddeningly hard to determine which of these incompatible effects deserves emphasis.

Chapter 35 is a goldmine, or minefield, of such disruptively fruitful passages. Here, in one of the anomalous chapters where Mason and Dixon themselves do not appear and attention focuses on the experiences and ideas of Revd Cherrycoke, Pynchon sends his narrator into territory where all the weight of popular belief and lived experience, all the benefit of the doubt, is on the side hostile to secular reason. It is useful to recall the argument in the Luddism essay that the Gothic tropes of monsters, ghosts, and curses, religious revivals (particularly American enthusiasms such as the Great Awakening), and our own era's analogous phenomena (such as space operas or obsessions with the paranormal) represent a "broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason... [with its] profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however, 'irrational,' to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing." Cherrycoke's account of Peter Redzinger's "occasion of God-revealing" in the pit of hops (358-359) echoes the assertions of the Luddism essay:

These times are unfriendly toward Worlds alternative to this one. Royal Society members and French Encyclopædists 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)

Here Pynchon tips his strategic hand by complicating the tipping of his hand. Cherrycoke delivers the same idea Pynchon himself expressed in the Times 13 years before--and yet the reader's sense of recognition, and possibly assent, is compromised by the awareness that this is Cherrycoke saying it. The good Revd, by relating events he could not realistically have witnessed, has already stretched his credibility with his listeners in the framing narrative; in Chapter 14 the twins Pitt and Pliny caught him in what a certain narrator of Mark Twain's would call "a stretcher," discussing a letter Mason wrote to Dixon but decided not to send (146), and here in Chapter 35 he has passed off as credible fact a description of a coach "wherein the inside is quite noticeably larger than the outside" (354), attempting to justify this claim with a reference to Jesuitical ingenuity and counterintuitive "Mathematickal and Philosophical Principles," all of which prompts DePugh to feign belief to get him to proceed with his tale. The chapter refers not only to the Revd's being back in America, among religiously pluralist Pennsylvanian frontier folk, explicitly hoping "that Miracles might yet occur, that God might yet return to Human affairs, that all the wistful Fictions necessary to the childhood of a species might yet come true"--and also to his gambling debts--with the observation that "Business then, in this Province, Wagering included, was conducted overwhelmingly by way of Credit,-- the Flow of Cash was not as important as Character, Duty, a complex structure of Debt in which Favors, Forgiveness, Ignominy were much more likely than any repayment in Specie." The thematic atmosphere in this chapter, in short, is suffused with creeds, credence, credulousness, and incredibility, and with intimations that foundations for belief are scarce indeed--and at the same time with a hunger for certainty as plaintive as the poster in Agent Fox Mulder's office on The X-Files, an image famous among habitués of the American Tube with a taste for the paranormal themselves: a photo of a UFO and the slogan "I WANT TO BELIEVE."

What are we to make, then, of two resonant passages on historical method and credibility at the outset of the chapter? We encounter first the epigraph from Cherrycoke's Christ and History favoring a multiplicity of narratives, since "Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers" and history's "Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit"; then, in the heated LeSpark family debate on the same topic, the rather Rortean assertion by young Ethelmer that

Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,-- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been. 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. (350)

This practical skepticism toward truth claims has much to commend it--so much so that it is easy to overlook its source. Ethelmer consistently raises skeptical and heretical points of view throughout the frame narrative, but he is consistently checked by maturer family authority. His unusual name puns on the chemical ethyl mercaptan, a harsh-smelling sulfur-based solvent used to break the structural bonds of proteins2; his whipper-snapperish skepticism, while eloquent and rousing, is a bit much to take. He treads close to blasphemy with a joke about history and Christianity, offensive to his host Wade LeSpark and thus detrimental to the bonds of family:

"Brae, your Cousin proceeds unerringly to the Despair at the core of History,-- and the Hope. As Savages commemorate their great Hunts with Dancing, so History is the Dance of our Hunt for Christ, and how we have far'd. If it is undeniably so that he rose from the Dead, then the Event is taken into History, and History is redeem'd from the service of Darkness,-- with all the secular Consequences, flowing from that one Event, design'd and will'd to occur."
"Including ev'ry Crusade, Inquisition, Sectarian War, the millions of lives, the seas of blood," comments Ethelmer. "What happen'd? He liked it so much being dead that He couldn't wait to come back and share it with ev'rybody else?"
"Sir." Mr. LeSpark upon his feet. "Save that for your next Discussion with others of comparable wisdom. In this house we are simple folk, and must labor to find much amusement in Joaks about the Savior."
Ethelmer bows. "Temporarily out of touch with my Brain," he mumbles, "Sorry, ev'rybody. Sir, Reverend, Sir." (75-76)

A younger Pynchon might have given the wiseassed youth a better outcome in this exchange, or at least a parting shot, but here Ethelmer's pungent irreverence must bow to decorum. Later, when his courtship of Tenebrae, after one promising moment as they read the Ghastly Fop together (526-529), comes to nothing (as reflected in his musical lament "Say, Mister Fahrenheit" at the end of Chapter 55 [552-553]), it becomes difficult to take him with much seriousness. But if Ethelmer is a clown figure, a foil, and in the terms of rhetorical theory an eiron, his undeniably strong rhetoric about the corruption of official history, like Cherrycoke's, presents an interpretive conundrum. These passages condemning monopolies on truth have the ring of truth, yet they are voiced by characters hardly associated with truthtelling. Is Pynchon ironizing the statements and encouraging their mockery, or is he working in the tradition of jesters from Petronius Arbiter to Lear's Fool to Twain to Lenny Bruce, licensing the speaking of truth to power under the safe guise of comedy? The line between these alternatives would seem consequential indeed, but the reader lacks the stars and sector that would ensure the straightness of such a Visto.

Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Irony distinguishes between its stable forms, which leave little doubt about an eiron's unreliability and cement an agreement between the sender and receiver of an ironic message that the real message conveyed is antithetical to the eiron's expressed message, and unstable irony, where no such agreement is possible. The superimposition of incompatible interpretive frameworks is a powerful way to produce the disorientations of unstable irony, and when Pynchon executes this operation in the very passages that purport to deliver conclusions about rationality itself, the effort to identify true or false meaning must come to a halt. If the text can have meaning within several interpretive schemes or language-games, yet those systems cancel each other out, meaning itself may not be the point. Like Wittgenstein's famous drawing in Philosophical Investigations (IIxi [194e]) that can be viewed in one aspect as a rabbit, in another as a duck, but never simultaneously under both aspects--the visual analogue of textual aporia--Pynchon's irresolvable positions regarding the accessibility of truth can lead to a host of unanswerable or meaningless questions, or to a more appropriate question: whether what this language is really for is something beyond the delivery of messages. The functions of language can go beyond purposive use to include noncommunicative experiences, as Wittgenstein compared to "an engine idling, not... doing work" (Wittgenstein 132 [51e], Guetti 44) In this spirit, I believe Pynchon's moments of aporia gesture toward meanings but refuse to mean, instead evoking a koan-like meta-proposition that the sanest thing one can do with a Line is to occupy both sides of it.3

A habitual refusal to allow either member of any dichotomy an unambiguously privileged position over its opposite pole characterizes the thematic and stylistic aspects of Mason & Dixon as well as the communicative. The book teems with doubled elements and images (hardly a new device in Pynchon; Susan Strehle, discussing Vineland, observes sixteen plausible sets of paired characters and traces a coherent structural and moral scheme based on doubles and comparisons). Here Pynchon gives us not only Mason and Dixon themselves but Pitt and Pliny, Hsi and Ho, Eliza and Zsuzsa, Father Zarpazo and Captain Zhang, Mason's sons William and Doctor Isaac, and Franklin's interns in the electrickal arts Molly and Dolly, not to mention Dixon's early reference to "two sorts of drinking Folk [...] Grape People and Grain People" (18). Abstract concepts, memes, and narrative channels, likewise, often appear in pairs: science and mysticism, sky ("as above") and earth ("so below"), Pennsylvania and Maryland, slave and free, Stig's "Yingle" and "Yangle" (punning on yin and yang), Zhang's chi and sha, the alternative endings of the story of Hsi and Ho (628), and, in Maskelyne's quotation from Kepler, Astrology as "Astronomy's wanton little sister, who goes out and sells herself that Astronomy may keep her Virtue" (136). If conceptual bifurcation is the primal tool in the toolbox of language, uncertainty over whether the thing divided would be better left whole is most acute when the similarities on either side of the line are strongest, and hence any twin is also a menace, a harbinger. Doppelgängers, as Karl Miller has painstakingly recounted in Doubles, are a dark Gothic or Romanticist device, an inescapable reminder for the mirror-maddened modern self of both its uniqueness and its interchangeability, its capacity for transcending (or delaying, or deferring) death and its inevitable susceptibility to death. Pynchon's recurrent twinning suffuses the book with a consciousness that nothing solitary, no person and no idea, will stand.

Further complicating logical delineation is the superimposition of 18th-century idioms and 20th-century references into a hybrid style that is both familiar and foreign. This style combines features of 18th-century English prose, such as the prolonged, momentum-gathering Ciceronian periodic sentence and the strategically Capitalized Noun, with knowing discursions into contemporary parlance, including the sly winks of conscious anachronism, which allow microscopic moments of history not only to recur as farce but to gain farcical effect in both their contexts. The border between centuries collapses--and the framing artifice becomes visible--in jokes about using Indian Hemp without inhaling (10); the Learned English Dog's sharing an acronym with light-emitting diodes (when "The L.E.D. blinks" [22]), along with Fender Bodine's question "...would the li'oo Doggie be for sale?" echoing the lyrics of the postwar novelty song "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" (23); the references to subatomic physics that flicker throughout the text, such as the string-theory and Higgs-boson joke involving "the Boatswain, Mr. Higgs" and his obsession with rigging (54-55); the complex verbal riffing on musical forms from Plato's modal scales to Philadelphia soul and rock 'n' roll at the end of Chapter 26; the flavor of a 1990s upscale coffeehouse as Dixon orders what appears to be a Kenya AA and Java Highland latté (298); Mrs. Eggslap providing a troupe of cheerleaders for Stig in his race with Zepho Beck, and sampling Tammy Wynette: "Sometimes [...] 'tis hard, to be a Woman" (621); Dixon's gestures toward both Monty Python and Laurel and Hardy when snowbound near Lancaster:

"Can't say I'm too easy with this Weather," Mason remarks.
"Do tha mean those white flake-like objects blowing out of the northeast....?"
"Actually I lost sight of the Trees about fifteen minutes ago."
"Another bonny gahn-on tha've got us into...." (363)

--not to mention the cluster of pop-culture citations in Chapter 50, where Kabbalists give Mr. Spock's "live long and prosper" hand sign and a Popeye doppelg„nger translates the golem's tautological utterance Eyeh asher Eyeh as "I am that which I am" (485-486); and what may be the most grammatically ingenious intrusion by our era's pop vernacular, the teenage-mall-rat discourse of young black-clad Amelia in New York, substituting one century's lax idiom for another's: "I'm, as, 'But I like Black,'-- yet my Uncle, he's, as, 'Strangers will take you for I don't know what,' hey,-- I don't know what, either. Do you" (400). Amy's reappearance seven chapters later, having eloped with her "Italian Waggon-smith" to Massapequa, L.I. (564) and thus silently name-checked Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, may constitute the low-water mark of the anachronism strategy, but the overall pattern of anachronistic humor--reinforced, as in all Pynchon's books, by song lyrics whose rhythms frequently scan like Broadway musicals or vaudeville, particularly the final song, the soft-shoe routine "It was fun while it lasted..." that Mason and Dixon perform in Dixon's dream (753)--reinforces the practice of overlaying different signifying systems over each datum in the text, reminding the reader that these data signify differently under different aspects, and thus that no single system can be taken for granted.

Even the capitalizations4 reward scrutiny, executing subtle effects that differ from the simple Germanic practice of capitalizing all nouns indiscriminately. Pynchon did not begin capitalizing nouns with Mason & Dixon; he has long treated certain nouns or phrases in this manner, elevating them out of their ordinary lexical functions and rendering them perceptibly public and substantial, sometimes with a comic touch, as recognizable as proper nouns for deities or brand names. Gravity's Rainbow confers such a capital on the War--that one's obvious--but intriguingly, such an ostensibly minor detail as Beaver/Jeremy's Pipe also continually appears with such an anomalous capital P (49, 148), marking this personal effect with a sign of the generic and thus producing an effect of impersonality, as the lieutenant himself is so much less a defined personage than his rival Roger Mexico. Back in the Luddism essay, the salient features of the Badass, that he is "Big" and that he is "Bad," take on additional scale and menace by virtue of their blatantly brobdingnagian B's, and the passage on Frankenstein's monster highlights a crucial visual difference between literary and pop-cultural iterations of this particular Badass when it refers to the "commonly depicted Bolt Through the Neck," the cinematic signature that mechanizes the creature in a way Shelley's text never did. In devising an adaptive mutation of 18th-century English for Mason & Dixon, Pynchon apparently found that century's almost-regular capitalization practice congenial, for it gives him even further license to create useful distinctions between ordinary terms and those attracting a shade more attention. He deploys capitals artfully and unpredictably, attaching them not to the more conventionally important nouns but to those whose ad hoc contextual importance appears to require momentary emphasis. Throughout Mason & Dixon the application of this convention reflects Pynchon's tropisms toward the things, ideas, and personages that are customarily subordinated, lending plausibility to an inference that it is precisely these bubbles of readerly opinion that carry value.

If Pynchon tends to give some compensating emphasis to the less privileged member of a binary pair on any level, not simply reversing the polarity but rebalancing it and forcing a reconsideration of the precision of its dividing line, then in turning attention back to the dichotomy of scientific and nonscientific thinking, we find that the narrative intermingles them to the point where one may question the value of separating them in any context, not only this novel. The process of either discovering order in, or imposing order on, the wildness of nature may be integral to the worldview that shaped America, but here it is also entwined with activities far from scientific. Without saying so explicitly, Pynchon reminds us that the term "philosophical" in Mason and Dixon's century referred not to the linguistic and logical abstractions connoted by the term in our own, or to any Socratic search for wisdom, but to a realm of investigations including study of the physical world and the heavens (hence the name of the Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions). As in Swift's Academy of Lagado, a perception of "natural Philosophers" as eccentric or worse was a cultural commonplace, and here scientific research is never far from madness. The division of territory into new entities called Maryland and Pennsylvania, guided by the geometry of the constellations, is on a par with Vaucanson's invention of a mechanical duck: ingenious and impressive, but unnatural and quixotic. Both Mason's sanity and Dixon's come repeatedly in question; "star-gazing" can signify either astronomy or onanism; every astronomer has moonlighted as an astrologer; scientific professionalism does not rule out a proclivity for the paranormal; penetrating the wild new continent means encountering infinite and ancient forms of strangeness. Rational thinking in this context appears unreasonable, and the further and more frequently these men of science venture into the realm of the giant vegetable and the tall tale, the more the line separating reason from madness, miracle, or legend becomes self-erasing.

Like practitioners of Kuhnian normal science facing data that require a revolutionary revision of the paradigms by which they have comprehended all data they have previously encountered, Mason and Dixon know no language that can bound and subdivide the Bigness and glorious Badness of the American frontier. Their America itself thus becomes the largest example yet of Pynchon's master trope, which takes the form in time of a transitional moment, and in space, of an ungovernable place. Pynchon's works present a recurrent historical concept (which I would term "Pynchonian space" or "the Pynchonian moment") whereby political, socioeconomic, and intellectual vectors intersect to create a temporary realm of augmented personal autonomy, political anarchy, epistemologic uncertainty, and narrative possibilities both comic and tragic. Such spaces and times appear in America's beat-era bohemia, as well as certain moments in Maltese and Sdwestafrikan history, in V.; in the American 1960s in the Californian works Lot 49 and Vineland; and particularly in the Zone in Gravity's Rainbow. The grounding of such moments and spaces in meticulously researched historical data hints that the concreteness of history may allow some resistance to encroaching political control, economic oppression, environmental degradation, and aesthetic degeneration; at the same time, the scarceness and evanescence of such moments, combined with the detailed rendering of the mechanisms whereby those imperial forces encroach, provides the tragic element in Pynchon's vision.5

With all of America and all of modernity as potential Pynchonian space and time, and the question of their evanescence either answered coldly by history--we know what happened to America--or left open by the text's redemptive moments, the only language appropriate to this space and time must be a language that creates vectors extending beyond language, language evocative of awe. Like the languages of religions, it must defy coherence. This marshaling of the possibilities of dubiously coherent language, encouraging the reader to step outside a language-game where distinctions defining meaning are essential, may be one of the underlying reasons the Snovian Disjunction has arisen. Secular reason, after all, needs communicative, utilitarian terms and repeatable experiments; if language is irreducible to propositions, after all, the entire philosophy of the Royal Society, as encoded in its motto nullius in verba, is beside the point. But if I may express overt sympathies with Charles Mason and bash the Royal Society for a moment, this august body has undoubtedly perpetrated and perpetuated the Disjunction in one way that is more than symbolic. Nullius in verba--abstracted, if not to say "untimely ripp'd," from Horace's Epistulae, xenografted with a crucial grammatical error, and interpreted as a cardinal principle of the scientific culture--has conventionally been translated as "there is nothing in words": in other words, that language itself is untrustworthy and must be forever subordinated to quantitative data, which are presumably objective and open to the corrective processes of scientific method. One need not disparage those processes to note that the phrase as Horace originally wrote it means nothing of the kind, and that the distrust of verbiage that generations of scientists have inferred from this "canonical mistranslation" (Gould, ¶2) amounts to an officially sanctioned error that has contributed mightily to the Snovian conduit of sha. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, in a letter to Science in 1991, in Horace's original Latin phrase ("Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri"), nullius was an adjective, genitive singular, modifying magistri, not a nominative nullus; a literal translation would be "I am not bound to swear allegiance to the word of any master." What the Royal Society's motto instructs the scientist to distrust is not words, but power.

A Pynchonian Luddite would understand this instinctively. Using language that can comprehend both sides of the Snovian Disjunction while rendering the line itself moot, Pynchon's ultimate project may be to restore a sense that written language is adequate, or more than adequate, to the challenge and scope of modern history, that it need not be superseded by other languages based on equations or digits. In a little-discussed passage from "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," Snow also complained of the disjunctions and hierarchies within the Royal Society, and the scientific community generally, whereby "[t]heoretical physicists tend to talk only to each other, and, like so many Cabots, to God" (66); there are indeed physicists notorious among their peers for claiming that all other sciences are ultimately reducible to physics, or to mathematics. Pynchon has used language to project a world where everyone talks to God, and to each other. Perhaps it's not too much to hope that in our own world, some closer listening to the fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks, whose inclusive motto might well be omnia in verba, would foster more healthy skepticism toward Lines, and less toward whatever lies on either side of them.

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.

Gould, Stephen Jay. "Royal Shorthand" (letter). Science 251(Jan. 11, 1991):142.

Guetti, James. Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience. Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1993.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.

Lanham, Richard. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Miller, Karl. Doubles. Oxford and NY: Oxford UP, 1987.

Porush, David. "'Purring into Transcendence': Pynchon's Puncutron Machine." In Green, Geoffrey, Donald J. Greiner and Larry McCaffery, The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon's Novel. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive P, 1994, pp. 31-45.

Pynchon, Thomas. V. 1963. NY: Bantam, 1964.

-----. The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.

-----. Gravity's Rainbow. NY: Viking, 1973.

-----. "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?" New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1984, pp. 1, 40-41.

-----. Slow Learner. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

-----. Vineland. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

-----. Mason & Dixon. NY: Holt, 1997.

Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures: and A Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

Strehle, Susan. "Pynchon's 'Elaborate Game of Doubles' in Vineland. Green et al., op.cit., pp. 101-118.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. NY: Macmillan, 1953.


1. Anon. (probably John Brockman), "The Third Culture," at Brockman frequently erases his own individual presence as an author for anti-individualist reasons best understood through examination of works such as By the Late John Brockman, available at the same website.

2. I am indebted to Paul Mackin and Spencer Thiel of the Pynchon List for pointing out the chemical pun involving 2-hydroxyethyl mercaptan.

3. David Porush has also referred to Pynchon's "play with the reader throughout his works--his penchant for posing paradoxes and unsolvable puzzles. To many of us literary critics, immersed in a rationalizing profession that is itself the expression of a rationalizing culture, these Pynchonesque koans tend to launch us on flights of scholarly and interpretative [sic] acrobatics that have served most to expose the limitations of the very rationality on which we depended" (Porush 33-34).

4. Of course, the fact of irregular and thus discretionary capitalization makes sense only for the written text; in the narrative frame of Rev. Cherrycoke's Scheherazadic performance, the significances of discretionary capitals are incommunicable (unless Cherrycoke can somehow pronounce these emphases, which seems improbable). Undermining its own framing conceit of orality, this text thus draws attention to its own artifice, much as the Pompidou Center renders its infrastructure visible.

5. Tragedy, I should add, exists on some level other than personal in Mason & Dixon; there is death, as natural as everything else in Dixon's existence, and for Mason there is ultimately a silence that the reader may forever try to interpret as either madness or private attainment of religious knowledge; but there is also hope of redemption, the old-fashioned way, through family. The tragic tone enters, for this reader, at Dixon's dream of the song "It was fun while it lasted," when one recognizes that the whole evanescent, pointless, transforming enterprise has to reach an end.