Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon

Chapter 10 (pp. 94-104) Summary

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Structurally this chapter, in which we meet again Reverend Cherrycoke and his audience (whom we had left at the end of chapter 7) really is a framed narrative, the part on Mason and Dixon told by Cherrycoke is inbetween the 1786-parts.

The chapter opens with a quote from Cherrycoke’s own “Unpublished Sermons” where he equates Kepler’s laws of the elliptic movements of the celestial bodies to God’s laws having us humans in His gravitational field of force.

The Twins want to see the explanation of the parallax (Chapter 9, p. 93) on the orrery and have their fun lighting the tapers while Tenebræ realizes that cousin Ethelmer (who realizes that she has grown to a young lady since he saw her the last time) seems to be drawn very close to her by some other gravitational law than Kepler’s.

To explain the parallax the Rev d of course has to operate the inner planets while the twins

“(…) content themselves with the movements of the outermost Planets, Saturn and the new “Georgian,” but three years old.”
This reminds me on another “new planet” in another novel by Pynchon, “(…) The new planet Pluto (…).” (GR 415)
[ The entire quote can be found in a post from Robert (jbor) from August 11, 2000, filed under “WWII in GR” at ]

Uranus was discovered coincidently on March 13, 1781 by Sir Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (1738-1822), originally an expert on military music, who had moved to England in 1757 and had worked as a church organist before his discovery made him famous and granted him support by King George III. Herschel first thought that he had discovered a new comet.

But the name he took did not last as it is sometimes with those astronomical names chosen to gain support of some sovereign, for example the names of Jupiter’s four big moons chosen by Galileo.

This new planet, still known under his orginal name Georgian or Georgium, has been added to the orrery three years ago by “Dr. Nessel, the renown’d German engineer (…)” (95). But the explanation given by Tim Ware doesn’t say something about the origin of the engineer’s name. Neither the Brockhaus nor the Encarta or any of my books on Astronomy know him and the only two internet sources I could find were these:
Maybe it has something to do with Awakening Young Minds. Perspectives on Education, Denise D. Nessel (Ed). Los Altos, CA: Malor Books (1997). Review by Wanda A. R. Boyer, Ph.D., or with a character from “thirtysomething,” a show I don’t know.

Anyway, this Dr. Nessel had added Mappemondes to Uranus in different shapes to the different orreries, showing it as a habitable world with continents and oceans to which the children apply their own stories and histories, according to their interests the Twins the martial parts and Tenebræ the scientific development. Not quite Captain Future yet, but maybe an early form of Science fiction. I take Captain Future as an example because I remember that in this pulp-sf from the Forties of the 20th century the other planets of the Solar System still were described as habitable worlds, maybe against better knowledge at that time (?) while I have no doubt that in 1786 there was no scientific evidence that these worlds should *not* be populated. The unique character of every of our sibling planets was still unknown.

Uranus is very unique indeed compared to the other celestial bodies given the fact that he rotates retrograde. His magnetic field is interesting too. It has a sixty degrees inclination to the rotation axis so scientists assume that the planet is actually reversing his polarities.

Contrary to Venus we always see him in full light, never in phases (102). He’s a gas giant like Jupiter and Neptune, four times bigger than the Earth, he is 19 times farther away from our central star and it takes him 84 years to get around the Sun.
He was the first planet discovered in modern times, Neptune followed in 1846, Pluto, who was the first discovered with a photograph - thus was first seen by a human eye in negative, in 1930.
(pp. 94-96)

The Mason & Dixon part opens very unspecified with “Somebody somewhere in the world” (96.21) quoting a fragment of Sappho and being immediately called to order with the remark that this is sunrise and not sunset:

“O Hesperus, – you bring back all that the bright day scatter’d,
– you bring in the sheep and the goat,
– you bring the Child back to her mother.”

There are a lot of different translations but none of them seems to be the one Pynchon has used (see special post Sappho 2).

“Hesperus” as the evening star of course is only one “aspect” of Venus and the Sappho-fragment only shows that in ancient times people were unaware about Hesperus and the morning star “Phosphorus” being the same celestial body. So from his “modern” 18th century point of view the one who quotes Sappho isn’t totally wrong.

We are told that this kind of “odd behaviour” (97.1) appears everywhere among the astronomers watching the transit. What’s so odd about it? Scientists getting emotional?

Again we are told by the narrator (97.15-21) what has been explained already to Els, Greet and Jet (Chap. 9, 92-93) by Mason and by Cherrycoke to his audience (95.28-34), plus the information that transits of Venus always occur pairwise separated by a timespan of eight years and that astronomers only get a chance to watch the transit roughly every 105-113 years:

“(…) as if the Creation’s Dark Engineer had purposedly arrange’d the Intervalls thus, to provoke a certain Instruction, upon the limits to human grandeur impos’d by Mortality.”
There is a remarkable change in the behaviour of the host families shortly before the transit. The normally “stolid” (97.29) Boers are getting busy while the astronomers who should be excited “seem unnaturally calm” (97.27), “Dutch Ado about nothing” (97.28) as Mason, referencing to Shakespeare, remarks.

I don’t want to judge if this is an “awful pun” as John Bailey wrote, but if it is one it’s one on terrible people. The German translation changes this to „Lauter fliegende Holländer” (p. 133), which doesn’t make the pun much better.

The night before the transit one of our heroes is able to find sleep, “and one is not” (98.4), but the evidences, drops of *ketjap* and a wine-glass, don’t make clear who it was. Maybe both.

The Dutch seem to be even more friendly to their slaves, but this won’t last:

“Any fear that things might ever change is abated. Masters and Mistresses resume the abuse of their slaves” (101.28-29),
or as Mason earlier remarks:
“At least they’re back to normal over there (…) For a while, I puzzl’d,– had the Town undergone some abrupt Conversion? Had I, without knowing it?” (100.16-18).
Mason & Dixon are leaving the Cape early October,
“when Capt. Harrold, of the *Mercury* finds a lapse in the Weather workable enough to embark the Astronomers, and take them to St. Helena in.” (99.14-16)
(pp. 96-104)

Mason & Dixon Index
Der Venusdurchgang vom 6. Juni 1761
Auszüge aus Thomas Pynchons Roman “Mason & Dixon”
Mason & Dixon Weblinks (Essays and Reviews)

Otto’s Pynchon Pages
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