Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Second Riff: The Pygmies’ Discovery of Great Britain)

A. Okay. So I finished the first section of Mason & Dixon a few days ago. I’m now at the part where our titular heroes are smoking weed and eating snacks with George Washington. I can’t possibly handle all the material I’ve read so far—even in a riff (here’s the first riff for anyone inclined)—so instead I’ll annotate a few passages from Ch. 19, one of my favorite episodes so far.

B. Setting and context: 1762. “The George,” a pub in Gloucestershire (Mason’s home county). The patrons at the tavern are heatedly discussing the eleven days that went “missing” when the British moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

One (satirical) source for this controversy comes from William Hogarth’s 1755 painting An Election Entertainment; in the detail below, you can read (barely) the slogan  “Give us our Eleven Days” on the black banner under the man’s foot.


A bit more context, via History Today:

In 1750 England and her empire, including the American colonies, still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which was now eleven days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and in use in most of Europe.

Attempts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to adopt the new calendar had broken on the rock of the Church of England, which denounced it as popish. The prime mover in changing the situation was George Parker, second Earl of Macclesfield, a keen astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was assisted in his calculations by his friend James Bradley…

I emphasized Bradley—Mason’s mentor—and Macclesfield as they are minor characters in this episode.

Basically, the pub patrons demand that Mason explain what happened to the missing eleven days.

C. Okay—so this whole episode, this discussion of time and space clearly helps underline the big themes of Mason & Dixon: How to measure the intangible, the invisible—how to pin down the metaphysical to the physical—how to know and how to not know. (Hence all the paranoia).

D. So (this starts on page 194):

“Here,” Mason explains to a small Audience at The George, “purely, as who might say, dangerously, was Time that must be denied its freedom to elapse. As if, for as long as The Days lay frozen, Mortality itself might present no claims. The Folk for miles around could sense a Presence,— something altogether too frightening for any of the regular servants at Shirburn Castle to go near. Macclesfield had to hire Strangers from far, far to the east.”

“The Indies?”



His Lordship, as Mason relates, requir’d a People who liv’d in quite another relation to Time,— one that did not, like our own, hold at its heart the terror of Time’s passage,— far more preferably, Indifference to it, pure and transparent as possible.

Strangers! A folk outside of time’s mortal claims. And from far, far to to the east!

E. Pynchon’s Mason then underlines the links between time and the way that we seek to pin time down in language by using language to (pretend to) identify relations between subject and object in (the illusion of) stability:

The Verbs of their language no more possessing tenses, than their Nouns Case-Endings,— for these People remain’d as careless of Sequences in Time as disengaged from Subjects, Objects, Possession, or indeed anything which might among Englishmen require a Preposition.

“As to Gender,— well, Dear me but that’s something else again entirely, isn’t it, aye and damme if it isn’t. . . . Howbeit,— thro’ the good Offices of an Hungarian Intermediary,— ”

Protest from all in the Company.

“Hey? Genders? Very well,— of Genders they have three,— Male, Female, and the Third Sex no one talks about,— Dead. What, then, you may be curious to know, are the emotional relations between Male and Dead, Female and Dead, Dead and Dead? Eh? Just so. What of love triangles? Do they automatically become Quadrilaterals? With Death no longer in as simple a way parting us, no longer the Barrier nor Sanction that it was, what becomes of Marriage Vows,— how must we redefine Being Faithful . . . ?” By which he means (so the Revd, who was there in but a representational sense, ghostly as an imperfect narrative to be told in futurity, would have guess’d) that Rebekah’s visits at St. Helena, if sexual, were profoundly like nothing he knew,— whilst she assum’d that he well understood her obligations among the Dead, and would respond ever as she wish’d. Yet how would he? being allow’d no access to any of those million’d dramas among the Dead. They were like the Stars to him,— unable to project himself among their enigmatic Gatherings, he could but observe thro’ a mediating Instrument. The many-Lens’d Rebekah.

F. The Revwho was there in but a representational sense, ghostly as an imperfect narrative to be told in futurity, is Wicks Cherrycoke, who is (ostensibly) the narrator of Mason & Dixon; the many-Lens’d Rebekah is Mason’s dead wife. Both exist—are represented—in language both in this pub scene (where they have no physical presence, of course), and also Mason & Dixon itself. Rebekah here—her memory, her spirit—serves as a mediating Instrument for Mason (and Cherrycoke, and the reader) to access the metaphysical.

G. Continuing with those Strangers hired to move into the eleven missing days:

“Thro’ the Efforts of Count Paradicsom, in any Case, a Band of these Aliens the Size of a Regiment, were presently arriv’d in Gloucestershire. Bless us. Nothing like it since the Druids. They march’d in through the Castle gates playing upon enormous Chimes of Crystal Antimony, and trumpets fashion’d from the Bones of ancient Species found lying upon the great unbroken Plain where they dwell, their Music proceeding, not straight-ahead like an English marching-tune, but rather wandering unpredictably, with no clear beginning, nor end.”


“A sturdy sort of Armor head to toe, woven of the low Desert Shrubs of their Land.”

“Ah, military chaps,— imposing, as you’d say?”

“Asiatick Pygmies,” Mason says, “actually. Yet despite their stature, any Mob would have thought twice about challenging their right to colonize th’ Eleven Days.”

A beautiful and strange passage, but let me focus on the last verb there: colonize: Pynchon offers it as a sort of ironic reversal—these Asiatick Pygmies (is it fair to suggest their being Indians? No?) move east to colonize English soil, just as the English move west to colonize Indian soil. Or hey wait, I’m back to the language game, trying to lock the physical world into a system of Subjects, Objects, Possession.

H. Pynchon’s Cherrycoke’s Mason continues:

“Their Commission, that is, their Charter if you like, directed them to inhabit the Days, yet not to allow the Time to elapse. They were expected to set up Households, Farms, Villages, Mills,— an entire Plantation in Time.”

“And say, do they live there yet? or, rather, ‘then’? and have any of the days elaps’d, despite these enigmatick Gaolers?”

“Now and then, a traveler’s report. . . . Geographickally, they’re by now diffus’d ev’rywhere obedient to the New-Style Act,— some to America, some out to India,— vacant India! return’d unto wild Dogs and Serpents . . . the breeze off the Hoogli, blowing past the empty door-way of a certain . . . Black Hole?— and wherever they are, temporally, eleven days to the Tick behind us. ’Tis all an Eden there, Lads, and only they inhabit it, they and their Generations. ’Tis their great Saga,— the Pygmies’ Discovery of Great Britain. Arriv’d they cannot say how, nor care, they sleep in our beds, live in our Rooms, eat from our Dishes what we have left in the Larders, finish our Bottles, play with our Cards and upon our Instruments, squat upon our Necessaries,— the more curious of them ever pursuing us, as might Historians of Times not yet come, by way of the clues to our lives that they find in Objects we have surrender’d to the Day, or been willing to leave behind at its End,— to them a mystery Nation, relentlessly being ‘British,’ a vast Hive of Ghosts not quite vanish’d into Futurity. . . .”

Note the language of colonization here, the notations of CharterDiscovery, of an Entire Plantation in Time.

I. And:

“Then . . .”

“Aye and recall,” Mason’s Phiz but precariously earnest, “where you were, eleven days ago,— saw you anyone really foreign about? Very short, perhaps? Even . . . Oriental in Aspect?”

“Well,— well yes, now that you,—” recalls Mr. Hailstone, “right out in Parliament-Street, it was, a strange little fellow, head shaved ev’rywhere, red damask robes with gold embellishments, what could in the right circs be call’d a fashionable Hat, a sort of squat Obelisk,— and as cryptickally inscrib’d. Not that I paid all that much Attention, of course, tho’ a good number of Citizens, themselves by way of Brims and Cockades displaying Headgear Messages a-plenty, were loitering about, trying to decipher this Stranger’s Hat . . . the odd thing was, he didn’t pay any of us the least heed. Imagine. Stroud Macaronis pok’d at him with their Sticks, Irish servants pass’d Leprechaun remarks, respectable Matrons of the town ventur’d to chuck him under the Chin. All reported a surprizing transparency, some a many-color’d Twinkling about the Fringes of his Figure.”

“Of course,— for you saw him as he was, in the relative Vacuum of his Plantation,— whilst he, for his Part, believ’d you all to be prankish Ghosts he must not acknowledge, fearing who knows what mental harm. You haunted each other.”

You haunted each other. I should leave it at that.

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