Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Third Riff: The Rabbi of Prague)

A. I’m a few chapters–three, precisely—from finishing Mason & Dixon. “Finishing” is not the right verb here, though—Pynchon’s novel is so rich, funny, strange, and energetic that I want to return to it immediately.

B. But I need to backtrack a bit, riff on one of my favorite episodes—Chapter 50.

C. (First riff and second riff for those inclined).

D. In Chapter 50,

’tis Dixon’s luck to discover The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith, in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris, whose private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper.”

Pynchon plays here on the reader’s initial understanding of the signal and phrase as a pop culture reference—



—but the goof isn’t merely postmodernist shtick—Pynchon is pointing to how the invisible manifests itself in signs and wonders, covert, cryptic, but perhaps—perhaps—decipherable.

E. (Maybe this needs clarification: The Rabbi of Prague is a tavern. I lost track of how many bars taverns pubs inns alehouses coffeehouses etc. show up in M&D).

F. In the bar, Dixon learns that

The area just beyond the next Ridge is believ’d to harbor a giant Golem, or Jewish Automaton, taller than the most ancient of the Trees. As explain’d to Dixon, ’twas created by an Indian tribe widely suppos’d to be one of the famous Lost Tribes of Israel, who had somehow given up control of the Creature, sending it headlong into the Forest, where it would learn of its own gift of Mobile Invisibility.

The most famous golem story is probably The Golem of Prague; I don’t think I need to underline the connection to that story and the name of the bar. The word golem first appears in the Chapter 49, but the reference is to “Kitchen-size” ones, not giants. (Created by Christ and Peter. (Not that Peter, but rather another Peter. An American Peter. Am I being too cryptic? Just read the book)).


The golem motif underscores Pynchon’s questions of form and essence, visible and invisible, measurable and immeasurable—and also freedom and slavery. The golems also recall Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, the central automaton character in the novel. (The Indians’ golem “sounds enough like the Frenchman’s Duck to make [Dixon] cautious”).

G.  Dixon, interested in this “Wonder of the Wilderness,” talks with the strange patrons of the tavern. (“If, I say ‘if,’ you do see it,” advises the Landlord, “you’ll then talk of Wonders indeed”—this little moment unites two of the novel’s central motifs—invisibility + the subjunctive mood—which are probably maybe one and the same). The patrons attest of the golem that “you have to catch him when he’s asleep,” that “some of us have never seen him, only heard his steps on the nights when there is no Moon, or his voice, speaking from above the only words he knows,— ‘Eyeh asher Eyeh’...”

And then, we get this helpful gloss:

“That is, ‘I am that which I am,’” helpfully translates a somehow nautical-looking Indiv. with gigantick Fore-Arms, and one Eye ever a-Squint from the Smoke of his Pipe.
“Tho’ Rashi in his Commentary has, ‘I will be what I will be,’ as the Tense is ambiguous between present and future.”


The Popeye joke repeats the Spock/Jewish blessing jape. The initial pop culture reference appears at first to be a throwaway gag, but ultimately serves as another instantiation of secret knowledge that moves through time via representation.

H. The history/mystery lesson continues:

“Isn’t that what God said to Moses?” Dixon inquires.

“Exodus 3:14. ’Tis what the Indians’ll say to you, if you go far enough west,— being the Lost Tribes of Israel out there, whose Creature this is.”

“In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, you see, Jesus as a Boy made small, as you’d say, toy Golems out of Clay,— Sparrows that flew, Rabbits that hopp’d. Golem fabrication is integral to the Life of Jesus, and thence to Christianity.”

“Nor is it any Wonder here by South Mountain, anyway. Sometimes the Invisible will all at once appear,— sometimes what you see may not be there at all.”

“I am told of certain Stars, in the Chinese system of Astrology, which are invisible so long as they keep moving, only being seen, when they pause. Might thy Golem share this Property?”

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas shows up in Against the Day.

I. The patrons continue, first linking America to the invisible golem and invisible stars, and then citing its “discovery” as a kind of Gnostic revelation that will ultimately be spoiled by the forces of capital. The passage I’m citing is long, so I’ve emphasized what I take to be some key language here:

this whole accursèd Continent…as if in answer to God’s recession, remain’d invisible, denied to us, till it became necessary to our Souls that it come to rest, self-reveal’d, tho’ we pretended to ‘discover’ it.

“By the time of Columbus, God’s project of Disengagement was obvious to all,— with the terrible understanding that we were to be left more and more to our own solutions.”

America, withal, for centuries had been kept hidden, as are certain Bodies of Knowledge. Only now and then were selected persons allow’d Glimpses of the New World,— ”

“Never Reporters that anyone else was likely to believe,— men who ate the Flesh and fornicated with the Ghosts of their Dead, murderers and Pirates on the run, monks in parchment Coracles stitched together from copied Pages of the Book of Jonah, fishermen too many Nights out of Port, any Runagate craz’d enough to sail West.”

All matters of what becomes Visible, and when. Revelation exists as a Fact,— and continues, as Time proceeds. If new Continents may become visible, why not Planets, sir, as Planets are in your Line?”

“Ye’d have to ask Mason, who should be here Hourly.”

“Howbeit,— the Secret was safe until the choice be made to reveal it. It has been denied to all who came to America, for Wealth, for Refuge, for Adventure. This ‘New World’ was ever a secret Body of Knowledge,— meant to be studied with the same dedication as the Hebrew Kabbala would demand. Forms of the Land, the flow of water, the occurrence of what us’d to be call’d Miracles, all are Text,— to be attended to, manipulated, read, remember’d.”

“Hence as you may imagine, we take a lively interest in this Line of yours,” booms the Forge-keeper, “inasmuch as it may be read, East to West, much as a Line of Text upon a Page of the sacred Torah,— a Tellurian Scripture, as some might say,— ”

“— ’Twill terminate somewhere to the West, no one, not even you and your Partner, knows where. An utterance. A Message of uncertain length, apt to be interrupted at any Moment, or Chain. A smaller Pantograph copy down here, of Occurrences in the Higher World.

“Another case of, ‘As above, so below.’ ”

“No longer, Alas, a phrase of Power,— this Age sees a corruption and disabling of the ancient Magick. Projectors, Brokers of Capital, Insurances, Peddlers upon the global Scale, Enterprisers and Quacks,— these are the last poor fallen and feckless inheritors of a Knowledge they can never use, but in the service of Greed. The coming Rebellion is theirs,— Franklin, and that Lot,— and Heaven help the rest of us, if they prevail.”

Too much citation? Sorry. I think the patrons do a lovely job of delivering some of the novel’s central themes, as well as its grand thesis that the line Mason & Dixon are drawing is evil, or rather a tool of evil. The patrons’ insights help stage Dixon’s epiphany near the end of the novel (Ch. 71) that the line they created helped to maintain a system of “Tyrants and Slaves,” in America — “the one place we should not have found them.”

4 thoughts on “Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Third Riff: The Rabbi of Prague)”

  1. Dear Bibliokept, I get your blog and like it a lot. I have forwarded many items on it to many, including the Pynchon Listserve W.A.S.T.E. Maybe because of your articulated enthusiasm and others on the Listserve, a new Group Reading of Mason & Dixon is orchestrated to start January 4th, 2015. You say you feel like starting M & D from the beginning again. Way.
    i would like to invite you to Host a section and/or to participate. Each 3-section Reading goes two weeks. Interpret, annotate, speculate, riff, converse with others, that is what the Group Read is. The host, well, hosts for two weeks.
    If not, keep on keeping on.

    Liked by 1 person

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