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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


'[L]ike the Over-soul of the Hindoo': How Eastern Philosophy Became Part of Mason & Dixon’s version of What It Is to Be American With the Help of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Simon de Bourcier

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Tuesday 6 June, from 11:45 to 12:15

Early in Mason & Dixon Mason accuses Dixon of wanting him ‘to live in the eternal Present, like some Hindoo’. Another character, Mrs De Bosch, describes Dixon as ‘halfway to a Hindoo’. This paper argues that the current of Hindu philosophy running through the novel, and in particular associated with Dixon, is mediated through the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Early critical responses to Mason & Dixon by Tony Tanner and Joseph Dewey, respectively, recognised the Emersonian presence in the text and its rejection of Christian and Enlightenment values in favour of a turn to Eastern philosophy. This paper builds on these readings and attempts a synthesis of them, arguing that Mason & Dixon voices through Dixon a distinctly Emersonian version of Hindu philosophy.

Emerson played an important role in introducing ideas from Eastern philosophy to American audiences in his lectures and essays, and as editor of The Dial he published under the heading of ‘Ethnical Scriptures’ translations of texts from outside the Judaeo-Christian and Classical traditions which had not previously been known in the USA. According to Arthur Versluis, Emerson found in the Vedantic and Confucian traditions confirmation of the idealism he had already absorbed from Plato and Kant. Another key ingredient in Emerson’s thought was the ideology of free trade: Pynchon satirises the Emersonian fusion of idealism and enthusiasm for commerce in the spiel of the ‘Body-Jobber’ O’Rooty.

The Emersonian terms ‘Flux’, ‘Flow’ and ‘Metamorphosis’ pervade Mason & Dixon, and provide Pynchon with a language to describe the emergence of the new American nation and identity, but ‘Flow’ also has a history which runs from Lao-Tzu via Emerson to the 1960s hippy belief in ‘going with the flow’. One of the characters who undergoes metamorphosis from Englishman to American, Philip Dimdown, likens the emerging consciousness of the new American nation to ‘the Over-soul of the Hindoo’. In a notebook from the 1860s Emerson uses the term ‘Over-soul’ as a translation of the Vedantic term paramatman. In his essay ‘The Over-Soul’ he writes that ‘within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE’. Pynchon dovetails this Emersonian idea of the ‘wise silence’ with the reverence for silence in the Quaker tradition, to which Dixon belongs: it is Dixon’s advocacy of ‘Silence’ that prompts Mason to accuse him of disliking the Church of England because it is ‘not Hindoo enough’.

Pynchon’s Dixon is depicted as a kind of proto-American in various ways, for example in his love of ketjap, and the Emersonian version of American identity Dixon represents includes an interest in non-Western ideas about spirituality. In this paper I focus on terms such as ‘Flow’ and ‘Over-soul’ to show how concepts from Eastern philosophy arrive in Mason & Dixon mediated through through a specific textual history in the nineteenth century which can be traced in both Emerson’s writing and his editorial work at The Dial.