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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Ellipsonics: Sound and the Invisible in Mason & Dixon
Justin St. Clair

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Tuesday 6 June, from 09:30 to 10:00

In Pynchon’s world, sound often arrives before the visual.  Take Mason & Dixon (1997), for example.  Lost in “late-Day Invisibility” aboard the Mary and Meg, Dixon hears the premonitory church bells of America an ocean away, “peculiarly lucid in the fog” (244).  And when he and Mason finally do arrive in the New World, their initial impressions are exclusively auditory:  “Milkmaids quarrelling and cowbells a-clank, and dogs, and Babies old and new,-- Hammers upon Nails, Wives upon Husbands, the ring of Pot-lids, the jingling of Draft-chains, a rifle-shot from a stretch of woods, lengthily crackling tree to tree” (257).  Not only is it a neat reversal of natural phenomena, but it is also an emphasis on re-vision, on modes of apprehension beyond the visual.

This paper will focus on the sound of Mason & Dixon, arguing that in his overlooked opus, Pynchon offers an audible counterpoint to his obsession with invisibility.  Of particular note are instances in which the visible world is obscured, erased, or otherwise elided.  For example, consider the so-called Eleven Missing Days, which, depending on one’s perspective, were either expunged or appended by England’s adoption, at long last, of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.  Mason, of course, claims to have slipped into the missing spacetime, and his descriptions emphasize the limits of ocular perception. “’Twas something I never saw,” he tells Dixon (558).  “After Night-Fall, as I burn’d Taper ’pon Taper wantonly, only just succeeding in pushing back the gloom about me, would I hear Them rustling, ever beyond the circle of light, as if foraging among the same ancient Leaves as I” (558).

Mason’s account of his time alone inside the Eleven Missing Days echoes an earlier episode in the novel, when, on a visit to Jenkin’s Ear Museum on St. Helena, he finds himself unexpectedly in a neglected garden. “The Walls are markedly higher in here,” Rev. Cherrycoke narrates, “than he remembers them from the Street,-- whose ev'ry audible Nuance now comes clear to him, near and far, all of equal Loudness, from ev'ry part of the Town,-- but invisible.... In its suggestion of Transition between Two Worlds, the space offers an invitation to look into his Soul for a moment, before passing back to the Port-Town he has stepp'd from” (180).  With the visible world screened by privacy walls, the garden provides Mason with a contemplative respite, an interstitial space especially suited for audition.

In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon repeatedly renders the visible world invisible, thereby emphasizing both the power of listening and the political import of sounded space.  Throughout the novel, these spaces often figure as American coffeehouses with their “unceasing Talk and low Visibility” (305).   In his recent study Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature after Civil Rights (2015), Carter Mathes suggests that contemporary African American literature deploys sound to represent “cultural meaning largely imperceptible to the visual registers” (13).  Pynchon, I argue, is up to similar tricks.  From the “crepuscular Murmur” of American cafés to the odd “Assembly Room full of Smoke and Noise,” the whispers of eventual revolution are sounded in secret (365, 644).  Mason & Dixon, thus, “reconstitutes the political,” to repurpose Mathes, “along frequencies outside of ocularcentric authoritarian containment” (3).