First, some quick summaries of the "Captive's Tale" interlude in chapters 53-54 of Mason and Dixon, plus chapter 56, which gives us a crucial analogy to use to consider the Captive's Tale. Chapter 53 opens by signaling itself as a clear break in the narrative, as Mason and Dixon take a Winter break from drawing their Line and the Reverend Cherrycoke tale-telling takes a break as well. A new figure, unnamed, is central; she later is discovered to be named Eliza Fields. These two chapters appear to be Pynchon's version of one of the most popular colonial American narrative forms, the captivity narrative: Eliza is captured by the Indians and then "escorted" by them to Quebec City and the Jesuits (by chance, or because the Indians have been commissioned to bring her by the Jesuits?). Eliza then later joins the camp of workers accompanying Mason and Dixon surveying their Line creating the Pennsylvania/Maryland border: again, by chance or by design and, if the latter, whose?

Chapter 54 opens with Eliza Fields's first-person narrative of her stay in Quebec; it is the first time she has told her story directly (in 53 it was narrated in the third person). On the next page (526) we discover that this narrative is mysteriously not part of either the oral or the written version of the Rev. Cherrycoke's history of Mason and Dixon that has shaped the novel for over 500 pages. Rather, Eliza's story is being "read" in a separate volume by Tenebrae and Ethelmer, two young listeners in Cherrycoke's usual audience. The volume that Tenebrae and Ethelmer examine together is one of many published in the "Ghastly Fop" series, an invented (?) eighteenth-century popular fiction series mixing sex, death, and adventures featuring an aristocrat-rake who is also a ghost (526-27). Chapter 54 appears to be comprised of excerpts from this narrative (in first- and third-person) plus Tenebrae's and Ethelmer's comments upon and dreams about it. The chapter is also described as a "detour" "from the Revd's narrative Turnpike onto the pleasant Track of their own mutual Fascination, by way of the Captive's Tale" (529). Eliza's Captivity Tale also appears as a detour in the "Fop" narrative as well, for Eliza's tale is central while the Fop has only a ghostly presence in this episode.

 Chapter 54, the heart of the Captive's Tale, has the following parts to it:

Eliza's desire to escape from the Jesuit Castle and her imprisonment, torture, and sexual initiation by the nuns Blondelle and Grincheuse. This first person narrative reads like a comic mix of Kafka (the "Before the Law" parable in The Trial) and de Sade, of which more later. Pynchon's parody of de Sade pervades the chapter; the Kafka allusion may appear in Eliza's dream of the Toll-house (529-30), which is about making crossings and transgressions on one's own rather than following the advice of gate-keepers on the borders.
 
Eliza's tale continued in the third person (530- ). She unites with another outsider in the Jesuit Castle, the Chinese Mason/philosopher/mystic and possible madman Captain Zhang and together they plot a successful escape, Eliza disguising herself as an Indian boy. She and Zhang move through Six Nations territory south of Quebec. Eliza's disguise is discovered by Sir William Johnson, a local landowner and like Zhang a mason (532, 533). Eliza's name is revealed for the first time (532).
 
Eliza and Zhang journey further south, fearing that the Jesuits are in pursuit, until they encounter the Line in Pennsylvania, follow it, and join the surveyors' group (535-41). Eliza stays with the only other female member of this party, Zsuzsa Szabo. Eliza resists both Zhang's designs on her (he has fallen in love with her on their journey together) and also, at the end of the chapter, Mason's (Mason hallucinates her to be the very image of Rebekah, his dead wife).

 

Such a "survey" of the plot-line, however, must admit that it is not clear when the Ghastly Fop/Captive's Tale digression actually ends and Cherrycoke's main narrative resumes. There is a certain reference to Ethelmer and Tenebrae reading Eliza's tale on p. 533, but soon after the fugitives have joined the surveyors' party the Reverend suddenly appears to be narrating the tale again---and is in fact being teased by his audience for referring to himself in the third person (537). Mason's hallucinations of Eliza as his dead wife Rebekah are apparently part of Cherrycoke's tale. The last reference to Eliza in the novel appears to come near the end of the chapter, as Zsuzsa announces that Eliza is her "co-adventuress-to-be" (540): presumably Eliza and Zsuzsa eventually leave the surveyors' party to strike out on Adventures of their own, vanishing from the text. The last references to them come on 614 and 631, where they are mentioned incidentally; presumably they set out on their own soon after. Anyone out there beside me wish we had at least a chapter of their adventures splic'd in, either as told by someone else or by themselves after they make a return visit?

Back to the mystery of Eliza. At some point in chapter 54 between pages 533 and 537 Eliza has crossed from inhabiting the Ghastly Fop written narrative to becoming a character in Cherrycoke's oral tale. This is a "transit" (call it the Transit of Eliza) even more difficult to measure from the unstable field of Pynchon's narrative that the Transit of Venus is to chart by our intrepid heroes Mason and Dixon. It appears possible to measure precisely the start of Eliza's path across the Line of the novel's narrative-- mark it at the opening of chapter 53---but it is impossible as far as this poor surveyor can tell to calculate the precise moment of Eliza's exit. Or rather, Eliza's several exits---for first she leaves the Fop's tale and then after being occluded for awhile she & Zsuzsa leave Cherrycoke's tale (631).

Another way to think of Eliza's Captive's Tale is not as a curvilinear Transit but as a Vortex. To consider the larger implications of Pynchon using such a structure, we should turn to the very next chapter. Chapter 56 is destined to draw a good deal of commentary. It concerns the 1752 Gregorian "Calendar Reform" that cut eleven days from the calendar by an act of Parliament, the better to bring dating in line with new measurements of the earth's rotation and orbit undertaken by astronomers. (Pynchon does not go very deeply into the scientific rationale for this reform, focusing instead on the reasons why the "lost days" caused such consternation and superstition in the British populace: 554-555.) Mason describes these lost days in the following way: "'In a slowly rotating Loop, or if you like, Vortex, of eleven days, tangent to the Linear Path of what we imagine as Ordinary Time, but excluded from it, and repeating itself,--- without end." Dixon then comments: "as it is a periodick Ro-tation, so must it carry, mustn't it, a Vis centrifuga, that might, with some ingenuity, be detected....? Perhaps by finding, in the Realm of Time, where the Loop tries either to increase or decrease its circumference, and hence the apparent length of each day in it..." (555).

These narrative Vortices seem in sync with other examples of time-warps and hauntings in this novel, interpolations that cause "rational" narrative and scientific time clock-time to somehow be stretched or suspended ("the Loop tries either to increase or decrease its circumference," thus causing either a slowing or a speeding up in the linear time to which it is tangential). Examples include Mason's many visions of his dead wife Rebekah, or the following visitation to the story-room after everyone has gone to bed and the "Hook of night" has descended of all those exiled from Cherrycoke's narrative focusing mainly on Mason and Dixon--- "slowly into the Room begin to walk the Black servants, the Indian poor, the Irish runaways, the Chinese sailors, the overflow'd from the mad Hospital, all unchosen Philadelphia...," a grouping that also includes the poet Timothy Tox, who here sounds less like Alexander Pope or Joel Barlow than Tom O' Bedlam... (759). Mason indeed has a vision of himself---the consummate man of science---wandering through a ghost-like London caught in the "Whirlpool"-like vortex of the eleven lost days of the calendar Reform (556-61). The Ghastly Fop adventure tales seem to be similar examples, for the Fop himself is described as a sort of "Wraith" or ghost in chapter 54 (527).

The Captive's Tale (like the Ghastly Fop series of which it is a part) seems Pynchon's tribute to all forms of eighteenth-century popular narrative---on the stage, in street ballads, published narratives of capture and escape, and pornography---at odds with the worlds of reason and sentiment and moralism exemplified by the Reverend Cherrycoke and his scientific heroes Mason and Dixon. All these popular genres seem not so much about the powers of definition and line-drawing as they are about desire, the crossing of boundaries either volunarily (escape) or involuntarily (captivity). Accounts of being captured by Indians were very popular in the American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [2].

Pynchon seems to see such captivity narratives as actually functioning as tales of escape---stories that may at least temporarily reverse what is thought to be proper relation between "home" and exile, civilization and barbarism. Yet such escape narratives for Pynchon also enact the desire for coercion and capture and return: Eliza is continually tempted to return to what she is running from, to imagine with pleasure the punishments she will receive for her transgressions (534). Her imprisonment in Quebec with the nuns Blondelle and Grincheuse seems Pynchon's satiric portrait not only of religion's attempts to sublimate desire but also of the Marquis de Sade as the repressed alter ego of the Enlightenment (as Foucault in fact argues in The Order of Things). Such a view of de Sade sees him as an experimenter who focused not on the laws of Reason or Nature but of Desire--- especially how desire is fueled by inequities of power. Consider the following passage describing Eliza's imprisonment in the Castle:

her Gaze inclining to the Hothouse Rose, deep red, nearly black, whose supple, long Stem is expertly twisted into a Breech-clout, to pass between the Labia as well as 'round the Waist, with the Blossom, preferably one just about to open, resting behind, in that charming Cusp of moistness and heat, where odors of the Body and the Rose may mingle with a few drops of Blood from the tiny green Thorns, and Flashes of Pain whose true painfulness must be left for the Penitent to assess.... (520; Pynchon's ellipses)


This mock [?]-pornographic episode holds Tenebrae and Ethelmer captive even as they are shy and cryptic in sharing their fascination with it: "Brae has discover'd the sinister Volume in 'Thelmer's Room, lying open to a copper-plate Engraving of two pretty Nuns, sporting in ways she finds inexplicably intriguing..." (526). In general, such a de Sadean interlude in the Reverend Cherrycoke's tale seems a comic parable about the omnipresence of the repressed in the age of Enlightenment. Except that unlike de Sade, Pynchon's narratives on the complicated nexus relating Desire and Power is not a series of mechanistic blueprints on domination but a comic fabulation of the erotics of escape and transformation: Eliza Fields is never captive for long, as de Sade's heroine/victims are, and she does not for long appear to confuse sexual pleasure with subjugation or self-hate. Thus the last reference to Eliza in the novel may be particularly appropriate: she is embraced "from behind" by Zsuzsa and is set to become her "co-adventuress" (540). After briefly intersecting Mason and Dixon's narrative line these two disappear from the novel entirely, spinning off on a narrative trajectory of their own.

Another striking feature about Chapter 54 is that in its refusal to stabilize into a tale with a single narrative voice and stable set of characters it becomes a microcosm for Mason and Dixon as a whole. A first-person narrative suddenly switches to third-person; a popular and somewhat pornographic serial set of episodes focusing on Eliza Field displaces Cherrycoke on Mason and Dixon as the main narrative; Eliza's story is in turn displaced by Zhang's preoccupation with Jesuit theology and science and his determination to resist its hegemony via all the resources of Chinese science and culture. Zhang's Faustian obsessions continue to echo as the tale of Mason and Dixon's project is resumed in chapter 55---a process that Dixon with some amusement compares to Copernicus suddenly shifting the center of the solar system (545). Similarly, minor characters in the novel like Zsuzsu Szabo or Zhang or the Jesuit priest Zarpaso may have multiple identities and allegiances. Szabo may be Zarpaso in disguise (note the similarities in the sound of their names), plotting to capture Eliza and murder Zhang (552): if so, then the event to which I just alluded, Eliza's vanishing from the narrative in Zsuzsa's embrace, is sinister indeed. Zhang himself may also be Zarpaso, Jesuitically and cleverly disguising himself as his own nemesis: see 552, for instance. Zhang is Chinese and a spokesman for powerful alternative cultural and scientific traditions rivaling Western science and theology---yet he is also a Mason and well versed in all manner of Western thought and languages, speaking Spanish, French, and English as well as Chinese.


In short, one of the ways we should read the narrative of Mason and Dixon's Line is by looking for what Dixon names the Vis centrifuga of narrative Loops whose forces warp the forward advance of a linear plot and multiply infinite alternative narrative universes that coexist alongside the chronicle of the surveying of the Line and the Progress of science. Characters like Eliza whose stories briefly occupy the "center" of the narrative universe are signs of such centrifugal forces impinging on the story of Mason and Dixon's Line and the triumphal progress of Enlightenment ideals that for the good Reverend Cherrycoke the Line is supposed to mark.

It may be useful to distinguish among several different kinds of narrative Vortices in the novel. Some narrative Loops have their circumference quite clearly marked off from the main narrative, often via chapter divisions: the tale of the Lambdon worm, the saga of the Long Island milkmaid who always wears black and has pirates for friends, the stories of Hsi and Ho or of Mason's and Dixon's visit to George Washington at Mount Vernon, etc. Other peripheral figures and tales make irregular but important appearances over the course of the novel: Mason's dead wife Rebekah, the Welshman Capt. Shelby and Captain Zhang accompanying the expedition, Zarpazo the Jesuit, and others. In many cases these figures have a brilliant set-piece scene that causes all of the narrative briefly to revolve around them and their story; thereafter they tend to make only brief appearances---the Learnèd English dog and Armand and the invisible Duck are already legendary examples of this kind.

These "secondary" tales and characters, besides being entertaining, provide a series of analogies---scientific, comic, etc.--- that may be used as lenses through which to interpret the "primary" narrative. Pynchon has always loved digressions and divagations that oscillate between being minor asides and microcosms or holograms for the "whole" narrative. But he has never indulged in his love for spin-off tales with greater élan than in Mason and Dixon, and he has never before signified so clearly his kinship with that great earlier predecessor who shaped an epic novel entirely out of digressions, Lawrence Sterne. With his theory of Vortices in Mason and Dixon Pynchon has provided his clearest analogy yet for understanding the possibilities of non-linear narrative.

&





Notes
[continued]

[2]. For one history of the captivity narratives in the Colonies, see Michelle Burnham, Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997), among other texts.

[notes continued on later Pages]