If readers accept that the analogy of narrative Loops
complementing and competing with the main "Line" of the narrative
is one useful way of following Mason and Dixon, then chapter 61 quickly
looms in prominence and importance, for that is the chapter in which the
two surveyors investigate an Indian Mound "quite in the projected path"
of their proposed Line guided by one of their party who knows the local
territory, a Welshman named Shelby.
The Mound is a huge cone-shaped hill gradually illuminated by the morning
light, with a passageway cut into it by a would-be looter that allows Mason
and Dixon to see a cross-section of the Mound's structure as a series of
layered rings, each being warmed successively as the morning sun rises.
The layers are created using "Refuse": "dirt...ashes...crush'd
seashells." Dixon comments: "alternating Layers of different Substances
are ever a Sign of the intention to Accumulate Force,--- [...] perhaps,
Captain, these Substances Mr. Mason so disrespects may yet be suited to
Forces more Tellurick in nature, more attun'd, that is, to Death and the
slower Phenomena." The Mound's layered Loops indeed accumulate such
force that magnetic compasses are made useless for surveying: "the
Needle is swinging wildly and without pause, rocking about like a Weather-Vane
in a storm," and Dixon temporarily forgets who or where he is. Shelby
then adds a comment that encourages us to see the Mound precisely as a Vortex
or array of an infinite number of narrative Loops tangent to the Line: "'---When
at length your Visto is arriv'd here, the Mound will become active, as an
important staging-house, for...whatever it may be" (599).
It would be an oversimplification to label the contrast between Line and
Mound a contrast between modern and ancient ways of knowing, science and
religion. A more accurate way to state the contrast would be between heaven-centered
vs. earth-centered forms of knowledge, both ancient and modern. The
"star-dictated" (601) absolutes of Mason's astronomy or Zarpazo's
Jesuit theology, which thrive on neat geometries and stable hierarchies,
are juxtaposed with what Zhang and Dixon call the ambiguities and "inner
shapes" of earthly realities, including the sheer difficulty Mason
and Dixon have making perfect celestial or magnetic measurements in the
field and the myriad ways in which mortal human lives and understandings
conflict with truths that science and theology claim are universal. Zhang
associates these latter forces with "the true inner shape, or Dragon
[Shan], of the Land," while for Dixon they represent Tellurick
or earth-centered forces, especially magnetism. In the Indian Mound these
forces find their most powerful centering, their most direct contact and
conflict with the different energies embodied by the measuring of the Line.
For Pynchon, the Indian Mound and the Dragon Shan represent not only
ancient world views antithetical to Enlightenment science, but are prophetic
of how that same science already contained within it anomalies that could
only be resolved with the invention in the twentieth century of quantum
physics, fractals, and the sciences of chaos and "complex systems"
combining both linear and non-linear iterations. Hence we are meant to see
in the Mound's Vortex not a unique or exceptional occurrence but an emblem
for the infinite number of narrative Vortices or alternative universes already
present in any Linear rendering of either space or time.
Pynchon's narrative also playfully raises questions about the origins of
the Mound---who built it and what it signifies. Captain Shelby, supposedly
a local expert, has decided opinions on the subject but their validity is
questionable. To begin with, Shelby's views are self-serving and fantastical:
a Welshman, he argues that the Mound was created by a visionary band of
Welsh migrating from the East who left similar Mounds in Britain before
(possibly) becoming the band of Indians known as the Tuscarora (600); in
his opinion the Atlantic Ocean for them was not a barrier but "nearly
irrelevant." Shelby also contradicts himself: he proposes Meso-European
origins for Indian Mounds yet elsewhere concedes that the Indians in the
area are heartily amused by whites' attempts to understand the Mound's meaning
and origins: "This Mound is something they understand perfectly,---
that white people do not, and show no signs of ever doing so, is a source
of deep Amusement for them" (598).
The Indians have their own theories about the origins of the Mounds. They
attribute them not to their own civilizations but to a great earlier civilization
that preceded theirs---one that perhaps arrived from the sky and was constructed
by giants (662, 671). For the Indians the Mound inspires hilarity as well
as humility, a playful appreciation of the limits of all human attempts
to define and measure. Although sky-centered, this "visto" is
akin to Zhang's discussion of the inner realities and local contingencies
embodied in the Earth-Dragon Shan. The Mound is perhaps the most
discernible geographical structure in the novel representing this alternative,
earth-centered point of view; it is arguably as important for appreciating
the novel as a whole as the Line itself, and its centripetal and anti-entropic
forces are operative at every moment in Mason and Dixon. Indeed,
such a Mound is an analog for the printed Book itself, "'thin layers
of pattern'd Ink, alternating with other thin layers of compress'd Paper,
stack'd often by the Hundreds," producing an effect not unlike that
of the Mound and other "Contrivances" which "quite multiply
the apparent forces, often unto disproportionate results'" (390). 
The Mound may also be read as a primary model of
how to do alternative cultural history. Mason's and Dixon's training exemplifies
not only the world of Enlightenment science but also emerging eighteenth-century
views regarding how to understand cultural history. The Enlightenment project
sought to define universal laws of the history of civilizations comparable
to those governing the physical world. These human sciences reach their
fullest development in Kant's and Hegel's schemes for using universal standards
for measuring the degree of "civilization" any culture has attained.
For Hegel, this led inevitably towards classifying world cultures both past
and present into several different categories, including "world-historical,"
"emergent," and eternally child-like or primitive. Universal history
for him meant the "development of the consciousness of Freedom on the
part of Spirit, and the consequent realization of that Freedom" (70).
But for Hegel only certain civilizations may participate in "universal
history"; primitive cultures were by definition eternally outside of
the dialectical progress of History toward the realization of freedom.
Such a vision of cultural history also inextricably links the forces
of market capitalism, colonialism, and a sense of racial and national superiority.
The rules governing how to measure cultural superiority and inferiority
created the right of superior civilizations and races either to raise inferior
civilizations to their cultural level as part of the Progress of history
or (if a culture were judged inevitably primitive) to take advantage of
that culture's "undeveloped" natural resources, including human
labor. If Enlightenment reasoning led to the belief that the right of personal
liberty was "inalienable" for some, for others it justified their
being defined as aliens and slaves. The strain of this contradiction shows
itself most clearly in Hegel's contradictory use of his famous dialectic
in constructing his theory of comparative cultural history. Although constructed
as antithetical to Europe and thus seemingly part of any dialectic, truly
primitive cultures for Hegel by definition can never be subsumed
into the dialectic of history, for they cannot progress and their States
will never be able to realize freedom. Their exploitation, however, is indispensable
for other cultures to progress.
Of course, this Enlightenment cultural project had its dissenters and other
internal contradictions. The Marquis de Sade is the most notorious; I have
already briefly mentioned one example of his relevance to Pynchon's novel.
The Enlightenment project's most dangerous dissenter, however, is less well
known. In Isaiah Berlin's opinion, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) was
Kant's most serious contemporary opponent in cultural philosophy and the
precursor of all attempts to understand and value the differences
in cultures. As Berlin reads his work, Herder provides the most sustained
argument before the twentieth century for the denial of cultural hierarchies
and universal absolutes for evaluating cultural progress such as Kant and
Hegel were determined to construct. Herder argued that each culture was
a product of its geography and history and that its cultural inventions
could only be fully understood from within that history. Even more,
Herder argued that cultural values were incommensurate; one culture's cultural
values could not be used to understand or measure another's, except as a
starting point of reference, never as an absolute. (A very controversial
claim, then as now.) In Herder's words as translated by Berlin: "the
civilization of man is not that of the European; it manifests itself, according
to time and place, in every people" (198). To use the terms Pynchon's
novel has given us, this sense of cultural relativism is the novel's Mound
or Shan, its "Tellurick" or earth-bound knowledges that
pose an alternative to allegedly universal (whether Newtonian, Kantian,
or Hegelian) absolutes as a way of defining cosmological and cultural realities.
Herder, as far as I can tell, is never mentioned in Mason and Dixon,
but I would argue that his thought is deeply relevant to it, if only because
without considering his thought it is impossible to re-evaluate the complex
heritage of the Enlightenment--- and such an assessment is the deepest ambition
of Pynchon's text. Pynchon's novels have always been concerned with the
metaphysics used to create and justify power inequities, but with unprecedented
power Mason and Dixon provides a cultural archeology of the links
between Enlightenment science and European theories of racial and cultural
superiority. In this the novel is profoundly Herderian, and never more so
than when Jeremiah Dixon's point of view is central.
Here, for example, are Mason and Dixon debating whether
to accede to Native American requests and halt the drawing of the Line some
forty miles short of its planned intersection with the Ohio river. Characteristically,
Mason argues for the universal imperatives of their collective enterprise
in the name of Enlightenment science, while Dixon takes the side of the
Indians and imagines how they might see the enterprise of the Line differently.
Dixon does this in part just to needle his partner and in part because,
though trained as a scientist, he is curious about all world-views and all
forms of knowledge that contradict what he has been taught. Dixon also voices
his and Mason's growing unease with their project and what its unintended
consequences might be.
- "They want to know how to stop this great invisible Thing that
comes crawling Straight on over their Lands, devouring all in its Path."
- "Well! [Mason replies] of course it's a living creature, 'tis
all of us, temporarily collected into an Entity, whose Labors none could
"A tree-slaughtering Animal, with no purpose but to continue creating
forever a perfect Corridor over the Land. Its teeth of Steel,--- its Jaws,
Axmen,--- its Life's Blood, Disbursement. And what of its intentions, beyond
killing ev'rything due west of it? do you know? I don't either. ...Haven't
we been saying, with an hundred Blades all the day long,--- This is how
far into your land we may strike, this is what we claim to westward. As
you see what we may do to Trees, and how little we care,--- imagine how
little we care for Indians, and what we are prepared to do to you. ...As
the Indians wish, we must go no further." (678-79; ellipses are my
If Mason is obsessed with categorical imperatives in science and philosophy,
Dixon, though trained as Mason was, is by temperament drawn to ironies,
ambiguities, and cultural contradictions. Mason and Dixon journey to South
Africa or to Ireland or the American colonies primarily on scientific expeditions,
but Pynchon uses their presence in these locales---and the astronomers'
unease with the abuses of power that they encounter---to show us the contradictory
consequences of Enlightenment cultural theories, their complicity with both
the "Charter'd Companies" that marked the first stage of capitalism
(252) and justified colonialism with theories of racial and cultural supremacy,
not just a curiosity for different cultures or the necessities of trade.
We see class and cultural warfare in rural Britain and in London; we see
how British colonial violence and racism was first deployed not in the New
World but against the Scots and the Irish.
And the novel's opening episodes in South Africa provide a key introduction
to a history of slavery and cultural domination that sets the stage for
the full exploration of these themes in America. Mason and Dixon's Line
of course became a boundary marking not just the Pennsylvania/Maryland border
but the fault-line in American democracy itself---all the contradictions
between America's vision of liberty and equality and its constitutional
validation of the color line marking some as citizens and others as aliens.
Mason and Dixon's Line is also implicated in America's westward expansion,
a violent, tree-clearing expression of cultural superiority made manifest
both in slavery and in Indian wars. These doubts increasingly shadow Dixon
as the Line is drawn farther and farther West.
Yet it is too simple to say that Mason embodies the Line's energies and
Dixon the Mound's, though this is partly true. In reviews of the novel,
much was made of Pynchon's brilliant use of opposing temperaments in his
two main characters---Mason's rage for order coupled with his melancholia;
Dixon's optimism, gregariousness, and delight in play, improvisation, and
risk-taking. What has not yet been sufficiently emphasized is how well this
pairing allows Pynchon to explore the cultural contradictions of the Enlightenment
embodied in each of his primary characters and in the country most
famously founded in the name of Enlightenment truths, America itself.
Mason is usually threatened by the new and the culturally different and
most frequently seeks refuge in his scientific training in universal absolutes.
In the wilds of Pennsylvania he is the one who is least able to adapt to
the conditions of the frontier; he frequently (and sometimes unintentionally)
insults both his white and Indian hosts, and Dixon has to patch things up.
Yet Mason has his own "Tellurick" energies; he is a melancholic
frequently assailed with visions of the uselessness of all his science,
and in his dreams and visions of his wife Rebekah he journeys far into an
alternative realm that can be explained neither by Newtonian physics nor
by Enlightenment cultural or psychic history; like Newton, he has a visionary
and mystical side that is fully developed but usually hidden behind his
Like Mason, Dixon is a good and steady scientist, indisputably a free-thinker,
experimenter, and man of his age. But unlike Mason he is a gregarious optimist
delighting in heterogeneity and chance, always willing to explore new foods,
new adventures, and new cultures. Dixon is also a Quaker deeply disturbed
by inequities of power and by injustice and cruelty; he too has a melancholic
side and it is he, not Mason, who meditates most thoroughly on the contradictions
between slavery and the Enlightenment.
- "Ev'rywhere they've sent us,--- the Cape, St. Helena, America,---
what's the Element common to all?"
- "Long Voyages by Sea," replies Mason, blinking in Exhaustion
by now chronick. "Was there anything else?"
- "Slaves. Ev'ry day at the Cape, we lived with Slavery in our faces,---
more of it at St. Helena,--- and now here we are again, in another Colony,
this time having drawn them a Line between their Slave-Keepers, and their
Wage-Payers, as if doom'd to re-encounter thro' the World this public Secret,
this shameful Core...." (692; ellipses are Pynchon's)
Dixon is really a Herderian, a proto-anthropologist who relishes rather
than is threatened by cultural differences and the possibilities of cultural
relativism. When Native American leaders explain with the Line must stop
and not cross a Warrior Path that is a crucial boundary-line allowing contact
yet separateness among Native American nations, it is Dixon who is instrumental
in stopping the Line's "progress." This is the same Dixon who
will confront injustice whenever he encounters it, most memorably when he
publicly humiliates a slave-driver even though his actions put an important
supplemental surveying project in jeopardy (696ff). 
Dixon may be fascinated with cultural multiplicities, but he does appear
to believe in some absolutes of ethical conduct.
In the end Pynchon's novel does not resolve the conflict
between the Enlightenment project and its contradictions and alternatives,
just as it does not side with either Mason's or Dixon's world-views but
rather presents them both in all their complexity and inter-relatedness.
The novel is both Line and Loop, Loops infinitely expanding within the narrative
of the Line. The full richness of Pynchon's deconstruction of Enlightenment
cultural studies as well as its natural sciences will only emerge in the
next millennium as the novel gets readings to match the complexity of those
given Gravity's Rainbow. Moreover, just as Gravity's Rainbow
proved so stimulating in the late 1970s and 1980s to testing the full range
of possibilities in deconstruction as a theory of reading, so will Mason
and Dixon be one of the crucial texts for testing the resources and
limitations of current "cultural studies" and "postcolonial"
critical theories. (In saying this, I don't mean to place Mason and Dixon
as the unmovable center of these new critical paradigms, only as one of
many possible centers. Mason and Dixon will greatly benefit from
being read in contexts provided by writers such as Rushdie and Kingston,
Marquez and Parmuk, Ben Okri and Charles Johnson, Michelle Cliff and the
Bharati Mukherjee of A Holder of the World, not just novelists such
as Burroughs and Barth and Melville with whom Pynchon is usually compared.)
As well as focusing on the novel's brilliant comic set-pieces (talking dogs
and walk-on parts for Washington and Franklin, etc.), we should be willing
to unpack the full meanings of the laughter provoked by a knowledge of the
Mound, the crises of understanding represented by Native America's "Interdiction"
(678) of the Line in western Pennsylvania.
. The novel's magnificent opening paragraph
gives us another such device figuring the work as a whole as well as the
reader's encounter with it: in the room in the Philadelphia house in which
Cherrycoke presides is "a sinister and wonderful Card Table which exhibits
the cheaper Wave-like Grain known in the Trade as Wand'ring Heart, causing
an illusion of Depth into which for years children have gaz'd as into the
illustated Pages of Books ... along with so many hinges, sliding Mortises,
hidden catches, and secret compartments that neither the Twins nor their
Sister can say to have been to the end of it" (5-6; ellipses Pynchon's).
. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) published
somewhat contemporaneously with the events of Pynchon's novel (Kant's "The
Idea of a Universal History" dates from 1784, for instance), while
G. F. W. Hegel (1770-1831) of course did not publish his work until after
the period in which the novel is set. Pynchon is writing an ur-history of
the Enlightment, however, not making a strict chronology of influences.
Kant and Hegel brought to fruition in the philosophy of history many of
the assumptions that governed Mason and Dixon's Enlightenment scientific
training, in particular the belief in universal laws underlying and explaining
the multifariousness of the perceived world. Also relevant is John Locke's
Second Treatise on Government (1690), which contradictorily treats
slavery as both a violation of natural rights and as acceptible within a
social contract such as the Articles that governed the Carolina colony.
. Isaiah Berlin's most succinct account
of the importance of Herder is in Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the
History of Ideas. New York: Viking, 1976. For Kant, see The Idea
of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, trans. Thomas
de Quincey (rpt. Hanover, NH: Sociological Press, 1927); an excerpt is also
in Patrick L. Gardiner, Theories of History: Readings from Classical
and Contemporary Sources (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959), 22-34, translated
by W. Hastie. For Hegel, see especially the "Introduction to the Philosophy
of History," in Gardiner, 60-73, translated by J. Sibree. For a central
J. G. Herder text, see the selections compiled as "Ideas Toward a Philosophy
of the History of Man," in Gardiner, 35-49, translated by T. Churchill.
Contrast Herder's statement "one must enter the time, the place, the
entire history [of a people]; one must 'feel oneself ... into everything'"
(Berlin 186) with the following two statements by Kant and Hegel, respectively:
"suppose we start from the history of Greece, as that by which all
the older or contemporaneous history has been preserved, or at least accredited
to us." [Kant's footnote on this passage: "It is only a learned
public which has had an uninterrupted existence from its beginning up to
our time that can authenticate ancient history. Beyond it, all is terra
incognita; and the history of the peoples who lived out of its range
can only be begun from the date at which they entered within it. In the
case of the Jewish people this happened in the time of the Ptolemies through
the Greek translation of the Bible, without which little faith would have
been given to their isolated accounts of themselves"] (in Gardiner,
32). Or Hegel: "In the history of the World, only those peoples can
come under our notice which form a state. For it must be understood that
this latter is the realization of Freedom.... It must further be understood
that all the worth which the human being possesses---all spiritual reality,
he possesses only through the State... for his spiritual reality consists
in this, that his own essence---Reason---is objectively present to him [as
realized in a rational State of which he is a member]" (67-68).
. The Irish role in the origins of repressive
colonial policies is stressed in Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror:
A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little Brown, 1993), especially
pp. 9, 24-50; and David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the
Post-Colonial Moment (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993).
. This incident may be prophesied by
Mason and Dixon's Native American guide during a night-time exploration
of the Warrior Path that their Line will not cross (675-76). There they
find a mysterious whip-like weapon in the path, either put their as a warning
from Catawba Indians to the South, or a "find" staged by the Indians
to give the white surveyors pause with a weapon that for Mason and Dixon
may connote not so much Indian weaponry as one of the principal instruments
of coercion in the slave system, the cat-of-nine-tails whip. A similar whip
(though made of leather, not swamp cane) is wielded by the slave-seller
whom Dixon later attacks (696).