Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Pynchon's Age of Reason: Mason & Dixon and America's Rise of Rational Discourse

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Pynchon's Age of Reason: Mason & Dixon and America's Rise of Rational Discourse

Article excerpt

Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

--Thomas Paine (63)

By drawing upon astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon for the unlikely protagonists of Mason & Dixon (1997), Thomas Pynchon develops a revisionist history of these two Englishmen as they come to terms with America in the so-called Age of Reason, which was informed by a European philosophical movement with its roots in rational discourse aimed at cultural and political intellect that eventually served as the foundation for American independence and democracy. But as Thomas Paine suggests, time wields a stronger power than does reason, and what history calls the Age of Reason may remind one of an ideal time in America when, in theory, rational discourse converted people into better citizens. However, as Mason and Dixon create their Line, recognizing that it will, in effect, divide North from South, they begin to realize that America consumes them with irrational discourse.

Does this make the Age of Reason an Age of Unreason? Perhaps not, but Pynchon's novel suggests that the Age of Reason--at least as we know it--never happened, and that rationality remains unstable, indeterminate, and applicable only case by case. Human nature and rationality, for Pynchon, are given to deontology: a Kantian pursuit of good will while obeying moral obligation despite the presence of irrationality. (1) In "Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals," Kant writes,

      Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of
   it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good
   Will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the
   mind, however they may be named, ... are undoubtedly good and
   desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also
   become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make
   use of them ... is not good. (9)

Kant defines good will thus: "[that which] is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some purposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition--that is, it is good in itself" (10). And over two centuries, history has marked the Age of Reason as a remarkably good period in America. But among all the positives (such as the formation of a new nation), the glaring negatives (such as slavery and Indian eradication) often receive little mention. In fact, allusions in Mason & Dixon to the 1860s and the 1960s suggest that America has yet to experience a true Age of Reason, or at least that what constitutes the Age of Reason is not what we have imagined. Pynchon's novel challenges readers to rethink and redefine ideas of reason and rational discourse, not only in colonial America but also in contemporary America. One way to explore such new definitions is through Kant's work and that of theorists who explore the possibilities of what Kant's ideas mean.

Pynchon assesses recorded (and recording) history in an exchange between Ethelmer and Ives LeSpark:

"It may be the Historian's duty to seek the Truth, yet must he do ev'rything he can, not to tell it. [...] Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base." [...]

"Hogwash, Sir, [...] Facts are Facts, and to believe otherwise is not only to behave perversely, but also to step in imminent peril of being grounded, young Pup. [...] Dr. Johnson says that all History unsupported by contemporary Evidence is Romance." (M&D 349-51)

Pynchon's use of history seems not so much flexible in fitting the story as malleable in conveying a broad picture of American culture. …

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