Unearthly Utopias: Ecogothic Scenes in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

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The ambiguous role of machinery in Thomas Pynchon’s fiction has been much discussed, from the strange amalgamations of body and technology in his first novel V. (1963) to the haunted cyberspace of his latest Bleeding Edge (2013). As I have previously arguedPynchon’s fiction may be understood as participating in certain conventions of the Gothic genre by their recurrent imagery of humanity’s dissolution into an inhuman environment. This posthuman Gothic, as theorised by critics such as Sean Bolton and Anya Heise-von der Lippe, may be distinguished from an earlier postmodern Gothic in the way it eschews that aesthetic’s fears of disintegration by machines for a broader concern about the integration of our lives into machinery. In Pynchon’s fiction this integration is made manifest, as both his characters and readers become increasingly aware of their complicity in vast machineries of control, and the possibility that their seemingly autonomous sense of humanity was always already incorporated into a mechanical order.

If the anxieties surrounding humanity and machines are already well-acknowledged in Pynchon’s fiction, comparatively less examined is the role which nature plays in his novels as an additional and no less inhuman force opposed to that of the machines. This dynamic is apparent as early as Pynchon’s first novel, which—despite its preoccupation with specifically mechanical threats—ends on a vision of nature’s sublime wrath. In V.’s closing scene, situated off the coast of Malta, one of its protagonists succumbs to the inhuman pull back to the inert oneness of earth and sea:

“Just as the main characters move towards the rock of Malta, so more generally the human race seems to be hastening to return to ‘rockhood.’ It is part of the basic ambiguity of Malta as described in this book that while on the one level it is an image of an island of life under siege, attacked by the levelling bombs of the Germans, and constantly eroded by the sea, on another level it is an image of a central point of inanimate rock and death drawing people back to that inert state” (Tanner 1978, 25-6).

 A full thirty years later, in his historical novel Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon returns to these images of landscape and desire. But whereas in V. the earth is figured as an inert mass into which all the dead and forgotten of history disappear, in Mason & Dixon the landscape overpowers the living not in its inanimate enormity, but in its surprisingly dynamic role within human affairs. If the posthuman Gothic may be characterised by its dramatisation of humanity’s loss of autonomy to nonhuman powers, Mason & Dixon charts out an environmentally-conscious space within this Gothic subgenre. The particular form of the posthuman in this ecogothic text is not only altered by technological transformation, but shaped by anxieties over the dissolution of humanity into the natural and the geological. As we shall see, this reversion takes place in opposition to Pynchon’s usual theme of technical control, so that the novel embodies both the technological and ecological strands of the posthuman Gothic. Seen only in glimpses through the picaresque events of the novel, and only becoming properly visible in its final pages, Mason & Dixon tells the story of humanity’s precarious place on an earth at war with a parasitic and global machine (on this machine and the Gothic folding of space, see this paper).


Set in the middle years of the eighteenth century, a decade prior to the American Revolution, the novel follows the travels of the astronomer Charles Mason and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. Over the course of the novel, the duo journey into the American continent to chart the border between several colonies which would a century hence be the front-line of the American civil war. As events progress, the duo come increasingly to face the dark forces which inhabit their supposed era of Enlightenment. More specifically, they discover that it is this age of reason itself which begets the monstrous and “great systems of control” typical of Pynchon’s cosmos (Noys 2014, 44). As Stefan Mattessich has argued, the novel is preeminently concerned with thetechnological drive to master the processes of life,” and in turn functions as “a narrative analysis of this desire, this drive, and correlative concepts of transparency, truth, reason, synthesis, and control” (2002, 231-2). This drive to mastery takes the form of a mechanical re-organisation of the earth’s flows of energy to advance the causes of capital and empire. Reflecting on his youth in the countryside, Mason recalls the reshaping of the landscape to accommodate waterworks:

“Living in a Paradise, they chose to enact a Purgatory […] the Flow of Water through Nature, along a Gradient provided free by the same Deity, [was] re-shap’d to drive a Row of Looms, each working thousands of Yarns in strictest right-angularity,— as far from Earthly forms as possible” (Pynchon 1997, 207).

The idyllic home of the young Mason is transformed from a world of natural harmony to one of mechanical rigour, in which the very flow of a river is contorted to better suit growing industry. This technological domination of nature is paralleled in the recollections of Dixon of his own training as a surveyor. Whereas Mason’s reflection considers the loss of an idyllic nature,  Dixon summons his own idyll in the form of a secondary world overlaid upon this one:

“He must, if one day call’d upon, produce an overhead view of a World that never was, in truth-like detail, one he’d begun in silence to contrive,— a Map entirely within his mind, of a World he could escape to, if he had to” (Pynchon 1997, 242).

Although framed as youthful fantasy—of escaping his newfound profession to chart a fictive universe—it is precisely this secondary world which Dixon’s work as a surveyor produces. Charting out the borderlines of empire, reducing the earth to a mapped globe, Mason and Dixon unwittingly partake in the rationalisation of the earth which marks the birth of modernity and the end of their youthful idylls. As a far more knowing and nefarious character remarks later in the novel:

“The Model […] is Imprisonment. Walls are to be the Future. […] As a Wall, projected upon the Earth’s Surface, becomes a right Line, so shall we find that we may shape, with arrangements of such Lines, all we may need, be it in a Crofter’s hut or a great Mother-City,— Rules of Precedence, Routes of Approach, Lines of Sight, Flows of Power” (Pynchon 1997, 522).

Pynchon’s novel here approaches the themes of the Gothic from two angles: Firstly, in its problematisation of enlightenment rationality; and secondly, in its preoccupation with the folding and enclosure of space. While Dixon fantasises of escape from this world into another, that very drive to an exterior space reproduces the conditions of his enclosure, as that other world is made real in the arbitrary territorial lines imposed upon the earth. The prototypical Gothic nightmare, as identified by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is one of “privation and immobilization,” the experience of “submergence under a massive space” and the forced enclosure within an ever-shrinking interior space (1986, 37). Mason & Dixon’s depiction of the enlightenment returns to this central Gothic image of an escape from one prison into a greater bondage, as the forces of control feed upon all desires for exteriority all the while forcing the world into ever more tightly controlled inner spaces.


As the earth succumbs to deeper and deeper “geometrick Scars,” and all movement across it is increasingly structured, somewhere below the surface lurks another power no less inhuman (Pynchon 1997, 257). Mason & Dixon is positioned in the Gothic lineage not only by its ambiguous depiction of enlightenment values—which speak of freedom while reducing the world to a prisonhouse—but also in its evoking of orders outside that rationalist world. Scattered throughout the pages of Pynchon’s novel are the hints of an archaic challenge to the newly born modernity. As the titular duo venture further into the American continent, they encounter the artefacts of cultures which live both exterior to the growing bondage of empire and in accordance with the laws of an earth far older than any may know. Principally, the novel returns to the image of the American Indian mound as the symbol of a past whose power remains uncannily preserved in the earth. A member of the surveying expedition recounts:

“when you go out there and talk to them about it, […] the Indians tell you that the Serpent, as the other earthworks unnumber’d of that Country, was already ancient, by the time their own people arriv’d. Indians speak of a race of Giants, who built them” (Pynchon 1997, 595).

More troubling for the party, one such structure lies directly in the path of the line, spurring discussions of telluric currents, ley lines, and the possibility of a geologic conspiracy to direct earthly power ever-westward. Lapsing from their reasoned positions as men of science, the protagonists turn increasingly to speculations of an occult nature, wherein their charting of the line takes on a far darker import. Cryptically, the serpent mound and its fortuitous position upon the line is described in a short verse as:

“A ‘Force Intensifier,’ as ‘tis styl’d,
A geomantic Engine in the Wild,
Whose Task is sending on what comes along,
As brisk as e’er, and sev’ral Times as strong” (Pynchon 1997, 600).

What force the line directs and the mound accelerates is not directly named, but both structures lead the narrative away from a merely colonial or enlightenment setting toward themes of subterranean and pre-human forces at work in and through the world. The line which Mason and Dixon chart takes on an importance beyond its historical reality, and assumes cosmic powers within the text. Built upon a vein of geomantic power which preceded its construction by millennia, the line functions as more than an incursion of imperial territories into the unbound continent. As a conduit for the powers of empire and industry—pithily described by one character as “what we call Sha, or, as they say in Spanish California, Bad Energy” (Pynchon 1997, 542)—the line is spoken of in primarily occult terms, as a ritual marking upon the surface of the earth, composed of “Geometry and slaughter,” which might funnel the flows of desires, bodies, and resources from across the Atlantic further westward into the frontier (Pynchon 1997, 551).

The line is conceived as a “great invisible Thing that comes crawling Straight on over their Lands, devouring all in its Path” driven by its alien “Will to proceed Westward” (Pynchon 1997, 678). The surveyors and their band of woodsmen are “temporarily collected” into a beastly entity which surpasses any one of them individually, while embodying a will which supersedes their own:

“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?” (Pynchon 1997, 678-9).

But the line does not proceed unimpeded, and in its path encounters a great American Indian trail, passing from north to south in perfect contradistinction to the lateral course of the line. Like the line, the trail appears to funnel certain unseen powers which resist the encroaching boundaries of empire. As a member of the band remarks: “Mr. Mason, they [the Indians] treat this Trail as they would a River,— they settle both sides of it, so as to have it secure,— they need the unimpeded Flow. Cutting it with your Visto would be like putting an earthen Dam across a River.” (Pynchon 1997, 646). It is this discovery and cutting of the trail which takes up much of the book’s last act, as the characters weigh up the cost of severing such a potent flow of life across the continent. Strange occurrences manifest on the periphery of this boundary, as the European interlopers both perceive a form of life incommensurable with their own, and feel themselves pulled into the dark underworld that escapes their enlightened universe:

“Watching an Indian slip back into the forest is like seeing a bird take wing,— each moves vertiginously into an Element Mason, all dead weight, cannot enter. The first time he saw it, it made him dizzy. The spot in the Brush where the Indian had vanish’d vibrated, as an eddying of no color at all. Contrariwise, watching an Indian emerge, is to see a meaningless Darkness eddy at length into a Face, and a Face, moreover, that Mason remembers” (Pynchon 1997, 647).

Although Pynchon by no means falls on the side of the colonists, his novel explicates their fear of all that goes unmeasured and unnamed by the annals of their history. Outside their boundary-line, or observed from across the trail, lies an immense and unmeasured world in which humanity recedes into nature. As Claire Colebrook writes of the Gothic uncertainties in the poems of William Blake: “We are poised between abstraction and empathy, between a world that is so terrifyingly other as to require rigid lines imposed in a geometrical manner […] and a world that is already thoroughly organic and humanised, benevolent, with nothing disruptive or variable” (2018, 106). But in Pynchon’s fiction both sides of this dynamic are given a terrifying quality: to be enclosed in a universal jailhouse or to be submerged in the darkness outside its walls.


It is toward this natural outside that Pynchon’s novel increasingly turns to make sense of the inhuman rationalism of the line. What exists outside the growing networks of empire, capital, and reason is not simply conceived as uncivilised or unenlightened, but as modes of thought and existence which defy the reigning laws of the day. As the narrator remarks: “These times are unfriendly toward Worlds alternative to this one. Royal Society members and French Encyclopaedists are in the Chariot, availing themselves whilst they may of any occasion to preach the Gospels of Reason, denouncing all that once was Magic,” and to rediscover what has now become foreign  “one must turn to Gothick Fictions, folded acceptably between the covers of Books” (Pynchon 1997, 359). What I wish to argue is that Mason & Dixon itself functions as one of these Gothic novels, which secludes a forbidden magic within its many pages.

As the line, this “conduit for Evil,” extends across the American landscape it takes on an inhuman power of control over the lives of those propelled along its trajectory (Pynchon 1997, 700). Although an instrument for rationalising the earth, and driving from the world all that has been decreed unfit for an enlightened age, it also delineates and thus defines the borders of a vast and boundless universe which persists outside. The party constantly encounters sublime images of a nature “transgressing all Metes and Bounds” (485) which, in typical Gothic fashion, are never experienced as “the subject’s capacity to feel and think beyond reason, but the invasion of reason from elsewhere” (Colebrook 2018, 93). Whether beholding the majesty of the colonial line or the impenetrable murk of the lands beyond, the surveyors realise that what they see is but the surface of a vast and unknown war for control of the earth. In these moments of realisation, the novel descends below the outer scars of battle to speculate on the subterranean spaces which may yet reveal the secrets of this occulted conflict.

“A Knowledge of Tunneling became more and more negotiable, as more of the Surface succumb’d to Enclosure, Sub-Division, and the simple Exhaustion of Space,— Down Below, where no property Lines existed, lay a World as yet untravers’d” (Pynchon 1997, 233).

Just a Pynchon’s other fictions have dramatised the mechanical enslavement of the human body and mind in myriad ways—from the psychedelic brainwashing of Gravity’s Rainbow to the digital rewiring of drives in Bleeding Edge—I wish to argue that Mason & Dixon expands this posthuman Gothic anxiety around psychic autonomy and bodily integrity into a specifically environmental space. The novel abounds with imagery of a world which is itself made into a kind of machine composed of territories, pathways, and barriers which enclose and encode the movements of those living souls caught within. But even as this nexus of control triangulates its way across the globe, and attempts to harness the forces of the earth to its own ends, at some point it bottoms out and an as yet untraversed abyss opens up beneath our feet. Pynchon maps not only the totalising order of an emerging world capitalism, but seeks out those hidden crevices which lead ever-deeper down to all that has been denied existence in this world, but which may one day spring from the earth to reclaim its half-forgotten rights to existence.


Bolton, Michael S. “Monstrous Machinery: Defining Posthuman Gothic.” Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies 1, no. 1 (June 2014): 1-15.

Colebrook, Claire. “The Gothic Sublime” in William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror, edited by Chris Bundock and Elizabeth Effinger, 85-106. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018.

Heise-von der Lippe, Anya. Posthuman Gothic, edited by Anya Heise-von der Lippe. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017.

Mattessich, Stefan. Lines of Flight. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Noys, Benjamin. Malign Velocities. Alresford: Zero Books, 2014.

Pynchon, Thomas. Mason & Dixon. London: Vintage, 1997

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Tanner, Tony. “V. and V-2” in Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Edward Mendelson, 16-55. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,1978.



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