A Vector of Desire: The Gothic Folds of Time and Space in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

1: Pynchon and the Gothic Line

This paper looks to Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon (1997) as a statement on the shape of time and space in modernity. Set in the middle years of the eighteenth century, a decade prior to the American Revolution, the novel charts the travels of the astronomer Charles  Mason and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. Over the course of the novel, the duo come increasingly to face the dark forces which inhabit their supposed era of Enlightenment. This age of reason begets the monstrous and “great systems of control” which typify Pynchon’s cosmos (Noys 2014, 44). And yet, peering back from the late twentieth century and the supposed end of history, gazing into the birth of modernity, the novel refuses to present a clear line of progress from there to here. Instead, we catch glimpses of temporalities other than our own, and we find our own conceptions of the world upset by strange twists in time. 

The novel openly toys with questions time and history, openly flouting the conventions of the historical novel. In typical Pynchonian fashion, the novel diverges from history at almost every turn, as the ostensibly historical protagonists find themselves talking with dogs and mechanical ducks, embroiled in Jesuit conspiracies, abducted by UFOs, and smoking pot with George Washington. Pynchon’s parodic style foregrounds the importance of time, or as Elizabeth Hinds argues, “with its anachronisms, the novel executes a time that never existed, for all of its accurate historical representations” (2005, 14). Further still, Stefan Mattessich suggests that “time dissimulated in language […] is the subject of this book because it is the principle preoccupation of Pynchon’s fiction” (2002, 12). Here I wish to go a step further, beyond the thematics of time in the novel, and instead look to the structure of time that Pynchon presents.

The topic of time will be expanded in due course, but to grasp its structure in the novel it is necessary to understand what I mean by the Gothic. For this paper, I will be putting aside the more literary assessments of the Gothic as a genre with its “negative aesthetics” of horror (Botting 2014, 1). Rather, the key reference here will be to the Gothic in art, as theorised by Wilhelm Worringer and inherited by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Writing at the beginning of the last century, Worringer attempted to salvage Gothic architecture from centuries of condemnation, and to make a case for a Gothic style independent of classical ideals. In contrast to classical art, which is bound to the representation of organic harmony, the Gothic is “not immediately dependent on us” (Worringer 1920, 48). Instead, its curving shapes, its sharp edges, and its abstract lines all work toward an expression that cannot be reduced to organic representation, yet nevertheless displays in Worringer’s terms an “extreme liveliness” of inorganic motion (1920, 47). Respite its detractors, the harshness of the Gothic “is not simply negative—it is other” and it is alien (Greenspan 2014, 78). In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: “This streaming, spiraling, zigzagging, snaking, feverish line of variation liberates a power of life” (1987, 399).


It is this winding, looping, and knotting inorganic life of the Gothic line that informs my reading of Pynchon’s novel. In Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of the Gothic, it is nothing less than the play of space freed from the constraints of representation, organicism, and harmony. Deleuze would later describe the Gothic world of expressionist cinema, “which endows things with a non-organic life […] and which potentialises space, whilst making it something unlimited” (1986, 111). This potentialising and abstracting of space is one of the key themes of Mason & Dixon, and the lens through which the novel then approaches the topic of time. So, to begin, we will look at the structure of space in Pynchon’s novel.

2: The Capture of Space

In what is perhaps the most analysed passage of the novel, Pynchon’s narrator speculates upon the unconscious geographies that draw the old world of Europe toward America, and by what mechanisms the nascent nation drives ever westward:

Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?— in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ‘tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen, — serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true, — Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe til the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, — winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair. (Pynchon 1997, 345)

What process is this? It begins not with the real America, but with all that America could be for its European settlers. The Western frontier is framed as the materialisation of all the Old World’s dreams. Beyond the horizon lie the lands which have hitherto only been told of in myth. In its most abstract sense, America here functions as a vector of desire for all that cannot be found in the swiftly modernising metropole. Crucially, this movement of desire is envisioned not as mere fantasy or pretext, but as the realisation of fantasy in material reality. As Justin Coe writes: “the Line that Mason and Dixon draw onto (and into) the continent’s space in turn draws their desires, and especially Mason’s desire for an afterlife, closer to the pre-personal depth of the age of faith, in which miracles such as bodily resurrection and the transfiguration of flesh into spirit are possibilities rather than mere theological necessities.” (2005, 150). Journeying westward, the dreams of one world are supposed to be realised in another, and all that is desired rendered in flesh, blood, stone, and water.

However, this is only the beginning of the process, and the journey’s intended end is never realised. What the drive toward the west entails is not the actualisation of possibility, but its foreclosure. The desire that courses along this vector, seeking eternal life, riches, and pleasure, is but the motor that drives an altogether nightmarish mechanism. What follows this line into the continent is a vast “Net-Work of Points already known” which changes “all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments” (Pynchon 1997, 345). Beneath this expanding territory, there remains “the ghost of a spatiality that disappears beneath our interpretative  tools” (Mattessich 2002, 240). Ever-westward, “the realm of the Sacred, [and] its Borderlands” retreat “to seek another Space” still further from the deadening eyes of Empire (Pynchon 1997, 345, 741).

In this brief example of spatiality in Pynchon’s novel, I wish to emphasise two things: Firstly, the manner in which the spatial expansion of this imperial “Net-Work of Points” takes on the qualities of the Gothic line. All the movements of populations, armies, goods, and capital are understood at their most abstract as lines of movement. They meet, they connect, and they branch off, endlessly criss-crossing and inscribing the earth to draw ever-greater territories into the fold. Secondly, and flowing on from the first, is the pure mechanism of this process. The network triangulates its way across the continent without any clear intent. At most it is driven by some mass accumulation of desire, but without any singular will at its core.

It is this dynamic between an abstract topography and the ghostly space over which it maps that should be kept in mind for the rest of this paper. I begin not with time, but with space, partly for the clear historical import of its seizure, but also for its role in grounding the discussions of time in the novel. It is stately clearly by one of Pynchon’s characters that “Time is the Space that may not be seen,” and by another that “the Battle-fields we know, situated in Earth’s three Dimensions, have also their counterparts in Time” (Pynchon 1997, 326, 190). If time is merely an uncharted, or unchartable, dimension of space, then the processes driving the slow appropriation of space in the above passage take on another level of complexity.

David Cowart suggests that what lies at the heart of this spatio-temporal mechanism is, “as long-time Pynchon readers know, [an] absence of any rationale, a nothingness, an emptiness, the triumph of death and entropic principle” (2003, 270). Such a reading would be typical of Pynchon’s early novels and their notable obsession with entropy, yet in Mason & Dixon entropy is met by some other power in the temporal order, which works to postpone its inevitable decay. The question remains: what battles may be waged in time, and—knowing who and what have profited from our historic battles over space—what power could possibly reign temporally as well as spatially?

3: The Folds of Time

First, it is necessary to assess the shape given to time in the novel. This topography is most apparent in the sequences which deal with the eleven days lost in the 1752 switch to the Gregorian calendar, in relation to which the Julian calendar had fallen so many days behind. It is this change that incites the characters of the novel to speculations on the nature of time, where the missing days had gone, and whether the conversion was brought about for ulterior motives. Perhaps most bizarre of these sequences, is one in which Mason recounts his own experience of the change, or rather his failure to make it, and the time he spent in those nonexistent eleven days. Mason explains that on

Midnight of September second, in the unforgiven Year of ‘Fifty-two, I myself did stumble, daz’d and unprepared, into that very Whirlpool in Time,— finding myself in September third, 1752, a date that for all the rest of England, did not exist,— Tempus Incognitus. […] Yet soon enough I discover’d how alone ‘twas possible to be, in the silence that flow’d, no louder than Wind, from the Valleys and across those Hill- villages, where, instead of Populations, there now lay but the mute Effects of their Lives,— […] tho’ some where else, in the World which had jump’d ahead to the Fourteenth, they continued to tick onward, to be re-wound, to run fast or slow, carrying on with the ever-Problematick Lives of the Clocks…. (Pynchon 1997, 556).

Mason discovers a Tempus Incognitus, an unknown time, but a time inextricably linked with our own. It is against our time that this other time is constructed, and what must first be characterised. What Mason leaves behind when he enters this Tempus Incognitus is a time structured by “the ever-Problematick Lives of the Clocks,” which regiment and organise our moments into a fixed and linear line. Discussing the emergence of European modernity, Anna Greenspan states that

This new temporality […] rested on synthesising the twin poles of modern time, the Gregorian calendar and the mechanical clock, thereby melding empty abstraction (the ubiquitous ticking of the clock) with a calendric, directional pull (2014, 70).

This is the structure of time which Walter Benjamin calls “homogenous, empty time” (1968, 261) which is infinitely subdivisible into identical units of time—the ticking of a clock or the days of a calendar—which march endlessly from one point to the next. It is this mixture of abstract units and forward momentum that informs the logic of Western modernity, by which inevitable progress from one state to the next is written into the perception of time itself.


But all is not well for this conception of time in Pynchon’s novel. Although this clock-time “continued to tick onward, to be re-wound, to run fast or slow,” its dominance of the temporal order casts a shadow of other times outside of itself (Pynchon 1997, 556). Mason does not experience time travel, in the sense of a journey to the past or future, but discovers another present that sits alongside our own. The missing eleven days present a rupture in the logic of modernity, by which the sequence of homogenous, empty time is folded upon itself, or in which particular units of time are blasted out of the continuum. This confusion of the temporal order recalls Fredric Jameson’s remarks on the nature of time in postmodernity, which Mark Fisher summarises as such:

The chief characteristic of Jameson’s postmodern schizophrenia is the breakdown in the experience of sequential time, an inability “to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life:” “the schizophrenic,” Jameson writes, “is reduced to an experience […] of pure and unrelated presents” (Fisher 1999, 68; Jameson 1991, 27).


As the dominance of modern time grows more complete, it comes increasingly to face its Other: a broken schizoid time in which the interchangeable moments of homogenous, empty time are shuffled and scattered. As in Jameson’s diagnosis of postmodern time, in Mason & Dixon the modern conception of linear time folds back on itself, but here it does not culminate in a synchronicity of indiscernible presents. Pynchon instead presents a Gothic architecture of time, a “tangled temporality” in which the “future does not wait for us as a brightly lit beacon up ahead” (Greenspan 2014, 74). Like the Gothic ornamental line, the timeline of Pynchon’s novel spirals into itself, collecting and overlaying multiple temporalities without giving them clear coordinates or reducing them to a single blurred moment. While modern time charts a progress into the future, and postmodern time loops in an endless present, this Gothic time spirals and splits into a mess of temporalities that each intertwine according to some arcane geometry.


What hides in these folds of time? Just as the American west holds in space all that cannot exist in the age of reason, this Tempus Incognitus harbours a clamour of dark figures and eerie cries. Mason describes the alternate London of the missing days as such:

‘Twas as if this Metropolis of British Reason had been abandon’d to the Occupancy of all that Reason would deny. Malevolent shapes flowing in the Streets. Lanthorns spontaneously going out. Men roaring, as if chang’d to Beasts in the Dark. A Carnival of Fear. Shall I admit it? I thrill’d. […] anything, inside this Vortex, was possible (Pynchon 1997, 559-60).

The construction of another time is here posited as a kind of escape from our reigning order, yet elsewhere in the novel it is framed in more ambiguous terms. Still other inhabitants are posited within the missing eleven days. Mason recounts that in the service of some unknown power, a nation of pygmies are sent “to colonize th’ Eleven Days” and to establish “an entire Plantation in Time” (196). For these temporal settlers, the missing days are “all an Eden” to be populated and exploited anew by “they and their Generations” (196).[1] Here, the Gothic curvature of time approaches the literary notion of the Gothic, as its topography has weird doubling effects and creates eerie agencies, “which coalesce in the sense of being haunted and hunted, chased by strange beings across the border of a doubly occupied time” (Coe 2005, 161). Although unknown to us, this other time still feeds us, as it is incorporated into some vast Gothic extra-temporal economy.

What first appears as an escape from modern time, is in fact folded into a deeper logic of capitalism, as the halts and starts of other times find themselves in the service of the same laws of production and accumulation. Multiple temporalities become visible, but all are incorporated into a single temporal order, which feeds upon these breaks, and propels itself along vectors of desire for escape. Or, to lift from Giorgio Agamben in his discussion of the alternate temporalities that inhabit Benjamin’s homogenous, empty time:

It is not that there is another time, corning from who-knows-where, that would substitute for chronological time; to the contrary, what we have is the same time that organizes itself through its own somewhat hidden internal pulsation[s] (2005, 82).

4: Temporal Agencies

What is this emerging order, which feeds upon the Gothic folds of time? Like that vast network which triangulates its way through the space of the frontier, this temporal order functions as a machine to further the goals a particular political class. Among the characters of the novel, there are intimations that the theft of the eleven days is a Catholic plot to steal time from the English, or to harness geocosmic forces for some Jesuit scheme. There is a grain of truth here, but directed precisely away from where power truly resides. The truth is far more direct, and is stated in no uncertain terms when Mason reflects upon the changes wrought on his home by the burgeoning forces of capital and empire:

I discover’d the Rulers who do not live in Castles but in housing less distinct, often unable to remain past Earshot of the Engines they own and draw their Power from. [I saw] the coming of the hydraulick Looms and the appearance of new sorts of wealthy individual, the late-come rulers (Pynchon 1997, 313).

Projectors, Brokers of Capital, Insurancers, Peddlers upon the global Scale, Enterprisers and Quacks,— […] The coming Rebellion is theirs, […] and Heaven help the rest of us, if they prevail (487-8).

What Mason sees emerging in his time is the vast construction of industrial capitalism. Time and space alike are appropriated for the ends of production and accumulation by this new class. Time is measured according to a mechanical rhythm, which comes to dominate and dictate the temporalities of nature and labour. As Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz write, this “continuous time of industrial capitalism […] was then projected onto cultural representations of the future, conceived as a continuous progress unfurling to the rhythm of productivity gains” (2016, 203). The “Net-Work of Points” that swallows the American continent and the “Plantation[s] in Time” which funnel the resources of another world into our own are both revealed as mechanisms for control by an emerging industrial capitalist class (Pynchon 1997, 345, 196).

Yet Pynchon’s Gothic account of time subverts these new masters as much as it delineates their origins. The inorganic curvature of time gives rise to an utterly inhuman machine, which if powered by little more than desire, is bound to the will of no one class, let alone any single conscious master. The rising industrialist class are described as nothing more than “the last poor fallen and feckless inheritors of a Knowledge they can never use, but in the service of Greed” (487-8), who can but haphazardly deploy themselves in the service of this dark agency. The capitalist, as Deleuze and Guattari make clear, “is the first servant of the ravenous machine” (1983, 254), a machine that is described by a cynical and aged Mason at the end of the novel:

‘Tis a Construction, […] a great single Engine, the size of a Continent. […] Not all the Connexions are made yet, that’s why some of it is still invisible. Day by day the Pioneers and Surveyors go on, more points are being tied in, and soon becoming visible, as above, new Stars are recorded and named and plac’d in Almanacks—” (Pynchon 1997, 772).

It is an engine constructed from the capture of space and the folds of time, to perpetually extract ever-greater flows of production from those caught in its labyrinth. The machine at the heart of Mason & Dixon displays precisely the Gothic liveliness described by Worringer: it twists and turns with a power of life that surpasses us, engulfs us, and forces us to reckon with what which is outside ourselves. Or, in the words of the narrator

What Machine is it, […] that bears us along so relentlessly? […] gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver, to discover that there is no Driver,…no Horses,…only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity….” (361).

5: Where Now?

There is a final turn of the screw. Looking back to the construction of this Gothic machine, Pynchon’s novel demands recognition of a world other than the one which has come into being. The mechanisms of the machine are encountered in miniature midway through the novel in the form of a perpetual motion machine, which powers a watch. How does this device function? Its inventor explains:

‘Tis a Law of the Universe,— Prandium gratis non est [There is no free lunch] […] the Solution ever depends upon removing time-rates from questions of storing Power. With the proper deployment of Spring Constants and Magnetickal Gating, Power may be borrow’d, as needed, against repayment dates deferrable indefinitely (317).

Not only does the present curve in upon itself, as a dynamo of production, but the future collapse of the system is endlessly deferred. As Mason describes the occult nature of the missing days:

Here, […] purely, as who might say, dangerously, was Time that must be denied its freedom to elapse. As if, for as long as The Days lay frozen, Mortality itself might present no claims (194-5).

The watch, like the eleven days, “borrows against the future to run perpetually in the present, thereby creating disequilibrium between the power put into the watch and the energy it expends; in short, it runs on credit” (Huehls 2005, 26). Infinite debt and endless deferral keep the machines in a “transitional time” that is “prolonged into infinity and renders unreachable the end that it supposedly produces” (Agamben 2005, 69-70). Perpetually on the edge of collapse, the two systems whir onward, each moment delaying or buying off the inevitable. And yet the end remains in sight, because the “great single Engine” is perpetually folding its outside—all other times and spaces—inward as fuel for further expansion (Pynchon 1997, 772).

Just over the horizon lies a Paradise free from the law of Empire and the servitude of Capital. Barely visible through the cracks in time we can see worlds of madness, frivolity, and escape. These other times and spaces are always being subsumed by the reigning order, and still others are formed on its borders, to be pushed ever backwards into the darkness outside. An infernal machine taps into our desires and feeds upon our future. In short, Mason & Dixon reads modern history as cosmic horror.[2]

Where does this leave us? As something of a closing remark, I want to suggest that if—following Jameson—the postmodern is the halted perception of time, or an end of history, then there is some value to be found in the Gothic folds of time in Mason & Dixon. Postmodernity is an aesthetic regime as much as a cultural or political one: aesthetic in the philosophical sense, as a spatio-temporal order. It is a distribution of the sensible, which shapes what can be seen, and what may be rendered visible, and it is the reality in which we remain today. We must not mistake this order for one that is natural, inevitable, or necessary. From our standpoint in an age that has lost any discernible movement in time, without a sense for either a past or future different from the present, the Gothic vision of time gives us a glimpse into other temporalities. As the mantra “there is no alternative” leads us sleepwalking through the inhuman mechanisms of capitalist time, into the ecological ruin deferred one tomorrow to the next, the Gothic time of Mason & Dixon asks us to reexamine this order.[3]

At their cores, the Modern, Postmodern, and Gothic perceptions of time are all produced by different stages of capitalist modernity. But while the first two remain enclosed within their ideological moments, Gothic time retains a connection to temporalities outside itself. This is the Gothic lesson of Mason & Dixon, that the world we know today has always been haunted by other times, worlds lost, and futures unachieved. Pynchon’s novel is out of joint: Written from the nineties to the eighteenth century, it binds up the neoliberal end of history with the conception of capitalist modernity, and uncovers the inhuman machinery that drives it, and us, into oblivion. The novel’s Gothic folds make our perception of time strange, unsettling, and force us to ask if a world other than this one is still visible.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains. Translated by Patricia Dailey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Bonnueil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Verso, 2016.

Botting, Fred. Gothic, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Coe, Justin M Scott. “Haunting and Hunting: Bodily Resurrection and the Occupation of History in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon” in The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, edited by Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, 147-171. Rochester: Camden House, 2005.

Cowart, David. “The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Thomas Pynchon, edited by Harold Bloom, 261-282. Broomall: Chelsea House, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles.  Cinema 1. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R Lee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1983.

Fisher, Mark. Flatline Constructs. New York: Exmilitary, 2018.

Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Hinds, Elizabeth Jane Wall. “Introduction: The Times of Mason & Dixon” in The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, edited by Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, 3-24. Rochester: Camden House, 2005.

Huehls, Mitchum. “‘The Space that may not be seen’: The Form of Historicity in Mason & Dixon” in The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, edited by Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, 25-46. Rochester: Camden House, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

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

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

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. London: Vintage, 2006.

Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. London: Vintage, 2009.

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

Worringer, Wilhelm. Form Problems of the Gothic. New York: G E Stechert & Co., 1920.


[1] “Aye and recall,” Mason’s Phiz but precariously earnest, “where you were, eleven days ago,— saw you anyone really foreign about? Very short, perhaps? Even… Oriental in Aspect?”

“Well,— well yes, now that you,—“ (Pynchon 1997, 197).

[2]  Against the Day also sees the folds of time beget new vectors of escape and economic control. From a distant and fallen future a party seeks to settle in the past, and to feed upon “whatever few pathetic years we still have left “ (Pynchon 2006, 469). These temporal settlers—or for lack of a better term, vampires—give their plea as such: “We are here among you as refugees from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke the truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.” (467)

[3] Beneath the machinery lies the blasted landscape—for which Pynchon posits another deity rising to assert its rights. Against the vast engine of Capital stands the Earth: “They’re destroying the planet,” she agreed. “The good news is that like any living creature, Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she’s going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry. And hopefully before we end up like Atlantis or Lemuria.”  (Pynchon 2009, 105).


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