Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

The topic of time and temporal order is not new to celebrated novelist and recluse Thomas Pynchon. In a now largely forgotten essay published in 1993 in the New York Times Book Review, Pynchon puts forward an account of modern time that is at once idiosyncratic and in clear conversation with his magnum opus, Mason & Dixon, published four years later in 1997. What is curious about this essay, titled “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” is its focus not directly upon the social structuration of time but the possibilities of moving against and hindering those structures by way of the mortal sin of Sloth. Sloth, or acedia, was once the sin of indolence and laxity which drew the faithful from their duties to God, but in Pynchon’s account the term has since been secularised to describe a sin not against God but against a more earthly order. Not only is Sloth secularised as a worldly rather than spiritual indolence, it is also given a profane meaning as a sin against an economic rather than theological order. In this new regime, writes Pynchon:

“Spiritual matters were not quite as immediate as material ones, like productivity. Sloth was no longer so much a sin against God or spiritual good as against a particular sort of time, uniform, one-way, in general not reversible—that is, against clock time, which got everybody early to bed and early to rise.”[1] 

If Sloth has a new meaning and a new use in the modern era, it is because it has become detached from the divine and integrated into a new perception of time which marches to a mechanical beat. More than anything else, Sloth has been borne into the modern era as a sin against the time of productivity—the time of work—as a drag against the motion of production and the ever-accelerating pace of modernity.

Here, as in other works on the historical perception of time, Pynchon emphasises that “time is a social phenomenon,” and that “therefore time is also political.”[2] As Stavros Tombazos paraphrases from Marx’s Grundrisse, “every economy is in the end an economy of time,” and so too does Pynchon highlight the economic underpinnings of this shifting organisation of time.[3]

“Between Franklin’s hectic aphorist, Poor Richard, and Melville’s doomed scrivener, Bartleby, lies about a century of early America, consolidating itself as a Christian capitalist state, even as acedia was in the last stages of its shift over from a spiritual to a secular condition. […] And Sloth, being continual evasion, just kept piling up like a budget deficit, while the dimensions of the inevitable payback grew ever less merciful.”[4] 

Against this new and pre-eminently capitalist and American form of time, Sloth is presented as a shadow of the time of production, with which it shares a logic that it so perversely turns on its head. Pynchon establishes subtle relations between the slothful and modern time; a time in which “every second was of equal length and irrevocable, [and] not much in the course of its flow could have been called nonlinear, unless you counted the ungovernable warp of dreams.”[5] In slothful reverie we evade the time of production, while simultaneously furnishing it with new desires, imagined objects, projects, and dreams.

“It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work, sometimes even their best, solving formal problems, getting advice from Beyond, having hypnagogic adventures that with luck can be recovered later on. Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do. We sell our dreams. So real money actually proceeds from Sloth, although this transformation is said to be even more amazing elsewhere in the entertainment sector, where idle exercises in poolside loquacity have not infrequently generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue.”[6]

As in Mason & Dixon’s presentation of the frontier dream, desires for escape and refusal are here turned back on themselves and made to serve another motive.[7] Whereas the frontier is figured as a dream-space at a remove from the mundane world, pushed away from waking eyes even to the ends of the earth, here Sloth is presented as a time of dreams which works both within and against the reigning order of time. As Katie Muth has suggested, Sloth in Pynchon’s hands becomes “the double-edged freedom to reject God, capital, and new media technology,” which has nevertheless in its “laudable and ungovernable warp […] become the dominant mode in contemporary media.”[8] Despite or perhaps because of Sloth’s disruptive inertia, the oneiric and the economic become intertwined in their cohabitation of two sides of a single temporal order, which at once draws wealth from darkness and halts production with dreams.[9]

As we shall see, this dynamic between modern, capitalist time and its underbellies recurs in Mason & Dixon, which follows “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” as an idiosyncratic account of time’s conquest by capital. Set in the middle of the eighteenth century, Mason & Dixon follows the travels of the astronomer Charles Mason and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon as they chart the border line which would later divide the American North and South. Due to its subject matter and its setting at the birth of capitalist modernity, Pynchon’s novel is preoccupied with questions of history and the consequences of historical inaction. Mason & Dixon is also, as the title suggests, a novel of dualities, with a predominant concern for the dual capture of space and time by capital. While the spatial components of the novel tend to follow Dixon in his journeys both real and imagined through the earth, his partner Mason becomes the principle locus of the novel’s temporal themes. While it falls to Dixon to rediscover the spaces lost to the projects of rationalism and Enlightenment—and to realise that the losses are at least partly by his own hand as a colonial surveyor—it is Mason’s lot to discover the parallel processes of capture working in time.[10]

Possessed by a melancholic disposition following the death of his wife—Rebekah—Mason feels himself dislodged from time, caught in a place between past and future which never quite coincides with his historical present. More troubling still, throughout Mason’s extended period of mourning, which spans the entire length of the novel, the ghost of Rebekah returns to speak to him, to implore him to move on. In the scenes of Rebekah’s return, Pynchon makes much of the overlap between Sloth and melancholy, both derived from the notion acedia, as Mason’s narrative centres precisely on his state of torpor and his refusal to be done with the past. True to the theological connotations of acedia, Mason’s melancholy leads him into all manner of speculations on redemption and resurrection, but always with the knowledge that this melancholy, like its cousin Sloth, is bound to an order which forever precludes the realisation of those hopes.

The River That Runs ‘Round Hell

Early in their American journey, Mason and Dixon make a stop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to satisfy a morbid curiosity concerning the “inhuman murder of 26 Indians, Men, Women and Children, leaving none alive to tell” by the frontiersmen of that town a month prior.[11]  Sneaking out of the camp while Dixon sleeps, Mason visits the site of the massacre. “He is not as a rule sensitive to the metaphysickal Remnants of Evil,— none but the grosser, that is, the Gothickal, are apt to claim his Attention,” yet something still perceptibly haunts those grounds where the blood was spilled. Later recounting the experience to Dixon, Mason remarks on the persistence of the past in that place, and of the deadly orders of time and memory which flow across the bloodied American continent.

“Acts have consequences, Dixon, they must. These Louts believe all’s right now,— that they are free to get on with Lives that to them are no doubt important,— with no Glimmer at all of the Debt they have taken on. That is what I smell’d,— Lethe-Water. One of the things the newly-born forget, is how terrible its Taste, and Smell. In Time, these People are able to forget ev’rything. Be willing but to wait a little, and ye may gull them again and again, however ye wish,— even unto their own Dissolution. In America, as I apprehend, Time is the true River that runs ‘round Hell.”[12]

Just as Mason & Dixon’s historical drama often returns to dreams and sleep as central metaphors for the spatial structure of the novel, here memory and forgetting are figured as the core temporal concepts. Throughout the novel, the open space of the frontier is depicted by Pynchon in terms of a dream-space which is at once perceived and dissipated by the measuring eyes of the Enlightenment. This dynamic, typified by the narrator’s soliloquy to the dreamt frontier found on the page prior to the above passage (“Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?”[13]), is coupled here with a logic of time and memory which affirms the persistence of lives, dreams, and worlds in one form or another even after they have been extinguished. The founding of America upon the assorted cruelties of the frontier is said to have consequences, in one form or another, in this life or the next. But there is also a continual deferral of these consequences, which are forgotten in time and left to accrue interest as a grand spiritual debt. The waters of Lethe wash over America’s settlers, but it does not cleanse the blood from their hands. The debt is compounded by their perpetual forgetting, allowing the debtors to be drawn once again toward their damnation, knowing never what they do. But still the sites of massacre remain, and although “Time is the true River that runs ‘round Hell,” its course traces a spiral toward the pit and the final judgement of the debt owed. 

This logic of deferral recurs among the temporal mechanisms of Mason & Dixon, but it is necessary to begin here with the logic of the haunt which informs the novel’s melancholy meditations on time. What Mason suggests of the massacre site is that it remains inhabited by forces forgotten—or never truly perceived—by those who even now carry the moral debt accrued at that place. As Mark Fisher writes of the spatio-temporal nexus of the haunt, “space is intrinsic to spectrality, as one of the meanings of the term ‘haunt’ —a place—indicates. Yet haunting, evidently, is a disorder of time as well as of space. Haunting happens when a space is invaded or otherwise disrupted by a time that is out-of-joint, a dyschronia.”[14] Not only is the frontier presented in Mason & Dixon as a disturbing fold in the space of the continent, and a confusion of coordinates between the realms of fantasy and reason, it is also a vast disturbance in time which both marks a place of disaster and harkens to the day of reckoning that never seems to arrive.

Mason’s Melancholy Haunt

It is this very question of the end of days which brings Mason to the bloodied grounds as he grapples with a far more personal haunt. Reflecting on his recently deceased wife Rebekah, Mason’s mind wanders to “Bodily Resurrection, which unhappily yet requires Death as a pre-condition.”[15] In the dead of night, the “insomniack” Mason reasons that “yet must the Sensorium be nourish’d […] as the Body, with its own transcendent Desires”—desires which must pass by way of death to reach their imagined end of “Eternal Youth.”[16] Camped near to the site of the massacre, Mason imagines Rebekah returned to him, as she has done and will do several times over the course of his American voyage. He recollects her first visitation, on the desolate island of St Helena, itself now a ghost of the idyll it had been before human hands laid it bare.

“And here it is, upon the Windward Side, where no ship ever comes willingly, that her visits begin. At some point, Mason realizes he has been hearing her voice, clearly, clean of all intervention— ‘Tis two years and more. Rebekah, who in her living silences drove him to moments of fury, now wrapt in what should be the silence of her grave, has begun to speak to him, as if free to do so at last, all she couldn’t even have whispered at Greenwich, not with the heavens so close, with the light-handed trickery of God so on display.”[17]

In Rebekah’s return, presence and absence become confused, not only in the paradoxical return of one who has passed but in the eerie freedom which she now possesses. All that could not be spoken in life, and certainly not in death, now whispers forth from the phantom to be taken in by the perplexed Mason. In Rebekah’s haunt crystallises the irony of eternal youth and bodily resurrection—which are only achievable on the condition of death—in which eternity and nullity comingle. Faced with this conundrum, Mason is plunged from the quiet mourning for his wife into a bewildering melancholy which refuses all resolutions to its morose fixation on the past.

The cardinal sin of the melancholic is a familiar one: it is “acedia, indolence of the heart. The slow planetary orbit of the lusterless Saturn made it possible to establish a relation between this slothful condition and the melancholic,” who is not only afflicted by the inability to let go of what is lost, but is also unable to decide upon the nature of what is lost and what remains.[18] Rebekah’s appearance, like that of the famous ghost in Hamlet, throws Mason into a crisis of reason, a desperate need to make sense of what he sees, and a slothful hesitance to make a decisive judgement on the power of his faculties.[19] Sent to St Helena by the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus, Mason feels himself lifted from the surface of the earth by the dreamlike and impious pull of more than one planet.

“He tries to joke with himself. Isn’t this suppos’d to be the Age of Reason? To believe in the cold light of this all-business world that Rebekah haunts him is to slip, to stagger in a crowd, into the embrace of the Painted Italian Whore herself, and the Air to fill with suffocating incense, and the radiant Deity to go dim forever. But if Reason be also Permission at last to believe in the evidence of our Earthly Senses, then how can he not concede to her some Resurrection?— to deny her, how cruel!”[20]

If Mason inhabits an age of reason, then it is an age out of joint with itself, in which reason both dispels figments of the imagination while giving permission to the disordered senses to manufacture new and more puzzling fantasies. As Walter Benjamin writes of the century before Mason’s own, “for an age intent at all costs on disclosing the sources of occult insight into nature, the image of the melancholic posed the question: How could it succeed in intercepting intellectual and spiritual energies from Saturn without falling prey to madness?”[21] Which is to say not only that the melancholic is one who treads the line between genius and madness, but that at a more mundane level the individual afflicted by acedia is unmoored from the doctrines of reason and is left to wander from one possibility to the next without settling upon a new and fixed ground to reason.[22] As Stephen Baker suggests, Mason & Dixon “dramatizes the deceptions and self-deceptions of modern, enlightened rationality […] that its status as an autonomous and unsullied mode of thought is an illusion, an expedient pretence. Irrational superstition is here presented as the negative truth of rational discourse.”[23] It is in this dynamic of failed enlightenment and lost reason that the disjointed temporality of the haunt is located, as in Baker’s words, “Mason & Dixon makes us feel how even absent history hurts.”[24]

History and the Dead

Rebekah’s apparitions instil in Mason neither a superstitious belief nor a reactive turn toward reason, but only lead him further on his melancholic refusal of clarity, “driving him further from the World than he has already gone,” as if in “one of those clear little Dreams that lead us into the crooked Passage-ways of Sleep,—tho’ he would insist, as ever to Dixon, that he was not sleeping at the time of the Visit.”[25] As Tiina Käkelä has noted, “Pynchon’s ghosts never bring about the horror effect characteristic of the Gothic genre […] Instead, the ghosts often evoke a sense of unfinished business and a need for communication.”[26] In contrast to the outright terrors and horrors typical of the Gothic genre, the Gothic elements of Mason & Dixon appear far more muted, concerned less with moments of shock than with the quiet tragedy of people trapped in the nightmare of history. It is in his deepest reveries that Mason can hear Rebekah emerge from the past and speak in her own words, not of the realms beyond the veil but of the earth which Mason inhabits yet cannot bear to return to from his melancholy heights. 

“Look to the Earth,” she instructs him. “Belonging to her as I do, I know she lives, and that here upon this Volcanoe in the Sea, close to the Forces within, even you, Mopery, may learn of her, Tellurick Secrets you could never guess.”[27]

Rebekah’s appearance, sent to Mason’s side by a god, devil, or his loneliness gives voice to another, earth-bound, side of melancholy. Speaking from outside the world, this melancholy voice finds itself inextricably a part of the material nature to which it once again turns its gaze. As in Walter Benjamin’s account of Baroque melancholy, the saturnine despair for the transience of the world finds its way to the imagery of the natural world as an emblem of that despair. “Nature appears to them [the melancholy] not in the bud and blossom but in the overripeness and decay of its creations. Nature looms before them as eternal transience.”[28] This turn to nature also carries the melancholic back from abstraction to an earthly consciousness, which although it gazes toward the stars cannot be anything except immersed in the ruin and rot of natural history.[29]

In this reflection upon nature’s sublime ruin, melancholy approaches its own form of historical consciousness, which may see the players of history dancing from their strings in all their contingency and frailty. Through Rebekah’s ghost, Mason is put once more in contact with the living, and is made all the more aware of the presence of those who once lived, as shades now haunting the earth.

“She occupies now an entirely new angular relation to Mercy, to those refusals, among the Living, to act on behalf of Death or its ev’ryday Coercions,— Wages too low to live upon, Laws written by Owners, Infantry, Bailiffs, Prison, Death’s thousand Metaphors in the World,— as if, the instant of her passing over having acted as a Lens, the rays of her Soul have undergone moral Refraction.”[30]

If Mason’s melancholy indolence draws him away from worldly affairs it is only for his slothful experience of lost time to draw him back to a more contemplative attachment to the world of things and people. “Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But its persevering absorption takes the dead things up into its contemplation in order to save them.”[31] As Justin Coe suggests, this ethical quality of melancholy and the haunt is already to be found in Pynchon’s earlier essay on Gabriel García Márquez, whose world is described by Pynchon as “haunted less by individual dead than by a history which has brought so appallingly many down, without ever having spoken, or having spoken gone unheard, or having been heard, left unrecorded.”[32] Commenting on this passage, Coe writes that “Pynchon’s record itself exists in the interstices of Paul’s situating of the promise of redemption in the raising of the dead, offering that promise in a new, transubstantiated form which holds all hope in abeyance but invests it with such power that it cannot be ignored.”[33] From the devastations of death and loss the melancholic wanders in indolence toward the possibilities of redemption and resurrection, but only in their own time, and only in the knowledge that this time of redemption itself moves at its own pace outside the orderly events of history.

The happy sloths and the unhappy melancholics are alike in their untimeliness; caught off-guard by events, they hesitate and look back at the ruins piling at their feel. As Benjamin remarks, “the first tremors of awakening serve to deepen sleep,” and so too do those afflicted by acedia find themselves caught in the “dream-filled sleep” of capitalist modernity—at once disenchanted with its ceaseless motion but nonetheless transfixed by its “reactivation of mythic forces.”[34] History remains a nightmare from which we have not yet awoken. This truth can only be spoken elliptically by Rebekah, who encourages Mason to let her depart at last, so that she may rise to eternity and he may find his own way, in his own time. To learn this lesson Mason must continue on his journey, with Rebekah’s apparitions growing ever-fainter as she too lapses into the realm of the forgotten dead.

“I’ve betray’d you,” he cries. “Ah,— I should have—”

“Lit Candles? I am past Light. Pray’d for me ev’ry Day? I am outside of Time. Good, living Charles,…good Flesh and Blood….” Between them now something like a Wind is picking up speed and beginning to obscure his View of her. She bares her Teeth, and pales, and turns, drifting away, evaporating before she is halfway across the slain Forest. […] Great Waves of Melancholy, syncopating the Atlantick Counterparts not far away, surge against him. They might drown him, or bear him up,— he lies not caring, and fails to find Sleep again.[35]


[1] Thomas Pynchon, “The Deadly Sins/Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” The New York Times Book Review, June 6, 1993. http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/97/05/18/reviews/pynchon-sloth.html. Cited hereafter as NMC.

[2] Jonathan Martineau, Time, Capitalism, and Alienation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 3, 5.

[3] Stavros Tombazos, Time in Marx (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 13. Marx’s own phrase is “Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 173.

[4] NMC.

[5] NMC.

[6] NMC; emphasis mine.

[7] On the reterritorialising logic of the frontier in Pynchon’s novel, see my earlier paper “A Vector of Desire: The Gothic Folds of Time and Space in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.”

[8] Katie Muth, “Nonfiction,” in Thomas Pynchon in Context, ed. Inger H. Dalsgaard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 26, 25.

[9] The ambiguity of Sloth and the possibility of its cooption are also made clear when Pynchon turns its pejorative force against those who industriously follow orders: “Who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow?” (NMC).

[10] On the spatial components of the novel, see my paper “Unearthly Utopias: Ecogothic Scenes in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.” The paper linked in note 7 also expands upon some of these other temporal elements, with a focus upon a peculiar episode in which Mason discovers a plot to colonise time as well as space.

[11] Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (London: Vintage, 1998), 341. Cited hereafter as MD.

[12] MD 346.

[13] MD 345.

[14] Mark Fisher, K-Punk (London: Repeater, 2018), 171.

[15] MD 346.

[16] MD 345.

[17] MD 163-4.

[18] Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 160.

[19] As Celia Wallhead has noted, Mason shares multiple features with Hamlet: “he may not be of the upper classes—indeed, this is one of the bones of contention regarding his professional ambitions—but he is a leader and a man of education and wit, though his metaphysical longings entice him towards madness and suicide, as he is emburdened with a deep melancholy stemming from bereavement, loss of love, the hauntings of a ghost, indecision, even cowardice, and, most acutely, frustrated ambition.” Celia Wallhead, “Mason & Dixon and Hamlet,” Orbit: A Journal of American Literature 2, no. 2 (2014): 3-4. Of these traits, Mason’s indecision marks him especially as a melancholic successor to Hamlet. As Deleuze would remark, Hamlet’s indecision singles him out as a poetic precursor to the bourgeois philosophy of Kant, in which the self is made a passive subject of time. “Hamlet is the first hero who truly needed time in order to act, whereas earlier heroes were subject to time as the consequence of an original movement (Aeschylus) or an aberrant action (Sophocles). […] Time is no longer the cosmic time of an original celestial movement, nor is it the rural time of derived meteorological movements. It has become the time of the city and nothing other, the pure order of time.” Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 28.

[20] MD 164.

[21] Benjamin, Origin, 155.

[22] In their Saturnine wanderings and wavering acedia, the melancholic find themselves suspended above the earth, not unlike Dixon’s dreams of floating “aloft, in Map-space” (MD 505). Unlike Dixon, however, Mason does not look down upon the earth, but ever further into the stars. “The melancholic character, a totally ‘vertiginous being,’ instead of contemplating the objective world, so that his or her mind is embalmed, hystericizes it; he or she transforms the world into symptoms of his or her own repressed desire.” Vijay Mishra, The Gothic Sublime (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 86.

[23] Stephen Baker, The Fiction of Postmodernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 132. Baker also suggests that Pynchon’s newfound depth of characterisation, at least of the two titular protagonists, goes hand-in-hand with this examination of enlightenment subjectivity: “Their characterisation, like Mason’s grief-ridden Melancholia, seems to remain tied to a past whose loss can never be undone, and whose scared legacy cannot possibly be ignored. The realist depth and consistency of the characterisation are indicative of both the loss of an older idea of the subject and subjectivity, and the acceptance that that idea was always illusory and ideological anyway” (134).

[24] Baker, Fiction of Postmodernity, 136.

[25] MD 164, 409.

[26] Tiina Käkelä, “Death and Afterlife,” in Thomas Pynchon in Context, ed. Inger H. Dalsgaard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 266.

[27] MD 172.

[28] Benjamin, Origin, 190.

[29] On the concept of natural history as it was conceived by Benjamin and later developed by Theodor Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss offers a strong summary. “Whenever theory posited ‘nature’ or ‘history’ as an ontological first principle, this double character of the concepts was lost, and with it the potential for critical negativity: either social conditions were affirmed as ‘natural’ without regard for their historical becoming, or the actual historical process was affirmed as essential.” Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics (New York: The Free Press, 1977), 54.

[30] MD 171.

[31] Benjamin Origin, 162.

[32] Thomas Pynchon, “The Heart’s Eternal Vow.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/04/10/books/the-heart-s-eternal-vow.html.

[33] Justin M. Scott Coe, “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,” ed. Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds (Rochester: Camden House, 2005), 165.

[34] Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 391.

[35] MD 172.

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