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The Britons Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, an astronomer and a land surveyor, travelled to South Africa engaged by the British Royal Society, to observe the Venus transit on June 6, 1761 from Cape Town. The are staying with a Dutch family and their daughters.

 

Extracts of Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon"

   "Ladies, Ladies," Mason calls. "- You've seen her in the Evening Sky, you've wish'd upon her, and now for a short time will she be seen in the Day-light, crossing the Disk of the Sun,- and do make a Wish then, if you think it will help.- For Astronomers, who usually work at night, 'twill give us a chance to be up in the Day-time. Thro' our whole gazinglives, Venus has been a tiny Dot of Light, going through phases like the Moon, ever against the black face of Eternity. But on the day of this Transit, all shall suddenly reverse,- as she is caught, dark, embodied, solid, against the face of the Sun,- a Goddess descended from light to Matter."

   "And our Job," Dixon adds, "is to observe her as she transits the face of the Sun, and write down the Times as she comes and goes...?"

   "That's all? You could stay in England and do that," jaunty little Chins and slender Necks, posing, and re-posing, blond girls laughing together, growing sticky and malapert.

   The Girls are taken on a short but dizzying journey, straight up, into the Æther, until there beside them in the grayish Starlight is the ancient, gravid Earth, the Fescue become a widthless Wand of Light, striking upon it brilliantly white-hot Arcs.

   "Parallax. To an Observer up at the North Cape, the Track of the Planet, across the Sun, will appear much to the south of the same Track as observ'd from down here, at the Cape of Good Hope. The further apart the Obs North and South, that is, the better. It is the Angular Distance between, that we wish to know. One day, someone sitting in a room will succeed in reducing all the Observations, from all 'round the World, to a simple number of Seconds, and tenths of a Second, of Arc,- and that will be the Parallax.

   "Let us hope some of you are awake early enough, to see the Transit. Remember to keep both eyes open, and there will be the three Bodies, lined up perfectly,- the Heliocentric system in its true Mechanism, His artisanship how pure." The Girls keep their Glances each looping 'round the others, like elaborately curl'd Tresses, trying to see if they should be understanding this, or,- being cruel young beauties ev'ry one,- even caring.

 

10

As Planets do the Sun, we orbit 'round God according to Laws as elegant as Kepler's. God is as sensible to us, as a Sun to a Planet. Tho' we do not see Him, yet we know where in our Orbits we run,- when we are closer, when more distant, when in His light and when in shadow of our own making.... We feel as components of Gravity His Love, His Need, whatever it be that keeps us circling. Surely if a Planet be a living Creature, then it knows, by something even more wondrous than Human Sight, where its Sun shines, however far it lie.

 

- Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, Unpublished Sermons

[.....]

Somebody somewhere in the World, watching the Planet go dark against the Sun,- dark, mad, mortal, the Goddess in quite another Aspect indeed,- cannot help blurting, exactly at The Moment, from Sappho's Fragment 95, seeming to wreck thereby the Ob,-

   "O Hesperus,- you bring back all that the bright day scatter'd, - you bring in the sheep, and the goat,- you bring the Child back to her mother."

   "Thank you for sharing that with us... recalling that this is Sun-Rise, Dear, -Rise, not sun-Set."

   "Come! She's not yet detach'd!"

   "Let us see. Well, will you look at that." A sort of long black Filament yet connects her to the Limb of the Sun, tho' she be moved well onto its Face, much like an Ink-Drop about to fall from the Quill of a forgetful Scribbler,- sidewise, of course,- "Quick! someone, secure the Time,- "

   This, or odd behavior like it, is going on all over the World all day long that fifth and sixth of June, in Latin, in Chinese, in Polish, in Silence,- upon Roof-Tops and Mountain Peaks, out of Bed-chamber windows, close together in the naked sunlight whilst the Wife minds the Beats of the Clock,- thro' Gregorians and Newtonians, achromatick and rainbowsmear'd, brand-new Reflectors made for the occasion, and ancient Refractors of preposterous French focal lengths,- Observers lie, they sit, they kneel,- and witness something in the Sky. Among those attending Snouts Earth-wide, the moment of first contact produces a collective brain-pang, as if for something lost and already unclaimable,- after the Years of preparation, the long and at best queasy voyaging, the Station arriv'd at, the Latitude and Longitude well secur'd,- the Week of the Transit,- the Day,- the Hour,- the Minute,- and at last 'tis, "Eh? where am I?"

   Astronomers will seek to record four Instants of perfect Tangency between Venus's Disk, and the Sun's. Two are at Ingress,- External Contact, at the first touch from outside the Sun's Limb, and then Internal Contact, at the instant the small black Disk finally detaches from the inner Circumference of the great yellow one, Venus now standing alone against the Face of the Sun. The other two come at Egress,- this time, first Internal, then External Contact. And then eight more years till the next, and for this Generation last, Opportunity,-as if the Creation's Dark Engineer had purposedly arrang'd the Intervals thus, to provoke a certain Instruction, upon the limits to human grandeur impos'd by Mortality.

   The Sky remains clouded up till the day of the Transit, Friday the fifth of June. Both the Zeemanns and the Vrooms speed about in unaccustom'd Bustle, compar'd to the Astronomers, who seem unnaturally calm.

   "Dutch Ado about nothing," Mason remarks.

   Dixon agrees. "And they're usually so stolid, too.. . ?"

   Els comes skidding across the floor in her Stocking Feet, heading for the Kitchen with an Apron's load of Potatoes. "Nothing to worry about!" she cries, " 'twill clear up in plenty of time!" Even Cornelius is up on the Roof, scanning the Mists with a nautical Spy-Glass, reporting upon hopeful winds and bright patches. " 'Tis ever like this before a Cloudless Day," he assures them. The Slaves speak inaudibly, and are seen to gaze toward the Mountains. They have never observ'd their owners behaving like this. They begin to smile, tentatively but directly, at Mason and Dixon.

   Of whom one is insomniac, and one is not. Afterward, none in the Household will be able to agree which was which. Drops of what proves to be ketjap in the pantry suggest Dixon as the sleepless one, whilst a Wine-Glass abandon'd upon a chicken-Battery indicates Mason. The Rattle-Watch make a point of coming by ev'ry hour and in front of Zeemanns' singing out the Time of Night, adding, "And all's clouded over yet!"

   Somehow, ev'ryone is awake at first Light. "The Sun ascended in a thick haze, and immediately entered a dark cloud," as Mason and Dixon will report later in the Philosophical transactions. Clock-time is 0 Hours, 12 Minutes, 0 Seconds. Twenty-three minutes later, they have their first sight of Venus. Each lies with his Eye clapped to the Snout of an identical two-and-a-half-foot Gregorian Reflector made by Mr. Short, with Darkening-Nozzles by Mr. Bird.

   ''Quite a Tremor," Mason grumbles. "They'll have to ascend a bit more in the Sky. And here comes this damn'd Haas again."

   Upon first making out the Planet, Dixon becomes as a Sinner converted. "Eh! God in his Glory!"

   "Steady," advises Mason, in a vexed tone.

   Dixon remembers the Tale Emerson loved to tell, of Galileo before the Cardinals, creaking to his feet after being forc'd to recant, muttering, "Nonetheless, it moves." Watch, patiently as before the Minute-Hand of a Clock, become still enough, and 'twould all begin to move.... This, Dixon understands, is what Galilee was risking so much for,- this majestick Dawn Heresy." 'Twas seeing not only our Creator about his Work," he tells Mason later, "but Newton and Keeler, too, confirmed in theirs. The Arrival, perfectly as calculated, the three bodies sliding into a single Line...Eeh, it put me in a Dase for fair." Whatever the cause, the times he records are two to four seconds ahead of Mason's.

   "With all the other Corrections to make, now must we also introduce another, for observational impatience," supposes Mason,- "styling it 'Leonation,' perhaps,- "

   "As well might we correct for 'Tauricity,' "replies Dixon, "or Delays owing to Caution inflexible."

   The girls have also been observers of the Transit, having cajol'd a Sailor of their Acquaintance into lending them a nautickal Spy-Glass, and smoak'd with Sheep-tallow Candles their own Darkening-Lenses,- taking turns at the Glass, even allowing their Parents a Peep now and then,- Jet breathing, "She's really there," Greet adding, "Right on time, too!" and Els,- hum,- we may imagine what Els was up to, and what transpir'd just as the last of the Black Filament, holding the Planet to the Inner Limb of the Sun, gave way, and she dropp'd, at last, full onto that mottl'd bright Disk, dimm'd by the Lenses to a fierce Moon, that Eyes might bear.

From MASON & DIXON copyright © by Thomas Pynchon:
used by permission of Melanie Jackson Agency, L.L.C.

Published by Vintage U.K. Raandom House, London,1998,
ISBN 0-09-977191-8

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