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Friday 6.17.05: Do You Wear A Mask?

One of my favorite stories is Edgar Allen Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." In the face of the terrible "red death" that's plaguing the land, a group of party people have a great masquerade ball. They lock themselves in, assuming they can have an orgy of fun while they wait out the epidemic. Little do they know, because of the masks they all wear, Red Death is already among them.

Today, I'm thinking about masks. Why do we love them? The Secret Sharer is a member of Dunkelfolket -- a mask-dancing group in Denmark -- so she might be able to answer this question literally.

In the African tradition, donning a mask and the costume that goes with it instantly joins the wearer with a spirit -- an ancestor, a mythic figure from their folk tradition, an animal. The masker ceases to be himself.

We are who we pretend to be

Think of Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras in rural Southwestern Louisiana draws on traditions that are centuries old. Revelers go from house to house begging to obtain the ingredients for a communal meal. They wear costumes that conceal their identity and that also parody the roles of those in authority. They escape from ordinary life partly through the alcohol many consume in their festive quest, but even more through the roles they portray. As they act out their parts in a wild, gaudy pageant, they are escaping from routine existence, freed from the restraints that confine them every other day in the year. [Mardi Gras in Rural Arcadiana]

So, masks help us escape from ourselves. But they also help maintain the social order. You could say that every authority figure is required to wear a mask -- doctor, teacher, parent, general, boss -- because, no matter how befuddled and despairing they are, they still have to convey confidence and optimism.

"We are who we pretend to be," says Elliot Rosewater in one of Kurt Vonnegut's books. You can pretend to be who you wish you were or you can pretend to be what everyone expects you to be. Which is it today?





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