Sunday, July 24, 2016

What a Mask tells Us

(from Wikipedia)

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

So said Oscar Wilde.

On the other hand, James Baldwin wrote,  "Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."

Masks  conjure up Mardi Gras for me. The mask gives one anonymity, a sense of escaping from habit, routine and normal identity. We are free to be our Wilder selves, even if temporarily.

Detail, Picasso Lithograph

What Baldwin is recognizing is that normalcy and the routine self are themselves masks, invisible masks, perhaps, that hide our deeper selves, our true identity that society would reject or condemn. The great danger is that the mask may become fixed.

Both men were bisexual. Even more than those who identify as gay, bisexuals feel pressure to pretend to lean this way or that, and cover up half of themselves, especially if they marry. 

Wilde and Baldwin knew that in many situations bisexuals must live in pretense. For Baldwin, love required taking off the masks of social identity, of being naked, physically and spiritually with another. 

Wilde, being a man of the theater, realized how role playing might actually reveal real character. He knew the power of masks, the danger of masks. In a way his wit was his undoing. The trial court and opportunistic low-life witnesses ripped off his mask of respectability. We get not only the truth of the anonymous power of wearing a mask, but also the irony that the mask reveals the hidden identity underneath, an exposure that, in Victorian England, could be fatal.

Jack, July 2016

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