Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking off the Mask

Prehispanic Mask

God has given you one face, and you make yourself another. ~William Shakespeare

It seems I haven't written a personal essay in a very long time.
My life has changed in subtle ways since my year-long essay-writing binge on this blog. I am consumed more than ever by my activities on the internet, with less time to let my mind "go blank" or empty itself.

Mostly, I am preoccupied with Escape into Life, the online arts journal I founded about a year ago. Working with programmers and designers, attracting writers and readers, and editing submissions on an almost daily basis wears me down. Some days I would just like to disappear from the online world.

Being connected to a vast network of people online is both a blessing and a curse. One day you realize there are hundreds, maybe thousands, expecting something from you. And this is what I've always wanted, I've always wanted an audience. Because it is my nature to write for an audience, and nothing appeals to me more than having those readers.

My participation in the online world has given rise to a persona, a mask I wear. I am constantly promoting Escape into Life on Twitter, and always hoping to gain more readers and more followers. At the same time, I feel my energy is being drained as a writer. The most important thing for me is to have a certain amount of silence, or emptiness inside. Too often in the last several months that emptiness has been crowded with fears and concerns.

When I first read the novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, I became fascinated with Jose Donoso's philosophy of masks and disguises. At the time, I was using drugs and my parents were getting a divorce. If you want to know the truth, I was actually in a psychiatric ward when revelations about the novel were becoming a kind of fixation for me. You have to understand that I had a very cynical view of things, I was being "locked up" in some hospital, and my family life was broken. But I seemed to find a lot of empowerment in the idea that we all wear masks, and beneath each of those masks is yet another mask.

This frightening premise ignited my adolescent imagination. Jose Donoso was influenced by the works of Carl Jung, specifically his alchemical studies in psychology. The meaning that Donoso ultimately came to, which his novel puts into dramatic form, is that beneath all of those masks is nothing. The human identity is made up of layers of masks, and underneath those layers is a vast emptiness.

The artist, the writer, deals intimately with both masks and emptiness. We feel constrained as writers when we bind ourselves to what we feel we ought to write, rather than responding to what arises naturally in our changing interests. The result of writing what you feel like you should write is simply putting on another mask, and the consequences can be disastrous, like pretending to be someone you aren't . . .

I admire writers, and all artists, for the courage they have to continually take off the mask. You are not truly creating anything until you are revealing a layer of yourself you didn't know was there. While the ideal of shedding the mask remains important, along the unexpected course of life, I find myself strongly gravitating to its opposite. I want to be someone. When I look at my small accomplishments thus far, and see I've not earned myself a single title in anything, I despair. I am still unknown. I am still without an identity.

This may be my greatest advantage, however. Because if the work of a writer is to take off the mask, again and again, not being anyone is actually a better starting point for creating art. Listen to this passage in The Obscene Bird of Night:
There are so many of us who go around collecting, here and there, whatever castoff enables us to disguise ourselves and feel we're somebody, be somebody--a well-known person, a picture in the papers with your name underneath; we all know one another here, in fact we're almost all blood relations . . . to be someone, Humberto, that's the important thing, and the lamplight flickers and the table wobbles under my sister's elbows as she holds her face in her hands like in Las Bertini's latest postcard photograph . . . my sister's too is a mask, La Bertini's mask, because her own face wasn't enough; as one goes along he learn the advantages of the disguises being improvised, their mobility, how the last one covered the one before it.
I am a character in my Novel of Life, and I am also a character playing many roles in this life. How is it then that I feel I am not aligned, and at other times, more aligned with my true self?

I strive so hard to cement my reputation in everything I do; but ultimately, this leads me to betray myself. I've lost touch with the current of my natural instinct. I become fixated on a social role, playing up to the expectations of the audience. I've been reduced to a puppet.

It seems we are driven by these social masks. First we seek to attain them, striving for a distinguished role, a podium on which we can stand out; and then, somewhere in the process, we begin to question who we really are, if this is really me, this role, this persona, this mask.

The sociologist Erving Goffman studied human behavior from the "dramaturgical" perspective. He saw each human's action as a performance, as a theatrical effect, in order to preserve social survival. Goffman wrote that the self
is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited (qtd. Glenn Ward).
Glenn Ward further explains that Goffman
writes of the self as a series of facades erected before different audiences. These facades only appear to emanate from some intrinsic self inside the social performer. In fact, the self is an effect, not a cause, of the facade. It is also not something you individually own. It arises from interaction with other actors on the social stage.
There seems to be a lot of truth to Goffman's discoveries. I can see how I would be writing for my social survival. Perhaps long ago I deceived myself into thinking that I was a writer by destiny, and instead I conditioned myself to become a writer because it was a social role I knew I could act out. It was someone I knew I could be.

Our histrionic natures have long been documented in literature and art. Read Shakespeare who says, "All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." We know we wear social masks, we know we play roles. In contemporary times, an index of reality TV shows will give you the full evidence of our histrionic natures.

Yet as writers and artists we are compelled to uncover the truth, not obscure it. Life is confusing enough as it is. At least in art, we can effect some level of control, create some kind of meaning in the world. And so, we learn to write by repeatedly taking off the mask, by giving it up, and finding something deeper and more powerful beneath the surface. It is by reaching into our innermost selves that we are able to constantly transform and improvise.

I know I am performing when I write, but I also know that I am honestly searching. And the search, the mystery, cannot be faked. I love what I do because it has an unknown factor. Any project I take up in my writing is with a destination unknown. This gives me faith that I am not only pretending to be someone, but also deeply trying to find myself.

More Essays . . .



Kathleen said...

The essay itself seems like taking off a mask...

Thank you for your thoughts and honesty. I do think that silence is important for a writer. Writers write. As long as you find a way to do that--and your essay shows that you did!--you are a writer.

This social self you also have, as an editor, is a fine service to writers and a wonderful thing to do. Im sure you will find the way to balance all this.

I am reading Letters to a Fiction Writer, edited by Frederick Busch, and several writers advise finding a way to support yourself that includes, say, manual labor, or a job that mixes you with people in the world...not just with other writers or intellectual things. (This reassuress me, as someone who left both academic and editing positions....) I mention it because taking off the layers and masks might reveal not emptiness but a kind of essential life, the thing you are escaping INTO.

Lethe said...

Thank you Kathleen, those are great insight, specifically about the connection to life, through our relationships, through our work in the world. Im also reminded of the poet Philip Levine, who wrote poetry about the working class world and his experiences in factories.


Zen said...

Lethe, how are you doing? I just came back from my break to my home country (where internet is scarce)

Upon my return to Melbourne, I decided to dedicate one week off for myself. Basically its just one week to think ahead and find my center / balance - not working, not going party-crazy either - just living.

So far it has been very calming and nourishing.

Regarding the mask - I wrote a post on my own blog to respond to it. The comment got so long that when I hit the publish button, I was presented with this msg:

Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters

Which to me is a sign that I should probably write that down as a post and link it from here, so here goes:

Take care :)

Lethe said...


Thanks for that fantastic response on your blog! You are light-years away from my inner turmoil, and I look to you with a lot of respect, for the wisdom you teach and the wisdom youve acquired.


Joanna DAngelo said...

Excellent essay! Thank you for writing this. Ive been struggling with my own writing for a while (mind you in genre fiction) but the idea/role of the writer has never quite sat well with me. Even though I call myself a "writer" - I have never been comfortable with that "mask". But I agree with you - we write because we are trying to uncover truth and that is a very difficult thing to do. Peace.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Ive been thinking about formulating some thoughts on Becketts Waiting for Godot. Generally, people like to compare it to existentialism and a world without God (waiting for God[ot]). But for me, theres something more direct. I see first and foremost whats there, without reading all that other stuff into it. Two castoffs wander in a battle-scarred landscape. They know that civilization continues somewhere. They know of the Godot Estate, theyve seen a representative from it, and other people wander through. They are not alone, just castoff. The whole point of the play seems to be: what is a person when all of the trappings of life are gone? No possessions, no title, no prospects? The answer seems to be: an intelligent animal, who is hungry, lonely, cold and afraid, who can only use his intelligence to imagine, against all evidence, that there might be a better moment just around the corner.

Lethe said...

Beautiful response, Mark! I like what youre bringing to this!

Lethe said...

Thank you Joanna, Im glad what I wrote resonated with you.

Lou Freshwater said...

This is such wonderful insight, and a much needed reminder as well.

Arthur Miller was very much into the idea of the societal mask. In an interview, Steve Centola proposed to Miller, you suggest that tragedy results when one tries to attain honor by putting on a mask and performing for the public instead of being what one really is and does best. In many ways, that idea parallels Sartres distinction between being-for-itself and being-for-others." Miller agreed and further explained how we adopt a persona which may bear little relation to who we actually are. He then went on to say, Society makes such a heavy demand upon the individual that he has to give up his individuality." Think of Willy Loman, a man who lost all concept of who he was without his mask.

Anyway, this is something I think about a lot, and I really appreciate your essay. Thank you.

Tim said...

Great blog post, Lethe. You gave me lots to think about. Im glad I stopped by. I look forward to my next visit. -- Tim

Leah said...

I personally think that anytime we, as writers, shed a little light on our inner selves, our masks come off. If only for a moment. But its an important moment because, as people and social beings too, its when we truly communicate that we become ourselves. Sure, we all don masks. I put on a happy face when I see my kids or my parents, when I dont want them to fret. I put on a serious face when I am in class, even though I might really be miles away.

Masks are like essential clothing. In certain situations, its neccessary to put one on, or we are exposed. Kudos to you to exposing a bit of yourself here, showing a piece of what makes you tick.

I would disagree that its all empty after that. :-)

Sulci Collective said...

We would have thought that notions of identity, who we are, ought to be quite a straightforward thing. But if you sat down to write down a list of your defining characteristics, you would be surprised at how many were socially determined, ie by standards held collectively and outside of your own subjectivity. Identity is ineluctably tied up with language and language is a social construct, handed down by parents, schools and other institutions, no matter how individualised your own personal idiom turns out to be; if you want to communicate with someone else, you have to speak the same basic language.

Writers presumably are those in society who are happy to probe the contours and wrinkles on the masks they don and hopefully are able to tear some of them off. But with your great appreciation of visual representation through your relationship with art, you have a great second tool for stripping away the world of surface appearance. The majority of people seem happy to gaze at the shadows from the fire in Platos cave and taking that for reality. Artists I hope and trust, put their arm in the fire and try to probe the true nature of reality that lies just beyond the cave. My fear is that the pressure of the commercial market in so many different forms of art, result in fewer and fewer artists exploring these themes and daring to turn the mirrored lens back on society and the myths it is founded upon. Those masks people don both voluntary and involuntary (unknowingly).

Just a recommendation, I dont know how you feel about reading playscripts, but Jean Genets play "The Blacks" is all about donning and stripping away masks and you may find interesting. Sam Shepards play "Suicide In B-Flat" also looks at the theme of slipping into and out of socially constructed identities.

marc nash

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