Within the physical realm, the human face is the most complex signifier of our identity. It makes DNA signatures look simple, and it has inspired a lot more great art besides. Even if you’ve never been to the Louvre, everyone knows that most famous of Italian ladies, even if only from listening to Nat King Cole. Our most intense and intimate visual memories are of faces: the cherubic ones in our baby books, those all-scrubbed-up-for-the-occasion portraits from elementary school, that winsome wallet snap of your first girlfriend, that penultimate dimming visage that looks up at loved ones as we lie on our deathbeds, the undertakers’ last re-do of our earthly likeness when we lie in our coffin: “Oh, Mamma looked so nice, don’t you think?”
In this season of the mask, we are in trouble. Stipulation: masks may or may not be as effective as we are led to believe when put to their present anti-contagion purpose. Opinions and data vary, and we will probably never know for sure. There can be no doubt, however, about what masks conceal and, yes, take away from us. Arms, legs, knees, shoulders, fingers, toes, and any of our more unmentionable members all pretty much look alike from one man or woman to another. So do, I suppose, eyes, noses, and mouths, yet they are tougher to objectify visually. This is because of that which they were created to compose: the human face. God gave us a front, and this is it. Our face is what we present to the world, and for better or worse, it is the thing on which the world often renders its opinion of us. We all know the power of that often-unforgettable “first impression.”
Masks cover faces or parts of faces, and no other part of us. They are mates: mask to face as gin to tonic. From prehistory, humans have sensed the power of the face to project meaning. They’ve also understood its need to be protected. Therefore, masks took on particular potency. They could be fun, frightening, functional. Plague times, as we see again nowadays, certainly bring them out, as does wartime. Defensively, think masks against gas attacks in the trenches and during the Blitz, when masks for civilians became a symbol of solidarity. Offensively, think the balaclavas of an IRA or PLO terrorist. Small-time criminals, too, mask-up when raiding a convenience store cash register.
Germ theory brought masks into medicine and made them a fixture of the clinic. Religion, and perhaps politics too, may have gotten onto masks first, however, and museums bulge with fascinating, sometimes scary, sometimes beautiful, examples of the mask as symbol and tool of ritual. Masks also entertain, as in masquerade balls or, dare we still say it, on Halloween. And, as we are witnessing now, they can also have a certain self-advertising value. Better than one of those trilingual placards in front of an Episcopal Church declaring virtuous welcome to everyone from anywhere, corona masks turn believers into walking billboards for a cause: “I care.”
The mask is perfect for the age of identity politics, when all that matters is one’s tribe, not one’s name. Here we return to the face. Names and faces are as inseparable as faces and masks: the names of spouses, children, and friends conjure first and forever their faces. What screaming and verbal intimidation alone have not been able to accomplish, the mask, which comes along at just the right time, covers visually. We are addicted to images, and the nameless, masked face, revealing eyes alone and just enough skin to betray color, suits a political purpose: One glance and I know instantly whether or not you are like me, part of the mask tribe. If you’re not, for shame.
This is a low use. I offer an example from history of a higher one. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, masks as components of the masque play partook of a crowning aesthetic and cultural achievement, and one with a strong English accent. From the simplest processions and pageants honoring Elizabeth I on her summer progresses through the shires, to the elaborate productions of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones at the court of the Stuarts, masques were spectacles filled with allegory and allusion, with pantomime, singing, dancing, painting, and architecture to charm and delight the senses. The form faded after the Puritans spoiled the fun and closed the theaters in the 1640s, but the masque prefaced the rise of opera, where masks have remained part of the dramatic furniture.
Dipping from high culture back to low, I, like many American boys and girls who grew up during those innocent salad days of television in the early post-war years, spent too much time watching a genre of show that had carried over from radio and the big screen to the small screen: the Western. Producers and writers of such shows quickly learned to cram a story into a self-contained half-hour segment, of course allowing time for “brought-to-you-by” messages from Oxydol, Geritol, and Camel. To children, Westerns mimicked backyard games of cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers, played with few props beyond maybe a cap gun but with plenty of energy and imagination. The games, in turn, mimicked the shows. “Who are you going to be today: Wild Bill or Hopalong or, better yet, the Lone Ranger?” If the latter, you got to wear his mask, probably purchased with saved-up box tops from your Cornflakes or Cheerios.
His was a black mask that covered the eyes alone; it would have been a familiar enough trope to masque-going Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences. The Lone Ranger chose to wear his mask to hide the fact that he had survived an ambush by a gang of outlaws (themselves masked, no doubt), so that he could more surely bring them to justice. Episode after episode, he pursued frontier justice relentlessly, even heroically, we thought. He courted danger and always came through. Yet he forswore personal credit. He was a man of morally guided action, not identity. His mask kept him a mystery to others—and it kept him humble.
One might have thought that, given our ongoing epic confrontation with a disease thus far beyond modern medicine’s magical powers to prevent or cure, we might have learned some humility. We turn now to masks (covering more of our faces than the Lone Ranger’s) which serve purposes as much theatrical as clinical. Their message is clear, yet the messenger is hidden. The face is lost. More and more these days, in order to see a face, it is necessary to see through a mask, a talent I do not possess.
I confess further to not knowing how to behave behind my own mask, and suspect I am not alone in this quandary. Shall I smile, frown, scowl, or are all of these expressions, so unique to each individual, now unrealities, like the noise of the tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it? Who cares? Historians decades hence will look back on the tumults of the past months (and probably of some more months yet to come) and weigh up the evidence. If they’re in need of a neat little symbol, the mask will serve. Whether it worked or not, it won’t have been pretty. Rioters and looters, like the outlaws of yesteryear whom the benignly disguised Lone Ranger went up against each week, now wear masks too, and it’s not for modesty’s sake.
“Who was that masked man, anyway?,” we wondered at the end of each of those half-hours. We were not supposed to know. It was what he did that made us want to be like him and kept us coming back for more.