Back when airline emergency instructions came tucked inside the seatback pockets in front of you, I’d sometimes get unnerved by the illustrated mother putting on her mask as a child sits next to her. Yes, it’s logical to secure your own breathing device first. But I couldn’t help envisioning the masked mother turning to find the kid already dead.
As the life-giving conduit of oxygen, masks have (save for a few scenes in Blue Velvet) long represented protection amid catastrophe. Infantrymen in World War I lived in mortal dread of the shout for “Gas!” Gas masks became the symbolic escape hatch of battlefield carnage well beyond the next World War.
Scuba divers and snorkelers, astronauts in Ad Astra—they all seem to “get” the importance of masks. And of course the masks that protect people from contamination on both sides of a medical procedure. From the perspective of science, it’s complete logic, this effort to stave off possible death. It’s hard to imagine politicization.
But masks are like facial Dutch doors with their connotations and associations. The bottom half may be purely functional, but the top half is where the cultural weight is carried. After all, on top it’s the theatrical, performative, make-believe aspects of masks unleashed by the Greeks—this obsession with concealing one’s identify by pretending to be someone or something else—human, god, or demon—or even no recognizable someone at all.
Dramatic literature is rife with mask metaphors, with “masque” becoming a theatrical genre. Shakespeare used disguise as a powerful narrative technique in Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and As You like It. Concealed identity made for humor but also provided an innovative means to explore gender on a stage that did not allow women.
Three centuries later, Dumas père cashed in on the mask motif with contes like The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask. Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, Gaston Leroux’s 1910 melodrama, gave the world a meme that has accommodated popular tastes for 110 years and counting. In the decade after the First World War, Dadaists like Hugo Ball concocted theatrical masks swiped from every cultural context—African bush to Verdun trenches.
By the comic book culture of the 1940s, the stock superhero was identifiable by his harlequin disguise. Probably the last tier of mask ascendance was the face of evil in the evolving teen horror genre of Friday the 13th. The mask announces that it is concealing something much worse, but somehow the mask itself scares us more as a symbol of unknowable and unstoppable fear.
The Washington Post recently attempted to rationalize the politicization of pandemic-necessitated masks by suggesting that we are a nation of individuals.
That is one rich conjecture.
Yes, Americans are “individuals” who like to gather in great numbers in the same bars, drinking the same label of beer, free from the conformity of masks. In the summer when I visit the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, you see the local middle-aged white guys at Friday-night winery concerts—all with the same shaved heads, voluminous rugby shirts and baggy jeans like a Tupac video from 1994. They know what to wear because they see it everywhere around them.
Naturally it’s more often men who are the great individualists shunning the habits of lemmings—a terrific irony given the level of historical conformity in their attire. You need only contemplate men and their hats at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Those aerial photographs of the boaters at Brooklyn ballparks or in the sea of bowlers in front of the stock market—in black and white they look to be digital copies of the same man, thousands and thousands of “individuals.”
By arguing that the wearing of masks is the result of deception or propaganda by the liberal elite, America’s current mask-denialists are mixing up the top of the Dutch door with the bottom. The mask that we all need to wear on the bottom has been contorted from its functional source of safety to a harlequin strap of deceit and propaganda. This is what you call social demoralization, and the fact that masks are the metaphor for this phase in America’s decline is strangely analogous to the prominence of theatrical masks in ancient Greece, a theater-loving civilization whose flame-out was caused by drawn-out internal strife.
Theater was so popular in the governing echelons of Athens that models of the actors and their non-extant linen masks were made in materials such as terracotta, stone, and bronze and depicted on gems and in paintings and mosaics. Masks were the rage because they allowed male actors to embody all the people who weren’t considered “citizens” of the demos—women, for instance, or the vast majority of enslaved populations. (That is one big thing the American and Greek democracies have in common: we both put up statues of slaveholders.)
Masks were also practical: you could see them from the cheap seats and it was believed that they helped amplify voices. The big draw, though, was the transformative potential: an “ordinary” man could become a god, goddess, or demon. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex includes narrative about the Plague of Thebes, with the Chorus pleading for help from various gods, so presumably you had serious mask action. That was around 429 BC—the good old days in terms of Greek civilization. America had a Civil War in which (supposedly) the Union won; the Greek city-states had civil wars that went on and on until the Romans swept in, snatched their masks, and changed all the names of their gods.
Fortunately for later civilizations, the Romans liked the theater and the transformative aspects of masks; behind them you could say and do things you could not in everyday life, present ideas and portray actions that your audience might consider horrifying, fantastic, or absurd.
When Americans today wear masks, we are no one but our mortal selves, trying logically—and perhaps tragically—to keep the “mortal” part at bay. §