All of life’s everyday objects have a story, a genealogy, a raison d’être; and nothing is more exciting than to tell that story. The story of the humble nail, the loud hammer, the subtle book, the obedient washing machine, the powerful car, or the fascinating computer tells us more about our societies than many philosophers, historians, economists, or sociologists.
One of these objects, which is very old, has re-emerged as a relevant topic today: the mask.
To understand its raison d’être today, we must, as with others, plunge into the depths of history. In doing so, we may discover that, like other objects, and even more so, the mask is related to death and the quest for immortality.
Men do not love each other, and they wear a mask to recreate themselves, to go beyond who they are and become someone else. Men do not love other men, and only those who have the right to exist or to immortality have the right to a mask. There is a mask only when there is a face.
The first masks are those of the Egyptian mummies, for whom it opens a path to eternity. Subsequently, the masks for African rituals, whose function is also to create a relationship with the other realm, and similarly these masks are not worn by the dead, but rather by the living, to whom they give the appearance of gods, demigods, or at least supernatural beings. The masks are generally worn while dancing. For a long time, only those people wearing a mask could dance.
At the same time, there are certain gods, including those of Judaism and Islam, who are faceless; they do not need any masks, and they even forbid their followers to wear them, except under the circumstance of hiding their faces, sometimes; but never to disguise their faces.
When the ritual loses its strength, the mask is used to put on a show: this is the case in Greek theatre, as well as in Noh Theatre. In these settings, the mask is there to grow, deform, and magnify the personalities of the universal characters behind whom those who wear the masks disappear. The words “personage” (character), “person”, “personality”, are derived from “prosophon,” which refers to the mask in Greek.
The function of the mask in the ritual context deteriorates further with Carnival, which allows man to change personality, to be another person for a brief moment, to escape his social situation and his condition as a mere mortal for a while.
Then the individual becomes freer, more autonomous, and transparent. And then comes the death mask, the ultimate attempt to keep life in its simulacrum, the “drama of everything,” of which the great American poet Walt Whitman, who was an ambulance driver during the Civil War, would later speak.
Then, the mask disappears as individualism rises, along with sentiments such as the taste for life and the rejection of death; thus, it becomes no more than a fairground accessory; authenticity becomes the rule, at least in appearance; because, in reality, the mask is always there: it becomes a hat or a wig, or make-up, then plastic surgery. Here again, it is a matter of denying death.
The mask imposed by the pandemic from the end of the 17th century and onward is more related to death than any other period: its aim is still to delay death. It still obeys a ritual, imposed by the new masters of the relationship with death: Not the priests, but the doctors, who are now wearing masks before anyone else.
The medical mask is a pure artefact, like so many others that we encumber ourselves with. A vital artefact; a protective uniform, abstract and bureaucratic. Like the other masks before it, it denies the personality of the one who wears it to the eyes of those who are observing him, but without replacing the personality of the mask-wearer with something else, as the other masks did. It is no longer a sign of distinction but of uniformity. The other person is no longer an undifferentiated and unknowable being. It becomes impossible to convey emotion through a grimace or a smile; a gaze by itself is incomplete.
This is an unbearable situation in an individualist and democratic society based on self-fulfilment, and becoming one’s self. Even for the self-driven dream of becoming someone else. Furthermore, nothing would be deadlier for our world than to allow ourselves to slip into a society that denies the specificity of each human being, thus making their disappearance more acceptable.
If we want to save the right to be ourselves, in a democracy, for the period of time that wearing medical face masks are necessary, it is essential that we do not allow the masks to deny who we are. We can do it and it is quite simple. We must personalize the face mask, as was done for a time during a Venetian pandemic. Many women, more so than men, have understood this; and not for futile reasons: women generally know better than men that there is life only where there are differences and distinctions.