MEDITATION ON MASKS # 1 of 3

131-72 -- Morning #1

131-72 — Morning #1

© Hilary F. Marckx, all rights reserved
This is part of one of three
from an extract from a manuscript I used
in a class on spirituality and photography
at the Pacific School of Religion,
and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

The purpose of this meditation is to discover the masks around us. What is the protective coloration we use? How do we hide from each other? What devices do we use to fool others into thinking we are other than we really are? How are we fooled by masks? In this meditation on masks the idea is to see through the mask to the real person. Layer by layer we look for our true center—the place behind the mask. To see our own masks, we look at our own reaction to masks in general. We will use the camera to look for the masks of our culture for insights into the masks we use ourselves. Advertisements, billboards, window displays, faces: these can be symbolic of our own masks, and can find clues to that which we would try to hide from others and from ourselves.
What face is it we put on for the world, and how do we know if it is the right face, or just something of the moment to hide behind? How do we know there is a wrong face? How do we know there is a face at all? To understand these questions, the distinctions between masks and personas need to be discussed.
Persona is a Latin word which originally was used to refer to the masks used in classical theater. The actors would use masks to become the character played. Many times the mask was known better than the actor. In a Jungian framework, a persona is that which we use to go about the daily functioning of our lives. I am a husband, lover, grandfather, photographer, theologian, professor, photographer: these are some of my personas. When the personas are used to hide behind, they become masks.
A persona becomes a mask when we begin to use it to gain distance from people and issues. If my persona is part of my identity, and opens my humanity to those around me, I am fine; if my persona becomes my whole identity obscuring my humanity, then something is wrong, out of kilter, and my persona has become a mask.
A mask can be used in many ways, but I will hold to three main usages here. A mask can be used as a power object; when we put on a mask we put on power. A mask can be used as a screen providing anonymity; when we hide behind a mask, like classical actors, people cannot see who we really are. A mask can provide us a facade of constancy; we can use a mask to keep others from observing various emotional changes we are going through. Another way to distinguish between persona and mask is this way: A mask provides distance between us and the real world; we use a persona to enter fully into the real world.
Masks in the primitive world are used to bring home the reality of myths, and the particular mask used has its own creation story which fits within a people’s larger mythic setting. Masks are generally of particular animals and are used by a shaman to turn into, be possessed by, take on a new identity of power. Putting on a mask enables the shaman to give up or to stand aside from the humanity condition, to die to self, and become incarnate spirit. It is the invocation of the power of another within, and the mask-wearer becomes more than the reality of being. The mask wearer also wears a mask so as not to be recognized by spirits. Suet and fat are used on the face as disguise which protects or defends against harmful spirits. It is also understood that the entire costume of a shaman is a mask which transforms the shaman into another being. Sometimes the mask is designed with the ability, through mechanisms of ropes and pullies, to display more than one face—sometimes a second and a third face.
A particular mask in a myth-system is related to other masks in what is termed a transformational relationship. This transformational relationship between masks in a myth-system is akin to the transformational relationship which exists in the making of the masks themselves. This is to say that masks in a sense exegete a myth, or that the mask-wearing shaman is able to, through the power imbued in the mask, open a myth up for further ritualistic understanding. Masks are used as part of rituals, and that usage is to symbolize and therefore bring the reality of the myth home to the participants.
Masks have been used since prehistorical times. They are seen painted on the walls of caves in France, burial masks were used by the Egyptians, and the Greeks used masks in their theater. In the story The Mask of Apollo, historical novelist Mary Renault portrays actors in Greek theater. There an actor might have many parts to play, and a mask for each character. The actor was expected to have enough life experience to change bodily responses enough to fit the parts. The actors were generally men who characterized children, women, young men as well as old men. The troupes were many times small with the actors expected to perform many different roles. The masks helped the actor move smoothly from one part to the next, at times in the same play. The masks also helped the audience know how to better respond to the part played.
According to historian Will Durant, masks were worn for both comedy and tragedy, and the masks were made with a brass mouthpiece which projected and reinforced the voice of the actor. The Greek theaters were large, and visibility and hearing needed to be enhanced, so nuances were traded off to help the viewer. Durant explains that the masks not only enhanced the actor’s voice, but the actor’s height as well through the use of an onkos, or projection on the actor’s head. All in all, masks transformed the actor into another identity which made the real self of the actor unrecognizable.
In choosing the Latin word persona to indicate the many ways one person relates to the world, psychology made a shrewd insight into human behavior and a subtle distinction between healthy and pathological behavior. As I understand the distinction, the persona we use, such as that of father and mother, or profession or trade, is healthy in that it identifies a way we exist in our world. It is unhealthy when the identification goes beyond the identification of a way we function, and becomes who it is that is functioning.

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