The masks of others

“Masks could utterly destroy all human morality.
Name, position, occupation…all such labels wouldn’t matter anymor
Everyone would be strangers to each other.
lt’d be natural to be alone.  ” (The Face of Another movie, 1966)

Seeing this quote today made me think of masks, people and the research I am doing. The association between masks and terms such as “strangers” and “alone” intrigued me and put into motion an entire flow of thoughts.

Well, it is true, I deal a lot with them. I come across masks in my research: from a human cut-out and preserved face, to death-masks and wax casts (kept as anatomical specimens).  I also come across them in the social sciences literature (employed to enhance my analysis), as it is the case of Erving Goffman’s theory (where people are seen as performing different roles, in different contexts of their life). From masks in their materiality, that we shape others into, and the ones that can just be talked about.

But what lies behind any mask? No matter what it is made of. For example, when you hold in your hands the face of a once living individual, you start thinking of who they were, who and why turned them into the fragment you are holding, why is it there, which is the most interesting and useful way of talking about it? etc. etc. (If there is something we, researchers, never ran out of are questions to ask 🙂 )

A scholar was once saying that he went to a World Religions Congress, where he was completely baffled. Everybody was telling their own story, but no one would actually engage with the various perspectives: they were acknowledged, accepted and moved on. Due to a fear of not judging the other or being disrespectful, they had chosen not to ask questions any more. This lack of debate, led to a lack of real dialogue and real engagement with the Other. Which he felt that  turned them into strangers:  nobody was interested in understanding why he is saying what he did, and what would his world-view imply.

That is why when dealing with masks I find the “Why” question as the most important one. In spite of  it being a little unfashionable now (in favour of the “How” question, which is very rewarding in its own right).
Why is this thing here? Why is this person behaving as he/she does? Of course, one can not see from behind the mask, through the eyes of its owner. But, as a true archaeologist would do, one can dig through the several layers and see by the way they are combined and brought into being, what might be the reasons and assumptions that lie behind them. This might work, or might not, but in the end what it does is to create an active relationship with the Other. It acknowledges that the Other has a will of his/her own, one that moved his actions and person towards a specific goal (even though they acknowledge it or not).

As Tom Jones would say, “My, my,.. Why, why ..” 🙂

Photo source: (Movie quotes)


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