Decades ago, In Crowds and Power, Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, Elias Canetti, wrote astonishing passages about the negative effects of wearing masks in general:
People’s attitude to this play of the features varies. In some civilizations the freedom of the face is largely restricted; it is thought improper to show pain and pleasure openly; a man shuts them away inside himself and his face remains calm. The real reason for this attitude is the desire for personal autonomy: no intrusion on oneself is permitted, nor does one intrude on anyone else. A man is supposed to have the strength to stand alone and the strength to remain himself. The two things go hand in hand, for it is the influence of one man upon another which stimulates the unending succession of transformations. They are expressed in gestures and the movements of the face and, where these are suppressed, all transformation becomes difficult and, in the end, impossible.
The different cultural attitudes toward masks between East and West have been noted and it’s hard to resist seeing in them the very different role personality plays in our respective societies. When I was more of a Western chauvinist I used to like to say the West invented personality with the novel and, especially, cinema. Transferring onto the silver screen the close-up–what an innovation in idolatrous human objectification!–wherein the most subtle human expression is made, dare I say, god-like, is one of the vectors by which modernity and technology have altered us. For better or worse the West made a thing of the objectification of personality.
But this invention is no accident and an expression of the individualism, and attendant egotism, of Western man. Witnessing the extent to which many came to and still embrace masks makes me wonder what element of that embrace goes beyond social signaling and genuine fear, and to what extent people are choosing masks to check out of an American society wherein personality is more objectified and commodified than ever; where even facial expressions are monetized, along with oversized asses and abs. This seems a sacrilege: the face expresses the soul.
With sympathy I suspect there’s a desire to want to preserve one’s psyche by pulling out of a society that feels like continual competition and humiliation. The endless images of people better-looking and happier come as an affront to one’s self-image. In particular I imagine this is hard for young people still forming adult personalities in the madness of present day America. America is a psychic charnel house. I think the appeal of becoming “gender non-conforming” for many young people is an escape from the carnage of the sexual market.
But that’s the sympathetic take. The mask also shields from view facial expressions–and facial expressions can “give us away”. There is a fundamental dishonesty in the mask, from the Western point of view; it conceals and assists in lying. Imagine the absurdity of any negotiation conducted behind masks (and I imagine our present elites doing just that)! The mask is a barrier to understanding that serves both the timid and the untrustworthy. Canneti:
A little experience of the inflexibility of such unnatural “stoics” soon leads one to understand the general significance of the mask: it is a conclusion; into it flows all the ferment of the yet unclear and uncompleted metamorphoses which the natural human face so miraculously expresses, and there it ends. Once the mask is in position there can be no more beginnings, no groping towards something new. The mask is clear-cut; it expresses something which is quite definite, and neither more nor less than this. It is fixed; the thing it expresses cannot change. …
A mask expresses much but hides even more. Above all, it separates.
That separation isn’t just the political one we see around masks. It’s also the individual, worn-down but still constantly assailed by a culture of comparison, endless comparison, who seeks to separate himself from a society that is disintegrating.