Taking off the Mask

imageIt seems I haven’t written a personal essay in a very long time. My life has changed in subtle ways since my year-long essay-writing binge on this blog. I am consumed more than ever by my activities on the internet, with less time to let my mind “go blank” or empty itself.

Mostly, I am preoccupied with Escape into Life, the online arts journal I founded about a year ago. Working with programmers and designers, attracting writers and readers, and editing submissions on an almost daily basis wears me down. Some days I would just like to disappear from the online world.

Being connected to a vast network of people online is both a blessing and a curse. One day you realize there are hundreds, maybe thousands, expecting something from you. And this is what I’ve always wanted, I’ve always wanted an audience. Because it is my nature to write for an audience, and nothing appeals to me more than having those readers.

My participation in the online world has given rise to a persona, a mask I wear. I am constantly promoting Escape into Life on Twitter, and always hoping to gain more readers and more followers. At the same time, I feel my energy is being drained as a writer. The most important thing for me is to have a certain amount of silence, or emptiness inside. Too often in the last several months that emptiness has been crowded with fears and concerns.

When I first read the novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, I became fascinated with Jose Donoso’s philosophy of masks and disguises. At the time, I was using drugs and my parents were getting a divorce. If you want to know the truth, I was actually in a psychiatric ward when revelations about the novel were becoming a kind of fixation for me. You have to understand that I had a very cynical view of things, I was being “locked up” in some hospital, and my family life was broken. But I seemed to find a lot of empowerment in the idea that we all wear masks, and beneath each of those masks is yet another mask.

This frightening premise ignited my adolescent imagination. Jose Donoso was influenced by the works of Carl Jung, specifically his alchemical studies in psychology. The meaning that Donoso ultimately came to, which his novel puts into dramatic form, is that beneath all of those masks is nothing. The human identity is made up of layers of masks, and underneath those layers is a vast emptiness.

The artist, the writer, deals intimately with both masks and emptiness. We feel constrained as writers when we bind ourselves to what we feel we ought to write, rather than responding to what arises naturally in our changing interests. The result of writing what you feel like you should write is simply putting on another mask, and the consequences can be disastrous, like pretending to be someone you aren’t . . .

I admire writers, and all artists, for the courage they have to continually take off the mask. You are not truly creating anything until you are revealing a layer of yourself you didn’t know was there. While the ideal of shedding the mask remains important, along the unexpected course of life, I find myself strongly gravitating to its opposite. I want to be someone. When I look at my small accomplishments thus far, and see I’ve not earned myself a single title in anything, I despair. I am still unknown. I am still without an identity.

This may be my greatest advantage, however. Because if the work of a writer is to take off the mask, again and again, not being anyone is actually a better starting point for creating art. Listen to this passage in The Obscene Bird of Night:

There are so many of us who go around collecting, here and there, whatever castoff enables us to disguise ourselves and feel we’re somebody, be somebody–a well-known person, a picture in the papers with your name underneath; we all know one another here, in fact we’re almost all blood relations . . . to be someone, Humberto, that’s the important thing, and the lamplight flickers and the table wobbles under my sister’s elbows as she holds her face in her hands like in Las Bertini’s latest postcard photograph . . . my sister’s too is a mask, La Bertini’s mask, because her own face wasn’t enough; as one goes along he learn the advantages of the disguises being improvised, their mobility, how the last one covered the one before it.

I am a character in my Novel of Life, and I am also a character playing many roles in this life. How is it then that I feel I am not aligned, and at other times, more aligned with my true self?

I strive so hard to cement my reputation in everything I do; but ultimately, this leads me to betray myself. I’ve lost touch with the current of my natural instinct. I become fixated on a social role, playing up to the expectations of the audience. I’ve been reduced to a puppet.

It seems we are driven by these social masks. First we seek to attain them, striving for a distinguished role, a podium on which we can stand out; and then, somewhere in the process, we begin to question who we really are, if this is really me, this role, this persona, this mask.

The sociologist Erving Goffman studied human behavior from the “dramaturgical” perspective. He saw each human’s action as a performance, as a theatrical effect, in order to preserve social survival. Goffman wrote that the self

is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited (qtd. Glenn Ward).

Glenn Ward further explains that Goffman

writes of the self as a series of facades erected before different audiences. These facades only appear to emanate from some intrinsic self inside the social performer. In fact, the self is an effect, not a cause, of the facade. It is also not something you individually own. It arises from interaction with other actors on the social stage.

There seems to be a lot of truth to Goffman’s discoveries. I can see how I would be writing for my social survival. Perhaps long ago I deceived myself into thinking that I was a writer by destiny, and instead I conditioned myself to become a writer because it was a social role I knew I could act out. It was someone I knew I could be.

Our histrionic natures have long been documented in literature and art. Read Shakespeare who says, “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.” We know we wear social masks, we know we play roles. In contemporary times, an index of reality TV shows will give you the full evidence of our histrionic natures.

Yet as writers and artists we are compelled to uncover the truth, not obscure it. Life is confusing enough as it is. At least in art, we can effect some level of control, create some kind of meaning in the world. And so, we learn to write by repeatedly taking off the mask, by giving it up, and finding something deeper and more powerful beneath the surface. It is by reaching into our innermost selves that we are able to constantly transform and improvise.

I know I am performing when I write, but I also know that I am honestly searching. And the search, the mystery, cannot be faked. I love what I do because it has an unknown factor. Any project I take up in my writing is with a destination unknown. This gives me faith that I am not only pretending to be someone, but also deeply trying to find myself.

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