I’ve been thinking about masks this week. In honor of Halloween, of course. But also in order to unmask some of my own fears and shame, to remove their power over me.
Masks are useful symbols to talk about psychology in the modern context, in part because in many ancient cultures they have important ritual and spiritual significance. More than a few thinkers and writers on spirituality (including many of Joseph Campbell’s intellectual descendants) like to point to African or Asian ritual masks, and the nativism (worship/fear of nature? of the unknown?) that inspires them. I’m tempted to go down that road, but that’s a subject for another day.
What I want to hammer home today is simply this: we all wear masks, at least a little bit, everyday.
It’s nothing to proud of, or ashamed about. It’s just what we do. In fact, it’s what we have to do, to maintain our stature (and sometimes our sanity) in an increasingly complex and confusing society.
Speaking of hammers, I was watching an old Hammer Studios film adaptation of Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde last night. In The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), instead of the grotesque, physically imposing Hyde we sometimes see on film, Paul Massie plays his Mr. Hyde as handsome, slight of build, and cultured– a suave, sneaky, quietly furious version of Jekyll, secretly playing out all the repressed desires and emotions of his eminent scientist/better half (better but “weaker”, of course). Hyde’s always on the edge, just barely restraining those base impulses, which of course is the reason that Stevenson wrote the book.
The 1886 novella came out of a Victorian context, where views on science and human nature were starting to be at odds with each other. In Britain and America in particular, the ideas of people like philosopher/psychiatrist/religionist William James and scientist Charles Darwin were being weighed against the Wesleyan, Calvinist or other more traditional views of the creation and human nature. Plus there were the true beginnings of modern medicine, and drug experimentation, and the various scientific and social changes that came with the Industrial Revolution.
Of course, all literature has a complex context out of which it arises (or so my graduate school professor in Deconstructionist theory told me, and I believe her… which is why I bother to deconstruct the novella, the films, and our present social context as readers and viewers).
In the Hammer/Columbia Pictures version of the story, horror great Christopher Lee plays Jekyll’s friend Paul Allen (not to be confused with the other Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft… who’s probably two-faced as well, but I don’t know much about him).
The psychologically and socially relevant, non-horror-related point of the whole movie is this: Allen (Lee) is as two-faced as Jekyll/Hyde, in that he’s screwing Jekyll’s wife, then turning around and playing Jekyll’s poor, unlucky old friend in order to take financial advantage of him. And in her adultery, Jekyll’s wife is also two-faced, as are all the other looking-for-love/only-out-for-themselves characters in the movie.
See, it’s a story about you and me! If we can admit it (I’d use the word “confess”, but its so weighty), it’s about the mixed motives we sometimes have for what we do, and the face we present to the world. It’s also mostly about the evil that we do, the sin that takes hold when we’re not careful. But the story that we usually hear is all dressed up in these fancy, semi-scientific clothes, or shallow horror genre clothes, so we don’t often pay attention to the moral or religious questions underlying the whole story.
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“The comfortable people in tight houses felt pity at first, and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people.” — John Steinbeck (via the Sunbeams section of The Sun magazine)
I’ve also been thinking of the political sorts of masks we wear. Not just the politicians. Everyone.
This idea was brought to the front of my mind by “Future Zarahs”, an excellent article in The Sun , about an American aid worker’s ethical struggle in Africa to balance pregnant Zarah’s individual need against the hundreds of imminent threats others will succumb to if he stops to help Zarah.
Personally, in the process of my current jobsearch, I’m acutely conscious as I write a cover letter or interview for a job that I’m selling myself. I’m already “playing politics”, presenting the best possible face to these people whom I may want to work with or lead. For example, I can’t talk about the doubts I have in my current abilities with a certain financial software I used ten years ago. What counts, at least at first, is that I have experience with the software at all.
Nor can I discuss my vague misgivings about the company I’m applying to. This is true not only because I’m an outsider looking in and don’t know all of what they’re about, but also because I know for sure that every organization is made up of flawed, imperfect people. Therefore people can’t help but create a flawed, imperfect system –a system in which, despite its flaws, people are often very territorial. So I have to put on my best face, and wait for a chance to carve out my own place, and hope that if I’m hired, we’ll all be flexible and rational and organized and kind enough to get done whatever we’re supposed to do, without stabbing each other in the back.
Which leads to my final example, about mental illness and the formation of identity, as seen in another movie I watched this week, Donnie Darko.
It’s a fascinating movie, sort of a dark comedy/sci-fi/horror flick. This was the second time I’ve seen it, and I watched it again precisely because I could not remember much about my first viewing, other than a vague impression that I liked it, despite its explicitly dark subject matter.
The uniqueness of its plot and themes are probably part of the reason I couldn’t remember it or categorize it well. Like Jekyll/Hyde it’s another deeply philosophical story, masquerading as a horror flick or coming-of-age story. The film’s been running on FearNet, though now that Halloween is over, they might be taking it down from Comcast’s On Demand availability. Go look for it, though. It’s good.
One of the strengths of the film is Jake Gyllenhaal’s sensitive portrayal of a mentally ill teen. The film never explicitly says Donnie is a paranoid schizophrenic, though it’s strongly implied. Like Hammer’s Two Faces film, Donnie Darko explores the hypocrisy that surrounds its main character, in an upscale suburb of D.C. Played out against the hidden, less-acknowledged, less-stigmatized sicknesses and addictions of other characters in the film, Donnie’s illness seems oddly normal and manageable, even heroic, in how he and his family deal with it.
I’ve had firsthand experience with schizophrenics, so I’m prayerfully aware of how this and other mental illnesses are thought of by society and depicted in our popular culture. We live in a complicated, sometimes crazy-making culture, during an obviously crazy-making era. Not to mention that chemical imbalance and disease are simply medical and scientific realities, not problems for a society to make value judgments upon.
On the other hand, inevitably, budgets in themselves are value judgments, as government funding and two-faced state initiatives try to quietly put more mentally ill individuals on the street and not have to help pay for their care. But a person is not an “earmark”, he or she is a person.
We can claim to be a “kinder, gentler nation”. We can even vote accordingly, according to our conscience, this coming Tuesday. But until we put our money where our mouth is, until we act sacrificially and agree to be transformed, to integrate our Shadow, it’s all just talk. We’re always tempted to wear a mask of kindness, while hiding the more selfish, scared, or genuinely sinful parts of ourselves. But we can’t go on like this.