I was called Mask, I was called Wanderer
— Anonymous, The Poetic Edda
The path to the truth is doubled, masked, ironic. This is my path, not straight, but twisted!
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
We’re all tricksters. We have to be, learn to be. Dissembling, signifying, masking.
— James Sallis, Bluebottle
A woman and a man stand before a camera. Each puts on a mask indicative of the other’s gender but otherwise Noh-like in its lack of expression. In donning the masks, they feel that they are stripping themselves of who they are. Through voice, gesture and movement they inhabit new characters, assume different personalities, unfamiliar behaviours, and venture into the unknown. They are creating art but, for at least one of the participants, the experience is visceral, unnerving.
Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, from which this scene is taken, is a novel concerned with revelation, unpeeling and identity. Its protagonist is the artist Harriet Burden. Harry is overshadowed by her famous art-dealing husband, and she is stymied by what she perceives as institutionalised and systemic gender prejudice and inequality. This affects galleries, critics and the viewing public, whose own opinions are often informed and shaped by the other two.
Following her husband’s sudden death, Harry gives vent to her simmering frustration, embarking upon an extended experiment she refers to as Maskings. This requires subterfuge on her own part, the cooperation of a select few and a high degree of creativity, as she produces works of art for three distinct exhibitions. These are The History of Western Art, Suffocation Rooms and Beneath, each fronted by a male artist, Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge and Rune, respectively.
Harry experiences life as wife, mother, grandmother, lover and artist. Each role requires her to adopt a different character, putting on the appropriate mask. Her experience of life is one of hyphenation, embracing, sometimes confounding, familial, workplace and societal expectations and norms. ‘All the world’s a stage’, as Jaques phrases it in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. ‘And all the women and men merely players; / They have all their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts’.
Through her role-play with Rune before the camera and, on a grander scale, her self-masking with the figures of the three male artists, Harry takes this notion of perpetual performance to another level. She challenges and subverts what masks represent, what they mean, how they both hide and reveal identities. Her grand plan is eventually to make public the Maskings project, announcing herself as the true artist behind the men’s work.
The novel is presented as an act of investigation, of ongoing academic research. Harry’s experiment is unravelled retrospectively through posthumous access to her journals and notebooks, as well as through interviews with those who were close to her. It is an act of unmasking that fails to answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ Behind the masks are yet more masks, ciphers, the ephemeral.
In one of her notebooks, Harry observes, ‘The Greeks knew that the mask in theater was not a disguise but a means of revelation.’ With the mask, we hide in plain sight. The parent takes on a role, for example, simultaneously admonishing and educating a child. Hiding the humour they might find in the situation, but displaying their own values and beliefs in the guidance they impart. They are both showing and obfuscating themselves.
The business executive, the politician, confronted with crowds and cameras, hides behind technical jargon, smokes and mirrors, a carapace of expertise. Yet they show other masks in different contexts, with different people. One mask replaces another. All is metamorphosis and shapeshifting. It is in the many performances that they reveal who they are. The courtroom, dinner table, conference podium, sports field or dispatch box are all as much a stage as any walked on by a professional actor.
That is not to suggest that performance and the adoption of masks is the work of the con artist. Rather, it highlights that human identity is not rigid and fixed, but malleable and ever-shifting. We are all chameleons. Every experience we have, every interaction with another person, book, work of art, changes us in however small a way. They modify the masks we wear or endow us with new ones entirely.
Each person we encounter understands us, labels us, in slightly different ways. They associate us with whichever mask it is that we have faced them with. This creates a tension between perception and reality, our self-image and how others categorise us. It is a situation all too familiar to Harry. At the moment of revelation, as the woman behind the three exhibitions makes public what she has done, there are many who do not believe her.
The masks win out. The performance continues. Which recalls the celebrated line from John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Our fictions carry more weight, perhaps more truth, than our realities. An experience all too familiar to the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In trying to hide behind a blank mask and let the books speak for themselves, the author has unwittingly created an industry of whispering and conjecture.
The answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ is ‘Not the same person I was yesterday.’ The context shifts and so do the masks we choose to wear.
The face of a person is a mask, and the person, in truth, is a role, not the one who plays the role.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools
I believe that in fiction one pretends much less than one does in reality. In fiction we say and recognise things about ourselves, which, for the sake of propriety, we ignore or don’t talk about in reality.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
the mask that smiles
at acquaintances, that hides and upholds
the gulfs between them.
— Emma Sedlak, ‘The Man in the Mask’