These amazing African masks are on display at the High Museum in Atlanta.
I am fascinated by masks. Or by the idea of the mask.
Is wearing a mask a way to conceal something? Or is a mask a means of becoming someone or something else? In many rituals, for example, the masked individual impersonates a dead ancestor or ancestral spirit. In Mission Impossible, we don’t even know we’re looking at Ethan Hunt until he pulls off the unbelievably lifelike mask of the villain.
Both, obviously. Every lie combines pretense and dissembling. We conceal a truth with an untruth. Or so it would seem.
Because I have to ask this. How do I know when concealing my “true” identity tips over into becoming someone else. Follow? Put it this way: when does it become impossible for me to “take off” my mask, because it is now actually my face?
After so many years of being Tom Cruise the actor, is there still a regular-guy Tom Mapother, who comes home from work at the end of the day, kicks back in his recliner with a cold one, and watches the evening news until his dinner is on the table? Heck, don’t you suspect that the actor Tom Cruise has long since disappeared into the freakish “Tom Cruise,” a creature fabricated by those modern-day Frankensteins of Hollywood, the tabloids, and multinational corporations?
That’s exactly what makes a masked person seem so creepy. We can reassure ourselves that there is a “real” person under the mask, maybe even a friend or relative. We know, or think we know, that our friend or relative would never harm us in any way.
But the mask creates doubt. What if there is nothing “fixed” about who we are? What if any one of us is capable of doing anything?
What can we rely on when the true and untrue are so entirely indistinguishable as to make us question whether “true” even exists?