“The Mask is Our Truer Self”

I’ve given a lot of thought to Oscar Wilde’s phrase “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” if for no other reason that the post I wrote on it a while back is my most perennially popular, generating a good 20 hits or so a day. (Not that I obsessively check my blog stats to see what kind of impression I am making on the outside world.)

I’ve been reading Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He quotes Robert Ezra Park saying “It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person,in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.”

Goffman continues, “In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves– the role we are striving to live up to– this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be.”

It struck me suddenly while reading this that Wilde’s aphorism seems to imply that a man is not wearing a mask to begin with– he must be given one. But if the persona is a mask to begin with, then a mask would only mask the mask.

Perhaps by disguising the mask that is your “truer self” (the way you want to be seen) with a mask that allows you to express your faults and foibles (Wilde’s “truth”)  without suffering the consequences you end up at some kind of equilibrium, but in fact this whole notion is throwing me a bit off balance…that is, if there is a “me” to be thrown…

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