Masks

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

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David Bowie

Heroes

“We can be heroes just for one day.”-David Bowie

When I was describing the art I wanted to my book cover designer, I said I wanted a rock star, but not any rock star.  He had to embody theatricality and glamour. I wanted a figure who played with his identity, who created a persona that inspired imagination and fantasy in his audiences. Someone whose public self was as much a work of art as was his music. The early draft came back with a long-haired, Woodstock-esque figure.

“Like David Bowie.” I explained.

The designer then understood exactly what I meant.

 

Pretending to Be Who You Really Are

51RBE9yVNAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I started reading an interesting book called “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was” by Wendy Doniger. “Many cultures have myths about self-imitation,” says the blurb on the back, “stories about people who pretend to be someone else pretending to be them, in effect masquerading as themselves. This great theme in literature and in life, tells us that people put on masks to discover who they really are under  the masks they usually wears, so that the mask reveals rather than conceals the self beneath the self.”

As themes of rock stars and people impersonating themselves filled my head I suddenly remembered a video that I once watched over and over on a betamax tape. The 20 minute version of David Bowie’s “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean.” It is a wonderful, humorous short film in which Bowie parodies his own rock star image. He plays two characters, a nerdy nobody who wants to impress a girl by pretending to be friends with a glamorous rock star who goes by the stage name Screaming Lord Byron. So you have one of the biggest rock stars of the day pretending to be a nobody pretending to know a rock star to get in to see a rock star played by the same rock star. Screaming Lord Byron, behind the scenes is also nothing like his on stage persona. Back stage he’s a nervous, sickly wreck. The video ends by breaking the third wall. A nice pop music example of the genre of self-imitation.

My favorite scene is the one where nerd Bowie tries to convince the woman at the door that he is on the guest list. My brother and I still sometimes use “Woosh Oliander” as a catchphrase. Enjoy.

Pretty People and Verbal Violence

My partner is Russian, not Russian-American. His primary residence is Moscow. Because I spend half of my life in the company of a Russian who loves his country and is proud of its culture, I have an interest in news stories about Russia and perhaps a slightly different perspective on them than Americans who do not spend most of their time with Russians.

Global Voices today ran a story about Lena Klimova, the founder of an online support network for LGBT teens in Russia. Running such an organization puts her on the wrong side of Russian propaganda laws and as you would imagine she receives a lot of ugly messages online.

Klimova responded by taking photos the trolls had publicly posted on their social networks and coupling them with their violent rants. Here is an example.

t_YS3rk8Nzk-599x600Translation: “Aisha: I, for one, think you’re a stupid bitch. You think you’re helping anything with this holy crusade?? Go and fucking kill yourself before they come for you!!! People like you should be locked up!”

There is something quite powerful and arresting about the juxtaposition of these everyday images of perfectly nice-looking people and the vitriol they spew.

You have to wonder if they would be so bold speaking to someone they knew in life, or if the seeming anonymity of the internet allows them to strike out at a character on the screen as if she were not human.

The “othering” that allows the bully to see her target as less-than-human works in two directions. When we fail to recognize the human faces of our critics they become monsters, which gives them extra power. The angry voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. They speak as though they represent multitudes.

Most of the comments on the Global Voices piece talked about how terrible it is in Russia, about how angry Russians are and how “totalitarian” they are in their thinking, with at least one commenter wishing out loud that he could rescue Klimova and take her to California.

I do not know anything about Klimova, but I suspect that she does not want to be rescued from her country. She loves it enough to want to make it a better place.

There is an aspect of Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws that is not widely discussed. They are, in part, a reaction to U.S. cultural dominance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Western cultural products became available in the new spirit of openness, Russians initially embraced the once-forbidden English and American pop music, Hollywood films, McDonalds and Budweiser beer. It happened quickly. And after a decade or so, a lot of Russians became concerned that their own distinct culture might be threatened by all of these imports. LGBT rights, pride parades, same sex marriage became symbols of the intrusion of foreign culture. In the U.S. those who are against gay rights tend to view it as a symptom of the erosion of religion in public life. In Russia, the gay rights movement is viewed as an outside force trying to mold Russia and change its culture. Those are the kinds of fears that give the backlash its power and ferocity. It is not just that you want to live differently from me– you want to change my world.

The context is important, of course. But making this photographic statement all about Russians, and then saying “isn’t it terrible over there” misses a larger point. Nice respectable people have the capacity for this kind of verbal violence. The bully is not a monster, she is a girl holding flowers. Recognizing this poses a lot of questions. To the bully it asks “Are you proud of what you said? Do you stand by it when it is associated with your face and your identity? Is this how you want to present yourself?” To the rest of us it asks “Could the bully be your sister? If it was, would you laugh it off and look the other way? Could the bully be you? Are there times when you are so certain of your correctness that you forget to notice someone else’s humanity?”

This kind of behavior exists all over the world. In fact, after I finished reading the Global Voices article another article passed through my newsfeed.  Just last week a group of Pennsylvania students, the Stranger reports, decided to hold their own “Anti-Gay” day in response to the national “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

This prompted the group of students to ask classmates to wear flannel shirts and write “anti-gay” on their hands on Thursday, April 16, in protest, according to WPXI-TV. In addition, participants posted Bible verses on the lockers of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the news station noted. Meanwhile, some encounters between students who participated and those who didn’t even got physical, The Advocate pointed out, and snapshots of the flannel-clad group appeared on social media.

“We came into school on Thursday and found a lot of people wearing flannel and we couldn’t figure out why,” Zoe Johnson, a 16-year-old McGuffey High School who identifies as bisexual, told BuzzFeed’s David Mack. “People started getting pushed and notes were left on people’s lockers. …I got called a dyke, a faggot. They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

 More troubling still was an alleged “lynch list,” which the group was reported to have circulated around the school.

I came across an older post today on how Ijeoma Oluo responded to a racist troll on twitter.  She never allowed herself to lash out at him or to lose sight of his humanity and in the end he gets tired of trolling and it turns out the troll is allegedly a 14 year old who has recently lost his mother. Who knows if this is true, but as Daily Kos said, “It is hard to say whether or not this Dildo Baggins person really is a 14-year-old kid working through the pain of losing his mother. It is hard to say whether the person behind this moniker really did learn something here. I would like to believe that this was the case, but it really isn’t the point. Ijeoma Oluo’s boundless capacity for love and wisdom is the point.”

The bullies look like perfectly nice people. Most of the time they probably are. That is the point.

“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…

Who Was That Masked Man?

UntitledRecently I’ve had the opportunity to look through a large stash of family papers related to my great uncle James Jewell, who was the director and part of the team that created The Lone Ranger, which began as a radio series on WXYZ.

The files contained some documents relating to that character and also to shows that were less successful. Many of them shared characteristics with The Lone Ranger.

As I was discussing The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet (my grandmother, Leonore Jewell Allman, played the role of Lenore Case on that program) I thought about all of those masked superheroes created in the 1930s. The Lone Ranger and Superman were both created in 1933. The Green Hornet in 1936. Batman was created in 1939.

I thought about some of the articles I have been writing here about how our culture has changed since the late 19th Century. Victorians enjoyed tragic endings where the protagonists did something noble that was never revealed or rewarded. It occurred to me that these masked heroes of the early 20th Century represent a transitional period in our culture. They manage to embody both ethos through the simple expedient of a secret identity. Their deeds are known and celebrated– as Superman or The Lone Ranger– but their personal identities are not. Like a 19th Century character they do the moral thing for the good of it with no earthly reward. The people in the newsroom never know that Clark Kent is a hero. Yet he is not entirely unacknowledged as his alter ego is praised.

Give a Man a Mask and He’ll Tell You the Truth?

Oscar Wilde was always saying things that made you go hmmm.  Often they have the effect of making you say, “Oh yes, that is true. Wait. Is that true?”

One of his most famous aphorisms is the one quoted above. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

This phrase seems to be both profoundly true and profoundly untrue.

There are things that people are willing to reveal only when they are able to remain anonymous. Sometimes you do not want the burden of having your particular idea attributed to your social identity. You will only reveal something when that identity is obscured and the statement won’t go down on your permanent record.

This is often the case with art. A playwright or novelist might be able to explore the negative emotions, vulnerabilities and flaws of fictional people while all the while expending enormous social energy to hide his own weakness from those who surround him in life.

So Wilde’s statement is true. Sometimes when you are hidden you are more revealed.

But only sometimes.

Intuitively we also understand that when you are hidden  you  are  hidden.

Our “persons,” our selves, are not neatly distinct from outside observers.

“…individuals’ personalities— yours and mine included— are not as stable as we think they are. We’re more influenced by those around us than we’d like to believe. Even our private sense of identity is highly context-dependent,” wrote Sam Sommers in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. “..We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.”

The question becomes is there actually a stable “truth” about the person behind the mask to reveal?

One of my favorite passages from Situations Matter was this one about self-help:

How, exactly , do we get acquainted with this core self? A trip to the local bookstore suggests that the answer has something to do with chicken soup. That, plus we’re supposed to ask ourselves questions like these suggested by Dr. Phil: “ What are the 10 most defining moments of your life?” “What are the 7 most critical choices you have made to put you on your current path?” “Who are the 5 most pivotal people in your world and how have they shaped you?” Dr. Phil’s questions share a common link. And I don’t just mean the use of arbitrary digits that I can only assume were once his fortune cookie lucky numbers. Their more important shared characteristic is the assumption that introspection produces reliable self-insight. These questions imply that looking inward provides some sort of direct channel to your internal preferences, deepest thoughts, and true motivations. It’s a nice idea, that you have an authentic self lurking within, waiting to be unveiled. But your answers to Dr. Phil’s questions— like your responses to the Twenty Statements Test— change across time and location. So which are the authentic ones?

Is my true identity the person you think I am, the credentials on my resume, my credit score, who I think I am today or who I thought I was a year ago? Was the vulnerable self who suffered once from unrequited love my true self? Is the frightened self who is stressed by calls from creditors my self? Is the peaceful, relaxed self who listens to music my true self? Do those negative emotions I will only reveal when I put on a mask represent my true self? Perhaps they are simply waves in a fluid being.

I spent a lot of time thinking about different aspects of identity when writing my latest novel Identity Theft. All of the characters struggle with some aspect of identity.  Please follow the link above to read more about it. I am taking orders for advanced copies through Pubslush to fund its production. I am pleased that in the first two days the project is already 21% funded. However, I need your help to push it over the top. Unless the project meets its goal, it will not be funded. You can be part of bringing this novel to life. When you go to the Pubslush page, you can read more about the novel’s characters and my inspiration for it. You will not need to make a payment today. In fact, because it is all or nothing, you only pay if the project reaches its target goal. In the event that it is successful, you will make your payment at the end of the campaign 17 days from now.