Few outside the closed world of the yeshiva will know that it’s the festival of Purim—famed for its insobriety, burlesque and merry-making—that drives religious students into their most excruciating paroxysms of guilt. That, at least, was my experience when I studied there. While the town was full of people parading in fancy dress and masks for carnivalesque fun, we serious students of the law would get very grave in the run-up to Purim—almost as much as (as much as would be going too far…)—in the run-up to that better known time of chest-beating, Yom Kippur. But then that’s hardly surprising given that we knew the line in the Zohar comparing the two festivals—Yom Kippurim, the Zohar claims, is a Yom Ke-Purim (the Day of Atonement is like Purim). It’s a statement that certainly takes some explaining. Why on earth would a sombre and sober fast day be likened to a time of inebriety, partying and drag-act ostentation?
Well, for one thing, both festivals commemorate the Jewish people’s salvation from annihilation. On Purim Jews celebrate their salvation from Haman’s decree that all Jews be killed on one day, and Yom Kippur, according to tradition, is the day when God finally forgave his people for the sin of the Golden Calf, thus overturning his initial intention to destroy them “in a moment” as a consequence of their bad behaviour. Both festivals, in other words, memorialise a close brush with death, and after a close brush with death life can never be quite the same again.
But what is the knowledge that proximity to death brings us? Can we imagine it if we haven’t known it directly for ourselves? We may strive to imagine our deaths, but can we honestly imagine our faces at the moment when life departs? Can we envisage what look we will wear at a moment when we’ve had to give up the ghost and lose all control? Will that look be serene or tortured, smiling or grimacing? The possibilities are numerous but the face at that moment, upon which anyone may come and stare, will be but one, as if fixing one stamp, one meaning, on all our previous years. One can only shudder at the thought. A frozen face is a grisly image indeed. It’s little wonder that, their fixed grin notwithstanding, many kids develop a lifelong coulrophobia (fear of clowns), for every mask is, in a sense, a death mask: an immutable, unchanging expression. It’s probably also why the Torah repeatedly forbids our making “an idol and a mask (maseicha)”— for these lifeless apparitions are always conjurers of death.
Yet isn’t it equally true that we all wear masks, most of our waking hours, whether or not we’re aware of it? Not only at times when we’re putting on a brave face, or making up our faces to face the world, but even when we’re alone with our own reflections. Occasionally we acquire an uncanny sense of this. While our faces are for the most part constantly in flux, sometimes we can feel a particular look or expression freeze onto our face, as if something beyond our control but coming from within us had taken over our capacity to compose who it is we wish to be for others as well as ourselves. It’s why there’s such pleasure to be had in donning actual masks, which can afford us a way of concealing not so much our mobile faces, as our faces during those unconscious moments when they seem to freeze over and solidify into (death) masks.
So it’s not for nothing that masks are linked to revelry. A mask enables one to let down one’s guard and feel free from the constraints of constantly composing one’s face. Indeed, it was likely this freedom of masks that accounted for the famous masquerade balls which spread from Venice to the rest of the world: wearing masks allowed revellers to suspend, for a while, their constant fear of being, through their faces, found out. Although it’s important to remember that the Venetian masks were always chosen carefully, and often made by master craftsmen to be worn but once, as if the masks in themselves represented an outrageous act of daring that was to do less with concealment than exposure. The Venetians understood, it seems, how the question-begging assumed by the mask (who is behind the mask?) could enact a sort of double bluff—a way of masking (with a mask) the fact that it was only during the masquerade that revellers could risk showing the world their true faces.
Of course, “who are you really?” is hardly the most outlandish of questions. Isn’t it what we always ask ourselves in company—who is the person behind this persona (persona is the Latin for mask) and what might they be hiding? Everyone, after all, is hiding something—and even the dead take secrets to the grave. Yet our secrets, whether or not we know what they are, can weigh down heavily on us. It’s why that ultimate secret-revealer, Sigmund Freud, sought to free himself—and his patients—of the tension we all feel when facing another’s gaze. He suggested a method of interaction of lying on the couch and speaking as freely as possible—a freedom he sensed would only be enhanced by not having to face the face of the one listening.
Freud sensed that we give ourselves away more readily with our words than our visages. And Oscar Wilde seems to have been suggesting something along these lines when he claimed that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth” The truth Wilde refers to is not the factual truth but the truth of “himself”—that which the masked man will tell and the unmasked man will never tell. It’s an idea that psychoanalysts frequently make use of when they ask their patients not what they think about something, but what they think somebody else—a parent, a sibling, a colleague, a friend —thinks: speaking in someone else’s name frees us up to say the things we wouldn’t dream of saying for ourselves.
Despite all the vitality, humanity and ethical urgency they emit, then, we must be wary of interpreting faces. For faces—if we look to them for “truth”—can become frozen into immobile images. This occurs especially when we believe we need to express “a” truth, rather than allowing fluid and multiple truths to find different expressions in our ever-changing faces. To fasten just one look onto one’s face, in other words, is to betoken not the openness of life, but the terrible fixity of death.
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