This article was previously published in Sword and Spade magazine.
Theo Howard, writing this dispatch from Great Britain, considers the reasons to wear masks and the reasons to take them off.
Perhaps the supreme symbol of the tribulations that have beset the world in the last year is the medical face mask. Itself of doubtful effectiveness in preventing the transmission of infection, the mask has nevertheless become a potent “symbol” of “what you should be doing” as Dr. Anthony Fauci claimed back in May 2020. Saturated with ever greater moral and even cultic meaning, they have since become a crucial element of the public fear, fascination, and controversy surrounding the mysterious SARS Cov-2 virus.
The continued public wearing of these masks, obscuring man’s noblest feature, the Imago Dei, of countless people across the world, prompted me to reflect that these masks are actually only the latest mask that atomized postmodern man takes on and off each day. Or, to put it differently, these physical masks are somewhat easily adoptable because we are already conditioned to the public theater of masking our true selves. As Dr. Fauci alluded to, the face mask, like a true sacramental, do “signify” an invisible reality. And it can be argued that this inner theater has actually been practiced on a large scale by modern man for as long as a century, coinciding with the end of organic societies. This was noticed by the 20th century Jewish-American sociologist Erving Goffman who is best known for his thesis of “social dramaturgy.” In his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Goffman echoed Shakespeare’s famous dramatic monologue from “As You Like It.” “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances.”
We Are Legion
Goffman asserted that as we navigate the complexities of modernity, we embrace a series of different masks which we display to others according to the myriad of different situations and audiences that we encounter. In his “dramaturgical account” of social interaction Goffman argued we consciously and subconsciously enact roles, shuffle scripts, adopt different costumes and change the staging of how we present the self, according to the multiplicity of situations we find ourselves in. Like Zygmunt Baumann and his thesis of “Liquid Modernity” Goffman understood that the ambiguity and liquidity of modern life creates a profound destabilization and anxiety for ourselves which we perceive as forcing us to inhabit a variety of personas depending on who we are interacting with. The unnaturalness of this multiple role adaptation can be particularly awkward when we find ourselves in situations where we try to reconcile two or more inconsistent roles, such as when we run into a colleague from our workplace while shopping in the company of our family or even when we meet a member of our sports team while leaving Sunday Mass in the company of friends. Multiple public “selves” clearly create an obstacle to the cultivation of true relationships thus contributing to the spiraling loneliness of our times.
Goffman’s subversive and revolutionary conclusion was that there was actually no “true self” behind our various performances, that we do not have a fixed personality, and that in a sense the masks we adopt are who we are. This conclusion is of course deeply at odds with a true Christian anthropology where God “knit us together in our mother’s womb” and He “calls us by name.” The 19th century Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was drawing from this understanding when he wrote that “Christ plays in ten thousand places” referring both to the beauty of creation but also to the shining faces of the saints who radiate Christ through their own unique personalities. Like the windows of a magnificent Gothic cathedral the unique pattern of our graced personalities magnify and give glory to God’s splendor all around. Monsignor Alfred Gilbey wrote that it was therefore better to say that God loves us uniquely rather than equally.
The Self, Online
Goffman’s thesis does offer genuine insights however, with his account of theatrical postmodern socialization. The contemporary self is undoubtedly “fragmented” and technological developments such as social media have only added to the performative stages that postmodern man takes to with his different masks and personas. With social media accounts nearly all of us have a “personal website,” a dedicated personal stage, where we display a highlights reel of our lives to different audiences, spending time curating our reel and disguising our quiet behind-the-scenes desperation. There is something profoundly postmodern about the artificiality of the fabricated performed self, paraded for the internet hivemind, rather than the integrated self of the saint that is true before Creator and creature. Contemporary wellbeing discourse swarms with jargon about “authenticity” and “being true to oneself” but as with so many other words that are repeated in today’s culture such as “community” and “love” our desperate invocations are actually evidence that we possess very little of it.
I have been pondering all of this while contemplating the absurdly performative nature of the Covid face mask. Every reader will doubtless have many experiences of witnessing illogical and totally theatrical behavior from face-mask wearers such as someone putting one on when picking children up from school and then pulling the mask down when drawing close to other parents for a chat or donning one when meeting someone for business and then both wordlessly stuffing them back into their pockets once mutual sanity has been assessed.
In a sense there is almost an inevitability to this external signification of the theatricality that our lives involve, with ever greater fragmentation between our familial, online, community, professional, social, and religious selves. There is a sacramental logic to the adoption of the performative medical mask in correspondence to the inner masks we adopt and remove with ever greater frequency according to the multiplying vicissitudes that polyhedral postmodern life presents us with. Perhaps they are an attempt to harmonize the inner life of the soul with her external expressions. I myself am familiar with nodding through ever more frequent and fervent “inclusion and diversity” and “ally training” corporate meetings while going on to speak with friends about the advances of “Globohomo” Cultural Marxism in the public square. I disclose anodyne weekend plans to work colleagues and mention little of the celebration of the Holy Mass and Catholic cultural activities with my Catholic friends that I will enjoy. It is strangely fitting that I might be tempted to signify these different inner masks with the use of a face mask. Perhaps readers can guess where my true self lies.
While moments of Covid cognitive dissonance are no doubt cause for amusement, this escalating social dramaturgy in our society actually evinces the terrifying dissolution of Western Civilization and Christian culture. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The root causes of social dramaturgy are the plethora of identity crises that bedevil postmodern Western man. What does it mean to be Western? What does it mean to be American or English or German? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be Catholic? There is very little that has not been rocked to its foundations. The contemporary self is becoming more and more fragmented as not only Divine Positive Law but also Natural Law itself is attacked, thus inverting the effects of grace, at least on a social level. The inverting agent, the devil, is “the great divorcer,” Diabolos (διάβολος) in Greek – “the one who divides.” The multitude of demons possessing the Gerasene demoniac refer to themselves as “Legion.” The devils always look to attack the “Oneness” of the Divine Plan.
Driven by the powers of darkness successive generations of insane revolutionaries and utopian dreamers have conspired to steadily denude western man of the rich harmonic constellation of identities he possessed that arose from Christian civilization and both anchored and gave meaning to his life. If we are to overcome the identity crises that beset our societies today then a firm grasp on reality is essential, leading to good human soil for the reception of the seeds of grace, and eventually the fruit of an integrated self. It appears that this firm grasp means getting a grip on who we really are, or rather letting who we are actually take grip of us. The masks must
It appears that this firm grasp means getting a grip on who we really are, or rather letting who we are actually take grip of us.
come off, and we need to be eager and ready to embrace our true selves, which means that we must be ready to inherit and accept an identity not of our own making (or masking).
Now, it is true that we do not reveal our entire personalities to every person we meet. Of course, our intimate affections are saved for our loved ones and sometimes our travails are kept from those closest to us. In Book 6 of the Illiad the Trojan Prince (and one of the Chivalric Nine Worthies) Hector’s plumed helmet scares his infant son Astyanax when he enters the family home from battle. Homer tenderly depicts how Hector laughs and removes the fierce battle helm as he takes his son into his arms. The husband and father must shield his family from many of the cares he deals with in the world. Our Lord concealed the full majesty of His Divinity while on earth save at special moments like the Transfiguration. Yet we remain integrated, even if we unveil our full selves only to God who “searches the heart and examines the mind” (Jeremiah 17:10) and “knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:8). In this fallen world a man must keep parts of his life distinct to maintain right order in the little societies he is a part of, like the family.
It is important to remember that our objective is not the “balanced life” which passes as the goal for so many people in the contemporary rat-race. A balanced life sees various elements of one’s life precariously stabilized against one another and thus fundamentally separate. Proceeding from gratitude and wonder towards Our Father in heaven, our objective should rather be an integrated life. A whole life. Grace infuses and transforms nature. It doesn’t just “drop on top’” and remain separate. We are partakers of the Divine Nature. Our work, social and familial lives should be integrated with our religious lives, drawing their vitality from it. In striving to fulfill the lay apostolate of subjugating the entire temporal sphere to Christ — to build Christendom — we are going about a mission that supernaturally flows from our fundamental identity as adopted sons of God, an identity that overflows into every aspect of our lives and gathers them around the figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Only Our Lord through His One Sacrifice can heal and complete the parts of our individual and common lives that the devil and his army of fallen angels look to separate, despoil, and set in strife against each other.
The masks we wear risk becoming the masks we are. Let us be careful that Goffman’s claim that no true selves can be found behind our masks does not come true and thus look to lower all our masks and present our true selves, transformed by grace, to the world.