Perhaps symbols have some meaning after all; otherwise, why bother trying to erase them? But if the symbol is a mask for a truth, why can’t the truth speak for itself? We all have a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. This seems true even with intimate relationships, long married couples, for example. We might come, after much experimenting, to value the simple and functional over the ornate and symbolic. But every creation of the human seems to suggest some facade, some outer covering or wrap behind which one might find origins, occasions, old arguments, claims, proposals – opposing viewpoints.
In Richard Ellmann’s “Yeats: The Man and the Masks” (1948), we may conclude the mask for Yeats was not necessarily a cover for something else (personality, argument, belief) but was the essence of being human. One is born with a mask:
“To start with its simplest meaning, the mask is the social self. Browning had spoken of two ‘soul-sides, one to face the world with,’ and one to show the beloved. But Yeats’s doctrine assumes that we face with a mask both the world and the beloved. A closely related meaning is that the mask includes all the differences between one’s own and other people’s conception of one’s personality. To be conscious of the discrepancy which makes a mask of this sort is to look at oneself as if one were somebody else. In addition, the mask is defensive armor: we wear it, like the light lover, to keep from being hurt. So protected, we are only slightly involved no matter what happens. This theory seems to assume that we can be detached from experience like actors from a play. Finally, the mask is a weapon of attack; we put it on to keep up a noble conception of ourselves; it is a heroic ideal which we try to live up to. As a character in The Player Queen affirms, ‘To be great we must seem so. Seeming that goes on for a lifetime is no different from reality.’ Yeats used to complain that English poets had no ‘presence,’ because they insisted upon looking too much like everyone else; a poet should be instantly recognizable by his demeanor. The poet looks the poet, the hero looks the hero; both may be deceiving others and they may even be practicing a form of deception upon themselves” (172-3).
Nations and communities, too, wear masks. We see them at holidays, parades, celebrations. Sometimes ideas are codified in by-laws, rules, expectations official and informal. I’ve never been much of a fan of fireworks, or for the 4th of July. The flag covers the coffin of the soldier coming home. Independence Day, though of course not independence for everyone. I used to look forward to the 4th because it was an extra day off work, and the block picnic, if there was some guitar busking going on, beer and potato salad – beans, burgers, and dogs grilled to a crisp, sure, why not? But the fireworks, dangerously loud, the dogs and cats howling and scurrying for cover, the smoke and the intersection filling up with the burnt cardboard shells. And all of it, as celebration, such a facade, a mask. Well, but comes the opposing viewpoint, maybe not. Maybe what we see on the 4th is not a facade, but the truth of things. Irreverent and irrelevant, bombastic. Or, as the poet Robert Creeley put it: “Ritual removed from its place of origin is devoid of meaning.”