Of disease and disguise

I want to talk about how things
turn into other things.
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

Mask is a murky word, etymologically, its origin in jumbled cognates: a Vulgate term for evil spirits; an Arabic word for seduction; “a group of Romance forms meaning ‘to smear, blacken’,” according to the OED. I recall that masque, as a form of entertainment, has about it a special sense of pomp and ritual; indeed, as our masks now obscure the play of emotion across our faces, we’re made to become demonstrative, to dance our affect and intent: we duck and nod, rolling our eyes and rippling our brows; no, you go first; no please; no, thank you. And with our new masks, new rituals. We’re all invited to the masque of social distancing: walking, masked, along the street, we see masked walkers on the path ahead and know that our choreography will be complementary and consensual.

In the masque, there was something more than mere celebration or social dance. Masquerade carries the whiff of misrule—and specifically, the misrule of elites—an amalgam of bacchanalia and bonfire of vanities. No wonder Edgar Allan Poe brings forth his revelation of epidemic as the unfolding of a masquerade. In “Masque of the Red Death,” Poe imagines an entourage gathering in the remote and elaborate castle of princely Prospero, seeking refuge from the plague that stalks the city. The plague finds them anyway, of course, at the height of their masked dance—in irony, an acknowledgment that pestilence and class always have been inextricably linked. Poe’s story is rite-like, a Gothic hierophany: as the masked stranger promenades through the seven different-colored rooms of Prospero’s castle, the revelers fall dead; when the survivors confront him in the last, red, room, and tear off his mask, they find behind it nothing at all.

“The dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet.” From Tales of Mystery and Imagination ... Illustrated by Harry Clarke, by Edgar Allan Poe. London : G. G. Harrap & Co., 1919. (British Library item 12703.i.43). Illustrating The Masque of the Red Death.

The president, the vice-president, and corona-denying members of congress, all have signaled their defiance and resentment by appearing without masks in photographs and at public gatherings. Before, to wear a mask was take one’s place in a marked category; now, to be unmasked is to mark oneself a skeptic, an active resister of the normative. The naked faces of Trump, his administration, and their political allies, cast into relief the weird brazenness with which they have gone about their corrupt business from the start of this administration. A gaslighting, naked venality has been the hallmark of Trump and his surrogates; now, as a virus-exposed Pence plunders nursing homes and clinics for photo ops and senators breathe their nihilistic liberty-gibber into microphones, we see the nothingness unmasked. I can’t help hearing a Scooby-Doo denouement stored up in the word “unmasked”: we would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for this meddling virus!

It’s striking that, as PPE has proliferated in our public conversation—first as a topic of scarcity, and subsequently in tropes of mutual aid and belonging—usage has shifted from “mask” to “face covering.” What are we hiding from; what masks do we don to protect us from this masking? The surgical mask, the protective mask, the N95 respirator—these are both tools and tokens of vulnerability, of fragility. And I think we resist that. For many in the West, I think, the image of masks worn by everyday people—people in the street, who aren’t actively engaged in a medical procedure or handling hazardous materials—often formerly seemed a puzzle: what are they afraid of? Belatedly, we’re discovering that, in this embrace of the fragile—stretching gauze across the orifices of the face, accepting the itch and intimacy of it—we signal our embrace of one another’s fragility: oh—oh now I get it—we do this for each other.

And yet. We resist that signal of shared precarity, somehow, for it begins with the acknowledgment of our own. What does it say about us, as a culture, that the patterns and colors of our new “face coverings” seem drawn from the palette of boxer shorts? There’s something playful in this, something expressive—but some resistance, too, I think.

The mask is forbidding; the mask estranges. Swathed in protective gear, the pandemic healthworker appears otherworldly, a monster of authority and an angel of death. No one chafes at these personae more than healthworkers themselves—and the chafing is literal, as we know from the selfies of unmasked caregivers, their chapped cheeks flaring as they confess into their phones at end of shift. The estrangement is doubled for patients, many of them now masked themselves, in masks that breathe for them, an awful and uncanny inspiration… during the Ebola crisis, artist and Occidental College professor Mary Beth Heffernan’s PPE portrait project furnished caregivers with “headshot portrait labels,” featuring their own smiling faces, to wear on their hazmat gowns. Images from the Ebola clinics show patients drinking in the images of human selfhood on their nurses’ gowns, reaching up to touch the smiling faces. Now, Heffernan is working with colleagues at Stanford and UMass to provide these portrait labels to Covid caregivers across the US and beyond.

To the philosopher Alphonso Lingis, the face already is the mask we use to stage and perform our roles, our submissions, our desires; behind its blank walls, we hoard our deeper energies. “A face,” writes Lingis, “is where consciousness and passion exist in the world…. The movements, fluxes, rhythms, melodies, velocities of continental shelfs, oceans and skies, the other animals, the plants and the viruses are covered over with the blank screen of a landscape, appearing only through meanings, gloom and pleasures.” And yet, Lingis observes, the animal within us also rises to play across the surfaces of the face, to prowl and fly across its landscapes: “Into the smooth contours of the cheeks blank for the inscription of signals, there emerges an exposed and susceptible carnality, where millions of microorganisms swim in churning rivulets and cascades, craving contact with the lips of a calf, the powdery plumage of a cockatoo, the caresses of blades of grass, themselves teeming with minute swarms of living organisms” (“Animal Body, Human Face,” in Social Semiotics 7(2), August 1997).

For Guernica, Kimi Eisele writes about her practice of using masks in performance work about ecology out of balance. With fellow activists, she makes masks of cloth, paper, and natural materials, for conjuring the affect of animals—jackrabbit; deer; horned-toad lizard. Along a stretch of Trump’s border wall in Mexico, she recounts, “we put on the masks and tried to imagine what it would be like to come upon a thirty-foot-high barrier separating us from our migratory routes.” We don’t see ourselves masked; instead we feel estrangement in the clammy touch of its surfaces, the humidity of the breath that collects and clouds, the concentration of our own odors in its caress. We see our transfiguration in the faces of those who look upon us, too, as they regard us as animal, as spirit, as other in full. In these ways, a mask is a kind of imaginal prosthesis for both wearer and viewer.

Elsewhere in her essay, Eisele observes that “(y)our whole face is a tiny forest, a microhabitat. Your eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks—a home for face mites. Teeny, tiny eight-legged arthropods, relatives of spiders and ticks.… All of us touching our faces, touching habitats, dislodging species.” Beneath the mask, another mask—itself a masquerade, a dance of many life forms.

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