From the most ancient times when neolithic shamans wore bone and hide masks as depicted in the cave painting known as "The Sorcerer of Trois Freres" to the imposing figures of Darth Vader and Batman, masks have been seen as a symbol and focus of power, magic and mystery. When we wear a mask, we shift our shape and become something other than ourselves.
Here in the west, masks are often seen and thought of as frightening, intimidating, scary. This is, I think, because we in western society have been taught to fear and loathe personal transformation and shapeshifting. People and things shouldn't change their shape or nature. We applaud the people we think of as constant, consistent, unchanging, and deride and degrade the fickle, changeable, inconstant. Our psychologists struggle to help us "integrate" our selves, so that we will be one consistent individual personality. In fiction, those who change their shapes are monsters: werewolves, vampires, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. The heroes are the less changeable - rock solid, steel true, blade straight.
Human beings are probably the most changeable, and adaptable, of creatures on this planet. We manage to survive in almost every climate and geographic region, while most animals are limited to a much more narrow range. We can, unlike most animals, consciously choose to act in ways that deny our instinctive urges, and act from different motivations (for good or ill). We can alter the direction and tenor of our lives, change our ecological and social niches. Through most of the twentieth century, humans in western society have struggled mightily to exploit their ability to adapt on the physical level - populating deserts and arctic tundras, venturing to the sea bottom and to space - while denying and avoiding that inner adaptability and fluidity, seeking to rigidly define each individual as one thing, and one thing only. We "are" one thing - usually our profession, doctors, lawyers, housewives, widget makers. We kept to our routines, year in and year out, punching clocks, making supper at five o'clock, taking our vacations for one week every summer.
Change, of course, was always considered good for the "bad" elements - we approved if alcoholics abandoned the bottle, if hysterics and the insane could be made into productive members of society by therapy or drugs, if criminal elements could be rehabilitated, illiterates educated. These sort of changes, however, were seen as "corrections", the re-aligning of pathological or underdeveloped individuals with the social standard, and in most cases, such change was seen as being imposed from without, through the agency of psychologists, therapists, social workers, teachers.
For most of this century, those whose inner landscape did not match the blueprints laid out by their society either lived life as outsiders and rejects, or struggled to construct a social mask which would hide their inner difference.
But the joke was on us. Because the truth was that most of our inner landscapes did not precisely match those blueprints. Human beings are not nice, neat cardboard cutouts traced from the patterns of Tom Brown, Ozzie and Harriet, or Mary Tyler Moore. Humans are messy, complex, mutable things, fluid and changing, conflicted and confused, full of conscious and unconscious needs and desires, hopes and aspirations, fears and anxieties. These inner forces are as often at odds with each other as they are with socially accepted standards.
In the Jim Carey film "The Mask", the New Age psychologist played by Ben Stein does this whole rap about how we all wear masks all the time - masks of the social personas we've constructed over the years. This idea has become such a commonplace cliche that now it's being lampooned in the movies. But cliches don't get to be cliches without having a core of truth to them.
Stein's character in that film refers to "masks" in the plural, and he is correct that we wear more than one mask. We present different faces to our friends, family, employers, co-workers. Yet our society has taught us to value consistency, constancy, and also honesty - we will react with anger and outrage to any suggestion that the face we present in any given situation is an artificial or constructed one.
In an environment which demands the wearing of these metaphorical masks, and at the same time also requires our absolute denial of their existence, is it any wonder many of us feel anxiety or even fear when confronted with an actual physical mask? Here is our deepest guilty secret incarnated before us in physical form, the very thing we need most to survive in society, but which we must ever deny and ignore. We pale and freeze like a Victorian gentleman whose mistress has shown up in full whorish drag at a royal reception.
Like that Victorian gent, we do our best to pass the whole thing off as a joke, convince ourselves and our peers that it's inconsequential, rather absurd, not at all important, and we laugh nervously as we escort her to the door. Masks? They're for children, of course, belong in comic books and cheap horror movies, Halloween parties, that sort of thing. Nothing an adult need give any serious thought to.
Oh, yes, there are functional masks that we need to wear, of course, in sports and surgery and welding and such, nothing to worry about there, those masks are completely defined by their protective function, no need to think about them beyond that level at all, at all.
With physical masks trivialized and marginalized as minor amusements, we can proceed with our safe little western lives, wearing our metaphorical masks with which we pretend to each other that we are consistent, dependable, regular and stable, a series of fixed points in a changing world.
As we enter the twenty first century, this is beginning to change.