FACE AND MASK: TALE OF A DOUBLE BEHEADING
MASK: Good Morning, glad to make Your acquaintance… the editorial office of “Diciottononi” sent me here to interview you. I’ll start with telling you that your face is not new to me… have we met already? My name is Mask.
FACE: My pleasure, my name is Face and I too am glad to meet you, I have about 30 minutes time, go ahead and ask me your questions. (He actually experiences an immediate sense of dislike towards Mask) You know? I think I know you too… perhaps you go to that meeting place “The Mirror” as well: I go there once or twice a day, maybe that’s where we met! Actually, why do you address me in such a formal way? I can accommodate to it, if you insist, but I would like to know why.
MASK: It’s simple: a multitude of characters live within us, and they constantly ask us to be played out. The idea of building a unity is a ridiculous illusion and I hope You have not fallen for that, I heard your mind is as sharp as a razor, and that you are well learnt. (He actually thinks within himself: this guy doesn’t look too smart) Therefore, I spoke to the multitude of characters, the expressed and unexpressed ones, which live inside you. Any actor, even a strolling player, is aware of this reality and can confirm it for you.
FACE: So each one of us would be a sort of condominium where more characters live together, and these take the person over at different times? I confess I don’t like this idea at all! I feel I am a whole being and I deeply believe in the Truth, in the possibility of being myself without any veil, or mask, or feigning, without roles or acting at all, but spontaneously and out of simple inner need.
MASK: Really? Do you believe in the truth? Actually, sorry, in the Truth? Could you tell me what that is? Make this my interview’s first question. (He laughs in an irritating manner)
FACE: (taken off guard, he’s silent for a few seconds: he’s deciding whether to answer by a long philosophical dissertation, perhaps quoting Wittgenstein, or get out of it by a witted line, he picks this second choice) Truth is in every dance that is in tune with the music characterizing the time and place that we exist in, the “here and now”. Every action, expression, or world is finally a dance.
The world vibrates continually with music deriving from an invisible score. Therefore, truth is beauty, harmony, ability to perceive the subtle rhythm of the universe. That’s why today’s truth may not be tomorrow’s: the music may change, and so the dance will have to change too.
MASK: (His strong features take on a triumphant expression) Do you see? You’re agreeing with me! And maybe you’re not even aware of it! If to live our “truth” means to perceive a secret harmony, to dance at its pace, to go along with it, than “sublime spontaneity”, the natural vocation to serve the forces that are freed in the fleeting moment, may be obtained by surrendering to what the Greeks called daimon, a subtle identity that lives within us without our knowing, which possesses us exactly when we have our happiest intuitions, when we speak our most poetic words, when we act without thinking and hit the mark, like a Zen archer or a soccer player who scores in one shot.
That daimon uses our body, our shape, even our mind like a mask. Now let me ask you: who says this daimon that lives within us is a single one?
FACE: (with a scholarly expression) I’ll quote Occam for you: “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”: we shouldn’t turn to more beings than is strictly necessary in order to explain the world to ourselves and ourselves to the world!
MASK: I would never mean to offend you, but I was told you are a refined thinker, when instead you look to me… quite naïve. Have you ever watched the movie “Rashomon”? It’s the story of the same murder told by four different people. In fact, the spectator realizes these are four different stories, even though the event that is being narrated is supposed to be the same one, because the four different points of view make truth wear four different masks. In the movie, the four different points of view belong to four different people but, I ask you, who prevents a person from cultivating within him/her perspectives and points of view that are even in conflict with each other? Do you never doubt? Therefore, don’t your two different “I”, which cultivate opposite points of view, create conflicting realities? And we’re still in the field of opinions… perception is something much more vast and unexplored, and you have to consider the different characters that may co-live within a person.
FACE: Let me point out to you that you are supposed to be the one interviewing me, but you’re talking a lot more than I am… a behaviour that is certainly not a good journalist’s trait! Since you insist on mask, I would like to remind you of the function that masks had in Greek theater: to frighten and to reveal. In ancient theater, the actors (hypocrites) always hid their face behind a mask (in Latin: persona), and the spectators were convinced that the dead, heroes, and gods could manifest through those who acted, and possess them. The mask, rigid and inanimate like a corpse’s face, was the means that allowed celestial and earthly forces to manifest through a recognizable form without annihilating the spectators, frightening them, but instead amusing them. Yes, there was a strong component of amusement because every mask petrifies, immortalizes an aspect of the human personality and turns it into a caricature. On the other hand, masks are frightening, because – and this goes for sacred masks in particular – they hide an entity that obeys a terrible and ruthless time and logic and can not be reduced to the quiet flowing of everyday life.
MASK: (it fumes, giving obvious signs of impatience and boredom during Face’s long speech) Good! So you have renounced the idea that Face is superior to Mask! In the theater of life, whatever our role is, popes or heretics, policemen or thieves, nuns or prostitutes, conformists or revolutionaries, bankers or beggars, what do we do except wearing masks?
FACE: Be patient for one moment, let me finish my talk and I’ll get to the point! So, I was talking about the main god who had to do with theater and masks: Dionysus. Actually, the world “tragedy” itself means “chant in honor of the he-goat” and the he-goat was one of this god’s manifestations. Dionysus’ central myth told of how the god had been dismembered and cut into pieces by the Titans while he was contemplating his own image reflected in a mirror. Apollo picked up the god’s heart and, from the heart, Dionysus was born again. The mirror was the symbol of illusion because whatever appears in the mirror is only a reflection of reality, but simultaneously the world is reflected in that mirror and those who contemplate it may know it. Therefore, illusion, deceit and knowledge are Dionysus’ ciphers. The god reflects in the mirror of our incarnation, his reflection is the body and the vital instinct that animates us, and we, between need and play, are what the god sees as he stands in front of the mirror, while our projections and identifications dismember us, fragment us into the thousand faces of our persona.
MASK: (Bored but curious) I see you’re basically repeating what I was saying (even though in a much more prolix manner, he thinks)… concretely, what did this god of masks represent? What human thrusts?
FACE: (He doesn’t react to Mask’s provocation, in his speech he continues to follow an invisible thread, as if he had a “coup de théatre” in storage, his tone is detached, and his eyes ironic) Dionysus is a god of contradiction, he is death and life, joy and pain, love and cruelty, hunter and prey, Bios, every living being’s individual thrust towards self preservation, and Zoì, life’s current which flows beyond the individual persons that incarnate it. Those who had been initiated to the god’s mysteries celebrated him in closed groups, the so called “backia”, in a possessed state called “enthousiasmos”; this is the origin of the term, a state in which the initiated ones were filled with the god. This state wasn’t used up in an orgiastic outbreak of animal instincts, but it was made of dance as well, play, hallucination, it was a contemplative and ecstatic state, a form of deep knowledge of reality, and a form of control over sweeping emotions as well. One of the most renowned scholars of Greek culture, Giorgio Colli, said ecstasy was not the Dionysian orgy’s ultimate goal; he spoke of a contemplative, artistic, visionary break away, and of a cognitive detachment. “Once his individuality is broken” – he said – “he who was initiated to Dionysus’ mysteries sees that which the non-initiated ones cannot see, even reaching divination and prophecy”.
MASK: Mmh, as far as I know, this Dionysian “enthusiasm” pushed the adepts to big sex orgies, I would guess to savage copulations… and I always thought this was just an excuse to legitimate and give free play to the most chaotic instincts: sex, violence, transgression, during specific times such as the god’s recurrence…
FACE: On the contrary, is seems the Dionysian mysteries’ ultimate goal was a level of knowledge of the world that was not accessible through ordinary perception. This is proven by the fact that, in opposition with common thinking, Bacchantes were chaste, and the desire of the possessed persons did not reach completion. In fact, there was a detachment from sexuality that gave a sudden and pessimistic intuition on the truth of the human condition, sort of a visionary folly. Through “enthousiasmos” and panic, the god took away every contact with “ordinary reality” and with the sobriety and lucidity of common living from those he had initiated. Instead, he gave the gift of the awareness that even the lowest and most animal instinct, those apparently less “noble” ones, held a divine spark. He took man away from his presence in the every-day world, but he showed him the masks that life and death’s terrible realities hide behind. Human masks, those masks you so much like to talk about, and whom we commonly call people, hide a divine spark that draws them to live, to breed, to grow and to die, to be very keen, with enthousiamos, towards other human beings and towards this world’s events. But this sparks cannot be reduced to logic and to the rules of everyday living.
MASK: (Yawning) At this point of the interview, my readers must have already fallen off their chairs, taken by a pernicious form of narcosis. Only one reader on a thousand might be interested in such abstruseness as ancient Greece mysteries, believe me, and I’m using the word “might”… Let’s leave such subjects to bookworms! Rather, I would appreciate if you could tell me how your considerations may be applied to your experience. What is enthusiasm in the contemporary world? And what should one do if he wants to catch sight, today, of the divine spark that you’re talking about (given that it exists) behind the mask that hides it, behind our “apparent personality”, if I understand correctly?
FACE: In order for these ideas – taken from the ancient world – to cast a light on our modern idea of enthusiasm, it is necessary to understand what difference ran between he who was initiated to the Mysteries, and he who wasn’t. By the term “enthusiasm” we still mean a form of possession even today. It may happen that a particular image that came from our heart – this can be your loved one’s face, a future project, a political ideology, adhesion to models of behaviour, music’s effect on our emotions – may have the power to spangle our imaginary world, and that it seizes not only our imagination, but our behaviours too. And here, I would like to emphasize that enthusiasm is often a collective phenomena, just like it was so with Dionysus’ followers, suffice to think of the great totalitarianism that characterized the last century, or of a simple soccer game, or a rock concert, and of the type of adhesion that crowds manifest to these phenomena, amplified by our modern communication devices. Here’s the point: those who were initiated to the ancient mysteries had to walk a path, they had to go trough a labyrinth that forced them to face their Shadow, to integrate their dark side with their light side. At the end of the path, they conquered what we could call “the intelligence of the heart”.
MASK: (Now uneasily tossing and turning in his chair, finding the last world used by Face an upsetting one) Oh, my God! You had started off so well! And now you fall into these New Age common places? The intelligence of the heart? And what is that? Does the heart have neurons to think with? It’s nothing but a muscle, a pump! And if this weren’t enough, you’re attributing, by a monstrous anachronism, these cheap intellectual versions, who made writers such as Coehlo rich as well as infinite gurus (often characterized by a poor attitude towards personal hygiene) to the ancient world! The so called “intelligence of the heart” is nothing but the invention of some smart manipulators so people will believe everything and the opposite of everything, it is sufficient to say that only the enlightened people can “see” and “feel” a certain truth… and then it all keeps going like in the tale of “The Emperor’s new clothes”… do you know it? The only thing that can help us understand the world, believe me, is a lucid mind! (He beats hard with his own index finger onto his forehead. The impact produces a dry sound, as if Mask’s forehead were of a woody consistence)
FACE: (Not at all affected) Omero said dreams as well as the heart’s images, which he can consider waking dreams, spring out of two doors, one door is made of horn, and sapiential dreams, prophetic dreams, our profound visions on the world’s and the soul’s nature come from it, the other door is made of ivory, and mendacious dreams, illusions and the heart’s trickery come from it. The initiated ones who were possessed by Dionysus had to be able to discern the true images, coming from the god, from the illusionary ones, which had nothing to teach them. As a dowry, they brought having faced their Shadow, a sort of vaccine against the heart’s trickery. Therefore, we could say that the “enthousiasmos” of those who were initiated to Dionysus carried the imprint of their journey through the underworld, the labyrinth, of their passing through a symbolic death, and gave them access to the knowledge of the heart, to that profound level of perception of reality that only artists and poets have access to, it gave them the ability to pick up images from the deep well of the unconscious that could cast a light on the past, the present, and the future.
MASK: (more and more disgruntled and disappointed) I must be honest with you, we have practically gotten to the end of the interview and I have the feeling I have only wasted my time, drowning in a sea of idle talk. You haven’t nearly answered me! So? What can you tell me about the problems you go around treating in a scholarly and professional manner, when they have to do with people immersed in the reality or Rome or New York in the twenty first century? In what way is enthusiasm still a form of knowledge? And what behaviour should we have with our innumerable masks?
FACE: Ok, okay, I’ll answer you. What to say about enthusiasm as we experience it today? Is still a form of knowledge? My answer is that if we don’t walk an authentic path of self-knowledge, there’s no way to discern between our heart’s true images and the fallacious ones, between those who reveal to us the Way we must follow in order to meet our destiny and those who only take us to dead ends, between love for the people who really return our love and momentary infatuations, between the adhesion to ideas that can truly take humanity towards a more luminous future and letting ourselves be dominated by empty ideologies and shameful lies that only serve as masks for someone else’s desire for power. This is an extremely alarming situation, particularly when you consider how easy it is to direct people’s “enthusiasm” towards whatever one wants to, through radio, television, advertising and other communication means. In this sense, I believe we still have much to learn from the ancient world.
Yes, western society is going through a crisis without precedent. Finding meaning in people’s life was never this difficult. Never have we been afflicted by such inability to have a “vision”, by the impossibility to project ourselves collectively into the future with a common purpose. We’re in desperate need to recover that kind of “enthousiasmos”, that visionary knowledge that Dionysus brought to this initiated ones.
MASK: Fine, I’ll give you that you have answered me about enthusiasm, even though what you’re saying seems to me very debatable. But I truly don’t think you have done so about the problem of mask and face. Unity and multiplicity… so, what do you say? Are we a unity, or are we a galaxy of fragmented entities that manifest through many masks? Are you admitting you said some nonsense at the beginning of our conversation, or do you still feel that you are a whole being and that there is a Truth with a capital t?
FACE: I would like to end this interview by bringing your attention to an image that is quite unique, it’s taken from medieval symbolism. In some gothic French cathedrals, and in some more recent churches, in Spain and Italy, it is possible to see statues of beheaded saints who carry their own head under their arm and they hold it at heart’s height, proceeding as if they were still alive (one example for all is given by Saint Denis). These statues are a mute answer to your question.
MASK: What do you mean?
FACE: A human being’s uniqueness cannot be traced back to a single face that would hide behind the several masks of a lifetime, nor can it be contradicted by opposing him with the multitude of masks, facets, and their inflexibility to adapt to a single face.
It can be conquered and recognized only by those who can renounce the mind’s predominance and can elevate their heart to sovereign judge of our existence. Just the way these saints I have just mentioned do, who carry their head at their heart’s height, meaning they are driven by the light and the discrimination of the heart, and who also brought their eyes to heart level, and so they “see” with their heart. The path to knowledge goes through a decapitation: neither mask, nor face. And who knows if contemporary history shouldn’t be read from this point of view. The modern age begins with two regicides and two decapitations: Charles I Stuart of England, and Louis XVI in France. Lately, we have to suffer almost daily the horror of the “media” decapitations of all those unfortunate westerners who are seized in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Both in history and in our lives, what happens is that inner realities that are not understood and embodied by the soul, come back to us in a more and more violent and unavoidable way from the outside, from the Anima Mundi (Soul of the World). Therefore, whoever is not ready to transform, to dance with the needs of the times he lives in, can run into an accident and be forced to necessarily walk that path of transformation he consciously opposes to, and even to die. Does this seem to you like a superstitious vision of life and History? Think about it…
MASK: (Suddenly shuts his notebook off) Oh, do you call this an answer? I hope you can get back the mind you have lost on the Moon, and that one day you may shatter by means of reason the thick darkness that envelopes your mind! Honestly, I don’t believe I’ll publish this interview. The few last things you said, in addiction to being void of any rational or scientific thinking, reveal insensibility and cynicism on your part. Next time, have the Anima Mundi interview you!
by Alessandro Orlandi