‘Person’ and ‘personality’ come from the Latin ‘persona’, an actor’s mask, literally ‘that through which the voice comes’. Most now seem to completely identify themselves with their own personalities, yet European languages still carry an awareness of our personalities being mere social masks, and thus implicitly, of our real selves, or non-selves, speaking through them.
As an actor takes on a mask, the mask takes over the actor. As we take on personalities, our personalities take us over.
People with weak characters have rigid personalities. They seem wedded to their social masks. People with strong characters use their personalities flexibly. They play with their masks.
Poets, as Keats noted, have no identities. Behind their many masks is the Void, the great Emptiness that makes up 95% of the universe. Actually, in this they are no different to anyone else. Their masks just sing and write more.
There are true and false masks. Acting the role of a great singer may just be bullshit or it may help you stay in tune. While wearing a false mask depersonalizes you and makes you a fake, wearing a true mask may help you be more authentic.
Even with true masks, we are both within and without them. We are always actor and audience at the same time. We are the eternal witness trying on personalities and behaviours.
We, all things, are the masks of God, says Vedanta. What a strange, brilliant and inhuman actor he must be. What fun he must have even as wars rage and civilisations collapse.
Looking in the mirror each morning can fill you with wonder at the randomness with which that particular face and body were chosen to clothe your life.
No matter what masks we wear, our eyes stay the same. Often the compulsively smiling or supercilious mouth is the social mask while the soul’s portals, the eyes, are clouded, absent, in pain.
Long eye-gazing is what new lovers do. Falling in love is often falling into another’s eyes. The task is to not just see your own reflection. Narcissus cannot love another.
Avoiding eye contact is what many old couples do. The task is to maintain soul contact through the patina and habitudes of years.
Where infants have lacked the mirror of the warm maternal gaze of affirmation, identity is wobbly or cracked. Life may be spent vainly seeking affirmation in the mirror of others’ eyes. This narcissism now seems to have become something of an epidemic in our culture.
My definition of centredness: a complete absence of interest in mirrors both physical and human.
[Another essay relating to political masks was posted here as ‘The Politics of Masks and Shadows’ in June 2010]