We all wear masks – even lovers

only death can strip our last masks
Photo by Audrey Love @ Flickr

I’ve spent the day reading Walter J. Ong’s book Interfaces of the Word. I’m completely in love with his ideas about how the writer’s audience is always a fiction. The ending of the chapter is perfect for Valentine’s Day, although a little cynical. He explains how we all wear masks, all the time. Now, this is not a new idea, but it is nice to stumble on this again. And Ong goes about it very eloquently.

In any act of written communication the writer must imagine the intended readers. This will fuel his or her writing. It will help in selecting what information to tell. How much are the readers supposed to know beforehand in order to understand the new text? Or what kind of things the readers would find important or interesting? But also the readers have to play their role. They must fictionalize themselves, trying to fit the role(s) which the author casts on them. So it is a play with masks. Ong goes on to point out how this is not limited to writing:

Masks are inevitable in all human communication, even oral. (Ong 1977, p. 80)1

And communication practically IS human life. So therefore we all wear mask throughout our lives. And this is the tragedy for lovers:

Lovers try to strip off all masks. And in all communication, insofar as it is related to actual experience, there must be a movement of love. Those who have loved over many years may reach a point where almost all masks are gone. But never all. The lover’s plight is tied to the fact that every one of us puts on a mask to address himself, too. Such masks to relate ourselves we also try to put aside, and with wisdom and grace we to some extent succeed in casting them off.

Reading Ong’s text I once again realised how I’m reading something highly academic and for my PhD, but I’m still deeply moved by it. The text touches me on a poetic level and I’m relating to it as an individual, a partner, a man, a boyfriend, a lover. Not as an academic coolheaded scholar. I feel that I know exactly what Ong is talking about and have had numerous conversations about the topic with my partners. How a relationship becomes strained if there are too many masks. How sometimes the other tries to hide behind additional masks and the other can sense this so easily, instinctively.

Romantics like to say that love strips away the masks. But this is not true. Often love makes us blind or creates new masks. Loving and allowing to be loved honestly can strip away some masks. But love doesn’t automatically do it.

But unfortunately it is impossible for us to cast off all the masks as long as we are human. There is only one cure which will strip away all that lies between two people.

When the last mask comes off, sainthood is achieved, and the vision of God. But this can only be with death.

  1. Ong, W.J. (1977) Interfaces of the Word : Studies in the evolution of consciousness and cultured. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. All these quotes are from the same page. []