Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Masks and Narrative

The mask is an object that has long fascinated me, and I think it is a relevant consideration in our discussion of the face as a signifier. In many of his illustrations for Maus, Spiegelman himself makes use of masks (41), not to mention his device of changing Jews and Germans to cats and mice. Masks are outward signifiers that may signify different things. Sometimes they accentuate different aspects of an individual’s character; other times, they obscure characteristics and add a new layer. Tonight being Halloween, I think this is a well timed reading: in choosing to done particular masks, individuals may be giving sway to unconscious parts of the self, such as the kind Lacan was discussing. Masks may choose people as much as people choose masks. There is both a freedom and a constraint to wearing a mask: it can free and individual from the traditional rules and mores a community, but what it portrays may connect you to a larger history. For instance, in wearing your George Bush mask, you may cease to be yourself, but now you are inaugurated (pun intended) into a different history. Of course, the face itself is the primal mask, capable of signifying both true and false feelings and emotions. It is open to interpretation by others. There is even an element of the sacred in some masks: they are often used by indigenous and native people for religious ceremonies; this even brings us back to the question of whether or not God could be signified in righting or art.

In Maus, I think Spieglman uses the face and the mask on pages 41-46 to both connect himself to the past and differentiate himself from it. In wearing the mask, he is signifying his connection to his father and to the history of the Jewish people in the concentration camps. His life, however, is far removed from the direct experience of his relatives and even of his psychologist. Unlike the other characters, his mask signifies the kind of separation that time has created. Through his writing, however, he is re-unifying the present with the past; the mask and the face become one. This is particularly signified by his narrative structure, which switches between narration of the father’s story of Auschwitz to his contemporary narration, and then into the future after the death of his father. While I believe there is more significance that simply this to his use of the mice, cats, and pigs in his illustrations, I believe it emphasizes a continuity or a unity between the story being told and the person telling it despite the lack of direct experience by the author.

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