Just when I think I’m on to something big, I realize that I’m already behind the times -well, behind the literature on the subject, anyway. It’s hard to keep up with everything, of course, but sometimes I think I am being treated unfairly. I was never a feral child as far as I am aware; and since I was brought up with humans, I expect I’m not alone in my confidence of being able to judge their expressions by now. Surely we all are.
I mean, I would have thought that there’s a certain openness to a face. Okay, actors are pretty good at fooling us -they live on the boundary, so there’s a fair amount of borrowing going on. But we expect that, and live with their disguises. And I suppose if you were brought up elsewhere, there would likely be additional confusing expressions, which were nonetheless readable once you got to know the person. Once you got to know their face -or failing that, at least their eyes. Even looking through a full-face mask, I would imagine that eyes are always silently broadcasting readable messages.
And in some cultures, masks are important -not to hide behind, or avoid the consequences of pandemics, but to assume new identities, new personae, if only temporarily. Often the occasion is a religious ritual during which the mask -and therefore the wearer- becomes the ancestor, or deity depicted. The mask confers not so much anonymity -the audience usually knows full well who is wearing it- as identity. He -or she- is the god, is the ancestor, and by virtue of the façade is entitled to act the part -often with prescribed dance steps, even if the ancestor was never known for their moves.
Indeed, in some admittedly unusual societies, the mask even conferred magical exemptions from responsibility for the actions of the wearer. If they were to commit a crime, or harm someone while wearing it, no one would blame them -it would be commonly understood and accepted that it was the mask that was to blame. My local Walmart does not carry this variety, however.
Nowadays though, the only masks we are liable to see, do not confer any magical properties other than marginally diminishing the effects of a sneeze if the wearer has time to tuck their nose beneath the fabric before le moment critique. And, neither ancestors, nor gods are invoked in the modern design of the everyday street mask, although I did see a coughing devil painted on one.
But, of course, today’s masks are less ceremonial, less likely to be accompanied by joyful or ritual dancing. And despite their original intent, the amount of face they cover often appears open to the wearer’s discretion. Usually, it seems to be only the eyes that are willing to greet you -not smiles or dimples that reveal you are being kidded, not teeth that suggest there is a lie approaching. Often, even spoken words are muffled behind a two-metre-away mask that isn’t willing to approach any closer.
I have to admit the importance of muzzling lips or hiding bits of dental detritus never struck me as important issues in the pre-mask era, but now that it is upon us, I realize how much my aging ears still depend upon labial corroboration of the message. We speak as much with lips and eyes as sound; it’s always hard to solve an equation when parts of it are missing.
In fact, you probably need all of the component parts to really understand what’s going on with a face. Wrinkled noses, often give stuff away, as do pouts. You can’t even be sure if teeth are actually grinding behind a layer of cotton. Masks strip sentences of punctuation -without a comma or exclamation mark, there is less clarity, less meaning. Words are rather dependent children, and without all the usual props, are destined to wander pointlessly about searching desperately for receptive ears.
So, many of our ritualized cultural habits have disappeared, kidnapped by the face mask. They are often replaced by suspicion and wariness, and any ceremonial dancing by any part of the maskee is usually greeted by fear and rapid retreat. Unfortunately, it is a particular concern on a bus where enforced distancing is difficult to practice anymore.
The large, fidgeting, elderly bald man sitting in front of me on the downtown express was duly facially-attired and physically separated, as per the bus requirement, but I couldn’t help noticing that he kept adjusting his mask. He would rub at his chin, for a start, and then pull it away from where I assume it had subsequently stuck to his tongue. This, would inevitably dislodge it from his nose and irritate him into repeating the cycle. I was reminded of Sisyphus and the need to keep pushing his rock uphill before it rolled down again.
But the most interesting thing -for me at least- was what he felt compelled to do with the knees he was using to contain a large crinkling shopping bag that, for some reason, he had semi-wedged between his crotch and the seat ahead. Not content to concentrate his efforts solely on the mask, he insisted on dividing his constantly shifting attention between it and his simultaneously collapsing bag -the latter requiring an annoying jiggling motion of alternate knees for whatever reason. To me, a suspicious behind-sitter, the movements seemed more ritualistic than practical, because neither bag nor mask responded appropriately to his ministrations. Neither did the elderly lady in the seat directly in front of him who kept turning her head to glare at him. This, of course, dislodged her own mask, and she would then have to turn her head forward again to straighten it on her ears and then sanitize her hands with a little spray bottle she kept in her coat pocket… Covid must love this stuff.
Perhaps this is the world to which we must all accustom ourselves, though. Rituals like this are now commonplace, and sufficiently frequent as to be invisible as we attend to our own personal dances. I, for example, have acquired the habit of snapping at the elastic cords that are supposed to snuggle over each ear to nestle my mask to my face -I can never seem to get it right. I do not think this action has accorded with any of my evolutionally included instructions however, and so my fingers have been coerced into a clumsy exaptation -a pandemic tic. I suppose future anthropologists will look at it as personal Darwinism, or something.
We’re all learning to adapt I thought, as I watched the man in front’s obsessive movements out of the corner of one eye as the other took in glimpses of the angry lady in front of him. Perhaps eye-corners will become another survival mechanism: not one of the survival-of-the-fittest variety however -just one of politeness…