Now that we are all wearing masks, is it time to ask if there is a deeper cultural meaning to them? Look around you and you will notice that many of us are not satisfied with a simple, light-blue, hospital-grade surgical mask. They now come in all colours, patterns and shapes that say more than: “I’m just being careful”, even if it’s only that the wearer cares more about fashion than public health.

If, for instance, you consider the history of African ritual masks and ancient European theatrical masks, you may conclude that “Covid masks” have something in common with traditions that reach back into human prehistory.

In Africa (and especially in the Western regions of the continent), masks are objects with deep religious or symbolic meaning. Some masks might represent deceased ancestors or powerful spirits. In quite a number of African traditions where interaction with the spirit world was part and parcel of initiation ceremonies and ritual worship, masks were used to remind the participants of the cultural values of the tribe.  

Masks were also worn to disguise the face, sometimes in conjunction with a costume that covered the entire body. Their purpose was to enable the wearers to transform themselves into the entities depicted by the mask. When used during initiation rites, masks were worn or carried by initiates who were taught to consider them to be entities connected with the worlds of the ancestors and the spirits.  

When carried, the use of masks was not to hide a person’s identity by means of a mask, but more to manipulate objects that incorporate the ancestors so that they may be present during rituals. Ritual ceremonies would generally depict deities, spirits of ancestors, mythological beings, the dead, animal spirits, and other beings believed to have power over humanity. 

Among the Greeks, the ancient word for mask or disguise was prosopon. In Greek theatre, characters in a play would hide their real faces behind masks, not only as a way of hiding their real identities — for acting has always implied the risky business of taking on another’s role and therefore eschewing, one’s own — but more as a means of showing the audience that they are really involved in play acting. 

In Latin, the Greek word prosopon was translated to persona and thus its contemporary English connotation in literature and theatre of, “a character in a play”. In French, the word personne derives directly from persona, with the special, interesting, and attractive sense of meaning both somebody and nobody.  

So, there lies hidden in all these traditions of masks and men, the enigma of human personhood — the mystery that a person can be both himself and another at the same time. This overlap of identity is a paradox, not a contradiction. A paradox is only an apparent contradiction, not a real one.   

A mask can conceal and reveal at the same time but not from the same perspective. For example, from the perspective of the disengaged general public, a superhero’s mask does indeed conceal his or her true identity. From the perspective of the superhero and their inner circle of friends however, their masks (their entire costume actually) reveal their inner identity much more than they conceal it.  

Any superhero-genre fan who has taken the trouble to delve deep into the backstories of characters like Spider Man and Iron Man knows exactly what I’m talking about. Such masks and costumes reveal the rich, densely-textured personalities of the persons they “hide”, much more than their “real” faces ever would.  

What has been mentioned above about masks can in fact be said as well about the human face. The human face also contains within itself the capacity to reveal and conceal a person’s spiritual state or innermost identity. The face is a sort of separator between what lies outside a person’s interior and what lies inside it. All of us have an innate ability to “masquerade” — that is, the ability to decide whether our faces are fundamentally barriers (concealers of identity) or bridges (revealers of identity). 

In that delightful children’s classic, the Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen tells us how the clever-foolishness of an overly complicated world, can render a person constitutionally incapable of seeing the world through the clear eyes of a simple child. This timeless classic, as well as other children’s books like Carol’s Alice in Wonderland and Exupery’s Little Prince are excellent explorations of how complicated we can become when we lose our childlike simplicity.  

Andersen, Carol, Exupery, all seem to be implying that something about growing up complicates an individual — probably owing to the “artificial layers of socialisation” that fail to merge or harmonize with the original childlike self, in which case the human face or persona truly does become a disguise — a concealing mechanism, thus depriving the person of their original simplicity.  

The etymologies of the word simple and complex can perhaps help shed more light on the paradoxes of masks — be they artificial or natural. The word simple (or simplex) is from the Latin sine plicis which means, without pleats or folds or creases whereas the word complex is from the Latin con plicis — with pleats or folds — which word reminds us of the capacity to distort or fold reality to suit ourselves — a capacity brought about by the failure to integrate the abovementioned “layers” or “folds” of our growing-up process with the original identity given to us at birth. 

The disconnect between outward appearance and inner reality is very typical of modernity as a cultural movement. The plethora of mental and psychological complexes we suffer from are testament to this disconnect.  

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) explored this theme in his categorical distinction between phenomenon and noumenon. For Kant and his contemporaries, an unbridgeable gap yawns between what appears to the senses and what things are in themselves — between the empirical and the rational — an idea he wittingly or unwittingly borrowed from that other analogous rift between body (the res extensa) and mind (the res cogitans) postulated by his forerunner Rene Descartes (1596-1650). 

If no relation exists between the external and the internal, the face and the inner self, the phenomenon and the noumenon, body and the mind… then no reality expresses what it really is and ultimately what we call reality is really nothing more than an illusion, a deception… an elaborate farce.  

Moreover, if these realms are so irredeemably impenetrable, any personal encounter between any two individuals must necessarily be as existentially dreadful as Jean-Paul Sartre revealed in his [in]famous play, No Exit. In it, Sartre portrays man as a being who is hopelessly trapped. He sums up his gloomy picture of man in these words: “Hell is other people”.  

For Sartre, Hell is not a place — it is other people. For if indeed everywhere we turn, instead of seeing a person, a lovable face, we encounter instead a barrier, an inexplicable entity, an impenetrable mystery, an infected stranger, a grotesque monster. Then there is indeed “no exit”.  

Could this be where we already are in our current crisis? Unbeknown to us, these surgical masks could already be a phenomenological revelation of how a scientific world bereft of true humanism, artistic symbolism and metaphysical depth looks like — a disconnected world in which a symbol as simple and amicable as a handshake is avoided at all costs.  

This is a world in which internal psychological illnesses are projected outwards onto undetectable biological diseases. There is indeed a disease, but its true nature seems to lie deeper than our scalpels and stethoscopes can detect. 

In conclusion, we can safely say that all masks reveal and conceal — at the same time, but not in the same respect. In concealing our faces, these 21st Century masks are also revealing the kind of humans we have become.  

Do our “Covid masks” have anything in common with African ritual masks or the ancient European theatrical masks? On one hand, yes, because they reveal the kinds of persons we have become but on the other hand, no, because they lack the potential of the African mask to connect us to the world of the ancestors. They lack the ability to link us like a bridge, to those who have gone ahead of us so that they may partake of our present festivities and rituals.  

They also neither express the characterised individuals of the Greek prosopon nor the mystery of our inner superhero — that innate capacity we all have to be protagonists of our lives. In short, for as long as we have to put them on, masks will be an eloquent phenomenological reminder of the mutual-impenetrability of persons in the 21st Century.  

Robert Odero is a staff member of Strathmore School in Nairobi, Kenya.