THE LADY’S MASK

The gentleman of perfect blood acknowledges his perfect blood,
The insulter, the prostitute, the angry person, the beggar,
See themselves in the ways of him, he strangely transmutes them,
They are not vile anymore, they hardly know themselves they are so grown.

Walt Whitman, Songs of the Answerer

_________

This is the mask that I bought today – from a woman living in her apartment filled with antiques, who promptly told this complete stranger that her son of a mere 42 had just robbed himself of his life.

 

Whether it is ‘real’, like the Songye mask I own – ‘old’, that is, and ‘authentic’ – I do not know.

By the way, whenever I think of the word ‘authentic’, in my mind I cannot but imitate Daniel Auteuil. In the movie Jean de Florette he himself imitates the Provence slang, while talking to his uncle about the new, strange neighbour who, on his soil, is trying to grow something authaeeen – tí – que.

This new mask comes from the Warega people, also called Lega tribe. They live – or perhaps lived in central Africa; who knows such things these days – in the upper valley of the River Elila and the valley of the River Ulindi. Though the mask could be of recent date, certain parts of the wood definitely seem to be ‘used’, including the little holes through which raffia hair may have been woven. Any way, it has this intriguing, heart-shaped facial inlay typical for that tribe. Like most of their masks it is distinctly female, whereas the Songye mask is so utterly male.

Why this mask? A question of some importance personally, but also perhaps interesting for someone who contemplates the vicissitudes of ‘the consumer’. After all, E-Bay and Marketplace, two of the internet markets, are offering quite a few African masks. So why this one and not one of those others? Price may have played its role, but a minor one.

My father was an anthropologist, he wrote books on ethnographica. A man like him knew a thing or two, if he would have bought a mask, he would have been looking for specifics. I’m only an amateur in the French sense of the word: A mere lover of masks and seriously intrigued by them.

For someone who is aware of a mere three lies in his whole life, a preference for masks is an odd one. Just as remarkable as is my lifelong obsession with spy novels and movies. After all, these spy stories are filled to the brim with nasty types, dissembling and hiding and trying not to expose what is supposed to be their ‘true identity’. This often goes so far as to make a spy loose contact with ‘his very own self’, not longer knowing who he ‘really is’. Gainsaid and match…

Maybe this is it. No serious person in the end knows exactly who he is, and it always amazes when someone else, often a friend, appears to be someone different from the one we thought he was. Whether it is a mask or a conscious masking does not make too much of a difference.

Mascara and mask are closely related. Only certain men put on make up. This advice in the Japanese Hagakure seems an exception, a manual for samurai, after all no ladies. “It may be that, after intoxication or after waking up, the facial skin of a samurai looks pale. At such times it is good to bring forth some powdered rouge and apply this.” It sounds like good counsel for men who do not want to come across as weak, when after a sleepless night there suddenly appears an ill-willed person at their doorstep.

By contrast, most women do ‘make up’. No doubt to entice others, perhaps to hide from themselves, may be also to mask what they ‘really look like’, possibly to disguise who they ‘are’. The mask hides completely. Mascara and other kinds of make up hide a face only partially. The man must play the detective in order to deduce from a made-up face what will remain after that make up is gone. ‘Shall I keep on my face, Honey…?’

Whores have to lay it on more exuberantly. Extra redded lips, with heavy black accentuated eyebrows and eyelids, cheeks whitened or by contrast excessively rouge: the combination of masking and the make believe of excitement. Baudelaire: “Who so looks through a clear window inside will never see as much as the one who looks at a curtained window…”

Mask and mascara – guaranteed anonymity thanks to the reduction of a woman to Woman, perhaps the one the whore’s visitor is looking for. Intimacy from a stranger, faked for sure, makes him feel like a really wanted chap, like an attractive man.

The make up of whores masks what they really look like, realizing what – me thinks – is one of the worst bits of male chauvinism. The gruesome expression applied to women: ‘When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’. Closely observing Toulouse Lautrec’s brothel paintings one realizes what a sharp observer this guy was, as well as a hell of a draughtsman and a painter. Women who at unguarded moments, when for a while at least they are not on sale, with tight, tired faces, faded and completely disinterested, though suddenly individuals… Then, when a customer enters, a sudden flash of fake seduction radiates from their façade, largely supported by the excessive mask.

Then it suddenly strikes me – The German connection. This was probable at stake when buying my new mask: Puppe – in that language meaning ‘a nice piece’, even a whorish type. And don’t you forget, Reader Mine, Puppe also refers to a chrysalis from which the butterfly materializes. The Grand Metamorphosis – the one who still has to undress, yet show what is hidden behind the mascara and her clothing.

And then, suddenly, I know precisely my soul’s working: Hans Bellmer! His drawings have fascinated me for a long time. He once wrote a small book about the construction of Die Puppe – its title – complete with little pictures, an amateurish mechanics and a curious kind of sexual metaphysics.

This, at least for me, is the best one:

 

 

Then a reader may ask: Does this doll, then, look like your new mask? From a different perspective, it does indeed:

She also looks like the Charlotte Rampling in The Nightporter, the movie in which she acts the reduced woman, with a mask like face – a nonperson, reduced to her body full of sheer masochism.

And back I’m, another incongruity. One, perhaps similar to that between my intense honesty on the one hand (which, my intimates tell me, is going too far; I tend to say whatever I think or find, sometimes with disastrous consequences for social interaction) and the preference for African masks and spy novels on the other.

Never did I visit a hooker. Even surprised I listened to stories from friends of whom I had never expected this. And I do not find whore’s overdressed bodies and faces really exciting. Yet, the phenomenon intrigues and a slight touch of the vulgar I do find horny. As soon as it is poured into an ‘artistic’ shape, it simply fascinates – paintings, drawings, dolls such as Bellmer’s, stories such as those of Bataille.

Thus is man a mystery to man, above all an enigma to himself.

Sierksma 03/21/16 Haarlem

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. He would not ind being a cat.

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