A friend asked for my thoughts about a new performance of Monteverdi’s “Beatus vir” (1640) by the Prague “early music” group Collegium 1704. It’s disturbing to see the combination of beautiful music, beautiful setting, beautifully produced video, even the instruments are beautiful (the interestingly shaped bows, for example, true to the historical period) — and then the COVID masks the performers all wear.
The Latin text is Psalm 112, “Praise ye the Lord. Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord.”
If I ran Collegium 1704, I suppose I would do just as they did. If you’re an artist, you want people to say, “Did you see…? What do you think of…?” In that, they succeeded. Yet the images are troubling.
It’s hard to picture myself ever looking at masks and not feeling uneasy. I would put one on to make someone else feel comfortable. No doubt, I will go along and wear a mask before long, when I have to. Just so that there is no misunderstanding, I am NOT saying masks aren’t advisable. They likely are in many contexts — ever-shifting “expert” opinions notwithstanding.
But I’ve wondered about my response. If you read the comments under the video, that’s not how many people feel. One viewer asks where he can go to get such cool masks.
Whether in the Bible or in horror literature, masks are associated with shame and terror. “Unclean! Unclean!” as the masked leper in Leviticus is instructed to call out as he passes. See the Robert W. Chambers short story “The Mask,” invoking the fictional play The King in Yellow, said to induce madness and ruin in those who read it. Running in the park near where we live, I see people putting on their masks as I go by. They look fearful of me, as if they believe I must be sick, although outdoor transmission is very unlikely in any case.
A mask erases individuality. Stampeding humans into a faceless animal mass, with all the same attitudes, is a mark of our time. Much of the coronavirus response has involved an intensifying drive to dehumanize us (“for our own good”!), lock us down like a dog in a crate. Dogs are said to find limited crating bearable, even comforting. People are different — which could be a three-word summary of the Humanize blog and its mission. The terms we now use in routine conversation (“herd immunity”) are telling.
I think there’s more to it, though. When my kids are too casual and go barefoot and sit on the floor or walk around wearing a blanket, I ask them not to do that because it’s the stereotypical behavior of a beggar. It seems to show a lack of gratitude to God that we are not destitute. (Not yet. The never-ending lockdown may fix that.)
In the same way, I wonder if part of my own primal response to masks comes from the sense that the human face reflects God’s image. To hide your face is as if to deny the divine image, which would be the ultimate horror. Of course, many of our most enlightened fellow citizens are eager to do just that.