Sustainable Prospects – Plato, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Hartley on Masks
“Masks. – There are women who, however you may search them, prove to have no content but are purely masks. The man who associates with such almost spectral, necessarily unsatisfied beings is to be commiserated with, yet it is precisely they who are able to arouse the desire of the man most strongly: he seeks for her soul – and goes on seeking.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche (Nietzsche and Hollingdale, 1996: 152)
Nietzsche responded to Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ by stating that “behind every . . . cave, there is not, must not be, another deeper cave” (Nietzsche in Brown, 2006: 116). This statement can be considered in terms of the masks that we wear.
The Allegory considers prisoners (or slaves) who are chained up in a deep cave. They are unable to move, unable to turn their heads. In the darkness of the cave, the prisoners can see the shadows of figures on the wall in front of them. They cannot see the figures or those who carry them as they walk behind the prisoners. The prisoners see the shadows and hear the echoes of those carrying the figures. They mistake the appearance of the shadows as reality. They see layers of shadows, darkness, and light. They believe that what they see on the wall is real and they do not realise what lies behind the shadows. They believe that what they see is all that there really is.
This is exactly what happens to us when we wear a mask. Those around us do not see what lies behind; they believe that mask they see is all there is to us as they have nothing else to go on. The mask they see is the reality. And as in the allegory, there are several progressive steps (caves in the Allegory) that exist between the reality as it is seen and understood by others, and the actual reality (or the outside world in the Allegory). The masks are just shadows or silhouettes of our real selves.
This is a key driving force for my current work. If we can see behind the mask to the real person, then we may begin to understand each other. But to put it in similar terms to Nietzsche behind every mask there must not be another mask. This is where the hard work will come, as we attempt to peel back all the layers to see the real person underneath. Deleuze agreed when he commented that “the only illusion is that of unmasking something or someone” – (Deleuze, 2014: 130). He suggests that to presume that there is a true face behind the mask is an illusion. We believe that there is a real person behind the mask and not simply another mask.
In reality, there are multiple layers of masks beneath the one we have chosen to wear on a particular day for a particular situation. Hartley compares the layers of masks we wear to the layers found in an onion.
“The outer skin of an onion can be tricky to remove. It is shiny and gives the appearance of solidity and perfection and yet at the same time it is very thin and papery. It is not easy to peel it off. Once you have removed this skin, you have the onion; less shiny and the layers more obvious. When you cut into these layers, the onion can make you shed tears . . .The shiny thin skin of the onion is not unlike the mask we learn to wear in public. It is protective and conceals the inner layers and vulnerability. My counsellor’s comments have made me think how I have learned to cling to this outer layer, to protect myself from allowing others to see the real me. In a way, we all have to learn to do that. We cannot burden others with permitting them to see our real pain – like the onion, if we allow that it will make us cry and might actually make them cry too.”
– Gill Hartley (Gillhartley.com, 2017)
My challenge with my current body of work is to try to peel back the layers, but not leave those who have volunteered to take part in a difficult place.
Brown, K. (2006). Nietzsche and Embodiment: Discerning Bodies and Non-dualism (SUNY series in contemporary continental philosophy). State University of New York Press.
Deleuze, G. (2014). Difference and repetition. London [etc.]: Bloomsbury.
Gillhartley.com. (2017). Articles | Gill Hartley. [online] Available at: http://gillhartley.com/articles/ [Accessed 22 Oct. 2017].
Nietzsche, F. and Hollingdale, R. (1996). Human, all too human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.