Michael Kinnucan

The Gods Show Up


Unknown artist, Yaka mask, early 20th century

Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Or the glist’ning Eye to the poison of a smile?
Why are Eyelids stor’d with arrows ready drawn,
Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show’ring fruits and coined gold?
Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling & affright?
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?

-William Blake, The Book of Thel

The Greeks celebrated the rites of Dionysos before a pillar wrapped in ivy on which hung a mask. The mask was the god. Why a mask?

A mask hides a face, evidently—but it is not a disguise. After all, a disguise can’t appear as a disguise; it has to look like the real thing. But a mask announces itself quite clearly, rigid, closed, nothing like a face. A face can reveal (even betray) the mind “behind” it because faces are mutable, responsive: a face can blush or grow pale, its gaze can falter, its jaw can set. The face is legible in terms of what it discloses or fails to, what it never fully gives but constantly suggests. A mask is immutable, staring, implacable; there is “nothing” behind it to read. Hence the masklike quality of a skull. Masks are inscrutable in their very obviousness. The eyes are the window of the soul; a mask has no eyes, and so (oddly enough) one cannot avoid its gaze. The face’s capacity to change registers an absence: it never gives itself completely, not quite. The mask, in contrast, is entirely present: depthless, illegible, it leaves nothing whatever concealed.

The revelatory force of the mask is what makes it a worthy home for Dionysos. To understand why, we must take a moment to consider what made the Greek gods divine. After two thousand years of Christianity it’s hard to imagine divinity apart from unity, eternity, singularity, commandment; it’s hard to see why the difference between Zeus and any other adulterous husband isn’t merely a matter of degree. But the Greeks saw an absolute difference between mortals and gods, a difference which might be formulated this way: mortals are partial and complex, gods are complete and simple. A god’s desires are implacable and brook no appeal, while a human’s are changeable and often disappointed; a god’s actions always go to the absolute limit and can’t be undone, while a human’s are always in a certain sense incomplete, half-assed. Zeus ravishes Leda, who bears Helen the all-too-beautiful, and Troy falls, and almost everyone touched by Helen dies a bad death; the question “what if Zeus hadn’t ravished Leda?” is not one that can be asked of a god. What gods do is not different from what they are. They know little hesitation and less regret. According to Euripides, they are “forbidden” to cry.

Gods don’t have faces in the sense that humans do; whether enigmatically serene or terrifyingly angry, their countenance is present and complete. But why does Dionysos, in particular, appear as a mask? The answer has to do with the particular quality of Dionysos’ intervention: he is the mad god of madness, whose gift and curse to mortals is one and the same: he causes us to become like him. The other gods intervene most dramatically in the human order through rape (Zeus inter alia), murder (Artemis), or prophetic revelation (Apollo). These modes cut the divine off from the human even in the moment of joining—but Dionysos sucks us in. His followers become mad like him in their worship; those who refuse to follow suit are punished with madness too. Like Agave, they tear their children to pieces and gorge themselves on blood. Divine simplicity is hard for mortals. Any human can don the mask of Dionysos, but only those who know and fear his divinity can hope to take it off again unscathed.

The actors who performed tragedies at the Athenian festival of Dionysos wore masks. Spectators did not get to see Creon’s face break when he learned of the death of his son; it remained the rigid, distorted image it had been from his first moment on stage. A tragedy is the story of a human growing into his death mask. What has been done is too total to be undone, or even regretted; it defines the doer once and for all and renders the future impossible. (Macbeth is the story of Macbeth growing into his regicide, even as his wife collapses under it; the hesitant hen-pecked man of the first act becomes a monstrous king with burning eyes, master of the deed that mastered him.) The tragic hero attains something like divine completeness, except that for human beings completeness is death.

So the ubiquitous counsel of the chorus concerning the hero—look what fortune has done here, she used to be on top of the world, don’t count on happiness, don’t believe anyone happy until he is dead—says more than it seems to. In the last analysis, what can one say of mere mortals? A human is just too partial, too speckled and subject and already-half-gone, for anything to be really true or false of him. Is he happy, is she sad? Maybe, a bit, for a time, but really—who can say, who can even care? That’s how it is for humans, unless and until they are tragic. The tragic hero is complete. You can call him unhappy (miserable, utterly broken) even before he is dead. For an instant he is something like divine. And then he dies, because there’s nothing left to do. The center of every tragedy is the image of a human being who has already died but keeps talking, someone whose face is a mask. Antigone says this explicitly—she is already dead; Oedipus acts it out in gouging out his eyes.

The mask’s opposite is not the face but the veil. The mask, all actual, leaves nothing undisclosed; the veil is pure potential, a nothing which intimates. A veil shows nothing but the possibility of unveiling, a mask leaves nothing veiled. In the mask and the veil we find the two poles of the erotic, two relations to shame. Human faces wander the evanescent territory marked out by these two limits; they betray the hidden and hide in disclosure. The lover’s face exerts its fascination in this mysterious opposition: at times so open, and then suddenly gone.

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