I never much liked the mask. What I used to think of as the “sanitary mask”—with all the fussy, germophobic implications that clinical word entails—is ubiquitous in the places where I and members of my family have lived, in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea. It is, for me, an aesthetic marker of East Asian culture: the dark eyes peering out over a pleated band of white; the ears looped in elastic string; the rest of the face, the very expression of the self, effaced.
Such masks, I thought, were only possible in countries where the individual was devalued, or where he was so alienated by an overbearing society that he chose to remove himself, to retreat further into anonymity, to hide his face—to engage in a kind of social distancing, as we would now call it. This figure was not like the superhero of Western culture, who also wore a mask to obscure his true identity, but whose true identity nevertheless rebelled against its disguise and kept threatening to emerge, almost despite himself. Think of Spider-Man hanging upside down, his mask partially lifted to receive a kiss from Mary Jane—his identity, his soul, revealed.
Soul, self, identity—all words with specific meaning for those of us who live in the West. All words, too, whose meaning is being reexamined, like everything else, with the advent of the coronavirus. The pandemic has forced us to question the primacy that the liberal West bestows on the individual, when all our lives depend on repressing the urge to exert individual agency: to go outside, to meet friends, to do what we want, to be ourselves. And there is no starker symbol of individual erasure than the mask.
We have recently learned, contrary to what health authorities had previously told us, that masks worn by people without symptoms could be essential tools in limiting the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now considering whether to encourage mask use among civilians, after saying such widespread use was unnecessary. The idea that masks are more cosmetic than effective, more placebo than shield, was not limited to the United States. Only a couple weeks ago, an acquaintance in South Korea, which is considered at the cutting edge of anti-epidemic practice, told me he wore a mask during his commute “out of pure social conformity.”
So strapping on the mask has joined the other routines—social distancing, video-chatting, homeschooling, constant hand-washing, constant cooking—that have quickly made the old contours of everyday life a distant memory. I make a near-daily journey to a cramped neighborhood grocery store in Brooklyn, which increasingly feels like some irradiated zone hostile to life that I must negotiate as speedily as possible, like the poor volunteer who ventures outside the safety of the spaceship, where the alien awaits, to make a vital repair. On these fraught journeys, I wear the mask, a standard disposable from China bought from a bodega that had a box of the things under the counter. It takes a little getting used to, this humid tent over my nose and lips that seeps fog onto my glasses. But the greatest adjustment, the greatest surprise, is how good it feels to wear it—mentally, emotionally, spiritually even.
There is the sense of security that the mask provides, the extra layer against the microbes that lie in ambush on every surface and in every puff of breath. But that is not what I mean. What I mean is that I can lock eyes with the masked guy at the store stacking coffee and beans on the shelves, a stone in a river of possibly infected people swirling around him all day long, and we can silently communicate that we at least have both taken precautions to take care of one another. What it means is that though I cannot smile at the passerby who is standing six feet away from me on the sidewalk, cannot reassure her that I don’t see her merely as a potential hazard to me and mine, cannot convey that I still remember the niceties that kept the old civilization together, I can reassure her that there is at least a paper-thin barrier protecting her from the possibly deadly disease that I, like everyone else, am possibly carrying within me.
It is an unfamiliar sensation: to subsume what makes me an individual, to wipe him out, in the interest of the whole. It is no small thing, to be faceless. The face is where the individual meets the world. It is the window where we expose our deepest feelings, no matter how hard we try to hide them; where we read how others think and feel; where we see ourselves reflected in society’s mirror, and thus learn how to behave, how to make jokes, how to fit in.
And so perhaps the fad for masks will be short-lived, unsuitable as they are to the Western way of life. Michael Brendan Dougherty, a friend and former colleague, wrote in National Review that “mask-wearing cannot become a ‘regular’ feature of life in the West. People will tolerate them for a short while, but quickly feel that masks are ridiculous, menacing, or an imposition on life, then conclude they must be temporary.” When the pandemic has been contained, this line of thinking goes, we’ll put the masks away and hold our bare faces to the sun, unafraid.
I’m not so sure. The world will not—cannot—go on as it did before. In a few short weeks, the pandemic has shaken long-held assumptions, revealing, say, the hidden prejudices we harbored toward other people, even those we call our own. A mask does not have to imply self-loathing, or a crippling fear of the world and its many dangers. A mask is not necessarily a manifestation of a culture and its peculiarities. To the contrary, it can connote respect, solidarity, feeling for our fellow creatures—all attributes that are helpful in combating a menace that, like so many others we face, can only be overcome if we work together.
When everyone wears a mask they all kind of look the same, which troubles our vanity, particularly in the hyperindividualized West. But shouldn’t that be the lesson of a virus that doesn’t respect boundaries or race? That we are, in some fundamental way, the same?