What began as a comedy of errors has now become a tragedy of horrors. Did Edgar Allan Poe, the literary world’s dark angel of horror, foresee Covid-19 and its devastation upon a world with the greatest medical resources in history ever and the most modern means of governance?
He did. In The Masque of the Red Death, Poe envisages an allegorical world where the plague Red Death can’t be outrun.
The ruler Prince Prospero takes his friends to “one of his castellated abbeys” with “strong and lofty walls” and “gates of iron”. However, the Grim Reaper won’t be denied his due.
At a masquerade held in the palace, Death comes dressed as his own victim whose “vesture was dabbled in blood”.
Today’s symbol of self-preservation against pestilence and death is the mask. Men are born into masquerade.
“I am what I am I am” may have worked for Descartes but for most people, it’s a bad idea. There is no one alive or dead who doesn’t possess secrets, no one who doesn’t wear masks of some kind or another. The mask is both protection and prevarication—to hide the identity of a spy, a thief, a murderer or an illicit lover. Shamans use it to impersonate god.
It protected gladiators, and safeguards soldiers against poison gas. The mask is the perennial device of survival through dissimulation—an office worker wears an amiable mask to get along with loathsome colleagues and a mask of appeasement to disarm a hateful boss.
A spouse dons the mask of happiness to hide treachery in a faded marriage; a politician uses a servile mask to please his leader.
The mask is the metaphor of protection against wrath from the viral to the human kind.
It challenges the truth by being what isn’t real, because the reality is too painful for both the deceiver and the deceived.
Philosophers wrestle endlessly with the conundrum that lie is the truth since it exists as an alternate reality until proved otherwise, and reveals the truth in the end.
We are the puppets of lies in the masquerade of life. And the mask is our incurable habit.
The doxology of the Roman goddess Justitia assures citizens that the law is moral and equal for all, police brutality notwithstanding.
Her sword represents the power of justice to enforce this law, which cuts both ways. The blindfold symbolises her refusal to allow outside interference, which governments flout with impunity. Paradoxes are the only truth left.
The guillotine is the bloody symbol of equality and liberty. The Chinese have the yin and the yang. The 21st century has the mask.
The coronavirus has shown both the rot and redemption resident in humanity—there are people who deny the dead their last rights, while doctors imperil themselves to save the lives of strangers.
It’s not the mask we wear that defines us. It’s who wears the mask and why.