Wearing or Dropping the Mask

Mask wearing has become the “new normal” in Italy in these new plague days. The rules are that you wear them outside the home. If someone has to enter your home, it is recommended that you and they wear masks. In light infection zones (Zona Gialla) where you are permitted to carry passengers who are not immediate members of your household, both driver and passengers have to be masked. Of course, you also wear masks on public transportation and in shops and other public places. This Italian approach contrasts sharply with the slow acceptance of mask-wearing in the Anglophone world, symbolized by the U.S. stand-off between Joe Biden supporters and Trumpians. In England, it was reported that the scientific advisory group (with its pompous acronym, SAGE) had warned the government that mask-wearing could induce a false sense of security and so, rules requiring the use of masks were only belatedly introduced and only lightly enforced in the first two waves of the pandemic. While we were in England, my wife would regularly return from the supermarket with stories of entire families of the unmasked, crowding her and reaching across her to grab items from the fresh produce shelves. As an Italian, she was outraged and she remains bewildered at the willingness of the English to exempt whole categories from the mask rule. Why are Italian children expected to wear masks whereas English children under the age of eleven are deemed incapable of doing so? There is a part of her that still firmly believes that the UK’s present precarious state can be attributed to this failure to enforce the mass use of masks. If the people had worn masks there would be no English variant is her suspicion.

Of course, even in Italy not everyone obeys the rules, which in any case contain some loopholes. If you are taking exercise, you are permitted to remove your mask as long as you are in an open space. The joggers and many cyclists can sometimes be seen smiling as they bear down upon you. Practicalities also require that those eating or drinking or smoking are allowed to drop the mask for these activities. As infection rates have risen, this can trigger anxiety among compliant mask wearers when they venture outside. As one walks along, dutifully keeping the required social distance, one can hear the heavy breathing coming from runners of varying speed and fitness. In parks, this can be every few seconds. An obese jogger with a New Year resolution to jog twice a day can also take quite a while to overtake, I can tell you! Even more alarming are the bravura smokers, who individually and collectively blow their air-borne particles in your general direction. Sometimes they cluster and chat volubly creating their own fog patch for you to navigate. Within it, the virus, which is carried on water droplets in the air, potentially lurks. Admittedly, I am no scientist, but it seems logical that aerosols wrapped in smoke will hang longer in the air than aerosols in the nude, so to speak.

My suspicions were deepened recently when a doctor friend commented that I should replace my disposable single layer mask with a more robust, filtered one. The prevalence of water droplets in the air during the winter months, he explained, and the way they enabled the virus to remain suspended for a longer period, made this a prudent precaution. So now I have two types of mask. I even have had a further recommendation to double up when I go shopping by placing the disposable on top of the filtered mask. Apparently, this is the practice in Italian hospitals. In England, there seems instead to be further inconsistency since I have heard reports that many nurses are issued with just the disposable masks and only have the filtered ones if they are working on diagnosed Covid patients. The explanation is limited supplies, which, given the fiasco that surrounded the government’s initial emergency purchasing of “personal protective equipment” (PPE), comes as no surprise. Worried about its funding, BBC radio news has now adopted a triumphalist tone with regard to the vaccination program, which does seem to be progressing better than any other aspect of the official pandemic response. Of course, delaying the second dose is treating the population as clinical “guinea-pigs,” but if it works, there will be nothing but cheers!

Common to both England and Italy, however, is the widespread ignorance or disregard for what might be termed “mask protocols.” Unfiltered masks have some value, mainly in terms of protecting other people since they reduce the quantity of aerosols coming from the wearer’s breathing. But this requires both nose and mouth to be covered and it is all too easy to spot someone with the nose “out.” The limited protection for the wearer resides in the barrier that the surface of the mask provides. If the virus is present, it will fall onto the mask rather than onto your skin. However, if you casually take the mask off and place it in a pocket or hold it in the hand, then at that moment the mask becomes potentially a site of transmission. This risk is mitigated by the instruction to wash your hands well (twenty seconds with soap), whenever you have been outside or handled goods from outside. But it is not helped if your stuffing of the mask into your pocket permits microscopic particles to transfer from the outside to the inside of a mask which is then put on again. Pushing the mask down so that it crumples round the neck before being pulled back up into position is also a common practice that rather defeats its protective purpose. All of this, I suspect, is part of that SAGE warning about a false sense of security.

All the same, I wear my masks, and the daily practice made me think about their significance. To start with an obvious distinction. The classic Venetian Carnevale masks include several that conceal just half the face. Typically, this is the upper half whereas surgical/medical masks cover the lower half. Largely because of their cinematic use, I tend to associate the masks that frame the eyes with movies that stress the alluring quality of such coy concealment (think Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) or TV shows and movies that have masked heroes (think Zorro or the Lone Ranger or Batman). Masks that cover the mouth and nose immediately evoke for me the countless Western movie scenes of outlaws pulling up their bandana before leaping from their horses to raid stagecoaches, trains or banks. At some subliminal level, perhaps, this explains the Anglophone antipathy for the instruction to wear a mask. Primarily, of course, it is about wilful ignorance and/or an aversion to being told what to do by the government, but just maybe, it is also a childhood-instilled idea that only bandits wear these kinds of masks and we are the good guys! When people appear childish, remember their childhood.

During the heyday of the Venetian mask — let’s call it the long eighteenth century that ended with the fall of the Venetian Republic to Napoleon — it was mainly the Venetian nobility and their associates who wore the masks for up to six months of the year. Slightly counter-intuitively, they did so not in order to pretend to be “better than they were” in classic con-man style but to conceal their high status in order to engage in actions that might otherwise compromise or taint their noble standing. Of course, the veil of anonymity provided by the mask remains part of its cultural appeal, and this is now associated with ideas of unaccountability that make any time of misrule and sensual indulgence attractive. Among the tourists who paid in past years for a weekend of Carnevale in Venice, there has sadly been a tendency to apply the maxim “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” to “La Serenissima.” In this sense, mask-wearing illustrates the larger and older appeal and danger offered by the anonymity of city life. As a recent trend, this has tarnished mass tourism everywhere, soiling the reputation of English football fans abroad, for instance, and providing a steady flow of business for those skilled in the removal of rashly acquired tattoos.

The scholarship on Venetian masks has also linked their use to erudite debates about the emergence of the modern self. The changing social patterns associated with modernity tended to bring individuals into more regular contact with strangers rather than allowing them to live out their lives among the same people every day. In essence, there was a time when people lived for so long in close proximity that neighbour truly knew neighbour (this should not be assumed to be a good thing). Hence, the only chance to re-make yourself lay in moving away; this, of course, became one of the enduring American storylines. But even if you did not move away, modern life still developed a greater degree of separation of private and public activities as the conventions of public conduct became more codified. Much of this can be labelled the pursuit of respectability and it documented the rise of the bourgeoisie.

By the 1950s, the process had already produced a variety of critical social commentary. While the Eisenhower era was sometimes dismissed in America as the bland leading the bland, it showed clear signs of cultural unease and the stirrings of rebellion against the conformity of corporate, organizational men. Sociologist David Riesman drew a distinction between previous generations of Americans whose lives were shaped by inner convictions and his contemporaries whose careers lacked this “inner direction.” According to him, the current generation was trained to adapt to their audiences and to craft their self-presentation to secure approval and popularity; they were “other-directed.” Put differently, they had an entire wardrobe of “masks” that they wore for different social encounters until in practice, their life was composed of nothing but a series of costume/character changes and in quiet moments, they were left with a sense of emptiness, of having no self at all.

While this was written for an American audience and could be seen as heralding the counter-cultural trends of the 1960s, it still speaks to me and has plenty to say to our age of social media and the many lives that seem to exist mainly on-line via Instagram or Tik-Tok. For some it seems, contemporary lives are only truly lived, if somehow they are made public. The call of “look at me, look at me” that social media amplifies may tap the narcissism of someone like Donald Trump, but it leads a larger proportion of the population to wear their tribal masks to signal their belonging. The internet has become a vast tribal location scheme where people find their brethren and form echo chambers that look and sound like themselves in a spiral of reciprocal affirmation. When the tribe encounters a non-tribe member, there can be threatening behavior behind the mask of anonymity, and sometimes the tribes raid each other’s encampments. At other times a would-be member of the tribe is deemed unworthy and is ostracised through cyber-bullying and trolling. In tribal lands, it is wise to wear the mask and avoid antagonizing the chief.

The masks we wear have been made in different ways and times and sometimes they seem to suit us. I belong to the last generation of English children who were sent to different types of school on the basis of IQ testing at the age of eleven. I passed this 11+ test and went to the academically-orientated, grammar school, and a part of the curriculum was designed to eradicate my native speech pattern and replace it with the “received pronunciation” that once dominated the voices on the BBC and most professions at that time. I left speaking the Queen’s English, as it was called, and discovered when I went to America that on the basis of this public persona, I was consistently mistaken for a gentleman. It was a discovery that shaped much of my subsequent academic career, but it also entailed maintaining that performance. I still feel something jar inside me whenever a broad northern vowel sound slips out from behind my mask of English gentility. Worse still, when I spend time with relatives who speak with a northern accent, I revert to it but cannot quieten the inner voice that mocks my pretence. This, too, is no longer truly me. The genteel English mask has been mine for a long time, and it has set me wondering: perhaps, there are masks that should be worn proudly as needed and then discarded, while there are surely others that might more healthily be dropped forever.

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor

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