Thursday, September 04, 2008

Dancing In the Streets

And here we continue with the Sans Souci Studios Summer Reading List Extravaganza!!

I love Barabara Ehrenreich, and when I heard she had written a book about the decline of community festivals (and along with them, much in the way of masking traditions) in Western culture, of course I had to read it. Here are the ideas I found the most interesting.

Ehrenriech implies that there is an inherent contradiction in human society, that it is collective by nature, but as it becomes increasingly successful, it grows larger and larger until by necessity it splits into hierarchies. Then the upper hierarchies try to suppress collectivism in general as it can foment revolution and change. Festivals (especially masked festivals!) were a prime time for people to gather and plan all sorts of mischief, so the powers that be have been trying to regulate or do away with them altogether for time immemorial.

In this context, masks are subversive. They allow anonymity. Masks allow people to step out of their prescribed roles. They allow men to be women, beggars to be kings. Masks, through estatic ritual, possession, and trance (now how are those for scary words!) can afford practitioners direct contact with their gods, as opposed to through "belief" and "faith", or through the indirect mediation of priests. Masks by their very nature can defy the social order.

Now I really want to run off and catch the next performance of Bread and Puppet!

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Masks Tell Stories

This summer I read a great book about masks, "Masks Tell Stories", by Carol Gelber. It's aimed at older children, but it was thought-provoking for this middle-aged adult, too.

The most interesting thought that occurred to me after reading it was: Masks help make abstract ideas concrete, and bring them a place where they can be physically dealt with. With the aid of masks, ancestor spirits can walk among their people and remind them of the values of their community, and perhaps of the consequences of not being mindful of them. They can teach, protect, and discipline the children of the community. With the aid of masks, benevolent spirits can be cajoled for what a community needs and desires- good luck, good weather, good health, etc and chaotic spirits can be chased away. With the aid of masks, the spirit of the community, the place, or the time itself can become embodied and celebrated, such as we see now with Mardi Gras or Halloween.

However, with the overriding mind-body dualism of this Western culture (mind is good, body is bad) I imagine the idea of making an abstract idea concrete is viewed with much suspicion. Why ruin a perfectly good idea by embodying it? While I'm not advocating (say, for instance) foregoing modern medicine and returning to masked ritual to cure illness and so on, I do often wonder what our culture's dualism has caused us to throw away and lose.

In any case, I sincerely hope I will be able to explore these ideas more thoroughly in future work. Stay posted!