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The Masks We Wear

Margaret Miller

In Chapter 36 of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Ahab talks to Starbuck about pasteboard masks. He believes that, "in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask." (Melville, 140) In other words, everything and everyone wears a mask that hides their inner truth from us. Ahab argues that "if a man will strike, strike through the mask" and reveal the truth hidden by the mask. (Melville, 140) He wants to strike through the mask of Moby Dick and reveal not only the hidden truth of this formidable whale, but also to reveal his own personal hidden truths that he cannot see because the whale is masking them from him.

I suggest that a more unconventional reading of this passage will serve the reader well not only in their reading of Moby Dick, but also the way that they live their lives. This reading is that we should view the mask not as something we are looking at, but rather as something we are wearing. Our vision of reality, the truths hidden by masks in Ahab's interpretation, is altered by the way the mask allows us to see through it. The placement of the eye holes of the mask changes our perception of reality the same way that the placement of the "peculiar sideway position of the whale's eyes" means "that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead, no more than he can one exactly astern." (Melville, 262) The placement and size of the eye holes in our masks allows us to see parts of reality. In this way, the mask serves as the lens through which we see and interpret the world. I suggest that we all take these parts of reality and construct stories about them. We construct these stories about events, other people, and even ourselves.

For example, our masks affect the way that we create stories of our feelings from our emotions. They also help us create stories about situations such as a stranger approaching us on the street with an angry expression on their face. You could have a mask that encourages you to tell the story that the stranger must be mad at you because everyone is always mad at you since you are a horrible person. In contrast, you could have a mask that encourages you to tell the story that the stranger isn't mad at you and has probably just received some distressing news. (Adopted from Developmental Psychopathology class notes, 2/8/2006) In Chapter 99 of Moby Dick, the object of a doubloon is interpreted in various ways by different crew members. (Melville, 331-335) The masks that the crew members wear affect the different stories that they tell about the doubloon. For example, the religious Starbuck's mask encourages him to interpret the doubloon as depicting the holy trinity whereas Ahab's mask encourages him to interpret the doubloon as depicting "three peaks a proud as Lucifer...all are Ahab." (Melville, 333, 332)

Experience plays a huge role in the formation of your mask. For example, the monomaniacal mask that Ahab wears was formed from his previous experience of losing his leg to Moby Dick. The experience does not necessarily have to be traumatic in order to change your mask. For example, the experience of reading Moby Dick was not a traumatic one for me, but it has altered my mask in that I am now aware of the fact that I am wearing one and that I am not able to see reality except through it. Experience may alter your mask to make it more adaptive. For example, after Pip jumps out of Stubb's boat for the second time he begins to refer to himself as being dead and a coward. (Melville, 392) It is adaptive for him to change his mask and to use this changed mask to explain his cowardly act because it is easier for him to deal with his "death" than with his failure as a whaler. (Comment in class by Laura Sockol, 2/14/2006) Even though this change in his mask is adaptive, it does not mean that it does not have its disadvantages as Pip appears to be unable to operate in the real world of the story and becomes dependent on Ahab. (Melville, 399) This dependence is interesting because Pip's new mask is almost as monomaniacal against himself as Ahab's mask is about Moby Dick, who he interprets as a mask for his inner self.

This interpretation of the pasteboard mask as being something that affects our vision of the reality of the world helps the reader understand the act of reading and interpreting Moby Dick on a completely different level. This is perhaps best explained in the doubloon chapter when Stubb exclaims, "Book! you lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts." (Melville, 333) The book Moby Dick provides the reader with the basic facts of the whaling story and with many facts about whales and the whaling profession. The mask that the reader wears can effect the way that they interpret not only certain passages in the text, but also the overall text itself. For example, it can be debated how to classify Moby Dick: as a comedy or a tragedy?(Lecture and Discussion Notes, Day 9) The mask that the reader wears while reading it may affect the way that they answer this question. If their mask is more like Stubb's, an "invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness", they may see it as a comedy and refer to the way that Melville is continually poking fun at established traditions and views of his time in areas of religion and academia. (Melville, 158) If their mask is more like Starbuck's, "mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness", they may see it as a tragedy and point to Ahab's fatal flaw of seeking vengeance, blasphemous as he is "usurping a privilege of God." (Melville, 139)

The mask the reader wears, formed by their own past experiences, can influence the way that they interpret the book and the way that they interpret events in their lives. Although I don't believe that a person can ever be mask-less, I do believe that a person can change their mask. The Penn Optimism Program at the University of Pennsylvania was designed to change the masks of children who are at risk for depression into masks of a more optimistic nature in an attempt to prevent them from developing depression. (Shatte, Reivich, Gillham, & Seligman, 1999) The program teaches the children to become "detectives" and to look at all of the possible stories that they can tell about situations. In the example discussed previously concerning the angry stranger, the children would be instructed to look at it through the ABC model. In the ABC model, A is the problem or event, B is the thoughts or stories that the person tells about the problem or event, and C is the feelings that the person feels due to the story that the person tells. In the case of the previous example, the angry stranger would be A and the story the person tells about that stranger would be B. If the person thinks "Oh, that stranger must be mad at me. Everyone is always mad at me. I must be a horrible person," they will feel sad and possibly a little frustrated (C). If, on the other hand, the person thinks, "That stranger couldn't be mad at me. We don't even know each other. Perhaps he just found something out that upset him," they will have a more neutral feeling and the event probably won't have ruined their day. The children are instructed to choose the most accurate thought or story (B) and determine this by looking for "clues" in other people's behavior and from their past experiences. In terms of the mask interpretation I proposed, complications arise as the mask may still influence B and C. The "clues" from previous experiences have also influenced the formation of the mask itself, and it is through this mask that the child looks at the options and chooses the most realistic. Due to this complication, it is probably best to have outside help when you want to drastically change your mask (eg. if you are more like the monomaniacal Ahab and want to become more like the more open minded Ishmael) so that the outside person (most preferably a psychologist or psychiatrist) can help you recognize when your mask is affecting your choice of B.

In chapter 123, Starbuck reflects that "all of us are Ahabs." (Melville, 387) With respect to the fact that all of us wear masks based on our personal experiences, we are all Ahab. However, Ahab's mask is "inflexible" and he is unable to look for "clues" and choose the most reasonable explanation for events. (Melville, 389) The character of Ishmael is correct when he says that "ignorance is the parent of fear." (Melville, 34) Ahab's mask makes him ignorant and unaware of the other explanations for his intense emotions of sadness at the loss of his leg. This ignorance leads him to create the story that it was Moby Dick's fault and, as his mask becomes inflexible due to his experiences, begins to explain all of the wrongs in his world as being due to Moby Dick. These stories include the transition of the emotion of sadness into the interpreted feeling of anger and the intense desire to destroy Moby Dick. The character of Ishmael is more flexible in his interpretations of events because his mask is less rigidly formed than Ahab's. For example, when Ishmael first sees Queequeg, he reflects on his appearance, "At first I knew not what to make of this...But then, what to make of his unearthly might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning...I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin." (Melville, 34) This is an excellent example of Ishmael's flexible mask because it shows that he is aware of his immediate response (doesn't know what to make of the A event), looks for "clues" (B) in his past experiences, and making a choice of action (C). In this example, he seems to be disposed to accept Queequeg as a bedmate until he witnesses another A, Queequeg's bald head, and, due to second hand experiences (B) determined that the correct choice of action (C) would be to leave the room "had not the stranger stood between [him] and the door." (Melville, 34)

The question that needs to be considered is whether Ishmael had always had such a flexible mask or if, in later reflecting of his experiences on the ill-fated voyage, became more aware of the different interpretations available. When he tells the story of Moby Dick, Ishmael's ability to use "clues" (B) has greatly expanded due to his whaling experiences, relationships with others, and the knowledge of what happened at the end of the voyage. Hindsight is often 20/20 and perhaps it is this hindsight that has made Ishmael's mask more flexible than Ahab's. Or perhaps the mask that Ishmael developed after the destruction of the Pequod is no better than Ahab's as he, too, is on an almost monomaniacal mission to tell the story of his fallen crewmates and the creature that they were hunting.

In reading Moby Dick, the reader today is aware of the fact that they were not the intended audience for the book. (Class Discussion, 2/16/2006) Does this mean that they should try and read it through the mask of the intended audience and use only the "clues" available to this audience when interpreting the text? Melville himself acknowledges this challenge when he writes in the doubloon chapter that "There's another rendering now; but still one text. All sorts of men in one kind of world, you see." (Melville, 335) There are many ways to read the text of Moby Dick and the reality of the world because there are "all sorts of men" who come with their own personal experiences and their own individual masks. If we are all wearing masks, can any one interpretation of any text or event be considered to be "correct"? If an interpretation is given and many people agree that it is "correct", could it not still be "incorrect" because they may all be wearing masks that may be blinding them to the truth? These questions are hard to answer, but what is perhaps more puzzling is the question of how we should interpret events and texts, how we should use our knowledge of the mask we wear in our daily lives, and if there is any way to get rid of the masks and see the truth.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Shatte, A.J., Reivich, K., Gillham, J.E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (1999). Learned optimism in children. In C.R. Snyder (Ed.), Coping: The psychology of what works (pp. 165-181). New York: Oxford.

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