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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

Disguise, Masks & Carnival -- with writing prompts

Carnival Time

Disguise is a timeless literary device reaching back to the earliest recorded myths.  In ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, gods were known to assume the semblance of human beings for sport or seduction – to investigate  what  mortals were up to, offer them advice or protection, procreate a semi-divine offspring, or change the course of human events. In Japanese legend, fox spirits, kitsune, disguised themselves as alluring, mischievous women, bringing fortune or ruin to their husbands and  lovers.  Variations of the shapeshifting bride or bridegroom exist all over the world. Another universal trope is the disguised traveler – the priest, sage, nobleman/woman  – or in the  Christian - Judaic heritage -- an angel or demon, who joins a band of travelers to guide them safely or lead them astray.
Homer uses disguise extensively in the Odyssey.  Shakespeare also exploits the convention of masquerades and  mistaken identities in several plays, for both comic and  tragic effects, sometimes crossing genders. He generally clues the audience in, so that we, the spectator, know a character has put on a disguise, but the other characters don't, creating irony and suspense while helping us anticipate developments in the plot.
The loss, concealment (even  to oneself)  and  reinstatement of  identity, is a common plot in fairy tales and Elizabethan drama.  Eighteenth and nineteenth-century English novelists re-appropriated it for middle class heroes, such as Tom Jones, Evelina, and Jane Eyre, all of whom regain a lost status of which they were unaware.  The search for birthright and true identity is one of the major themes of  the novel form.
When a disguise is ripped off  or a false identity discarded,  a shock ripples through us, creating electrifying  moments in literature and film. Daniel  losing his Mrs. Doubtfire make-up while his ex-wife and children look on; Edgar in  King Lear,  finally dropping his disguise as a madman to reveal himself to his long-suffering father;  the Wizard of Oz, stepping out from behind his steam-powered oracle to show Dorothy who he really is: moments such as these give us  the jolt of recognition which literary critics call "Agnition."  This act of revelation and  recognition  may be tinged with humor, pathos, or terror.
An innocuous appearance concealing evil intentions is another popular disguise trope. Consider Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho darting across the screen in his mother's clothes,   Stephen King's malevolent Pennywise, peering out at children from his jolly clown face, or the pixie- hooded figure in  Daphne Du Maurier's Don't Look Now, whom we imagine to be a child, but  then turns out to be a  murderous dwarf. As a plot device, disguise guarantees excitement and  suspense while agnition  provokes extremely powerful feelings  -- laughter, horror, fear, joy, catharsis, denial, and, in the case of the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear, even death.
The easiest way to assume another identity is simply to put on a mask, to change one's face for another's. In the history of ritual objects, masks hold a place of honor. Some of the earliest artworks  we know portray hunters wearing animal masks.  In cultures all over the world, such masks were used by shamans to reinforce the links between  animals and  humans. By donning a mask, the shaman symbolically acquired the powers that the animal represented, like flight, night vision, invincibility, ferocity, or cunning.  Masks could also represent natural forces, like winds, fire, or storms.  The shaman could use his new powers to heal sickness, defeat an enemy, ensure abundant crops or a successful hunt, and  in general bring prosperity and well-being to his community.
Masquerade nowadays is often considered to be an entertainment for children, usually at Halloween, when we impersonate spirits and ghosts.  In earlier times, however,  ritual masquerade was  primarily for adults and performed  important social and spiritual roles especially in the period known  in the west as Carnival. This tradition lives on today in Catholic countries in a few world-famous celebrations such as the carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Venice, and Mardi Gras of  New Orleans. In some areas, it has blended with local traditions – as in Sardinia where indigenous folklore combined with vestiges of the earlier Phoenecian culture  to create a unique Carnival parade known as the Mamuthones . In this festival,  zombie –like creatures dressed in sheepskins and wooden  masks march through the streets, while brightly- clad figures capture onlookers with lassoes. To be lassoed during the parade is considered a lucky event , but this custom is thought to derive from a Phoencian ceremony in which  sacrificial victims were chosen.  Many contemporary gothic novels, like David Pinner's Ritual, make similar connections between archaic costumed festivals and  ritual sacrifice.  Yet, Carnival  can be a period of self-discovery, of putting aside an old self to take on a new one, as happens to Binx Bolling during Mardi Gras  in Walker Percy's acclaimed first novel, The Movie Goer.
The Christian tradition of Carnival situate it sometimes right after Christmas lasting till the day before Lent, Ash Wednesday.  These weeks were a time of feasting and transgression, when the vital needs of the body, the flesh (Carne) were celebrated and gratified without restraint.  The origins of Carnival are much older, dating back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, a fertility celebration when people of all classes could mingle and slaves and masters changed places for a day. Businesses, public offices, and schools shut down as the routines of daily life were set aside.  Gambling, drunkenness, licentious behavior were allowed.   All this served to help drive out the winter spirits of darkness, revitalize the natural cycles, and prepare the way for the sun to return.
The Christian Carnival tradition borrowed three practices from the ancient Roman Saturnalia.  Firstly, a focus on food  –with pancakes or fritters being a typical dish -- along with the overconsumption of meat , sweets,  and alcohol. Secondly, an emphasis on sex  and fertility. Social rules regarding sexual behavior were temporarily loosened.  People were free to indulge in promiscuous acts without censure or guilt.  Lewd pranks and bawdy humor set the tone for popular entertainment in street circuses and pageants where fertility symbols were prominently displayed. Thirdly, "misrule" – the suspending of social hierarchy.  Breeches of propriety, etiquette, and piety,  insults, and challenges to authority --  all were permitted.  Political satire was, for this brief time, not subject to censorship and control. People of different classes mingled freely. The world was turned upside down.
Misrule played a key role in maintaining public order – for those few days the more oppressed classes could vent frustrations which might otherwise have festered into social rebellion.  The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who has studied the carnivalesque  in literature, held that
 the impious and free-thinking attitudes permitted at Carnival  unleashed powerful creative forces into western culture that were later manifested in art, literature, and politics.    
The sexual, political, and social freedoms of Carnival were made possible by yet one more custom inherited from the Romans: the wearing of a mask at this time.  However, this had some negative consequences: while wearing a mask,  it was easier to conceal  signs of disease from others or to  perpetrate crimes anonymously. Narratives set in Carnival time often involve criminal acts committed in disguise, or sometimes death by transmittable diseases, such as the plague, which happens  in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Mask of Red Death." 
Disguise and masks remain a popular form of adult entertainment. We may play out fantasies by donning a wig or a domino, the hooded cape of the Venetian carnival,  used by both men and women, hiding the whole body in voluminous folds. Stanley Kubrick's erotic thriller,  Eyes Wide Shut, adapted from  a novel by Arnold Schnitzler,  employs dominos and other iconic Venetian masks to portray darker instincts hidden beneath facades of propriety.  Lawrence Durrell, describing the carnival in  his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, writes " What stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino – conferring upon its wearer the disguise that each  man in his secret heart desires." 
Masks can be  receptacles for the  projection of  what Jung called the shadow  -- the darker sides of ourselves – fear, loathing, desire, impulse, transgression, otherness, which we cannot acknowledge openly and which appear in our nightmares. Masks  may also express emotions in a pure state – like the Greek comic and tragic masks, or  idealized icons of  beauty or ugliness.  They may embody the spirit of a place or people. They may manifest archetypal figures or character tropes. As ritual objects they may serve to connect us to other levels of reality:  the underworld,  the world of animals, magical beings. As vehicles of impersonation, they allow us to take on the identities of celebrities or imaginary characters we admire or envy.  Masks are power-charged artifacts:  Hannibal Lecter's iron muzzle invokes in us an instinctive fear.  The white Guy Fawkes  mask popularized by the movie V and adopted by protest movements everywhere - speaks of challenge to tyranny  and the  vindication of the rights  of the oppressed.
Writing Exercises
 It can be frightening to see a masked person when we don't expect it.  The recent panic over clown sightings in the US and Eu rope is an example.  We may imagine  the worst if we find a masked person standing on our doorstep – but we may have got his  intentions wrong.  Write a scene in which a masked person , intending no harm, turns up in an inappropriate place.
It can be equally unsettling to be the only unmasked person in a crowd of disguised ,costumed , and anonymous revelers.  Write a scene in which an unmasked person  tries to recognize or find someone in a crowd of masks.
In carnivalesque literature, the rules of daily life don't apply – as in Midsummer's Night's Dream.  Write a scene involving two couples who are matched with the wrong lover.
Write a scene in which a natural or supernatural force shapeshifts into a human being.
Write a story with a disguised traveler as the narrator.
Write a scene in which a person removes a mask or disguise while being observed by a stranger.
Write a scene in which a person removes a mask or disguise while being observed by a spouse or family member.
This exercise is best done with any form of mask made to be worn on the face, and not a merely decorative object.  It can also be done with a mask you have made yourself.
Ask yourself these questions and jot down your responses
§  What is it made of? Where  and when was it made – in what context was it created?
§  What powers or feelings does it evoke?
Take some time when you are alone. Put the mask before you on the table. In a passage of free association ( or speaking out loud),  address the mask directly asking it a question  ( for example : Tell me your name?)  and ask it to reply.
Write down its answer. 
Put the mask on and look at the world through the slits of its eyes, then at yourself in the mirror.  What do you see?  Be prepared for surprises
Write down your response. Take as long as you wish for this exercise
1.      Human beings anthropomorphize their environment.  We see human faces wherever we look – even on the surface of the moon. Children perceive facades of houses as faces, with windows for eyes and doors for mouths, as does the practitioner of Feng Shui. Nature at times sculpts granite or limestone into amazing humanlike semblance.  On the northern coast of La Maddalena island in Sardinia is a giant granite boulder  which resembles a giant grinning  human skull  - the effect is so uncanny, it looks as though it has been carved like the heads of Mt. Rushmore, but it is merely the work of  erosion.
Find a face created by nature in your environment.  Try to draw the face , then free write a conversation between yourself and the face.  Use this material in a story.
2.      We populate our solitude with projections of ourselves. One of the funniest yet most poignant  moments in the film Cast Away  is when Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks takes a basketball salvaged from the plane crash of which he is the sole survivor, draws a face on it, names it Wilson, and begins to talk to it, carrying on a conversation half of which we cannot hear.  His ongoing dialogue with Wilson is what keeps him human during his long stay on the island.  When Wilson floats out of reach as Noland paddles through monstrous waves in an attempt to return to civilization, the audience weeps, for during  Noland's time on the island, Wilson was real.   Look around your own environment and find something  inanimate with which you might engage a dialogue.
Hold a conversation with it and write it down.

For more writing prompts, see my book THE SOUL OF PLACE: A CREATIVE WRITING WORKBOOK:  Ideas & Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci 


All texts & prompts copyright Linda Lappin

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