Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The itch under the mask

This morning I discovered another thing to love about Thomas Merton: his sense of humor! He was writing about the incoherence of modern language (this is from The Non-Violent Alternative, published in 1971) and went off on a tear about advertising:

"Now let us turn to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia," he says, and he proceeds to quote a poem that served as an ad for the new Arpege Hairspray in a September '66 New Yorker.

The poem, he says, "must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning...We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again is also a kind of gnostic initiation)... and the content, the "experience," which is one of self-enclosed narcissism woven of misty confusion..."

But the kicker that had me laughing was this: "When we reflect that the ultimate conceptions of theology and metaphysics have surfaced in such a context -- hair spray -- we no longer wonder that theologians are tearing their hair and crying that God is dead. After all, when every smell, every taste, every hissing breakfast food is endowed with the transcendental properties of being..."

I have to assume that by "hissing breakfast food" he means Kellogg's Rice Krispies with their indefatigable Snap, Crackle and Pop. But somehow you don't think of a monk eating Rice Krispies -- and I love the idea of a hissing breakfast food -- as if, somehow, it were a snake tempting you away from the REAL things of life...

I was thinking of this when I watched one of those short Dove videos that are making the rounds these days, of the perfectly ordinary young woman who is turned with the help of makeup, hairstyling and Photoshop into a billboard ad for beauty products. It's all part of that confusion -- to which advertising of course contributes -- about what is and is not real; a confusion which can result in the sort of serious alienation from self and self-image that we see in young girls who have anorexia.

Not surprisingly, Merton has something to say about alienation as well: this passage is from "Why Alienation is for Everybody," written in 1968:

Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or may not want to play. Alienation is complete when I become completely identified with my mask, totally satisfied with my role, and convince myself that any other identity or role is inconceivable. The man who sweats under his mask, whose role makes him itch with discomfort, who hates the division in himself, is already beginning to be free. But God help him if all he wants is the mask the other man is wearing, just because the other one does not seem to be sweating or itching. Maybe he is no longer human enough to itch. (Or else he pays a psychiatrist to scratch him.)

... and this, in turn, reminds me of that famous Anais Nin quote which a friend recently posted on Facebook: "And then the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." It's not any easier to blossom than it is to break out of a cocoon or to risk stepping out from behind a mask. But the alternative -- to remain stuck in that misty confusion of self-enclosed narcissism Merton describes -- can be deadening, and some version of one of those steps is inevitably necessary if we are to become fully real.

1 comment:


Hi Diane, I don't need another book atop my reading stack but your talk of Merton tempts me. I've just started Wisdom Distilled from The Daily by Joan Chittister, another by Richard Rohr, and the mailman brought me "Writing in the Sand" by Thomas Moore today so Merton will have to wait but I love your quotes. Also the Anais Nin quote - so true - I've heard it before but making a note in my "quotes book." Thanks!