Masks of Profundity

Masks of Profundity

Charles De Vera


Nietzsche in Section 40 of Beyond Good and Evil talks of masks:

40. Everything that is profound loves the mask: the profoundest things have a hatred even of figure and likeness. Should not the contrary only be the right disguise for the shame of a God to go about in? A question worth asking!—it would be strange if some mystic has not already ventured on the same kind of thing. There are proceedings of such a delicate nature that it is well to overwhelm them with coarseness and make them unrecognizable; there are actions of love and of an extravagant magnanimity after which nothing can be wiser than to take a stick and thrash the witness soundly: one thereby obscures his recollection. Many a one is able to obscure and abuse his own memory, in order at least to have vengeance on this sole party in the secret: shame is inventive. They are not the worst things of which one is most ashamed: there is not only deceit behind a mask—there is so much goodness in craft. I could imagine that a man with something costly and fragile to conceal, would roll through life clumsily and rotundly like an old, green, heavily-hooped wine-cask: the refinement of his shame requiring it to be so. A man who has depths in his shame meets his destiny and his delicate decisions upon paths which few ever reach, and with regard to the existence of which his nearest and most intimate friends may be ignorant; his mortal danger conceals itself from their eyes, and equally so his regained security. Such a hidden nature, which instinctively employs speech for silence and concealment, and is inexhaustible in evasion of communication, desires and insists that a mask of himself shall occupy his place in the hearts and heads of his friends; and supposing he does not desire it, his eyes will some day be opened to the fact that there is nevertheless a mask of him there—and that it is well to be so. Every profound spirit needs a mask; nay, more, around every profound spirit there continually grows a mask, owing to the constantly false, that is to say, superficial interpretation of every word he utters, every step he takes, every sign of life he manifests. (Helen Zimmern translation)

The work mask has an interesting linguistic history. It is originally a Germanic word that found its way to Latin, and from Latin—through French—to English. The OED defines mask as “a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others.” Under its synonyms is listed the word persona, a related but somewhat very different concept. Whereas a mask is essentially false (“a disguise”), a persona is an extension of a person’s self, an image presented to the world which may or may not be the authentic image of the self it presents but whose authenticity is always out of the question. The mask and the wearer are distinct from each other while the distinction between self and its personae is always hazy and porous.

And Nietzsche here was talking of masks: the necessity for profound (German tief, deep) spirits to present themselves to a scrutinizing world as something other than what they are. And this is not an exhortation: Nietzsche was not asking these “profound spirits” to don masks; instead he tells us that by their very nature they have already disguised themselves from the world’s unwanted inquiries. And if Nietzsche himself is a profound spirit, then this image he presents of himself—and more trivially, his statement on masks—is essentially false. We have then another dreary game of logic in which the only answer is a non sequitur: Nietzsche is known for his contradictions, and here, as anywhere else in his oeuvre, the importance of his statement does not depend on whether he meant it or not.


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