The Masked Kolleg Unmasked
Andreas Dorschel, Fellow 2020/2021, on the Wissenschaftskolleg in Corona Times
We mustn’t come all too close to each other. And sometimes we must look twice, or even three times. One notices how much goes into recognizing a face. We recognize each other with our eyes and acknowledge each other by looking each other in the eyes; but we don’t always immediately recognize each other by the eyes. The mask in pandemic times covers only the mouth and nose; one might have believed that these were not important in recognizing a person. But nothing is unimportant in the face. Previously, one could have this experience only with someone one knew without a beard who suddenly approached one with a grown-out beard: he could hardly be recognized.
Masked people scan each other with their gazes via reference points, by their clothes, posture, hairstyle, and even by the style of the masks. They are on the lookout for signs that the other person recognizes them. And so a slightly altered form of recognition is learned. Recognition is followed by a greeting, curbed by the mask.
The Corona mask is a half-mask, but the many traditional masks that concealed the face also left the eyes free; masked people had to see how they were seen. “To thee I do commend my watchful soul, / Ere I let fall the windows of mine eyes.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III, 5.3.117) Maybe the eyes really are the windows of the soul. But they are windows more with the face than without it. The face shows the eyes: but the mask, by concealing the face, makes it hard to recognize them.
Not much is equally true of all masks: of the masks of Greek theater, the masks of Venetian Carnival, the gas masks of World War I, and the Corona masks, which are unostentatious in comparison with the others; little, only this: they remind us of how strange we are to each other.
With the mask in the pandemic, a new social character appeared: the mask opponent. In German, he takes the masculine gender, but empirically as well, most of these social characters are male. He visibly sees himself robbed by the mask of his right to infect others. He regards the imposition of wearing one as an attack on his freedom. There is a disproportion between the big word and the small piece of fabric – and the emotional stance that bridges the two is self-pity. That someone lacking empathy for others can muster so much emotion about this issue is remarkable, because the simple cloth mask protects others more than the wearer. The word “freedom” that the mask opponents invoke proves to be itself a mask: for the person’s egoism. The new social character is an old one.
In the same weeks when we Fellows of the class of 2020 could see nameless mask opponents on the streets of Berlin, the renowned mask opponent showed himself on our television screens. When he returned to the White House, Donald Trunk pulled down his mask. He hated and hates it, because it reminds him that he is vulnerable, mortal like everyone else. He can’t just be like the others. So, he took off his cloth mask – but not the mask that is his face.
The subtitle of a German book about discotheques in the 1980s translates as “the art of selling contacts”. A book about the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin could be titled: “The art of giving away encounters”. And encounters clearly change when they take place masked and across controlled, complied-with meter distances. The change is not advantageous. Currently, saying this can already sound self-pitying. This textile does not really lead to suffering, but it does make it more difficult to feel completely at ease.
Among the disadvantages of being masked in 2020, including in the corridors of Wallotstraße 19 and the library rooms of Weiße Villa, is the disappearance of the smile – this friendliness that, in this international site, stands before, beyond, and over a friendly German sentence that might not be understood or a poorly formulated and poorly pronounced, but well-intentioned English sentence. Certainly, everyone here in Grunewald will easily forgive the latter. But no one needs to forgive a smile; one simply accepts it. Nothing can replace it. Some cloth masks have a smile printed on them. They resemble the dreadful emojis, and so they are worthless. A smile is not charming if it is already present, ready-made, but only when it arises in the moment.