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Masks

by Peter Dickinson

dickinson_evaThe story of Lord George Hell was, I think, told by Max Beerbohm. But for me it is a story in the oral tradition, as told to a group of small boys by a schoolteacher of genius, on Sunday evenings after the even smaller boys had gone to bed, and we were allowed to stay up to the almost-adult hour of nine o’clock. Dick Harris was headmaster of my prep school, and on Sunday evenings he would usually read to us, not children’s fiction but trash thrillers — Sapper, Dornford Yates, The Saint. He might occasionally stretch our imaginations as far as John Buchan. Sometimes, perhaps because he’d finished a book before the end of term, Dick would tell us a story instead of reading to us. The story of Lord George Hell was one.

George Hell was a rake. He had deliberately broken every commandment, tried every known vice, given full rein to his lusts and fancies, cared for nothing but his own gratification and stimulation. For such a life he had paid his toll. The marks of his excesses were graven deep on his features. You had but to look at his ravaged face to see what kind of man he was. It was the face of embodied evil.

One night George Hell and his current mistress, the astounding and beautiful and passionate Rosabella, went to the theater, and there they saw a dancer new to the London stage, a beautiful young girl who expressed in every movement and every feature the essence of all that George Hell was not — youth, innocence, joy, and hope. George Hell immediately determined to make her his. He sent his card round with a bouquet of flowers and an immense jewel concealed among them. The girl kept the flowers but returned the jewel. She repelled his every advance. He contrived an introduction. He decided that if the girl could not be bought, she could be charmed, so he set out to charm her. He could be very charming indeed if he chose, so they became acquainted.

As he learned more of her, he realized that her appearance was not mere appearance but expressed her inward self — innocence, joy, and kindness — and he became yet more determined to make her his. She loved virtue and hated vice, so he became for the moment virtuous. He went to church. He did innumerable acts of kindness; he forswore drink. He knew there was no question of possessing her out of wedlock, so he did something he had never done before and proposed marriage.

She rejected him. In great distress she told him that she could never Jove a man with a face like his. He went home, thought about his problem, and in the end he went to an expert maker of masks and explained that he wished him to make the mask of a saint. It must be so fine a work that it might have been the real flesh, and could be worn day and night without discomfort. He paid half his fortune for the mask, and disappeared from the London scene. But the next season there appeared a certain Lord George Heaven, a nobleman of great wealth and of the most astounding virtue, warmth, generosity, and kindness.

It was not only his reputation which caused wonder. It was his appearance. The moment you were in the presence of the man, you felt yourself to be in the presence of sanctity. His face expressed such goodness and benevolence that it was hard to believe it was real. Like Lord George Hell before him, Lord George Heaven paid court to the beautiful dancer, and unlike George Hell, when he proposed, he was accepted. And so they were married.

But who is this mysterious and heavily veiled woman sitting by the aisle as the happy couple come down from the altar? Who but the impetuous and passionate Rosabella? Mad with jealousy, she springs from her place, throws herself on him, and with her terrible long nails she claws the mask from his face. And stands back, so that everyone can see the ruined man beneath. But behold. The face is not the face of Lord George Hell. It is the exact image of the face of true goodness, reflecting the reformed soul within.

No doubt Max Beerbohm told the story better than that. I haven’t looked it up, because I didn’t want to spoil my memory of Dick Harris telling it to us on Sunday evenings, in wartime, in a great country house in Devon (to which our school had been evacuated to get away from the bombers), with all the windows carefully blacked out, and the lights dim, and thirty or forty small boys sitting enthralled into stillness.

This story, obviously, is about a mask. More than one mask. Masks. If you were going to stage it, then all the actors would need to wear masks throughout — of embodied evil, of embodied goodness. Even before George Hell dons his artificial mask, he would already be wearing a mask. In such a production you would also, I think, use mirrors, whole halls of mirrors, so that if possible the audience would never be quite sure which image they were looking at.

The story is an artifice, and it is about artifice. That’s why it works. It says that artifice, however artful, must be recognized as artifice, or it ceases to be art. I have a friend who placed a mirror, cleverly angled, at the bottom of a narrow town garden, so that you seemed to see an urn a long way off at the end of a vista of arches. There were, in fact only two arches, plus some bits of wooden batten around the mirror, making a false perspective. If you didn’t know there was a mirror, you would get a pleasant sense of space and distance. If you did, you would still have your space and distance, undiminished, and with if you would have the pleasure of human artifice, which enables you to imagine a distance that is not in fact there. Artifice is a mask, and must be recognized as such before it can do its work.

My novel Eva (Delacorte) is about the adventure of a girl, sometime in the future, who wakes up from a coma she’s been in after an accident, to discover that, in order to give her a life of a kind, her mind and personality have been transfixed into the body of a chimpanzee called Kelly. She then through the course of the book finds that she has to come to terms not only with a chimpanzee’s body, but also with a chimpanzee’s nature, because that is still there. Along the way various themes arise — the destruction of the natural world, overpopulation, the exploitation of animals in medical research.

At first glance, Eva doesn’t appear to have much to do with masks. There is, of course, the element of Eva, as it were, wearing Kelly’s body, but the whole point of the story is that it is not like my wearing a gorilla suit at a fancy dress party, occasionally making ape noises while holding my glass with a sensitive human hand. In fact I now realize that Eva is much the same story as that of Lord George Hell; her parents and doctors impose an outer shape on her, not realizing that her inner shape will learn to conform to it, an outcome which both stories regard as happy ending, superficially at least — though ambiguously at much deeper levels.

Eva’s discovery and acceptance of her new nature is a metaphor, and in that sense a mask, to do with adolescence and the discovery of oneself as an adult. I think this is probably the most successful element in the book.

Anyway, the Lord George Hell story takes us to the question of artifice. I can illustrate what I mean by artifice with two examples from Eva. Both are of fairly technical things that went wrong. One is largely internal to the book. That is to say it can be seen as a fault in the performer behind the mask. The other is largely external; decorative; a failure or blemish in the mask itself.

I wish I’d been able to dream up a different climax from the derring-do I describe on the island to which Eva and her group of chimps are taken, where they escape to freedom and are eventually allowed to settle in peace. Certainly a book of this kind demands an exciting adventure. Any reader, especially a young reader, is going to feel defrauded without it. But I think Eva is a sufficiently ambitious book to demand a different kind of adventure, more intellectual and social, and less purely physical. It should have taken place in the globe-spanning city which the human race inhabits in the book. It should have ended with humans and chimps coming to terms with each other there, finding ways of life for both of them, in the same manner as that in which Eva has come to terms with her own chimp body. This is more than a matter of mere plot — it’s something to do with the meaning of the book. The island was a cop-out, but I couldn’t think of anything better. I suffered a failure of the imagination at that point. That was a failure on the part of the performer, the wearer of the mask.

I think there was also a blemish in the mask itself. Though it is an apparently far less important matter, I do still brood about this almost invisible flaw in the grain of timber I’d chosen from which to carve my mask. By the time I’d realized its seriousness, it was too late to change. I had the option of discarding the piece and starting over. That’s always a hard decision, but I’d already invested a lot of time and creative juice in Eva, so I chose to go on, but in order to do so I found myself at times working across the grain.
Eva grew from unlikely seed. Some time ago I was commissioned to retell the stories of the Old Testament, which I did by relating them to their origins in the oral tradition. More recently, I was asked to try a book on the King Arthur stories, and I made the mistake of believing I should be able to do the same kind of thing – relate the romances as we find them in Chréstien de Troyes and Malory to their presumed origins in Celtic religion and myth. It didn’t work, and in the end I did something else. But I finished feeling that I’d let something important escape, something to do with the survival and rebirth of myth in ever-changing forms.

So I thought I’d look for a single resonant myth and try to devise a storyline that would allow access to its changing form and unchanging center at different times in history. The story of Eve, the first woman, felt right to me. It’s certainly resonant enough, and capable of the right kind of transformations. I thought I’d try somehow to tap in to it at about four stages — that’s to say, invent a real Eve, a female somehow at the transitional point between brute and human, who would have certain adventures, and then tap in to her again at some paint in the historic past when the story of Genesis was taken for literal truth, and then again in the present when the story is still vivid but the nature of its truth obscure, and then finally in the future, at a point where the story seems to be forgotten but still in fact resonates.

Just as I was beginning to think on these lines, reports started to appear in the press on research on the genetic implications of analysis of modern female mitochondria. This is material which is inherited directly through the female line, with no contribution from the male, and it can be statistically analyzed to show how closely or distantly individual women are related, and hence how long ago two women, or group of women, had a single common female ancestor. Treating all living women as such a group, it turned out that all of them had such a single ancestor a remarkably short time ago, around two hundred thousand years, and that she seems to have lived somewhere in Africa. Naturally enough, the media became excited about this, and equally naturally they called her Eve. Of course, being the media, they’d got it wrong, and so did I.

But I didn’t know that at the time. This seemed to be exactly what I wanted, my starting point. My basic idea demanded, I thought, some way in which a single consciousness could move through time. I was worried about how I could make this work. Time travel is an uncomfortable notion. I suspect you can only bring it off if your story is actually about time, and that is the concept you’re exploring. As a piece of machinery it would tend to take over other stories where you tried to use it. I didn’t want magic; I didn’t want physical movement through time; and that left me only some kind of dreaming. Not ordinary sleep-dreaming — that would be unconvincing. Some kind of coma. A girl in a coma, some time in the future, dipping in and out of consciousness — she would be. somehow at the end of human time, but in touch with its beginnings.

At this point something in me gave a violent jerk. You know the moment when you are just falling asleep, just starting to dream, and all at once your whole body convulses as though an electric charge had run through it, and you seem to be wide awake for a moment again, and then you slide off into a different dream. It was a moment like that. All the things I’d been thinking of shook and changed, and I knew what I wanted to do. There would be this girl, Eva, in a coma in the future. She would be dying, because the human race was dying. Its death was built into its birth, because genetic material inherited through the original Eva had a sort of time-clock in it, so that after a given number of generations it would start to decay. The program that stimulates puberty, the immense and complex change from child to woman, would no longer operate, but instead the child would fall into a coma, deeper and deeper, and eventually die. In the end this would happen to all the women in the world, and a generation later there would be no more people, only empty cities.

However, this one girl, in a unique experiment, would be in a sense saved by being given a new set of genetic material, not hers but a chimpanzee’s. Her children would be chimps. None of their physical inheritance would be human. All she would be able to pass on to them would be exactly what Eve in Genesis gave us, when she ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

No time travel; just enough references here and there to the myth of Eve for the alert reader to recognize what was happening, to reach out and as it were feel the grain of the tree from which I had shaped my story, and know that the tree and the carver were in harmony.

So I settled down and started to write a draft. I got quite a long way in, I should think about halfway, and then decided I’d better do a bit of research. You can’t do research into borderline possibilities by looking things up in books; you have to find tame scientists and ask, “Can I do this? And if not, what can I do?”
I found one. His answers were No, and Nothing, and he explained about the mitochondrial Eve in our ancestry being quite different from what I’d thought: she wasn’t any more than a statistical phenomenon. My scientist also told me that my notion about the time-clock in the genetic code was completely unworkable, even in the vaguest terms. Worse still, he said, anything to do with a breakdown in the genetic code was bound to make people think I was writing about the HIV virus, and I didn’t want readers thinking that my apocalyptic vision was concerned with AIDS. At that point I nearly gave up, but in the end I decided to cut out the whole Eve business and carry on, at least till I’d finished that draft, and see what I’d got. It took me a while to get motivated, but I managed it in the end. But my goodness, I still wish I could have found a way.

It still bothers me. It matters. Why? It would never have been a major element in the story. I found other solutions. I replaced Eva’s illness with a car crash, and the inevitable death of mankind with a vague loss of will and purpose, a sense of things ending. Both of these are adequate for getting the story told. They don’t interfere with the main themes. The business about Eve, although it was the origin of my idea, had already become no more than a decorative thread running through the story. Indeed, if I hadn’t got it right, readers might well have found it intrusive, irritating.

But let’s assume I did get it roughly right. What difference would that have made? It would have made for a greater elegance, a greater awareness of the reader, conscious or unconscious, of a satisfying artifice. Ideally, such an awareness should be at first unconscious, and then become conscious. The reader should first read to find out what your imaginary world, your creation, is like, who inhabits it, and what happens to them. Then, rereading perhaps, or thinking about it later, the reader should notice and reflect on the element of artifice.

This is important. In fact, it is crucial. Just as the function of a mask is to tell an audience that it is something other than the face behind it, positively not the actor or the dancer who is producing the voice, but something more generalized, something projected between audience and performer, so the artifice of a work of fiction is there to tell the reader, all the time and at all levels, that this is fiction, this is a work of imagination.

It’s strange how much people distrust the imagination, in all its forms. Our weird obsession with actors is based on a belief that they must somehow not be individuals with minds and lives of their own, but instead be the characters they portray. By saying the distrust of the imagination is strange, I mean more than that it is a quirk. It is an aesthetic paradox that arises from another paradox which lies at the center of our nature. It is, I believe, our imagination which makes us what we are. I mean this absolutely literally, in the sense that I believe that our primary evolutionary specialization is not our bipedal gait or our use of tools but our imagination. Everything else – language, tool-use, social cooperation, mastery of new environments, cities, space-travel – flows from that. We aren’t unique in having an imagination. Dogs can be heard dreaming of hunting, and dreams are the imagination in free fall. But in us it is central. I believe this to be an idea of immense explanatory power about all sorts of things to do with us as human beings.

But the paradox is this. We recognize the need for more than the casual use of our imagination to conduct everyday life. The rise of the novel as a major art form coincides with the movement of the majority of literate humans from communities small enough to be grasped imaginatively to communities in which individuals would feel lost and contentless. We have invented a way of imagining lives beyond our reach, because that was something we needed. Novelists feel compelled to imagine not just the centers of ordinary experience, but its fringes – the mind of a child-molester, the sufferings of the torturer’s victim, the hallucinatory world of the drug addict, the experience of a child in the body of a chimpanzee. And when the novelist has at least to some extent succeeded in what she set out to do, the willing reader imaginatively shares the experience, however harrowing, and having done so closes the book with a feeling of deep and primal satisfaction.

Some time ago, I sat next to a psychiatrist at a dinner party. One of the patients she was trying to help had lost an only child in a car accident and was now in a very unstable mental condition. There was a loving and supportive husband, a schoolmaster, I think, with literary leanings. Anyway, the husband showed the psychiatrist a group of poems he’d written to help him come to terms with what had happened. These weren’t effusions, outpourings, desperate cries. They were bleak and objective — unsparing of the writer himself, and the wife, and even the child. They were mostly in old-fashioned verse forms, rhyming and scanning and not at all obscure. My fellow guest already knew about most of the events from the wife’s point of view. What interested her and what she wanted to talk to me about, because I was a writer and she happened not to know any professional writers, was not the case itself, but her reaction to these poems. She had started with some reluctance, had then become intrigued, then involved, and had finished up with a sense that something had happened to her, which left her with a feeling not unlike exhilaration.

Of course, I don’t know how good a critic she was, let alone how good a psychiatrist, but she seemed intelligent and sympathetic. And I think the answer to her question was that the poems had allowed her to exercise her imagination to the full. While the formal, generalizing mode of poetry assured her that the experience was under control, she could give herself fully to the agony and at the same time remain intact, something perhaps that would be positively undesirable when she was being told of the self-same experiences in the consulting room. And her exhilaration, her satisfaction at the end of her reading, had been an unconscious recognition that this had been something that she, as a human organism, had positively needed for her own good. Just as we need to exercise our bodies because we have nerves and muscles and sinews to keep healthy, so we need to exercise our imagination because we have a human psyche, and it is our imagination which makes us human.

But at the same time we are very wary of this gift. That’s the other half of the paradox. We have an instinct to climb trees, but we are afraid of heights. We are very aware of our own individuality and our need to protect it. So we both need our imagination and are afraid of it. I think this is particularly the case with children. They are more open but also more vulnerable. They need means to experience without themselves undergoing the immense and complex possibilities that stretch away in front of them, and at the same time they are still discovering the possibilities inside them, who they are, what they are, what face they wish to confront the world with, what voice must speak for them. Hence the need for fantasy worlds, for dragon-riding heroines and troll enemies, for words and weapons of power, all of which function to limit the threat from the imagination. Hence also crazes, such as for Ninja Turtles. Crazes are mass reassurance, safety in numbers. If all the guys are into imaginative experiences, then it’s no threat.

But above all, I think, the paradox that we both need and fear our imagination makes one thing essential, and that is artifice. The whole history of all arts has displayed a series of cycles, in which the need for artifice to make art fulfill its function tends to become an appreciation of artifice in its own right, with the content — that which the artifice embodies — becoming ever more trivial and trite, until a point is reached where the cry goes up that art is now totally corrupt, an ancient regime that must be swept away in violent revolution, and the pure, naked concept must be restored to power. But, of course, it can’t be done. The concept must be embodied in something. I don’t mean just that the emperor must wear clothes. Artifice is not mere packaging. There have been naked emperors, but they still needed the gesture of magnificence, the demeanor of command. Artifice is integral.

Still, almost parallel with our fear of the imagination is our suspicion of artifice. Especially in democratic liberal cultures it seems to be some kind of elitist barrier between the naked will of the people and the ideas with which they are being presented. This isn’t the case. The people revel in artifice. Give them a chance and they go wild on it. Look at New York graffiti. Look at pop videos. It is the dictators, the oppressors, the benders of people’s will, who dread artifice and try to abolish it. Look at Nazi art. Look at Stalinist art. Do you know the only art form that Ceausescu of Romania was unable to censor? It was Shakespearean theater. They persuaded him that he would be internationally ridiculed if he tried to censor Shakespeare. Hamlet played to packed houses. It spoke. It said, “This king, this usurper, this poisoner, now rules over us.” And so, in the chaotic early days of the uprising, when the revolutionaries recognized the actor who played Hamlet out there in the streets, they hustled him in front of the cameras so that he could tell people what was happening and people would know that he spoke the truth.

I am not asking you to overvalue artifice, merely to value it. To trust it. It takes many forms. The perfectly rendered speech patterns of the street child are as much a work of artifice as is the elegant description of a swan reflected in the lake. But whatever the style and mode, the words and sentences in which a book is written, the sense of a living language shared between writer and reader, the run of paragraphs, the patterning of chapters, the shape and architecture of the book — these things truly matter. They are not, as I say, packaging. They are integral, neither primary nor secondary. They are a partner in a dance of the mind.

The mask has no voice. The voice comes from behind it, saying whatever needs to be said and heard. But the mask still speaks. No matter what its style is — fantastic, realistic, crude, exquisite — it cannot fulfill its function unless it speaks a single word.

The word is imagine.

Peter Dickinson is the author of many distinguished books for children, including The Blue Hawk (Peter Smith), winner of the Guardian Medal; Tulku (Dutton), winner of the Whitbread Award and the Carnegie Medal; and Eva (Delacorte), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book. His most recent book, A Bone from a Dry Sea (Delacorte), will be published this spring. His article is based on a speech delivered on the theme of masks at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, in July 1991.

From the March/April 1993 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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