Are masks coming back?
Let us hope not.
A few weeks ago, I began to notice stray stories about how face coverings might make a return. We were told that cold and flu season was nearly upon us, and this year it might be accompanied by an uptick in cases of the endemic coronaviruses. Then it started to happen. A public elementary school in Maryland brought back masks for some students and staff after “three or more” people were reported to have tested positive for that scourge of yesteryear. The Hollywood studio Lionsgate Films briefly brought back masks too, along with a two-week mask requirement at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, and new mandates in a few other places including Kaiser Permanente Health Care in California.
Seeking to nip a new mask-mania in the bud, Senator J.D. Vance recently attempted passing a bill by unanimous consent that would have prohibited future federal face-covering requirements. The bill was blocked by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who worried that not allowing the State to impose masking would “silence and hamstring public health experts.” Markey is not wrong, and that’s Vance’s point. Some of us on the fringe have come to regard masks as the vestment of the cult of technocracy, and we would sooner go to the stake for heresy than ever don one again.
But these days, even a lot of normies are a little wary of what the experts say. We all wore masks and we all got the virus and its variants, most of us multiple times. So even if masks are not completely pointless—and that’s a big if—the downside of the dehumanizing hassle far outweighs any benefit of wearing them over the long term. Anyway, decide for yourself.
More important now than litigating the scientific data again, however, is the fact that shabby hypothetical moral cases for masks continue to be foisted on the public instead of a deeper exploration of overarching first principles and concerns for future social outcomes. Few have dared to ask in the philosophical sense “What are masks for?” And while cries of “You could kill grandma!” have mostly dissipated, the general public does not seem as disinclined as they should be to allow area-specific wonks to moralize by fallacy and fiat.
It is time now to hear from phenomenologists, not epidemiologists.
Advocates of masking have said and may still say that not seeing each other’s faces is the surest way not to kill each other. But the great twentieth-century Catholic-friendly Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who greatly influenced St. John Paul II, offers a different perspective. In the following passage from his seminal 1951 essay “Is Ontology Fundamental?” included in the magnificent collection Entre Nous, Levinas builds upon Heidegger’s notion of being, locating concrete human interaction in the face:
The being as such (and not as an incarnation of universal being) can only be in a relation in which he is invoked. That being is man, and it is as a neighbor that man is accessible: as a face.
Simply put, I am my face, and you are yours. We need to see them in order to relate to each other as humans.
Levinas said in an interview with Philippe Nemo in a broadcast on French radio in 1981, “the face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill.” It is precisely in the vulnerability of the face-to-face encounter that we are able to live with each other as subjects—not only to avoid physical conflict, and not even just to tolerate one another before retreating to our private homes, but to thrive alongside each other in the public square. I, for one, certainly began to think of my fellow masked man during the pandemic as an anonymous object, and to feel more hostility to him. We were supposed to be saving each other’s lives, but we were killing each other with impersonality instead.
We all know that the face is what makes movies worth watching, and movies are where the best philosophizing happens. Whether it’s Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Orson Wells in The Third Man, Giulietta Massina in La Strada, or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, faces convey the depth of humanity on screen.
Thus, with a few exceptions, the close-up is every director’s most important story-telling tool. Where a mask is used, as with Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask in the Friday the 13th films or Hannibal Lecter’s mouthguard in The Silence of the Lambs, the covered face conveys monstrosity and inhumanity. It is no accident that at the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader asks for Luke’s help to remove his helmet and mask so that he can turn back into Anakin Skywalker and die, having abandoned his robotic self to be redeemed in his human identity.
A directing duo that makes expert use of showing and not showing faces to convey philosophical and theological meaning in their films are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Little known in the United States outside of arthouse circles, the Dardenne brothers are avowed disciples of Levinas and advocates of humane, realist cinema that bears the indelible marks of Europe’s Catholic heritage. Watching their films leaves the strong impression that looking at each other’s faces is non-negotiable to establish and maintain virtue in society.
In 1996, the Dardenne brothers made their first feature, La Promesse, set like almost all of their successive films in the industrial town of Seraing, near Liège, Belgium. La Promesse is a sad but redeeming tale, which Luc Dardenne described in a journal entry as being directly influenced by Levinas’ “interpretation of face-to-faces, of faces as the first conversations.” La Promesse depicts a crisis in the young life of a boy named Igor, whose father, Roger (played by Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet), makes a living exploiting illegal immigrants, putting them to work as unlicensed construction workers. Igor, who is frequently taken away from his apprenticeship as a mechanic to help his father with illicit schemes, befriends a young African mother named Assita, whose husband, Hamidou, works for Roger.
When Hamidou subsequently dies in a job-site accident, Igor is distressed until the end of the film about what to tell Assita, and he consistently avoids face-to-face encounters with her. In the same journal entry from January 1996 quoted above, Luc Dardenne noted that the relationship between Igor and Assita is “an attempt to finally come face-to-face.” In April of the same year, he elaborated, “in all the scenes where Igor/Assita are looking at each other, Igor is always the one to look away first. Igor can’t look at Assita’s gaze because there lies the pressure of the moral commandment he cannot follow. Except in the final scene.”
The Dardenne brothers’ 2002 film The Son explores the importance of face-to-face encounter in an even more startling way than in La Promesse. The Son again features Olivier Gourmet playing a father, but this time an honest, hard-working man wrought with grief. His son has been murdered. When we meet Gourmet, whose character’s name bears his real first name, Olivier, he is estranged from his wife and teaching carpentry to at-risk boys at a reform school, trying to make sense of his life. The Son is perhaps the Dardennes’ most Catholic film, as Olivier represents a St. Joseph figure who is given an array of quasi-foster sons to form in a trade and in virtue. But one day, Olivier’s son’s murderer shows up as a student, ignorant of the fact that his teacher’s brokenness is the result of his own tragic adolescent crime.
For most of the film, we see the young man, Francis, only from behind or the side, and we size him up with Olivier as a criminal, a killer. Not looking at his face, we keep Francis at a distance as an “other,” a non-person. Here the Dardenne brothers dramatize a particularly striking passage from Levinas, again from “Is Ontology Fundamental?”
In killing, I can certainly attain a goal, I can kill the way I hunt, or cut down trees, or slaughter animals—but then I have grasped the other in the opening of being in general, as an element of the world in which I stand. I have seen him on the horizon. I have not looked straight at him. I have not looked him in the face. The temptation of total negation, which spans the infinity of that attempt and its impossibility—is the presence of the face. To be in relation with the other face to face—is to be unable to kill.
Olivier repeatedly acquires sharp objects, clearly contemplating the practicalities of his revenge, and awkwardly refuses to look at the boy despite working in close proximity. Finally, Olivier drives Francis to a remote location on the pretext of acquiring some wood for carpentry projects. En route, he goes into the bathroom of a snack shop and meticulously washes his eyeglasses with soap and water, dries them, and carefully puts them on again. He is ready to see clearly. Will he finally look at the subject, or will he kill an object? In the astonishing final scene of The Son, we find out.
The films of the Dardenne brothers almost all involve the importance of face-to-face encounter, especially where it is emotionally or physically risky. And with the duo’s explicit attachment to Levinas’ phenomenology of the face, their work is particularly apt as we consider as a society how to weigh the costs and benefits of concealing ourselves from each other in the months and years ahead.
For my part, I say masking can have no permanent place in Western society, come what may. Let us remain forever face-to-face.
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