Studies show that humans have “self-awareness”, or recognize themselves in mirrors, from as early as two years old. We have seen ourselves in mirrors probably hundreds thousands of times in our lifetimes, and have built up an identity of our physical appearances. We have also been aware of how we look compared to others, and how others view us, since we were in elementary school. Physical identities can express how we feel, and we usually associate some ways of dress with different personalities, like “preppy” or “punk.” The masking exercise was interesting because we got to choose a different physical identity than we would normally display, and step away from the self-image we have built up throughout our lifetimes.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly self-conscious person. However, when I put on a mask and got used to assuming a new identity, I felt a relief. I felt anonymous: like I was taking a break from myself and everything my peers and I expected myself to be (or not be). I was free to craft my new identity however I wanted without any limitations. It was like returning to being a toddler, where I could play and pretend without fear of implications about my own personality. I’m horrible at acting, but in these moments I understood part of why actors enjoy theatre: acting is almost cathartic. I found that with the expression of the masks I was able to choose some qualities of myself that were more or less dominant and let them represent me more completely.
In the first mask I wore, which was adorned in gold and featured a long pointed nose and a fierce grimace, made me feel ugly. It distorted my face in a way that looked deformed. However, the gold that it was fringed with and the menacing eyeholes made it look intimidating and powerful. I felt like the part of me that makes me very competitive in sports and competitions began to overrun me and I found myself acting as “tough” as I could, imagining I was some sort of important guard and walking very confidently.
My second mask was much more ornate and grandiose, and it looked like it would be worn by someone with great power, a woman very high in society (or married to one such man). I began to walk more gracefully, and I felt myself feel very feminine and delicate. I tried to pick a mask as different as the first mask as I could. This mask made me feel pretty much the opposite of myself. I felt I liked the first mask better: it was not an identity completely different from myself, but it allowed me to display a part of myself more openly than I normally would feel comfortable with. I felt most comfortable wearing a mask that exemplified a small part of my personality, instead of wearing a mask that felt nothing like my personality at all.
In Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic, the author recalls details of a mysterious young man named Giacomo Casanova. Casanova basically lived a life of deceitfulness and trickery, and he took the Carnival costumes to the extreme, making sure nobody could recognize him. He delighted in being able to act however he wanted without his identity being revealed while in costume. The story of Casanova not only demonstrates again the delight in anonymity and the liberation of social construct through masking, but also the sense of mystery the masking ritual brings. Not only is Venice a city founded on unity and independence, it is also surrounded by mystery: Venice’s creation is surrounded by several different “creation myths.” I think the way that the city embraces having its creation be “mysterious” is reflected in part by the fun and mysteriousness of Carnival.