I’ve been struggling lately to write three different essays. One about court jesters, one about masks, and a third about the circus. It occurred to me that the problem is that I’m trying to create distinctions where really there are none.
While not interchangeable, the concepts encompassed by jesters, masks, and circuses overlap, and it is in the overlap where I find the most exciting moments. All three are liminal ‘spaces’ wherein the rules of social interaction, personal space, body and facial cues for behavior, and normative relationships just don’t apply.
Court jesters’ most distinctive characteristics are their brash honesty, their impunity, their fearlessness in the face of truths others do not want to speak. It is in fact the job description of a court jester that he – almost always he – address the nakedness of the emperor, and preferably that he be either outlandishly dressed himself or somehow otherwise observably ‘outside’ the norm: bodily disabled, excessively short, exceedingly ugly. These extra-ordinary elements act as armor against the wrath of all who are unlucky enough to stand in the crosshairs, and the jester is allowed a freedom that others can only envy; emulation is certain death.
Masks, as objects, perform a function that is intimately connected with this freedom to speak; when one dons a mask, all emotion, all reaction becomes simply reflection. Encounters with masked persons are discomfiting. They are Immovable, unable to transmit cues to how we should act, and so we end up reacting but only to ourselves; masks reflect exactly – and solely – what we think they do. The truth is harder to find, perhaps, than when an absurdly dressed grotesque announces it, and it does not arrive neatly packaged or easily interpreted. Often it is in our own discomfort in the face of unmoving non-expression that we realize what our truths are.
And the circus. The home of cavorting animals, shocking feats of anti-gravity and twists of appendages, it is suffused with the absurd, the unbelievable, the physics-ly impossible. We sit on the bleachers under the big top and forget that what we see is not what is, and that what we think exists is only illusion. The circus is an anti-mask, offering extraordinarily fraught moments that catch our breath, and entail, as they unfold, all we need in order to react. They tell us lies, and yet….
Truth is not absent here, it is brazenly obvious.
The liminal has become infused with the real, and we expect the unexpected. Our masks have fallen through the peanut-covered bleachers to the dim spaces beneath us and they lie helter-skelter in the shadows, their hollow eyes staring at nothing as the crowd roars.
What you see IS what you get.