Halloween in New York is a combination frat party and children’s matinee performance of The Lion King. This describes just the sidewalks and public transportation. If you happen to be a misanthrope with high-strung nerves , you will feel that the gates of Hell have indeed opened, just like they’re supposed to tonight. And you’ll find it’s best to stay indoors and soothe yourself with warm drinks and lofty scattered thoughts.
One of my Bob Dylan Holy Grails is the search for some moment, some footnote-level connection between Dylan and Diane Arbus. There’s the Hubert’s Flea Circus, but that’s circumstantial as far as I know. If you’ve seen her photo of the transvestite at the dressing table, you’ve seen the beauty parlor filled with sailors. When Bob sings “I can smile in the face of mankind,” in Most of the Time, the line is easily translated into “I can appear content and good-natured to anyone I encounter,” but try hearing the preposition in differently, try hearing it the way we would say “the children are in their costumes.” Now the singer isn’t smiling at the face of mankind, he is wearing the face of mankind in order to smile. Diane Arbus’s photos help us see the face of mankind. And one thing she saw much too clearly were masks: she saw that a mask hides what we’ve got left behind our eyes. She shows us that the awful trick a mask pulls off is not so much that it protects my invisible self, but it reveals exactly how much desolation I carry around with me. Her portraits of people in masks are cruel because the portrait so simply and so instantly tells us how much/little the mask has to hide, and we find we have no desire and no need to see these faces unmasked. When someone is masked, we see the person’s literal self. We can’t help it.
Imagine Marilyn Monroe facing a besotted crowd and saying, “I’ve got my Marilyn Monroe mask on.” Imagine Cary Grant facing his own assortment of admirers and saying, “I’ve got my Cary Grant mask on.” Blowing their covers.
Imagine they blow their covers, and the price they pay for this moment of plain fact is more illusion, more fantasy, not less. Imagine this moment of plain fact increases their audience’s enchantment. That, my friends, is a mask to be reckoned with.