Pluralism and the Primary Mask

25 November 2011


One theme to which Joseph Campbell recurs at several places in his recorded lectures is the idea of a “primary mask” — an idea which he attributes to W. B. Yeats. Here’s a short exposition of the primary mask from an interview with Campbell:

“Yeats, in A Vision, speaks of the two masks that life wears. The first is the primary mask that society has put upon you — the technique of life. But in adolescence the individual has a sense of the potentiality within himself that has to throw off that mask and find what Yeats calls ‘the antithetical mask’ — the mask contrary to that of society. And then comes that struggle so characteristic of youth in our society. In the traditional society, you are not allowed to follow the antithetical; the primary is there like a cookie-mold on you. But here comes this struggle. Now, if the family or society opposes that, it becomes rather fierce. But with a gradual yielding and attention, the young person can learn his own possibilities and what they can do for him. This is the proper way.”

An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms, p. 74

We are fortunate to have Joseph Campbell’s commentary on this idea of Yeats’, as Campbell spent a lot of time reading “difficult” twentieth century authors like Yeats and Joyce. Moreover, Yeat’s A Vision is a notoriously difficult text. Here is what Yeats himself wrote about the “primary mask”:

For Primary Man one must go to the Decline of the Commedia del Arte for an example. The Will is weak and cannot create a role, and so, if it transform itself, does so after an accepted pattern, some traditional clown or pantaloon. It has perhaps no object but to move the crowd, and if it “gags” it is that there may be plenty of topical allusions. In the primary phases Man must cease to desire Mask and Image by ceasing from self-expression, and substitute a motive of service for that of self-expression. Instead of the created Mask he has an imitative Mask; and when he recognises this, his Mask may become an image of mankind. The author of “The Imitation of Christ” was certainly a man of a late primary phase. It is said that the antithetical Mask is free, and the primary Mask enforced; and the free Mask is personality, a union of qualities, while the enforced mask is character, a union of quantities, and of their limitations — that is to say, of those limitations which give strength precisely because they are enforced. Personality, no matter how habitual, is a constantly renewed choice, and varies from an individual charm, in the more antithetical phases, to a hard objective dramatisation, which differs from character mainly because it is a dramatisation, in phases where the antithetical Tincture holds its predominance with difficulty.

W. B. Yeats, A Vision, pp. 18-19

I don’t know about you, but I find this nearly impenetrable, and I have a pretty good record of making sense of difficult texts. So the idea may come from Yeats, one way or another, but I am going to discuss Campbell’s version of it.

I can’t recall which lecture it’s in (I didn’t have the time to re-listen to all of them prior to writing this post, though it would be a pleasure to do so) but I recall that Campbell connects the idea of the primary mask with several quite gruesome rituals documented by anthropologists — rituals of initiation from societies that we would have formerly called “primitive” but that word is no longer considered acceptable. And rightly so. Those peoples once called primitive are in fact more in touch with their long prehistoric past, by way of continuity of tradition, than peoples who experienced the socio-cultural processes of agriculturalism and industrialism.

In any case, Campbell cited some truly horrific rituals associated with initiating young people into nomadic and pastoralist societies and credited these as instances of imprinting a primary mask that the individual then takes with him or her through life, and which is the proper or correct mask for an individual to wear in that society.

Well, we aren’t entirely past brutal rituals of the kind that forced our ancestors to wear the primary mask of their tribe. While this sort of thing has deep roots in human prehistory, traditions of initiation have altered over time but rarely have they disappeared. And often they retain their brutality, as in this passage of Enlightenment era advice on child rearing:

“This, therefore, I cannot but earnestly repeat, — break their wills betimes; begin this great work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, or perhaps speak at all. Whatever pains it cost, conquer their stubbornness: break the will, if you would not damn the child. I conjure you not to neglect, not to delay this! Therefore, (1.) Let a child, from a year old, be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly. In order to this, (2.) Let him have nothing he cries for; absolutely nothing, great or small; else you undo your own work. (3.) At all events, from that age, make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it. Let none persuade you it is cruelty to do this; it is cruelty not to do it. Break his will now, and his soul will live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity.”

John Wesley (1703-1791), On Obedience to Parents, Sermon 96

While advice of this nature is not likely to be found in contemporary parenting manuals, from this vigorous expression of the doctrine of corporal punishment we can see that the tradition of imprinting a primal mask survived well into modern times. And not only into modern times, but all the way into the latter half of the twentieth century, and probably to the present day.

This reminds me of a striking example of the importance placed upon the primary mask that comes from a controversy that erupted at Wheaton College in 1961. This is from Episode 7 of the 7 part documentary Evolution, titled “What about God?” Here is how the documentary sets up the quote:

“In 1961, at a Wheaton symposium on Christianity and human origins Walter Hearn told the crowd that the same chemical processes that bring each of us into existence today could have produced Adam and Eve. When the news got out, Wheaton found itself under attack.”

And here is a quote from a letter written by a mother about her daughter who was at that time attending Wheaton:

“Twice I have heard that the college is growing liberal; that they teach evolution at Wheaton. What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible? If her faith should be shattered or even shaken, I’d rather see her dead.”

Clearly, these are the words of someone who is deeply committed to the primary mask even above and before the lives of those closest to her. If a member of your family cannot wear the primary mask, or perhaps even wears it askew, then it is better that they are dead, because the primary mask gives them the only identity that is worth having.

This is, admittedly, strong stuff. And to anyone who has spent some time reading twentieth century philosophy it is all very familiar in so far as it represents spectacular instances of inauthenticity. The very idea that there should be any value in the life of the individual that springs from their peculiar individuality is foreign to these strongly-worded assertions of the primacy of the primary mask.

It is not only an existentialist who would notice this sort of thing. A Freudian would immediately notice that these strong proscriptions upon any deviance from the primary mask are only present (like the incest taboo) because there is a strong tendency to deviate. If the individual did not feel a strong desire to assume the antithetical mask, as Campbell describes, there would be no need for the dire expressions of calamity in the event of a failure of the primary mask.

The peculiar qualities of twentieth century modernity, especially as represented by the above-cited examples of existentialism and psychotherapy, precipitated a decisive change in the nature of the societies of advanced, industrialized nation-states. There is, perhaps more than at any time in history, tolerance for the social display of antithetical masks.

However, despite the gains that have been made for individualism during the twentieth century, I think that the primary mask still dominates our thinking and our interaction when it comes to inter-communal relationships. The “safety” that societies once relied upon from harsh imposition of the primary mask has now been passed along so that within a community there is some tolerance for the antithetical mask, but in the relations between communities we have not come so far. The primary mask retains its potency in a milieu in which the safety and security of non-pluralistic society (call it the primary society, if you will) cannot rely upon a single set of socio-cultural practices for normative consensus.

The primary mask was primarily worn in societies in which there was little if any interaction with other communities, each possessing their own primary mask. In the modern industrialized cities, peoples from all over the world mix together, usually peacefully, sometimes violently. The attempt to understand the nature of normative consensus in such a milieu has exercised social scientists since this new reality of industrialized urbanism emerged.

The de facto normative consensus that has emerged has been that of the tolerance of the primary mask. The “celebration” model of diversity is built upon this, as is the notion of pluralism that is most prevalent in the US, which is arguably home to the most racially and ethnically distinct urban centers in the world. (Note that I say “arguably” — there probably are good counter-examples that I can’t think of as I am writing this.)

We already find this attitude to pluralism and diversity expressed in Voltaire, when described with admiration the urban milieu of eighteenth century London:

“Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”

This was a very advanced sentiment in its time, but, as we see from the quote above from the very Reverend John Wesley, it coexisted with less advanced sentiment.

Now, I don’t for a minute believe that individuals actually live exclusively according their primary mask in an urban milieu. The primary mask is a caricature, and as we have learned to cast it aside and live with ourselves and individuals as individuals, people readily do so. Especially in an urban context, people led (by their individuality) to pursue a particular interest, usually find themselves is quite eclectic company, discovering that they have something in common with others they would never have met in another social context — others whose primary mask would be incomprehensible and fundamentally alien.

But public discourse and formal institutions remain wedded to the primary mask. The weakness of the contemporary idea of pluralism and diveristy (which I had previously attempted to analyze in Diversity and Pluralism) is its commitment to the primary mask over and above the individuals.

It has become a commonplace in contemporary social commentary (especially among those who self-identify as “communitarians”) that individualism has run amok and “gone too far,” and that what we really need to do is to reign in individualism for the sake of the community. This is not only wrong, it is viciously wrong. This is the voice the primary mask speaking. The primary mask does not tolerate deviance.

I am reminded here of the opening passage of Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

I similarly feel that, when men are prepared for it, they will have a society that accepts individuals as they are, and feels no need to impress upon them a primary mask.

Someday, when we have really matured as a species, we will have a society of individuals, for it is only when the individual fully comes into his own that a society can emerge that is truly voluntary and without coercion. This is my utopia. Individualism is not only good for the individual, individualism is also good for society. Any society built by individuals who have been compromised by their need to conform will be as compromised as the individuals who build that society. The strongest society is built by the strongest individuals, who choose to come together, not under duress, but of their own free choice.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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