People of the Twilight: The Masked World Between Being and Non-Being

They fear life.  In many ways, they hate it.  It hasn’t been kind to them.  Mother Nature may have burdened them with unattractive faces, or the luck of the draw may have given them a single parent who bothered about their childhood needs a quarter of the time—and never on weekends.  Perhaps their temperament (who knows if such things are bestowed more by nature or nurture?) has prevented a comfortable degree of socialization.  They are oddball, alone, and without a cast of supporting characters or even a stock of pleasant memories to offer them refuge.

They’re likely to thrust a tremendous investment of affection upon a dog or a cat—the childhood- or bosom-friend they never had whose big eyes can always be interpreted as limitlessly loving and whose muteness as perfect agreement.  They tend to eat too much.  Whatever care they give to personal appearance often borders on self-mutilation, either to channel the loathing they feel for an unprepossessing body or, perhaps, to ground the argument that they could make a swan of the ugly duckling if they gave a damn.

Males, more often than females, seek escape in the virtual reality of video games.  The feminine taste leans more toward romantic fantasies available ad infinitum in ebook form.  Both sexes exploit social media in search of escape or relief—the male more likely to slash and burn with a lexicon learned from public toilets, pretending to be the buccaneer iconoclast he hasn’t the intellectual depth or moral courage to play in real life; the female more often curling up warmly behind an avatar and a trove of cliches that render her easily “friendable”.

The female is much more likely to have an above-average exposure to formal education.  One may even say that she is magnetically drawn to certain of the “social studies” in college because of the patented rationalizations they offer for her misery—the absolution of any personal guilt and the accusations lavished upon others.  Graduate-degree mills in several fields are indeed nothing short of a “crutch industry”, thanks to an abundance of her kind in the post-grad population.

The male of this species that dwells in twilight, while not so successful academically (and, for that matter, distinguished by his unsuccess in all endeavors), isn’t stupid.  He has a measure of intellect that might have been tapped for more-ambitious-than-average projects if only a means of motivating him existed.  He has dedicated whatever talent he possesses, sadly, to sneering and snarling at the system that walls him in with evidence of his failure and inadequacy.  He might possibly construct a bomb some day, and it might possibly be of the small nuclear variety: he has the acumen necessary for something of the sort.  The question is… does he have the courage, the hellish courage (think of Milton’s Satan), needed actually to make other humans who’ve never done him wrong suffer far more than he ever has?  Probably not.  Mercifully, in most cases, no.

As a footnote, I should add that another kind of male exists: more sociable, much more “female”.  Oddball yet eloquent, alienated yet readily found in company, he plays at the edge of twilight and represents an unstable ally.  His companionable qualities make him risky: he may withdraw in a given crisis from endorsing outright anarchy.  While he may follow whatever crowd forms to overthrow everything, he’s also apt to follow that hard day’s work with an evening at the theater or the cabaret.  He’s not a bomb-thrower; and if you yourself are one, you shouldn’t assume that he has your back.

Whether courtesy of the Ivory Tower or simply through natural attraction, both “pure” sexes of Twilight People are idolaters of the future.  The future is not now.  In Baudelaire’s grand phrase, it’s anywhere out of this world.  The details of that better—that oh-so-very-best—future are yet to be hatched out.  Why bother?  At the moment, the present needs annihilating, for Future Perfection cannot come to dwell among us until a place for it to dwell is swept clean.  A mind even of average intelligence, to be sure, would grasp early in “the struggle” that the Golden Age isn’t going to show up during the lifetime of its footsoldiers.  The Twilight People “get” this.  They embrace it, indeed.  The indefinite delay—the perpetual postponement—is more attraction than obstacle to the true believer.  After all, the future’s real gift is its looming, its approach.  One may devote one’s life to preparing the glorious way with far more zeal than one might bring to actual day-to-day life in any well-defined utopia.

The zeal’s the thing.  Life is hateful, miserable, loathsome… but zeal for tomorrow makes today tolerable—and may tomorrow, always almost here, never complete its disillusioning arrival!

Two further characteristics will likely have struck you about the People of Twilight as I wrote the previous couple of paragraphs: 1) they have no faith in any metaphysical reality, and 2) their zeal for “unreal reality” has been nudged into the gap of that missing faith.  It couldn’t be otherwise; for, as much as they shun daylight, they also fear the night.  They hate life, but they hate death, too.  They flee life, but can’t flee it too far—not beyond its edge; for in that chasm lurks the unthinkable, infinite and permanent oblivion.  Precisely because they’ve made nothing of life, they must cling to it.  It’s all they’ve got.  Maybe it will yet yield something pleasant, something worthwhile.  Probably not.  But at least there’s that chance in a million.  Beyond the pale, in the outer darkness… no chance of anything.  Ever.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of faith is its taking the terror out of death… and perhaps an advantage very nearly as great is its bestowing purpose on life.  Imagine the misery of having neither purpose nor a means of escape from purposelessness.  A difficult spot to find oneself in.  Twilight is the only alternative: a world that isn’t here-and-now but also isn’t the hereafter: a kind of ongoing suspension, a transport in cryogenic immobility from the hated world to the same world no longer hateful.  And you get there by dreaming of a world no longer hateful… on whose behalf you ignore, or actively incinerate, all in the world around you.

I’ve come now to masks.  I might have come to firebombing and Antifa, or to broadcasting made-up dramas in full awareness of their fantasy, or to translating every single human event into the plots and assaults of racists as ingeniously as John Donne transformed a flea into sexual intercourse.  But masks will do.  In fact, they are surely the supreme trope, the most expressive creation, of the People of Twilight.  The masked face breathes, but does not partake of your filthy public air.  That face may speak to you, but “socially distanced” and muffled by a sheet.  Its features are not those of a “death mask”, for the eyes remain open; but without contributing gestures from mouth or nostrils, the intent behind the eyes remains always equivocal.  Are they warm and simpatico… or are they hot and fuming?

The new face is half in the dying daylight and half in the clammy fingers of night.  It’s neither fish nor fowl.  Hands off!  You don’t know it—you have no hermeneutic key to its thoughts.  Wherever you may suppose it to be… it’s elsewhere.  Welcome to the brotherhood of the stay-away-from-me’s.

The rationale undergirding (or hiding behind) the mask is similarly evasive.  We are told that the mask keeps deadly microbes from exiting the wearer, and also that it protects the wearer from deadly microbes.  (Yet mask-cultists never appear to register anxiety about infecting others: their concern is always for their own vulnerability.)  The mask’s weave blocks minute viral particles… but it does not compromise the wearer’s lungs by trapping larger contaminants and bacteria before the mouth for hundreds of inhalation cycles.  The mask is security against a virus traveling everywhere—everywhere—in aerosol form… yet it’s unnecessary outdoors, and its challenge is largely met by social distancing.  Your mask will protect you from me… yet I must wear one, too, because yours may not protect you.  COVID virons are so tiny that two mask-walls scarcely suffice to impede their attack… yet the visible gaps around the chin and the nose bridge are too small to open a passage.  Bare hands are constantly in contact with noxious “naked air”… yet those same hands are forever readjusting the mask, with a thumb or fingertip slipping past the gate every time.  Or if the wearer always “purels” and/or removes gloves before every adjustment… well, didn’t a bare hand grasp the second glove to come off, or didn’t a bare hand hit the pump of the Purel bottle?  And there’s always that potentially lethal three or four feet between the bottle and the face, filled by ever-untrustworthy free air.

Neither dead nor alive.  The People of Twilight are among us, and they are legion: just how many, we’ll soon find out.  But a house divided against itself cannot stand, and a people half of whom flee the daylight cannot grow and prosper.  What the deranged cultists of the fleeing half refuse to understand is that twilight, by definition, is unstable, ephemeral: a flight into night.  To reject life is to run into death’s arms.  To deny God is to affirm fearful oblivion.  There’s no third option.

FREE EBOOK: From Sunday (October 11) to Thursday (October 15), this text that I created for a college class is will be available as a Kindle download at no cost whatever. Mainstream academic publishers, of course, didn’t want to take a chance on my thesis: that medieval scribes had faintly Christianized the ancient Irish legend of Cu Chulainn’s journey to the Other World and the Welsh Owein’s transits through the same interface. They bristled even more when I added Marie de France’s Eliduc to the list, these days treated only as an indictment of toxic masculinity. Yet the redemptive allegory, at least in the last two, is unmistakable… except to the unredeemed.

Why Does Mask-Wearing Give Us a Fraudulent Sense of Fulfillment? or, How to Find Comfort in Slavery

My posts are basically of two sorts.  One endeavors to share with others my own interpretation of issues when it seems to me to consist of overlooked or underestimated insights.  The other doesn’t begin with a clear position and perhaps doesn’t find one by the end—it’s essentially an exercise in thinking out loud.

What I’m about to write concerning our cultural addiction to masks is very definitely of the latter sort.  I don’t understand the masks—the servile acceptance of them, and especially the passionate devotion to them.  I don’t understand on many levels.  Right at the surface, I am nonplussed at the resistance of some people—many, many people—to allowing the obvious empirical fact that most masks don’t work as prophylactics against tiny microbes the size of a virus.  The standard commercially available mask’s chances of blocking such a particle fall below one percent.  Not only that… but most masks are affixed with unclean fingers, a thumb often slipping on the inside (i.e., on the surface from which your nostrils will directly draw air) after the same hand has gripped doorknobs or pawed furniture.  Not only that… but few people dispose of their mask after a single use, meaning that they place before their mouth and nose an object increasingly steeped in bacteria.  Not only that… but very few masks actually achieve a snug fit around nose and jawline: to a virus-sized particle, the opening has the same ratio as a meteor crater to a mouse.  Not only that… but breathing your own carbon dioxide exhalation for extended periods of time isn’t particularly healthy.  (Cancer, for instance, prospers in oxygen-deprived cells.)

Now, I would nevertheless cheerfully wear a mask in certain settings.  If I had to stroll through Walmart on a crowded afternoon, I would welcome the opportunity to indulge my hypochondriac tendencies without appearing odd.  Some people don’t know enough to cover their face when they sneeze or cough.  A mask is appreciated in such mixed company.  Same for crowded airports.  And I fully grasp why medical personal would typically wear masks.  By definition, their job confronts them with people suffering from infections throughout the day.  A mask won’t block all airborne contagions… but it’s a good first line of defense against droplet infection, whether from a sneeze or a spurt of blood.

These are not the situations, however, which present themselves with greatest regularity in the Year of the Lunatic.  Instead, we see drivers enclosed all alone in their vehicles tightly masked up.  We see people meandering in the open air, as in a public park, masked to the hilt.  We see Major League ballplayers poised disconsolately in left field, a hundred feet from the shortstop and with no spectator anywhere in the stadium, masked like Zorro.  My brother told me (uncritically—quite approvingly, in fact) that the Fort Worth symphony orchestra will negotiate its “pandemic” season by masking even the brass and woodwind sections: the musicians in question are to remove their masks when their time comes to play a few notes, then cover up again like spacemen fleeing an alien planet’s toxic atmosphere.

You have to laugh… but you can’t.  You want to cry, or to howl… but your stupefaction freezes the sounds in your throat.  What the hell?  Why?  Why?

My wife, like a lot of people, will shrug, “They’re just crazy!” and move on.  It’s a proletarian version of Michael Savage’s decades-old thesis that “leftism is a mental disorder.”  I don’t necessarily disagree.  In fact, I’d scarcely disagree at all (though I would label the disorder more spiritual than mental).  But, you know, we’re all crazy in some way or other.  For instance, we justly criticize the Left for supposing itself capable of creating a terrestrial utopia, where all are happy and no one will ever sicken or die; yet in the next breath, we warn anyone who will listen that we need to return to constitutional government and free-market capitalism so that everyone willing to work will be fulfilled and prosperous per saecula saeculorum.  Are we crazy?  Don’t we know—haven’t we learned yet—that life on this earth always decays around the edges (if not rots from the head down)?  The superiority of freedom is not that it makes people happier, but that it renders them more capable of accomplishing the ends for which they were created.  Many people are happier being slaves.

So I guess I’m looking for something more—some specific pedigree for our collective dementia. Why do we worship the mask as a mask?  Ignoring its miserable lack of efficiency, why do we (some of us—more than a few) applaud a face wearing a mask as if it were centered under a halo?  Is there not some of that love of slavery in such perverse affection?  But what makes us love servitude?

Our masters order us to wear masks, and we comply because we’ve grown so sheep-like: yes, I’m distressed and disgusted by the prospect of my fellow citizens knuckling under to tinpot autocrats.  But is it just because we’re sheep-like by nature?  I don’t believe that.  I believe that servitude is attractive to one side of our nature… but we have a more spiritual side that usually wins the confrontation.  Why isn’t it winning now?

Something in us denizens of the twenty-first century (going back to us children of the Sixties) wants the mask—needs the mask.  What is that something?

Could it be the very failure of that capitalist system which we’re accustomed to posing as an alternative to servitude?  I mean this: perhaps, as our advancing technology has rendered us more dispensable as individuals—as our jobs have become more mechanized, more distant from our hands and our hearts—we have settled into a certain comfort with being tiny cogs in the vast machine.  Perhaps we welcome the suppression of that most immediate sign of our individuality: our face.  We construct identities (a.k.a. “avatars”) all the time on our bizarrely christened “social media” which we like infinitely more than the real thing.  Perhaps we welcome the erasure—finally—of the real thing from public view.  No more having to smile at real people greeted in real settings, no more having to bluff our way through real conversations where we feel overmatched or uninterested.  At last, at long last, we can circulate in public like a home-alone teenager who stumbles from his video games to the refrigerator for a soft drink.

And how we hate those who refuse to mask!  Stop calling us back to that loathsome alternate-reality!  Stop making us feel that we’re hiding, that we’re not good enough—that we’re cowards!  Stop standing in the way of progress!

On of the phenomena that would lead me to doubt this explanation is the degree of self-interest—indeed, of pathological selfishness—observable in many mask-idolaters.  Far from accepting absorption into the Hive, the Machine—the Borg—they appear to demand that all the rest of society run off the rails in deference to their own fear of infection.  “Why are you exposing yourself?  You might catch COVID, and then spread it to my nephew… and then I’ll contract it from him and die.  You’re threatening my life!”  I hear some version of this mad rant over and over.  (If it were logically applied to other conditions of modern life, then we would resume the ban of alcohol; for why suppose that laws against drunk driving will suffice to keep your life safe—why not, rather, prosecute everyone found in possession of an alcoholic beverage as an attempted murderer?)

Yet perhaps this objection is more paradox than contradiction.  It seems to me that those who want to secure their lives to the point of denying anyone else the right to breathe freely are afraid of life.  Their insane terror of death is really a horror at the emptiness of life.  Living has brought them no reward… so they cling to it since the possibility, the illusion, of future reward is all they have.  Their defense from the fetal position is no assertion of forceful ego: it’s the protest of an ego that has never fully formed, and likely never will.

If you had built a house with your two hands and raised your children in it, you would defend it to the death.  If you had amassed an attic-full of paintings from your own toiling hand over a period of twenty years, you would rush up the burning staircase to rescue them.  You would cheerfully die for that which has made your life worthwhile.  But the slave has found nothing to bestow such worth upon his life.  A mere salary doesn’t do it, a hefty hike in salary doesn’t do it, and a mansion bought with that hefty hike doesn’t do it.  The slave remains a stranger to himself—and he would rather not see his face, or expose it to anyone else.

To that extent, perhaps the slave isn’t happy at all.  Maybe he’s just lazy.  Maybe he was only happy in choosing not to be free because he spared himself the anxiety of having to explore how far he might scale—or fall.  There is higher happiness and lower happiness.  Maybe the mask is visible proof that we have opted for lower happiness.

Is there a way that we could stop grinding out slaves in this progressive economy that has less and less need of human beings?