9: “A Succession of Masks” (W. H. Auden)

         “Young people, who are still uncertain of their identity, often try on a succession of masks in the hope of finding the one which suits them — the one, in fact, which is not a mask.” -W. H. Auden, poet

         Are we supposed to grow out of this? Because I’m not sure I have.
         I wonder if identity is never as stable as we pretend. I am lots of things: but I can’t think of anything that I finally, completely am. A teacher? Well, sure–but sometimes I have nothing to teach. A learner? I often manage it, but sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I don’t want to try. (When the spring grass is too funny between my toes, or I’m busy going down a slide). A brother, a son? Yes: but I’m far away from my family. These are centers, but they are not static. We say the moon goes around the earth, but it goes around the sun, too, and the sun goes around someplace, too. Why do we need a central point to enjoy our running?
         Perhaps we are always a flowing and a changing: more the phenomenon of the wave in the river, stable and still in its movement, than any particular particle. We are wolves hunting in the forest, and rabbits with our ears pricked up. We are rocks in the river, quiet and sure, and the water that flows easily around them, and the trees on the shore, growing toward the sky. We are teacher and learners, fathers and sons; lost and found, helping and falling, broken and whole.
         Perhaps I don’t need to only wear one mask. Perhaps that goes for you, too: we say, “I never really knew him,” or “I know the real him now,” as though there were an answer. More often I see in you so many things: a wild, endless landscape, a world I’ll never fully see, but still can listen to. I like the idea of masquerade parties: you might be this tonight. I listen, trying to hear something of who you are in your laugh. I listen, laughing with you.

4 thoughts on “9: “A Succession of Masks” (W. H. Auden)

  1. While I was reading this, another quote touched my mind. It’s a slightly different riff on identity, putting on masks, but the one’s we project on the other. “Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”

    ― James Joyce, Ulysses


    1. Thank you, Rishi. The best quotes turn out to be friends (or haunting strangers) who walk along with you for the rest of the day, or for a lot longer than that. This one is definitely going to amble along with me for a while.


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