Corinna Schubert


Thinking Masks – Thinking in Masks. On the Constitution of Personality in Nietzsche's Philosophy

“One is richer than one might think, one's body bears the equipment of several persons, that, which one deems 'character', merely belongs to a 'persons', to one of our masks.”

(Estate, 1884)

“That American's-Belief of today, which increasingly intends to become Europeans'-Belief: that belief, in which the individual is convinced to be capable of nearly anything, being capable to be nearly equal to any role, where anyone dabbles with himself, improvises, dabbles anew, dabbles with desire, where all nature ceases and becomes art.”

(The Gay Science V, 356)

“Where ego seize? - Most take a matter that they know of under their protection, as if the knowledge already made it their own. Coenesthesia's desire of appropriation has no boundaries: the great men talk as if time in its totality stood behind them and as if they were the head of this long body; and the good women take credit for the beauty of their children, their dresses, their dog, their doctor, and their city, and they only do not dare to say, 'all of that is me'.”

(The Dawn, 285)

The mask has always had the cultural function to subvert and blur the boundaries of categories (above all arrays of the social or gender) and identity defining basic-distinctions (man-animal-plant; Man-woman). What is more: by vigorously demarcating these arrays and divisions as fictive and artificial categories, the mask shows, at the same time, that their legitimacy can be up for debate. Hence, masks can create as well as critically challenge identity. In doing so, they create spaces to which a reflexion of their own preliminarity and fictionality is inherent.

It is characteristic for Nietzsche's texts that they are based on an understanding of masks, which cannot be reduced to their well-known metaphoric of deception, as their etymological narrowing since the 19th century. In contrast to this, other, less conventional aspects emphasised, e.g. with regard to culture-determining, anthropological or psychological considerations. First and foremost, however, Nietzsche understands the mask in its concrete materiality, as an overall-physical phenomenon. This particular perspective could be partly rooted in Nietzsche's approach to masks, which emanated from Greek antiquity and, later, in recourse to other cultural phenomena, such as the Baroque rhetorical tradition or Renaissance's affinity to the theatre. Thus, the PhD-project intends to test Nietzsche's understanding of masks as an alternative “identity-philosophical model” and construe identity formation as an experimental space as such, in which the transition from one role to the other and, hence, the mask-practice itself is understood as constitutive for identity.

Nietzsche deals with the possibilities and limitations of subject-making in several passages. According to his 'soul-' and language-criticism, the subject-making turns into a production of a “subject-multitude” with the potential of various “personae”, masks and personalities within one human being. In addition to that, I will show that Nietzsche has not only developed a new perspective on the concept of masks and radically re-thinks it – as a philosophical littérateur Nietzsche at the same time performatively realises the concept. The variations of personal pronouns with their effect of the narrator's amplification, the usage of various figures and their part's prose or the dialogue form, which, in combination, form recurrent constituents of his texts' aesthetic communication strategies are just a few examples in case. The masks, with and within which Nietzsche thinks, guarantee the “lyrical I's” variability and dynamic, which, in parables and metaphors, smoothly transforms into things, animals or plants and also alternates between the sexes. Nietzsche, as an example, adopts aspects of the female – (mental) pregnancy and birth – when he declares “that I am basically a female elephant”. The subversive dimension of these forms of fictionalisation cannot be overlooked and puts a practice of subjectivation into focus, which alternates between demarcated narration, appropriation of identities and concrete masks. In this context, Nietzsche's texts are seminal for philosophical writing. Their unconventional and undogmatic procedure characterise Nietzsche's philosophy as intentionally and calculatedly composed along the possibilities of written language. His language-criticism is a prime example of his awareness concerning this matter.

First and foremost, thus, a description of the mask-problem's scopes in Nietzsche's writings has to be undertaken. The various facets will be carved out and put into a relationship to each other. The focus will be on those passages, which concretely fathom the scopes of an imagination of identities, the practices of the appropriation of “personae”, the change of masks etc.

Nietzsche oftentimes borrowed his terminology purposefully from the theatrical context (mask, role, acting, transformation, multeity etc.), but predominantly employed it for non-theatrical realms. Although all of this is well known, a systematic academic investigation into Nietzsche's conception of the mask and other, related contexts has not been undertaken yet. As far as I see it, the hitherto undertaken work on the mask-problem is marked by biographically oriented approaches and, thus, prone to either degradation (Fuerstenthal) or elevation (Bertram, Weihe) of Nietzsche's reputed game of hide-and-seek. The relationship between mask and pudency has been comparatively well investigated (Fuerstenthal, Vattimo, Vivarelli, Weihe) – however, these investigations have always been undertaken under the premises of mask-metaphor and deception. Hence, a critical re-examination of the mask-problem is a promising endeavour. Those parts of Nietzsche's work, where the relevant terms can be found, will be analysed regarding the horizons of meaning in which the problem is situated and regarding the context in which the respective passage deals with it. Three different subject areas can be reconstructed, which Nietzsche runs through in manifold variations and which, at the same time, indicate authoritative moments of his way of philosophising. In a rough sketch, these are:

  1. Psychological observations
    • the mask as a means of protection in human interaction
    • self-deception as self-protection
    • the mask as an instrument of rehearsing roles, potential of becoming different
  2. acting as a culture-generating or culture-determining factor
  3. an alternative identity-philosophical model (life in “changing masks”)
  4. masks as an epistemological practice: taking different perspectives qua perspectivism
  5. masks and style: inscriptions of the problem into the text (e.g. role-figures, interlocutor's voices, role-prose)

Nietzsche's examination of the mask-problem already begins with his lectures and miniatures from 1870-1873, in which he dealt with Greek tragedy, mythology and culture as whole. Therefore, the real masks of tragedies chorus's constituted a concrete, material starting point, which, as my thesis goes, characterised Nietzsche's reflections in a significant way. The interplay between concepts of multeity and unity is emblematised in the “dionysian”. To Nietzsche, the masked-chorus's unisonous chant is a “colossal augmentation” of the hero's sensations: A multeity of persons morph into an individual's “trumpet of sound”. And Dionysos, the God of Masks, “appears in a multeity of figures”, since “all the famous figures of the Greek stage, Prometheus, Oedipus etc. are just masks of this primordial hero”. Here, a potential is ascribed to masks; a potential to mediate between positions that, at first glance, seem to exlcude each other.

The forms of traces, the mask-problem left in Nietzsche's texts, remains to be investigated. A glimpse at his texts shows that it is a constant in all of his phases. The issue of theatre masks is, of course, very present in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). In Human, All Too Human (1878-1880), the mask is connected with character traits and one can find, for example, vanity, politeness, 'greatness' and 'mediocrity' described as masks. Surprisingly, in The Dawn (1881) and The Gay Science (1882), masks and acting serve as backgrounds for his thoughts about cultural comparisons: the Greek tragedy is not the sole focus anymore, but the constitutions of different cultures, religions and social systems are investigated and compared with reference to life in antiquity. Here, democracies are considered as eras, in which acting skills are fostered; eras, in which there are no fixed role perceptions. It is this very mode of contrasting cultures, which allows for a characterisation of one's own culture. The most prominent passage referring to the mask's self-protective function (“Anything, which is deep, loves the mask.”), can be found in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). Furthermore, by means of a (language-)criticism of notions of the soul, the subject and the ego, which suggest an illusionary unit, he proposes a new perspective on the individual in its “subject-multeity”. The drafted structure of Ecce Homo (1888) also envisaged the subtitle “Notes of a Multeity” and arranged the book in chapters, in which, originally, the psychologist, the philosopher, the poet, the musician, even the educator, were supposed to speak. In his essay from 2005, Christian Benne describes this aspect of multeity and 'masks', in which Nietzsche stages himself as authors of Ecce Homo.

This last example provides access to the project's second main pillar: the enormous importance of literary composition for Nietzsche's texts and, thus, their inseparability from philosophical content. In 2001, Claus Zittel has remarked upon this “aesthetic calculatio” of Nietzsche's philosophy in general and has analysed this using the example of Zarathustra. Within the model of changing masks, the inseparable merging of both levels clearly emerges and it is here, as my thesis goes,  where the consequences of Nietzsche's anti-metaphysic philosophical project become experienceable: language criticism, criticism of substance and subject, and the genealogical perspectivism, formally and, at the same time, with regard to content become plausible as a philosophy of the mask. Due to the potential of a change of masks and demarcated fictionality, a philosophy of the mask unswervingly breaks with established structures and dynamises likewise the space of (not only) philosophical texts as well as the space of imaginations about human, soul and subject.

Thus, it requires an investigation of those stylistic devices through which the mask-problem directly inscribes itself in the text and which suggest a connection with rhetorical procedure. I would like to hint at two examples: the recurrent variation of personal pronouns turns Nietzsche's works into 'many-voiced' texts and, hence, circumvent the dogmatism of a singular perspective. Admittedly, this also subverts the potential to accurately link statements to the author's 'opinion' and some sort of 'interactive' text-field emerges, which forces the reader to position himself through provocations, allusions, refusal of conclusions via ellipses etc. In addition to that, these 'voices' often correspond to certain figures in the texts (role-figures). Notable examples are the Good European, the Free Spirits, the Antichrist, the Wanderer. Each of these figures corresponds with a differently shaped perspective on which they are based. The oftentimes described multiperspectiveness of Nietzsche's texts roots in his choice, to allow each of these figures to 'raise their voice'. This rhetorical punch of an extraordinarily wide-ranging 'personnel' has been researched rather scarcely. With the help of these types, one could investigate the differently shaped subject-forms. Ultimately, the reader would become involved in the 'role-play of perspectives' and would have to check his subjective makeup.

Furthermore, further elements of the literary form of Nietzsche's texts would have to be investigated from this angle, e.g. the usage of dialogue or the rhetoric 'pocketing' of the reader (“us, the free spirits”) up to the extension of the ego-concept in Ecce Homo (e.g. “I am dynamite”).

The consideration behind all that is, ultimately, the question if the draft of a new idea of man, which  Nietzsch construed after “God's death” and the loss of man's epistemic, cosmic exceptional position induced inter alia by Darwin, is based on the issue of and thinking in masks. The constantly variable play with maskings and identities, which stylistically develops in Nietzsche's texts, would thus become the performatively tested model of the new 'dividual', which is not construed as an inseparable 'individual', but drafted as a 'subject-multeity'.

At this point, I intend to apply further ethical considerations, through which I intend to test the mask-problem's actuality: How could, following Nietzsche, the subject constitute itself in its (mask- and gender-)multeity? How could the “Mask-Space” be used as a scope to subvert, for example, normed role-concepts? How could, ultimately, one cope and re-produce the fragility of identity and self-concept, on which the problem is based?

The methodological and contentual thoughts clearly show that an answer to the problems developed can only be found by merging perspectives from different epistemic regions. The project requires a combination of Philosophy, Theatre-Studies, Philology, Literary- and Cultural-Studies.

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(Changed: 19 Dec 2022)