We should do badly, as things are ordered, if we went about the world with our natural moral faces. Even stopping short of the extravagance of betraying our most important secrets, as in a Palace of Truth, and frankly telling men and women that we think them fools or bores, it is difficult for the most honest person in society to do without something of a mask in regard to minor matters. The old quarrel between nature and art, and where the limits of each should extend, has not yet got itself arranged; and it is doubtful whether it will during the present dispensation. It may be put to rights in some future state of human development, when the spiritualists will have it all their own way and tell us exactly what we ought to do; but pending this forecast of the millennium, we are obliged to have recourse to art for the better concealment of our natural selves, and especially, for the maintenance of that queer bundle of compromises and conventions which we call society.
The oddest consequence of the artificial state in which we find ourselves obliged to live is that nature looks like affectation, and that the highest art is the most like nature of anything we know. It is in drawing-rooms as on the stage. A thoroughly inartificial actor would be a mere dummy, just as in the Greek theatre a man with his natural face would have seemed mean and insignificant to the spectators accustomed to fixed types of heroic size and set intention. But he whose acting brings the house down because of its truth to nature is he whose art has been the most profoundly studied, and with whom the concealment of art has therefore been the most perfectly attained. So in society. A man of thoroughly natural manners passes as either morose or pert according to his mood—either stupid because disinclined to exert himself, or obtrusive because in the humour to talk. He means no offence, honest body! but he makes himself disagreeable all the same. Such a man is the pest of his club, and the nuisance of every drawing-room he enters. It matters little whether he is constitutionally boorish or good-natured; he is natural; and his naturalness comes like an ugly patch of frieze on the cloth of gold with which the goddess of conventionality is draped.
Natural women too, may be found at times — women who demonstrate on small occasions, sincerely no doubt, but excessively; women who skip like young lambs when they are pleased and pout like naughty children when they are displeased; who disdain all those little arts of dress which conceal defects and heighten beauties, and who are always at war with the fashions of the day; who despise those conventional graces of manner which have come to be part of the religion of society, contradicting point-blank, softening no refusal with the expression of a regret they do not feel, yawning in the face of the bore, admiring with the naïveté of a savage whatever is new to them or pleasing. Such women are not agreeable companions, however devoid of affectation they may be, however stanch adherents to truth and things as they are, according to their boast. The woman who has not a particle of untrained spontaneity left in her and who has herself in hand on all occasions, who gives herself to her company and is always collected, graceful, and at ease, playing her part without a trip, but always playing her part and never letting herself drop into uncontrolled naturalness—this is the woman whom men agree to call, not only charming, but thoroughly natural as well.
On the other hand, the untrained woman who speaks just as she thinks, and who cares more to express her own sensations than to study those of her companions, is sneered at as silly or underbred, as the current sets; or perhaps as affected; her transparency, to which the world is not accustomed and to which it does not wish to get accustomed, puzzling the critics of their kind. Social naturalness, like perfect theatrical representation, is everywhere the result of the best art; that is, of the most careful training. It simulates self-forgetfulness by the very perfection of its self-control, while untrained nature is self-assertion at all corners, and is founded on the imperious consciousness of personality.
All of us carry our masks into society. We offer an eidolon to our fellow-creatures, showing our features but not expressing our mind; and the one whose eidolon, while betraying least of the being within, reflects most of the beings without, is the most popular and considered the most self-revealed. We may take it as a certainty that we never really know any one. We may know the broad outlines of character; and we generally believe far more than we have warranty for; but we rarely, if ever, penetrate the inner circle wherein the man's real self hides. If our friend is a person of small curiosity and large self-respect, we may trust him not to commit a base action; if he has a calm temperament, with physical strength and without imagination, he will not do a cowardly one; if he has the habit of truth, he will not tell a lie on any paltry occasion; if he is tenacious and secret, he will not betray his cause nor his friend. But we know very little more than this. Even with one's most familiar friend there is always one secret door in the casket which is never opened; and those which are thrown wide apart are not those which lead to the most cherished treasures. With the frankest or the shallowest there are depths never sounded; what shall we say, then, of those who have real profundity of character?
Who is not conscious of an ego that no man has seen? In praise or blame we feel that we are not thoroughly known. There is something infinitely pathetic in this dumb consciousness of an inner self, an unrevealed truth, which bears us up through injustice and makes us shrink from excessive praise. Our very lovers love us for the least worthy part of us, or for fancied virtues which we do not possess; and if our worst enemies knew us as we are, they would come round to the other side and shake hands over the grave of their mistaken estimate. The mask hides the reality in either case, for good or for ill; and we know that if it could be removed, we should be judged differently. For the matter of that it never can be removed. The most transparent are judged according to the temper of the spectator; and the mind sees what it brings in our judgment of our fellows as well as in other things.
But, apart from that inner nature, that hidden part which so few people even imagine exists in each other, the masks we wear in society cover histories, sufferings, feelings, which would set the world aflame if betrayed. No one who gets below the smooth crust of conventional life can be ignorant of the fierce lava flood that sometimes flows and rages underneath. In those quiet drawing-rooms where everything looks the embodiment of harmony, of tranquil understanding, and where the absence of mystery is the first thing felt, there are dramas at the very time enacting of which only the exceptionally observant catch the right cue. Ruin faces some whose ship of good fortune seems sailing steadily on a halcyon sea; a hideous secret stands like a spectre in the doorway of another. The domestic happiness which these covenant between themselves to show in the full sunshine to the world is no better than a Dead Sea apple displayed for pride, for policy, and of which those who eat alone know the extreme bitterness. The grand repute which makes men honour the name to the very echo, is a sham, and tottering to its fall. Here the confessing religionist hides by the fervour of his amens the scepticism which he dares not show by the honesty of his negation; there the respectable moralist denounces in his mask the iniquities which he practises daily when he lays it aside. To the right the masks of two loving friends greet each other with smiles and large expressions of affection, then part, to push the friendly falsehood aside, and to whisper confidentially to the crowd what scoundrelism they have mutually embraced; to the left another couple of unreasoning foes want only to see each other in unmasked simplicity to become fast allies for life. The world and all it disguises play sad mischief with human affections as well as with truth.
Everything serves for a mask. A man's public character makes one which is as impenetrable in its disguise as any. The world takes one or two salient points and subordinates every other characteristic to these. It ignores all those subtle intricacies which modify thought and action at every turn, producing apparent inconsistency—but only apparent; and it boldly blocks out a mask of one or two dominant lines as the representative of a nature protean because complex. Any quality that makes itself seen from behind this mask which popular opinion has created out of a man's public character is voted as inconsistent, or, it may be, insincere; and the richer the nature the less it is understood. So it is with us all in our degree:—a thought which might lead us to gentler judgments on each other than it is the fashion to cultivate, knowing as we do that we each wear a mask which hides our real self from the world; and that if this real self is less beautiful than our admirers say, it is infinitely less hideous than our enemies would make it to appear.