• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Depiction Of The "Post" Pandemic -- Masks

March 2020

It’s far too premature, I think, to set aside the grim statistics of the daily fatality counts, to forecast the situation by which we’ll be confronted three months hence, and to busy our heads with fantastic images of how our post-pandemic world might look. One risks, in so doing, the replacement of that which is real, for that which is born of the imagination—a realm to which worst-cases are dangerously susceptible. The former is the living, breathing exigency by which the entire world, in a rare and luckless display of unanimity, has been assaulted and overcome. The latter is a whim, merely. In the absence of the sobriety with which this current crisis ought to be attended, and of which it’s not unreasonably demanding, one shouldn’t dare to supplant the destructive “here and now”, with the fictive future of which one hasn’t, if he’s to be completely earnest, even the dimmest of conceptions.

Still, that being said, one can’t help but conjure up in the swirling uncertainties of his dizzy and anxious mind the possible scenarios into which, once this virus is, if not fully annihilated, then adequately controlled, he’ll emerge. Stepping outside into this new and surely post-apocalyptic age, evading, as he does, the pestilence of which the very air itself seemed to have been an unindicted vector, he might perceive a startling phenomenon for which, in all truth, the miasmatic East is fully prepared, but to which, as it pertains to this more developed part of the globe, our slightly more hospitable and health-conscious West is wholly unaccustomed. The sight of which I speak, and that by which he may very well be confronted, is that of the surgical mask. Ominous, ugly, dehumanizing, and unprepossessing, it’s an article of clothing in which, in due time, we’re all to be draped.

Such an image, that of well-dressed Asian men and women (of Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai descent) scurrying about gilded cities as they wear carefully-donned blue and white masks, has always struck me as one that’s both disheartening and paradoxical: the very industriousness by which these people’s profit is made is the cause of their asphyxiation, and likely that of their death. In other words, that laborious endeavor by which they’ve been elevated out of their prior state of penury and want, and toward that of a healthful economic prosperity and gain, is the very same by which their atmosphere has been irredeemably polluted. It’s as if they’re living, once again, in a barbaric, volcanic age—one through whose fetid, Sulphur-laden atmosphere they’re trudging every day. Our relationship, however, being one built upon the pillars of importation and reciprocal trade, might compel us sooner than later to adopt this strange, sartorial garb of ancient survival techniques and mouth-concealing cloths.

We might yet see before us, in what’s doubtless to be the scene, millions of Americans walking around with surgical masks plastered atop their faces—behind which impatient mouths yearn not only to talk, but to be seen. At the time of this writing, the image of them doing so with the countless masks by which they’ll be accessorized feels premonitory, but with the heightened fears of more viral cases coming throughout this April month, it seems to me inevitable. From the east coast to the west, from the city to the suburb at whose periphery the rustic enclave sits in quiet repose, masks will be seen atop the majority of citizens’ lips. There we’ll see resting two sturdy straps between whose hold an impenetrable piece of fabric is suspended.

One can imagine, for example, never again laying eyes upon the ovoid beauty of the human mouth. The pursing of the lips when angered, their placidity when dormant, their timidity when scared—all of these contractions of the buccal muscles and their bones will be little more than figments of our collective mouth-less memory. For the depiction of the angularity of the cold, hard sneer, or the softness of the felicific and heart-warming grin, we’ll be made to refer not to the real-world people with whom we once so intimately connected, but to statues and paintings wrought by ancient hands. We’ll be made to look upon those visages, fundamentally lifeless though superficially real, from whose studied expression, so much is still wanting. So too will we be deprived of the beautiful asymmetry of the enchanting and congenial smile, by which, in earlier times, we were assuaged and put to ease. This is a deprivation, I don’t think, without which we can happily live.

Neither the lips, the teeth, nor the tongue will be seen but in the reservoir of a pre-Wuhan Coronavirus life’s thought. The subtle contents, the imperceptible secrets, and the grand expressions by which our philosophies are vocalized will be, for those to whom they’re directed and articulated, unnaturally concealed. Indeed, the mouth might become an orifice, once garrulously open and forgivably indiscrete, upon which we’ll never again gaze, and with which we’ll no longer interact as once we did. With its everlasting concealment, the mouth could become—much like the pelvic anatomy of the dolphin or the coccyx of our fellow man—a vestigial organ of rather academic curiosity than functional use.

Once the peculiar appurtenance of the smog-filled Orient, a region of the world as noxious as it is ambitious for material improvement and wealth, the mask will become an indecipherably Occidental trait. It will become as American as denim jeans, New Balance sneakers, and apple pie visited by lenient dollops of ice cream on top. One can imagine, three months hence, a hoard of mouthless, nearly faceless humanoids conversing behind the curtains of their “Make America Great Again” or “Biden 2020” masks. One can picture the dehumanized masses laughing at the glance of a smartphone as they recycle the intoxicating fumes of not only their own ego, but now their own breath as well. With the eager imprimatur of the political left, it will be the first, and possibly the last, acceptable appropriation of another’s culture and fashion. With the submission of the right, it will be a necessary policy for the advancement of the public’s health.

This omission of the mouth, it might be added, would be unconducive to the wisdom of left hemisphere of the brain. This is a side of that vaunted cerebrum for which—during all times of communication—the lower part of the face is held responsible for a message’s conveyance. The left side of the brain, by which—via its anfractuous influence—the right eye is controlled, focuses its attention on the movement and the dance of the lower portion of the face and, specifically, on the lips. It receives from their linguistic shuffle the blunt and hard facts of which the speaker seeks to divest himself, as opposed to the nuance and emotion to which the right hemisphere is uniquely receptive. With the application of a mask, in the course of a conversation, we might be left with an excessive reliance on the pathos of the eyes. All the better for their iridescent beauty and depth. But that to which we’ll be insensitive, and of which we’ll be hopelessly unaware, is the logos of the lips. What’s needed most is both pathos and logos, sentiment and reason, feeling and word. Without the confluence of both of these things, without the interplay of the orbital and the oral, so much of the intricacy of our communication is silently and irretrievably lost.

While it’s impossible to foretell what the coming months will bring, it’s my prediction that we’ve seen the last of our mouths. We might do well, at this time during which their obstinate rotundity persists, and their loquacity grows, and their indefatigable tendency to flap refuses to remit, to savor their every utterance and remember their changing and ever-so flexible appearance. It’s a sight, indeed, a sound, with which we won’t soon be re-acquainted.

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