What does pornography have in common with a carnival mask?
Last time I was talking about imagination and fantasy — how imagination enables us to see beyond what is present to our physical senses, enabling us to be creative beings… co-creators with God — and how this can also be misdirected, enabling us to live in a fantasy which has an ever-diminishing connection with Reality… eventually separating us from God.
So imagination can be an organ of seeing; it can present images that are true — images that, like icons, participate in ultimate truth. Our vision, like the language we use to describe it, is tied to our physical senses. CS Lewis, in one of his essays, talks about people who object to religious language we use such as when we say he “came down from Heaven” as if Heaven is “up there”. But it is a clear image (in our imagination, we see it) and it communicates something that is true. But those who object to this language might prefer to say something they think of as less metaphorical… something like ‘God “entered” space-time’. But, CS Lewis points out, those words only substitute a different movement — “entering” — and a different place — called “space-time” — for the original “coming down” in a vertical movement from a Heaven which is “up there”. Because we are bound to our physical senses and language about them, in this world we cannot “see face to face” but must see “through a glass darkly”. But the language we use, and the images we use, can illuminate reality. This is the effect of a veil: by covering, it reveals.
Recall what St Paul says of God: “His invisible things are clearly seen. They are perceived through created things, even his everlasting power and divinity.”
Again… this is why the icon is the “safeguard of the Orthodox faith”: it is an image which participates in what it portrays. It is not the fullness of reality itself, but it connects us to that fullness by participating in what it portrays. It expresses to us what we can otherwise not see even though it is really there. In this sense it is a veil.
Think of an invisible man… You can’t see him, obviously; he’s invisible. But throw a sheet over him, and you can begin to see him. Otherwise you see nothing. Now you can see something, and what you can see truly helps you to understand what’s there even though you do not see the fullness. It allows you to imagine what is really there.
And this is also how an icon painter works, creating consecutive layers of colour on an empty board. Each layer functions as a veil, which, when superimposed over the previous one, partly conceals it, but in doing so, begins to reveal the finished icon. This is how Creation both clothes and yet manifests its Creator.
So there are veils, which cover and yet reveal what they cover.
But there are also masks. They also cover, but rather than revealing, they can mislead, misdirect… they can present something that is opposed to the reality behind the mask rather than in accord with it.
This is the same contrast I was making last time, talking about imagination and fantasy. The imaginative, creative power of the image or icon to reveal is that of a veil; the power of fantasy to obscure reality and move us into an unreal world is that of a mask.
Going back to the picture of the invisible man — instead of throwing the sheet over him to reveal him, we could put a mask on him. It still reveals something… we can see where he is now, but what we see tells us nothing about him. If we throw the sheet over him first, and then put the mask on top, we are actually covering up now our chance to make him out… making it harder for us to imagine the truth of the person under the veil. The man behind the mask is completely unknown and we have no way of knowing whether the mask relates to him at all.
This is another way of describing what I have been calling the iconographic as opposed to the pornographic way of viewing the world — Creation. The veil is a true image — an iconographos — as it illuminates what is underneath even while covering it. The mask is a false image, obscene if it is claiming to be true — a pornographos — as it hides what is underneath, lying to us about Reality.
St John Climacus tells us that “a lie is the destruction of love”, and St Nikolai Velimirovich says that “love is the manner of comprehension”. The veil reveals because it allows love to flow and relationship to begin; the mask obscures, lying about Reality and making true love and true knowledge impossible.
So in a true relationship, a relationship where there can be true intimacy, we look upon the veils that reveal the truth of who is underneath. We know that the person we look upon — every person — is in the image of God, an icon of Christ. We are enabled to love the reality of that person even in the face of his or her fallenness because even that fallenness is a veil over the ultimate truth of the perfect human being he or she was created to be.
But if instead of veils, there are masks… and an extreme example of this is precisely in pornography… then no relationship is possible: everything that is done there becomes a mockery of real relationship, a mockery of true intimacy. And while true intimacy grows and develops the person through a deep connection to the rest of Creation through another; the mockery of intimacy in pornography shrinks and deforms the person through not only cutting him or her off from the rest of Creation but by presenting a false and misleading impression of what that connection might be. It is a carnival mask… full of a passion for life and connection, but in fact, cold, hard and unreal.
And it is not only the person performing in a pornographic video that is wearing the mask (the mask designed to attract and pull me into this mockery of relationship); the person using pornography is wearing his or her own mask too. The mask protects me from Reality… it is there to protect me from hurt; to protect me from having to do the work of relationship; it means I do not have to reveal myself to see another; I do not have to give of myself to receive another.
And so again, pornography is only an extreme example of a problem in which we all share to some extent or other. In this fallen world, we are all pornographers, drawing our obscene masks over the God-given veils that are supposed to reveal who we are. I don my mask — I know how I want to be seen by others. And I know how I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want them to see much of what is inside me… the temptations, the sins, the hurts, the fears, so I cover them up with a mask — not revealing who I am, but putting on a false image, an anti-icon, a pornographos — to protect myself, to make myself feel better about myself.
I’m not saying that we should let all this stuff ooze out of us in every relationship and every encounter with another person. No, we have a veil which does cover up some of this stuff… but it covers it up not by hiding it, but by revealing what lies beyond. Seeing the veil, I know that this fallen world is but a shadow of a more glorious ultimate Reality. I know that I am not defined by my sins, my temptations, my hurts, and my past. I know that what lies ahead is a union with the one perfect human being… a union so complete and a light so bright, that when it shines on all of this stuff, even it will be seen now to be glorious, just as the wounds on his hands and feet are glorious.
The mask doesn’t do this. The mask loses me and those who relate to me in endless winding passageways that lead nowhere. It is fixed in a fantasy world that does not exist, can never exist, and can have no fulfillment. The mask is my attempt to save and build my own life, and yet when I put it on, my life is lost. In the end of all things, there will be nothing left behind the mask because the person hiding there in isolation will have shrivelled up into nothing.
Without God, that nothing is just nothing. And yet with God, out of nothing comes everything. He creates ex nihilo. In a sense, we can say that he imagines everything into being… Just like the icon painter, he puts the veils over nothing, and we come into being… individual, real persons in the image of God, each of us a veil over the face of God; each of us an icon of ultimate Reality. Our role, like that of the icon, then, is to participate in what we symbolize: to live in the life of God, making it manifest in the world, and seeing it reflected back in the light of the other icons of Christ, the people around us.