Masks and so on

So, I mentioned some time ago that I went to the Comics Unmasked exhibit at the British Library, but I don’t know if I mentioned that there were mannequins in Guy Fawkes masks everywhere. That’s appropriate, because the modern use of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of, er, anonymous resistance to authority is taken from V for Vendetta more than anything else.


It’s interesting to me, because of course in the Guy Fawkes celebration, Guy Fawkes is the, er, bad guy. The whole holiday is about burning him in effigy because we don’t approve of the whole idea of blowing up Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot was about replacing the head of state with a different head of state; insofar as there was going to be any change in the type of government, I don’t think we can imagine a Catholic monarchy being more representative.

So the symbol has mutated, first from the target of patriotic anti-Catholicism into a symbol of sort of, I dunno, fiery seasonal levity to a symbol of resistance to authority. The mask is the important thing, and the person whose face it represents has faded away almost completely.

Now, if I were a less self-critical type, I would just think (as indeed I used to) that this indicated that the people wearing the masks were historically ignorant, and I would either condemn them as dumbshits or shake my head about what they teach them in these schools these days. But this is just one of those things — Guy Fawkes’ day ceased to be about Guy Fawkes per se a long time ago.

This particular case interests me because there are quite a lot of holidays where people think that the holiday has drifted from its original meaning — this thing was originally a pagan fertility festival, for instance, or that thing has lost its true Christian purpose. In most cases, you can’t apply the “that’s just how things work” argument because the premise isn’t actually true. You can see that most obviously with commonly-repeated “facts” about Easter or Halloween. But in this case we do know what the holiday was originally all about, because it’s a comparatively recent one. So we can see how it and its meaning evolved over the centuries.

Or we could if we were modern historians. I don’t know anything about that stuff.

Masks and so on

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