I’ll begin with a short outline of the story. Somewhere, sometime, in some kingdom, a beautiful, mysterious woman shows up at the ballroom. She meets a man, they fall in love, an affair begins. The man turns out to be a conspirator against the king, the woman a machine created by the king to seduce and kill the conspirator. The woman-machine gradually discovers her truth and finds out about the task. On one of the trysts she transforms into a kind of mechanical praying mantis and starts to chase the lover. During the hunt she wonders about her feelings – she cannot oppose the program of killing, but at the same time she loves and wishes her well. Tracking down the prey, she gets to a monastery, where she talks to one of the monks. She confides to him and confesses her quandary. Asked what she would do upon catching the runaway she answers honestly that she does not know. In this uncertainty the monk discerns a seed of goodness and gives her directions, as it turns out that the searched man had been in the monastery but was kidnapped and is in danger. The machine chases of and soon finds the lover, who in the meantime has managed to free himself and kill the kidnapers but got lethally wounded and now lays in agony. The machine embraces him and awaits his death.
Several topics emerge from the text. The most important to me are two, maybe three. Firstly, “The Mask” is about the birth of awareness and identity. Actually, about the very becoming and becoming aware of being. The main character emerges from nonexistence, from the Biblical “darkness and cold flames”, observes the appearance of sequent elements of the field of perception, recognizes own boundaries, shape, size, gains ability to move, begins to feel, see and hear. Then recognizes own identity. Very soon there comes a forcible inflow of gender, and with it, curiously, comes language – possibility of narration. The identity here is closely connected with narration, and therefore with memory. The heroine always uses past tense, she recalls both what is happening in the action of the story, and her own past, childhood. She knows that she has existed only for a brief moment, but nevertheless she feels some deeper, earlier roots. As if she had instilled memories constituting her integrity. Without these memories she is just a pure, reacting observation; only by accessing these however unclear and rudimentary patches of the past she can build – feel the meanings. Thus, the memory is the necessary condition for identity, but the truth is not the necessary condition for memory. It seems to be one of the great topics in Lem in general. A bitter thought. Perhaps it is one of the sources of his progressing pessimism and overall skepticism towards human condition.
Another crucial subject in “The Mask” is the issue of free will. In order to fulfill her task well, the masked machine needs to establish a relationship. Build a continuity of bond with the lover. Get to him and let him get to her in return. To raise the mask a little bit. This gives birth to desires – projections into the future. And therefore, the need to exceed the previously determined program. Opening oneself to another person leads to shaking of the owns ground, brings necessity of partial self-redefinition. The further into the romance, the more the machine sees and feels it. And all the more has the need to exercise her own free will, to revolt, to oppose the patron’s – king’s design. Once the real self is revealed, the mechanical mantis loses human skin and presents her terrifying shape, the lover flees. The relationship is impossible to maintain, a full mask-off ends the lovers’ game. This game requires ambiguity. Always. But love is still there, the chase is delayed for a moment. The machine does not attack immediately, she examines herself in the mirror, delighting in her own might and lets the pray escape. It is not clearly stated that this is an indication of grace, yet the delay is significant. The hunt, when it finally begins, is also particular. It is not a purely mechanistic, soulless, optimal act. The machine sees the terrifying perfection of her movement, feels a kind of pleasure in realizing the potential of her animal-robotic shape. She sows terror and death, she is a tool of destruction, but in a way feels her exquisiteness. It reminded me of “The Bloody Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy – a horrifying, barely human figures in constant, inevitable motion in some unspecified aim. A picture of a terrific, striking, involuntary beauty. Back to Lem, all this seems to be another bitter vision of relentless necessity, despite apparent freedom of will. Machine thinks that perhaps she will be able to spare the lover, that she will overrule her maker’s decision. She believes this to the end. But she doesn’t see that actually she is just a puppet led straight to the foreseen ending. That free thinking and decisions are just pretenses. That all her moves, even if unconscious and indirect all lead to her lover’s death. Even in her confession, in “good faith” she deceives the monk and realizes her goal – obtaining desired information.
The third topic that I find interesting is the embodiment of experience. From the first phrase of the story, the sensual aspect is emphasized: the touch, sight, movement etc. Awareness changes with incarnation. As a woman, the machine is someone different than a mantis, yet with some common core. In the very potential of the body, with shape, size, possible tempo of motion and ways of accessing reality (the mantis gains new types of senses, e.g. smell: upper and lower), as well as in gender there is essence. The mask is not just exterior to the body, it is the body itself. A real symbol and tool of expression, from which there is no escape. All the feelings, thoughts and memories are corporal. Even the sense of being under control is closely connected to the reminiscence of sudden pinch – penetration of a cold, sharp shape into the body in the moment of rebellion.
Musically I have some forebodings, but very vaguely. I allow myself to think in terms of a very simple but suggestive analogy: human shape as woodwinds, strings and piano, and animal-robotic shape as brass and percussion. Such banal point of departure, if nurtured for a while may (no guarantees) bring interesting, non-obvious results. We’ll see.