Patty Wallace (b. 1957), Confessions of a Mask, 1987; oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches (Frame: 49 1/8 x 73 1/8 inches); Gift of Gary Nickard and Patty Wallace, 2000
The painting “Confessions of a Mask” was made in the 1980’s at the height of the AIDS crisis and is a response to my Brother-In-Law, the artist Christopher S. Nickard gradually dying from this terrible disease. Chris was an aesthete, as he put it “a slave to beauty.” His insistence on maintaining an aesthetic life in the relentless face of death struck me as heroic and evocative of a warrior spirit. I had just read two novels set in the Second World War that, to me, seemed to have shared concerns that somehow impinged on Christopher’s struggle.
The first was the painting’s namesake: Confessions of a Mask, Japanese author Yukio Misima's second novel. First published in 1949, it launched him to national fame though he was only in his early twenties.
The protagonist in the story is Kochan, which is the diminutive of the author's real name: Kimitake. Being raised during Japan’s era of right-wing militarism and Imperialism, he struggles from a very early age to fit into society. He is kept away from boys his own age as he is raised, and is thus not exposed to Japanese society's normative behaviors. His isolation leads to a morbid fascination with death, and the aestheticized violence of the warrior code of Bushido.
The word ‘mask’ comes from how Kochan, a homosexual develops a “closeted” identity that he uses to present himself to an intolerant exterior world and he firmly believes that everybody around him is also hiding their true feelings from each other, with everybody participating in a ‘reluctant masquerade’.
The second novel was The Thin Red Line. American author James Jones's fourth novel originally published in September 1962. It draws heavily on Jones's experiences at the Battle of Mount Austen during World War II’s Guadalcanal campaign.
The novel explores the idea that modern war is an extremely personal and lonely experience in which each soldier suffers the emotional horrors of war by himself. The novel is an example of literary naturalism because the fate of Jones's soldiers is determined by chance and by social, economic, psychological, and political forces beyond their control and, sometimes, even beyond their recognition. More importantly, they occur in a natural universe that is utterly indifferent to human concerns, for example with episodes of violent action shifting focus to a parrot on a tree branch or other such features of a landscape that is simultaneously stunningly beautiful and pitiless - a human world gone mad and vying against itself in an uncaring paradise.
The novel portrays battle realistically, including several particularly gruesome acts depicted as natural responses to the soldiers' environment, such as the disinterring of a Japanese corpse for fun, the summary execution of Japanese prisoners, and the extraction of their corpses' gold teeth.
Both novels describe the author’s emotional responses to militarism, fear, death and homosexuality. In my interpretation, both Mishima and Jones seem to view homosexuality as an entirely natural response by men who face their deaths alone, yet in the company of other men. I have sublimated all of this into a death struggle between two Stags, it is uncertain who will win the battle or if indeed both will perish. They are set against an indifferent physical universe with mathematical equations drawn from astrophysical observations of velocity, force, and collision. A universe seemingly at war with itself but indifferent to the microcosmic struggle taking place within it.
- Patty Wallace