The Need for Masks

The Need for Masks

The Fall of the Public Man, by Richard Sennett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 373 pp.

Some years ago in a much discussed book, The Politics of Authenticity, Marshall Berman argued for a politics of radical individualism, advocating the liberation of the person from the prison of convention and traditional restraint. The present volume, although it does not even mention Berman, may still be read as a response to his antinomian contentions. To Sennett, the private man whom Berman wishes to celebrate is in fact the isolated, the nonpolitical man. The cult of privacy and the quest for authenticity in the modern world, Sennett argues, have been accompanied by a decay of the public sphere and the atrophy of public capacities and powers.

Until the end of the 18th century, Sennett claims, public life was sustained and vigorous, especially in the cities. Men and women were able to transcend the limitations and constraints of private and family life. In the world of strangers in city squares or in the theater, people overcame their “natural” limitations to become truly cultivated human beings. By enacting public roles and wearing 313 civilized masks, people fashioned that “artificial” world of stylized intercourse that marks advanced stages of cultural refinement. At present, however, according to Sennett, people are deprived of the sustenance of public intercourse, they experience strangers as threatening, and hence withdraw into a private shell of domestic intimacy and narcissistic self-absorption that makes them incapable of sustained public activities.


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