The word “person” captures a concept so fundamental to Westerners that it can be jarring to discover that it once had a different meaning. Etymologically, “person” comes from the Latin word persona, which means “mask.” To be a person is to wear a mask, act out a role—what people today might call being fake.
But to Camille Paglia, the dissident social critic, a mask does not conceal a person’s true nature; it helps reveal it. This is why Halloween was her favorite holiday as a child. It was “a fantastic opportunity,” she told an interviewer recently, “to enact one’s repressed and forbidden self—which in my case was male.” When she was five, she dressed up as Robin Hood; at seven, she was a Roman soldier; at eight, Napoleon; at nine, Hamlet. “These masks,” Paglia told me in Philadelphia recently, “are parts of myself.”
Paglia, 72, grew up in the 1950s, when girls played house, not Hamlet. It was an unforgiving time to be different. As a fifth-grader, Paglia shoved a boy in order to be first in line; her teacher made her look up “aggressive” in the dictionary after school, an exercise that left her in tears. But at Halloween, she could defy conventions. Eventually, she would explain not only her personality but also the development of Western civilization through sexual masks. “I show how much of Western life, art, and thought,” she writes in Sexual Personae, her 735-page history of Western culture, “is ruled by personality, which the book traces through recurrent types of personae (‘masks’).”