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Looking for the mask beneath the mask

What do men want? Pull up a chair and learn all the answers to the question Freud did not ask. Well, maybe not quite all, because, as every woman knows, men wear masks under their masks, despite the brave claim of the title of the latest collection of male self-disclosure, "Men Without Masks: Writings from the Journals of Modern Man," edited by Michael Rubin.

Is it in the nature of even the most candid autobiographer to make himself into a bit of a character -- to put the ego on view? At any rate, most of the 30 confessions in this anthology -- stretching in style and content from the tapes of Green bay Packer Jerry Kramer to the notebooks of Pope John XXIII to the diaries of Franz Kafka -- leave the impression that the reader is being given only the next-to-worst terror, only the penultimate shame.

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Except for a very few geniuses, "men without masks" probably do not write. They face themselves, or God, in silence. Beyond a certain point, there are no words.

But how these words keep coming here! Give "modern men" the blank page of a journal, and they are terrified of a blank heart to match. The pages get filled like an exam blue book -- with something, with anything, with words.

In the awful phrase of one confessor, the "I" is trying to "feel my feelings."

One is tempted to modify the original question to read: What does man want to want?

There is an awful earnest self-consciousness to "modern men" willing themselves to be honest -- to be "open."

Much manly tribute is paid to "accomplishment" and "mastery." And later comes the raised-consciousness talk -- "I'ts O.K. for men to be vulnerable," that cliche equal and opposite to "Winning is all."

How do you prefer yur mask: macho or sensitive? In most cases you still get a mask - the bared chest as a flesh-colored T-shirt.

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The frantic searching that goes on for a showdown with life! Here a modern man looks for space and ends up begging: "Fill the emptiness." There a freedom-seeker cries, "At least I am free!" -- and almost in the next breath a reader hears the mocking echo, Free for what?m

The photographer Edward Weston, searching for one more woman, makes the tormented confession of all Don Juans: "i loved others; and they all pass."

The explorer Richard Byrd goes toward the South Pole as toward the very center of solitude, only to discover an intolerable ice-in-the-heart loeliness.

Thomas Jefferson makes his pilgrimage from Columbus University to his Trappist monastery in Kentucky to Asia, where, as he stares at the gashed mountains, the answer seems to come "exploding from the rocks themselves": "There is no puzzle, no problem. . . . Everything is clear." But he cannot say how, even in a poem.

his fellow poet James Dickey seems to sum it up: "How said it all is . . . this desperate attempt to say something memorable."

What is to be said of the modern exercise of mask-stripping -- the popular obsession with diving into the self? It is often heroic, always anguished -- and it seldom really works.

"We are never at rest," one diver into the self confesses.

"Modern men" have their complexity -- there's no denying that. But it may just as difficult to deny that the great writers of the past got closer to the great concerns of life by working outward rather than so exclusively inward. They even got closer to the subject of self. Shakespeare, Dante, Sophocles -- these are the great mask-strippers.

Looking at the "modern men" about him, wrestling with their masks before their mirrors, one journal-keeper wrote what may be the final word: "They are after something else."

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