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19 July 2023

The self-creation myth

In the absence of God, we have crafted our selves into brands and deities.

By Rachel Cunliffe

When casting about for who to blame for the culture of meticulously curated individualism that gave us Kim Kardashian as a household name and Donald Trump as US president, Albrecht Dürer would not be most people’s top culprit. But the 16th-century German painter is where Tara Isabella Burton begins her account of Western civilisation’s 500-year experiment with shaping our own identities. Dürer’s revolutionary self-portraits do not just make him “the inventor of the selfie, the world’s first celebrity self-promoter”, Burton suggests. They pioneered a new way of thinking about the self: as something to be fashioned, celebrated, even sold. And Dürer’s success hints at the prizes on offer to those able to harness the power of self-creation.

Her subject is familiar, but Burton approaches it from a sideways angle: God. She has a DPhil in theology and her previous book, Strange Rites, was a study in the US’s shifting religious cultural landscape. In Self-Made, she argues: “Our faith in the creative and even magical power of the self-fashioning self goes hand in hand with the decline in belief in an older model of reality: a God-created and God-ordered universe in which we all have specific, pre-ordained parts to play.”

It’s a remarkable journey we humans have been on, from pawns in an omnipotent deity’s masterplan to not just authors of our own destinies, but artists and inventors so accomplished we are essentially gods. The heights of self-aggrandisement Burton encounters are dizzying. As well as Dürer, who brazenly paints himself in a pose usually reserved for Jesus, her cast includes Regency dandy Beau Brummell, who fashioned himself into a celebrity sensation; Civil War abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose faith in self-cultivation became part of America’s foundation myth; and the followers of an “Extropian dream” – a 1980s philosophy that held the revolution in technology would soon enable individuals to transcend their own humanity and create a new reality. It all puts the 2013 song “I Am a God” by Kanye West, coincidentally once married to Kim Kardashian, in perspective.

Uniting all these individuals – and other familiar characters such as Oscar Wilde, Thomas Edison, PT Barnum and Leonardo da Vinci – is a knack for self-invention that fuses the authentic and the artificial. It is not inauthentic, the wellness practice of “manifesting” contends, to craft our self-image, whether through personal branding, hard work, or filters on Instagram; on the contrary, it is the only way to be true to who we really are. “We not only can but should customise and create and curate every facet of our lives to reflect our inner truth,” this world-view insists, writes Burton. “We are all in thrall to the seductive myth that we are supposed to become our best selves.”

[See also: The invention of God]

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Burton does not condemn outright the modern urge for self-expression. Bounding from one historical anecdote to the next, she reveals the human ingenuity that is unleashed when God’s plan for us is taken out of the equation. But nor does she allow her readers to ignore the “dark underbelly” of this seemingly liberating trend: the notion that “if we do not manage to ­determine our own destiny, it means we have failed in one of the fundamental ways possible”. A society that lionises self-made men (and it is, for the most part, men) has little sympathy for those who for whatever reason do not manage to make quite as much of their lives.

What’s more, in obsessing over how to actualise our true selves into being, we may lose sight of what is real. In her final chapter, Burton explores how a belief in self-creation has spawned a global influencing industry worth $13.8bn; 86 per cent of Gen Z say they would post content online for money, while “social media star” is now the fourth most desirable career choice for teenagers. Influencer culture takes the message that one’s true self should be cultivated and promoted to its logical conclusion: if your personal brand has always had social value, as Beau Brummell demonstrated, why not capitalise on its monetary value too? 

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The danger, Burton argues, is that in shaping our new reality, we lose sight of the fact that humans are not brands, devoid of any connection to each other and to the outside world. Our authentic selves are more than simply the image we want to present to the world; we are the products too of the societies we inhabit, our backgrounds, our relationships with others. We cannot “transcend” all that any more than we can paint ourselves into gods.

Tara Isabella Burton
Hodder & Stoughton, 288pp, £22

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