It’s harder than we think it is
Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from DaVinci to the Kardashians by Tara Isabella Burton. PublicAffairs/Hachette, 2023. 288 pp., $30.00
The son of a middle-class goldsmith, German painter Albrecht Dürer not only turned himself into a celebrity but made himself a new kind of saint. At least in Tara Isabella Burton’s book, Dürer becomes the patron saint of the self-made man.
The “fantasy of self-creation” is a feature of our modern lives. For Burton, it is among the many unintended consequences of the Renaissance and Protestantism. Cultural changes surrounding both movements seemed to dislocate God from his usual post and unsettle everything else in the Great Chain of Being—which created opportunity for some geniuses. And so Pico della Mirandola imagined God giving humans leave to take “according to your will and your inclination, whatever place, whatever form, and whatever functions you choose,” while Baldassare Castiglione showed courtiers how to choose with elegance. Some writers interpret this humanist turn as a move away from spirituality, but Burton sees it as a kind of self-divinization that “placed God within us.” Self-making could manifest one’s truest self, one’s divine aspect, to the world—a gambit nineteenth-century Americans found no less promising than their European post-Renaissance counterparts.
Burton defines two separate strains of self-making. First, a mostly European aristocratic one, where a man recognizes some sort of specialness in himself and becomes a natural aristocrat. Second, a mostly American democratic one, available to anybody through hard work—although, accounting for gender, Burton notes that until fairly recently opportunity was restricted to men only. Stylistic difference divides those who think they really are God’s gift and those who think that anyone can make it big. Burton’s pains to distinguish between these two styles seem mostly misspent, since they blur together so much in practice that Burton more than once concedes that the two “are not so different as they first appear.”
Many strange characters gambol through the pages. Instead of making the book feel scattered, however, this approach helps Burton make accessible some high-theory themes about authenticity, secularization, vulnerability, and “what it means to be human.” Beau Brummell lets us watch him get dressed, Oscar Wilde flaunts a green carnation, Gabriele D’Annunzio drives a red Fiat full of flowers into Fiume and conquers the city. The number of personalities in the book paradoxically does not make it feel too stuffed but too short.
By asserting that a lot of interesting historical figures served as antecedents to Donald Trump, the book invites readers to wonder who is missing. Napoleon gets only the briefest mention as supporting cast, and Oprah is nowhere in the index. Clara Bow is a helpful precedent for explaining how we got to the Kardashians, and Montaigne’s worries about authenticity are touchingly precocious. The chapters hop from one historical personage to the next, suggesting that one genius is precursor or inspiration to another, though the links are sometimes stretched. Frederick Douglass features as the representative democratic self but disconcertingly appears in the text before Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson, a self-maker if ever I met one, never makes it on stage. Burton leaves a lot of dots for the reader to connect, settling for a suggestive conclusion: None of us makes herself whole cloth.
Though focused on spectacular self-makers, the book’s significance is for everyone else—for those whose lives must be made to measure up to the spectacle of the spectacular. What does it say about us that we want to watch these people? The relationship between influencer and influenced is a fraught one. Burton’s geniuses initiate their projects by setting themselves apart from others. What may start in a flare of independence ends up heavily indebted to other people. Especially in centuries closer to our own, the more self-made a person purports to be, the more he or she depends on other people for attention. Some figures in the early chapters seem genuinely bent on reinventing themselves, displaying their new personas predominantly to gain legitimacy. More recent figures define themselves according to what they want others to see. Thence comes the blurring of public and private, familiar to all raised among social media—though Burton finds much earlier poseurs: “Self-invention was as much about shaping people’s perception of you as it was about changing anything about yourself.” The self-inventor needs other people to serve as audience, but remains confused about how to treat this audience. Those who set themselves apart from “the common herd” variously regard others as fans or fools, as useful idiots, as potential proteges or rivals.
Burton explains that her story shows people asking, “Who am I, really?” and along the way reveals “how one answer—in my view, the wrong one—became dominant: I am whoever I want to be.” Her critique of influencers and the capitalist “transformation of our desires into currency” is sufficiently sharp that her soft conclusion, regretting the world as a “still-imperfect place,” seems to hedge on unwarranted hope. I myself lean harder into her (right) view that the dominant answer is wrong. You are not whoever you want to be. If becoming whatever one wants to be were as easy as that, more of us would be magnanimous, or saints. That so few saints but so many oddballs appear in Burton’s chapters and populate your Instagram feed confirms that the problem is not only the execution of “what I want” but the flawed nature of this desire in the first place. What many of us want to be leaves much to be desired.
Burton is too gentle in her critique of social media and capitalism per se, blaming the conflict between our “authentic personal truth and our artificially curated image.” Capitalism could shoulder more share of blame than that—now that our friendly communications come studded with sponsored content, and personal branding obligates those engaged in any creative labor to sell not only their labor or its products but themselves.
The conceit of self-making is that we bring all our own supplies and can make of them what we choose. Almost categorically, self-creation presumes rejecting what one started with, as though resources were infinite. Often construction of one’s new self begins by tearing down whatever a would-be genius was born or built into. Though clever people sometimes make fine things, the waste entailed—of resources, of parental cultivation, of others’ needs—is astounding. Sometimes what others want of us is unsuitable. But our default assumption that we are the makers of our selves is a dangerous form of overcorrection.
Perhaps earlier periods found a better balance, as sixteenth-century upheavals knocked free enough space for Michelangelo and company. Society with no such opportunity would be stifling. A society like ours that idolizes self-creating can stifle human flourishing too. In democratic self-making, opportunity slides rapidly into a goad, putting beneath pity the person who fails to get up in the morning and (re)make herself. Not only is it exhausting to be continuously reinventing oneself for the camera, but seeing others doing it condemns fledgling selves into cycles of imitation and shame—to wit, a teen girl servicing her social media feed, stamping “likes” onto the day’s accumulation of posts with methodical grimness.
You cannot be whatever you want to be. He who lives to himself, dies. You are not (just) your own.
Agnes R. Howard teaches in Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University, and is author of Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human. She is a Contributing Editor for Current.