Ask many critics, and they will tell you that the selfie is, perhaps, the greatest scourge of narcissism to have ever infected the minds of youth. According to the Calgary Herald’s Andrew Cohen, “selfie culture” represents the “critical mass” of selfish entitlement. But are today’s selfie artists really the solipsistic monsters that they are made out to be? As Tara Isabella Burton over at The Paris Review points out, if the simple act of holding up a camera at arm’s length and taking a picture of yourself is enough to make today’s self-appointed guardians against moral turpitude get all hot under the collar, the dandies of the 19th century would have had their eyeballs boiling in their sockets.
Although we still use the term today to refer to any man who puts particular care in his carriage and appearance, the original French dandies of the 18th and 19th centuries were almost beyond parody. The cultural by-product of a time in French history when the torch of the aristocracy was being passed to the bourgeoisie, dandies existed in a sort of horror of being mistaken as common. As such, they began setting themselves apart through their bearing and clothing. They carried jeweled walking sticks, wore tailored waistcoats and bespoke suits. These devices of personal artifice had a great effect on society at the time: dandies were regularly written about in newspaper gossip columns and whispered about by people watchers as they walked through the square.
Dandies aimed to fascinate. Through their conspicuously constructed self-identifying were dandies known. But that’s not to say they were well loved.
Like those who take selfies today, dandies were not particularly esteemed by commenters of the time. An 1876 short story called “Deshoulières,” by Jean Richepin, features an eponymous dandy who so cannot bear the “vulgarity” of being mistaken for a commoner that he graduates from exotic clothing to the murder of his mistress. He then embalms her and begins a necrophiliac’s affair with her; when caught, instead of a defense, he delivers a “sequence of monosyllabic sonnets” and is eventually condemned to the guillotine, which he faces Adam’s Apple up, so as not to be mistaken for just any criminal. It’s hard to imagine even the most creative selfie hater arguing that an Instagram picture would lead down that road.
Yet despite all of this, Burton sees much in common between the 19th century’s dandies and takers of selfies today. She describes Deshoulières as an individual who has constructed every element of his identity for maximum effect. He is, Burton writes, “a selfie in three dimensions.”
Every era gets the dandy it deserves. If Deshoulières is the dandy of 1876, then Kim Kardashian–surgically altered beyond Deshoulières’s most dizzying fantasies, taking a selfie, running it through various filters, posting it on Instagram, and receiving three thousand meticulously composed selfies in reply–is the dandy of 2014. In the hands of the many, the act of self-creation becomes not a narcissistic act of superiority but a human expression of all we have in common. We all have the capacity to tell our own life stories, and we all fear that these stories will end up lost in the crowd.
If carrying a jeweled walking stick in the 19th century was a way, in Charles Baudelaire’s words, of “consciously existing in the world,” so is taking a selfie in the 21st. Both are motivated by the same human instinct to construct our identities and set ourselves apart through social media, whether that social media is made up of a newspaper gossip column in 1876 or an Instagram feed in 2014. Even narcissism has cultural value.
Read Tara Isabella Burton full article on selfies and dandyism here.