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Arts & Culture

For the origins of the selfie, look to the dandy.


Honoré Daumier, Dandy, oil on canvas, 1871.

When selfie was crowned the Word of 2013 by the Oxford Dictionaries, the media reaction ranged from apocalyptic to cautiously optimistic. For the Calgary Herald’s Andrew Cohen, “selfie culture” represents the “critical mass” of selfish entitlement; for Navneet Alang in the Globe and Mail, selfies are inextricable from the need for self-expression, a “reminder of what it means to be human.” For the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, the selfie is both: at once “the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism” and a function of the “timeless human need to connect.”

With a few exceptions, commentators tended to converge on one point: the selfie, and the unencumbered act of self-creation it represents, is unmistakably of our time, shorthand for a whole host of cultural tropes wedded to the era of the smartphone. As Jennifer O’Connell, writing for the Irish Times, puts it: “It’s hard to think of a more appropriate—or more depressing—symbol of the kind of society we have become. We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”

But our obsession with the power of self-creation—and its symbiotic relationship with the technology that makes it possible—is hardly new. Even the “selfie artist” is hardly a creation of 2013. Its genesis isn’t in the iPhone, but in the painted portrait: not among the Twitterati, but among the silk-waistcoated dandies of nineteenth-century Paris.

It may seem like a stretch to mention selfie artists like Kim Kardashian or James Franco in the same breath as, for example, the French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, but today’s self-creators owe more to d’Aurevilly’s view of the power of public image than you might think. For d’Aurevilly and his ilk—recently celebrated in coffee-table book I Am Dandy, which profiles “modern-day” dandies from across the globe, dandyism was about more than mere sartorial elegance. It was a way of consciously existing in the world.

And d’Aurevilly existed more consciously than most. His clothing was as legendary as his writing. He famously kept a collection of bejeweled walking sticks in his front parlor and informed journalists that his favorite was to be referred to as “ma femme.” His 1844 hagiography of Beau Brummel, a dandy of another age, doubles as a manifesto: in his eyes, the true dandy evokes surprise, emotion, and passion in others, but remains entirely insensible himself, producing an effect to which he alone remains immune. D’Aurevilly’s celebration of the dandy at times borders on idolatry: for d’Aurevilly, dandies are “those miniature Gods, who always try to create surprise by remaining impassive.”

Charles Baudelaire goes still further, treating dandyism in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” as “a kind of religion.” Like d’Aurevilly, Baudelaire sees the ultimate dandy as transcending his humanity—by choosing and creating his own identity, he remains splendidly aloof, unaffected by others or by the world at large. “It is the pleasure of causing surprise in others, and the proud satisfaction of never showing any oneself. A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer pain, but in the latter case he will keep smiling, like the Spartan under the bite of the fox.”

Baudelaire takes pains to emphasize that the popular trappings of dandyism—“clothes and material elegance”—are secondary to the philosophy underpinning them. “For the perfect dandy,” he writes, “these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” Clothing, makeup, intentionally confounding accessories—all these are useful not for themselves but for the role they play in creating a public persona.

Such a view of self-creation is at once attractive and unsettling. To be a dandy, in Baudelaire’s view, is to be utterly free: to produce only the effect one chooses, to exist in the world as a kind of eternal subject, ever operating, never operated upon. Yet such power is granted only to a privileged few. It’s predicated on the troubling notion that these masters of artifice are inherently superior to the “masses”; that this is not only inevitable but desirable. The common man, after all, cannot create his own identity—he’s too busy being subjected to the great and brutalizing forces of biology and economics. The aristocrat alone is allowed the privilege of self-fashioning. To be a dandy is to exist in opposition to “the masses,” to treat them, at best, as a kind of captive audience.

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One of the best portraits of the cult of dandyism, perched uncomfortably between satire and sincerity, can be found in the 1876 short story “Deshoulières,” by Jean Richepin. The title character, the “dandy of the unpredictable,” is brilliant and bored; he lives in terror of being pigeonholed by others. “Having dabbled in nearly everything—arts, letters, pleasures—he had forged for himself an ideal, that consisted in being unpredictable in everything.” Deshoulières lives by the maxim that “one should never look like oneself”; he applies false hair and makeup to alter his appearance and confound his peers. He has the potential to be a great artist or writer, but he cannot bear the “vulgarity” involved in committing to a single activity, and hence becoming “predictable” to the common man. Instead, he decides on a whim to be a great criminal, hoping to alleviate his ennui that way. He proceeds to dispassionately murder his mistress, have her embalmed, and live quite happily (if disturbingly) as her lover until he is finally caught, at which point, fearing that working on a defense would be far too ordinary, he spends his time in jail “classifying and codifying the mysteries of animal magnetism, and of transforming this dense philosophical treatise into a sequence of monosyllabic sonnets.” Despite this, Deshoulières is almost acquitted. Not content with that victory, however, he stands up in the courtroom and condemns the poor arguments of the prosecutor. Even his final execution, Richepin tells us, is original: he leans back so that the guillotine can slice his head rather than his neck.

Here, the dandyist obsession with the freedom to fashion one’s own identity is taken to the extreme. Every element of Deshoulières’s identity is constructed for maximum effect. He is less a human being than an artistic rendering of one: a selfie in three dimensions.

Such existence comes at a spiritual cost. Deshoulières can commit to no meaningful course of action, because to be committed is to be predictable, and hence no longer free. He is incapable of love, or of any real emotion. In this, he echoes d’Aurevilly, who included love in his list of things his ideal dandy should avoid: “For to love, even in the least lofty acceptation of the word—to desire—is always to depend, to be slave of one’s desire. The arms that clasp you the most tenderly are still a chain.”

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For all their obsession with freedom, these dandies are wedded, at least, to their environment. Dandies exist in a particular urban context—one in which a growing bourgeoisie accumulates the time to sit in cafés and watch these dandies strut by, along with the ability to afford the kind of bespoke suits and tailored waistcoats d’Aurevilly so adored. The possibility of being subsumed into an anonymous urban mass fills the dandy with terror, but that mass, with its disposable income and its penchant for reading the gossip column in newspapers, gives the dandy an audience to “effect.” An 1886 newspaper article about d’Aurevilly informs us that “his costume is his hobby and, though he would prefer that only his talent should be talked about, the masses know him rather by this and his general reputation for eccentricity than by his writings, which are only appreciated by the literati.”

The dandy may live in horror of “the masses,” seeking the original and the bespoke over the common or the factory-produced, but it’s mass production that enables him to embrace artifice over reality. Technology at once threatens the dandy with anonymity and provides him with the tools to distinguish himself from “the rest.”

In J. K. Huysmans’s 1884 novel, Against Nature—which owes a great debt to Baudelaire and d’Aurevilly—Jean des Esseintes, a dyspeptic aesthete, takes the project of self-creation to the extreme: he shuts himself up in a country estate in which everything is artificial and tailored to his liking, from the mechanical flowers to the jewel-encrusted tortoise. Artificiality, des Esseintes tells us, is the next stage of man’s development.

Nature had had her day … By the disgusting sameness of her landscapes and skies, she had once for all wearied the considerate patience of aesthetes … What a monotonous storehouse of fields and trees! What a banal agency of mountains and seas! There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create; no Fontainebleau forest, no moonlight which a scenic setting flooded with electricity cannot produce … this eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.

Like the Romantics of the early nineteenth century, des Esseintes seeks to escape the uniformity and reproducibility of the modern age, desperately craving something original. But, unlike a Keats or a Shelley, he finds respite not in the power of nature, but rather in the potential of human intelligence: he escapes the overcrowded Paris technology has built by applying technology, appropriating the “human genius” designed into a tool for the creation of his environment alone. In this, des Esseintes is not only of his time, but entirely of ours.

The selfie, no less than d’Aurevilly’s collection of bejeweled walking sticks or des Esseintes’s customized country estate, represents a thrilling possibility: that one can, with the help of technology, create his identity, triumph over nature, and “produce an effect” while remaining at a safe remove behind his computer screen. Selfies are, in a way, a more egalitarian take on the dandy’s notion of self-creation—they’ve made Baudelaire’s snobbish “aristocratic superiority of the mind” more widely accessible. And unlike Deshoulières, who defined himself solely in opposition to a nebulous “mass” worthy of neither respect nor love, today’s selfie artists are less aristocratic than democratic: the cultivated self, and the power to share that self publicly, is available to anyone with a camera and an Internet connection.

Likewise, the relationship between performer and observer, dandy and people-watcher, is no longer as one-sided as that envisioned by d’Aurevilly or Baudelaire. The possibility of a retweet, a “like,” or a reply allows for a degree of vulnerability that curtails the excessive impassivity of a Deshoulières. Our self-presentation—increasingly intersubjective—becomes more of a self-offering.

The idea of a democratized dandy might well have been d’Aurevilly’s worst nightmare. But 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.

Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared or is forthcoming at National Geographic Traveler, the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, and more. Her first novel, The Snake Eaters, was recently longlisted for the 2013 Mslexia Novel Competition. She is currently working on a doctorate in French decadence and theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford.