The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.
Each of us, explains Storr, has an internal ‘storyteller’. This is a narrative voice that turns the daily barrage of experience into a comprehensible arc of actions and reactions, positioning us as the hero of the story. The trouble is, this voice is a dangerous liar. It tells us that we are good and rational and that other people are venal and flawed. And in a world that defines a good person as high-achieving, high-status, slim and attractive, sometimes the strain of maintaining the story is too much.
The starting point of Storr’s book is an effort to understand why people become suicidal. It’s a hugely important subject, and a compelling one too, but Storr is (of course) a storyteller himself, and the way he tells the story of suicide raises the alarm. In the first few pages he enumerates, with great specificity, the ways in which various people have killed themselves. This is a reckless way to address suicide. In fact, it’s explicitly advised against by the Samaritans, since detailed descriptions of suicide methods are known to be a trigger for imitations.
It’s an especially disturbing lapse because one of Storr’s major concerns here is the transmissibility of attitudes and behaviours – or, in other words, culture. He constructs a history of the self from the ancient world to the present day, arguing that the idea of ‘self’ we carry has been formed by critical intellectual developments: Aristotelianism, Christianity, the self-help ethos of the Victorian age, Freudianism and, finally, the American West Coast self-esteem doctrine that has emerged in the age of mass connectivity and neoliberalism (Storr gets points here for using the word ‘neoliberalism’ to refer specifically to free-trade policies allied to individualism, rather than simply as a vague bogey word, and for acknowledging that it has brought prosperity as well as the crash of 2008).
The nearer we come to the present, the more finely Storr discriminates between movements. This leads to some odd distortions. Plato is only briefly mentioned, although the idea of essences is far more strongly associated with his work than with Aristotle’s. Christianity is treated as a singular entity, with no consideration for the way the Reformation and Protestantism profoundly altered the standing of man in relation to God. In 1611, John Donne wrote: ‘every man alone thinks he hath got/To be a phoenix’. This suggests that, despite what Storr claims, individualism flourished long before the cults of California.
Storr is at his very best when recounting the madness of the hippy retreats where self-esteem – now almost universally accepted to be a good – was first promoted as a cure-all. The lack of evidence for self-esteem’s alleged benefits cannot really be overstated, yet self-esteem was the principle upon which therapeutic communities such as the Esalen Institute were founded in the 1960s and 1970s (the institute later became notorious for the bullying practices of its leaders and for suicides among its attendees). It even informed government policy in California thanks to the work of the legislator John Vasconcellos in the 1980s and 1990s.
Having won California, self-esteem went on to conquer the world. And so here we are, living with the first generation to have been raised entirely on the intoxicating mantra of its own excellence. Storr argues provocatively that an obsession with promoting self-esteem has led to an increase in narcissism, and he has some interesting research data to back up this claim. He’s on less solid ground with his suicide hypothesis: if a crushing mismatch between expectation and reality were the cause of suicide, and if self-esteem artificially inflates expectation, then we would expect suicide rates to have risen following the self-esteem boom. Instead (in the UK at least), they fell between 1985 and 2007, at which point they began rising. The causes of that rise are difficult to pinpoint but are likely to include both the effects of the 2008 crash and social contagion through online networks.
For Storr, humans are fundamentally animals – ‘products of the mud’, controlled by deep forces beyond our conscious understanding, which he refers to as ‘tribal brains’. The critical question is, what kind of animal are we? Storr likes to use comparisons to chimpanzees to illustrate our often-violent hierarchical tendencies. It’s a shame he doesn’t pay more attention to the work of feminist primatologists and anthropologists, as highlighted in Angela Saini’s new book Inferior, who have looked particularly at humanity’s other close relative, the bonobo, in order to explore the variety in primate behaviour.
In fact, it’s a shame he doesn’t pay more attention to feminists full stop. It’s hard to take wholly seriously an account of the self that never tackles the fact that throughout Western history the idea of the individual has been inextricably bonded to concepts of maleness and whiteness, and to class as well. Selfie is a flawed book, but its sometimes rickety thesis is always entertainingly delivered thanks to Storr’s rich reporting. More than that, by taking a hammer to the sacred idea of the self – by putting culture back in the picture – Storr provides a much-needed corrective to our understanding of who we are. For that reason alone, Selfie should be welcomed.