Taxi-ing down the runway in Rome, I noticed the passenger next to me take out her iPhone and turn her camera to selfie mode. I watched the screen as she settled her face into what was presumably her usual selfie attitude: a hint of a smile, no teeth. She examined the picture she’d taken, applied a filter, and then put the phone away. She was about eight years old.
I found myself wondering where that photo would end up. Sent to friends, shared on a social network? Such things aren’t really for our private consumption. We ourselves don’t need selfies when we have mirrors. The selfie, the camera filter, are for the eyes of others, allowing us to control how we present and express ourselves.
Self-presentation and authenticity
Among the people I dread most in life are those whose Facebook feeds are full of technicolour sunsets on far-away islands, black and whites of themselves in some grungy-trendy brunch location or partially nude post-gym mirror pics. Like leaking taps, they drip anecdotes and ‘that time when’s. For me, this promised authenticity betrays deep-seated insecurity, if not outright falsehood. The filtered selfies and curated narratives don’t truly represent my friend, or do they?
To an extent we are probably all guilty of ‘storifying’ our lives. When we talk about ourselves to others, we cannot ever tell the whole truth. We don’t have words for our feelings, or time for every event; we are in effect constantly telling stories, constantly self-narrating: adding structure to disparate events, editing out the less relevant, heightening the tension at significant moments so the listener will experience their importance for themselves, pacing or delaying the punchline, altering tone and timing as it suits us. Some of this can be deliberately performative; we will often act a part, not self-narrating but self-promoting or self-concealing. Unfortunately when I hear an anecdote or see a picture that has been over-edited or heightened for effect, it only makes me distrust the narrator.
Narrative, culture and memory
Similarly, you can end up distrusting yourself when the narrative you build around your own past eventually falls apart, revealing your conclusions about past events to be wrong. How many of us, as deluded teenagers, convinced ourselves that because the boy we fancied spoke to us, plus looked us in the eye, plus laughed at that one joke, he must have liked us too?
As I’ve said before, this kind of ‘pattern-matching’ applied to past events is a double-edged sword. It can feed our delusions, but it also makes it possible to look back on the past, on our own history, and realise that events X Y and Z contributed to our present self, made us what we are. Then through a kind of dialectic process, looking back on this moment of realisation, our future selves will see with hindsight that it too was the catalyst for some new action. One of my Italian professors once told us that autobiography is the story of ‘how I became I’; a sort of equation, ‘I + events = I’, or more accurately something like the Chemistry GCSE classic, ‘metal + acid = salt’: the product contains the same molecules/atoms as before, but has been changed by an external agent or event. There are clearly two ‘I’s in question, the past and the present, the narrated and the narrator, the actor and the contemplator: what is it that links them together, that creates the unified self?
It is an individual’s story which has the power to tie together past, present, and future in his or her life. It is a story which is able to provide unity and purpose … we construct stories to integrate the disparate elements of our lives … each of us becomes a self-biographer – a storyteller par excellence. The story is the answer to the questions, “Who am I?” and “How do I fit into an adult world?” Identity is a life story … The problem of identity is the problem of arriving at a life story that makes sense – provides unity and purpose – within a socio-historical matrix that embodies a much larger story (source)
The larger story is each culture’s myths, religions, oral tradition, literature and history, which provide ‘scripts’ or models for our own lives, models which we can adopt, adapt, or reject entirely. Where people react differently to the same cultural history, they start literally using a different language. Thus the young married woman talks about ‘hitting life’s milestones’ with ‘hubby’, while the militant feminist talks about ‘herstory’, patriarchy, cis-normativity and the sexism in Disney.
Yet while the central role of storytelling may allow us all to claim we are ‘self-made (wo)men’, we shouldn’t take our self-congratulation too far. As I’ve said before, we’re not always the paragons of disinterested and objective reason that we might like to think we are: if we’re not deliberately mis-framing the truth, we’re misremembering it. The faulty memory is a familiar trope by now, but some psychologists have asserted that there is often an unconscious self-interest at work in memory creation:
The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light. (source)
This is why implausibly hilarious anecdotes or exaggerated stories irritate so much: they aggrandize the speaker, which impedes mutually fulfilling social interaction. Since it is from memory that we draw narrative, and through narrative that we embed memory, honesty and authenticity, rather than filtered self-presentation, seem crucial for a healthy sense of self.
Self-narrative and fiction
Fictional narrators, too, have differing motives. Ariosto’s narrator manipulates the reader by interfering in the story and cutting it off at interesting points. Dante’s narrator confusingly insists on the verity of his obviously fictional account and involves the reader in this disbelief-suspending journey: it is ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’ that the story starts – in the middle of all of our lives. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s childish semi-English endears him to us and lessens the horror of the acts of violence he so nonchalantly narrates and perpetrates.
One of the most intriguing first-person narrators I’ve encountered in fiction is that of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. She is not the Rebecca de Winter of the title but another nameless Mrs de Winter, extremely passive and constantly overshadowed by her husband’s former wife, who is in fact dead during the events of the book. The narrator never meets her, only hears fragments of her story told by other characters, and encounters her through other textual metaphors for her person, such as the resolutely inked ‘R’ with which she signs off her letters. The massive twist at the end shows these signs to be ultimately deceptive, another reminder that we can’t always trust the author-narrator who hides the truth from us until the moment of maximum dramatic effect – the same way we don’t trust the person who embellishes their own stories too much. Our personal autobiographies can and do adopt the techniques of fictional narration, but not too much.
Self-narrative and identity politics
Back to the real world, fast forward to the present day. A strong current in popular opinion insists that we are not a construct of our own egos or even our memory, but that our identity is in large part thrust upon us, influenced by factors we have no choice over and cannot escape: not just our family and its economic situation, but our race, orientation, and ‘the gender assigned to us at birth’. For identity politicians, the possibility of self-narration is a privilege only some are born with. It’s why the concept of ‘having a voice’ is so important, it’s why projects like Everyday Sexism exist, to allow the telling of otherwise silenced stories that don’t make it into the textbooks’ history. On the flipside, it’s sadly why men are told they can’t express an opinion about abortion, and orthodox or conservative thinkers are told it’s unhelpful to uphold received beliefs and the status quo. Telling stories is increasingly not just a means of self-expression or self-creation but a political tool.
Story-telling starts early: as children, we listen to bedtime stories, and invent daytime ones – Barbie marrying Ken or the Great Lego vs Playmobil Battle. For identity politicians, the more people that speak, the wider the spread of egalitarianism and the distribution of power; in other words, the better society can progress – and progress it will, according to a dialectic theory of history. For myself, I’ve mused before on whether our lives have a single driver, an overall arc that can be perceived at its end. Perhaps this is it: every autobiography, every life story, contains some kind of change and progression; some of the most famous (St Augustine’s Confessions) tell of sin to beatitude, most others follow some kind of blindness to enlightenment self-improvement story. They all ultimately end with the coming-to-be of the narrator-self, who overcomes faulty memory and the temptation towards narcissism, to achieve the measure of self-awareness that enables us to tell of ourselves with truth.