Selfie by Will Storr review – me, my selfie and I in an age of ego

Will Storr crafts an entertaining history of the self, from Narcissus to Kardashian to Trump

Infatuated with his own reflection in a pool, Narcissus pined away and died of self-love. Freud diagnosed this folly as a perversion, a neurotic choice of sterile solitude, but the warning was futile. The iPhone has mechanised narcissism and a gadget meant to facilitate communication with others has caused its most addicted users to behave like long-lost Kardashian cousins, cheesily grinning as they document their unexceptional doings.

In his book on the phenomenon, Will Storr interviews a young woman who has hundreds of thousands of selfies stored on memory cards, a hard drive and a sagging, overburdened iCloud. She frequently works through the night to edit and filter her daily quota of new images in readiness for disseminating them on social media. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but do all lives deserve to be examined in such redundant detail? Storr’s informant goes on to confess that she feels most alive when slashing her flesh with a razor blade.

Self-obsession, Storr suspects, is a reflex of self-dissatisfaction or self-dislike, a symptom of “social perfectionism” that pushes some of its victims towards suicide. His imposing survey traverses centuries of what we thought was progress to show how we reached this psychic dead end. Selfie begins in the tribal wilderness, locally known as Walthamstow. Here, Storr encounters a contemporary version of those alpha chimps that roared and brawled their way to dominance in the jungle: a bouncer and gangland enforcer, now meekly repentant after a religious conversion, who represents the self at its most bestial and atavistic.

The next stop is classical Greece, where “the long story of the human” began when Aristotle separated the individual from the rest of nature; as a consequence, the idealised self became a living work of art. Christianity then endowed the Greek body with a soul and forced it to chasten the sinful flesh. Storr, conscientiously working his way through the eras, comes to understand the process by suffering a week of medieval self-mortification in a dank Scottish monastery.

From here the book hops to blithe California. On that last frontier, western individualism arrives at its most extreme and absurd development: the old-fashioned idea of what novelists call character, a sober amalgam of virtues and defects, has here given way to the glitzy notion of personality, projected in all those self-made, self-congratulating iPhone images. Storr signs on for a course of “humanistic alternative education” in a yurt on a cliff beside the ocean at Big Sur and is ordered by a bossy therapist to shed his adult inhibitions and return to being the juvenile delinquent he once was. The experience, as he reports it, is hilarious but unenlightening.

Storr’s final stop is in Silicon Valley, whose slick entrepreneurs transformed the computer from a bureaucratic machine into a plaything for the self and its galleries of exponentiating snapshots. Promoters babble about “the Synthetic Age”, predicting that we will soon evolve into a post-human species, although not everyone is ready for the future. Storr recalls a geeky genius with a scheme for biohacking our DNA. Rehearsing to play God, he devised a means of synthesising probiotics to waft away vaginal odours. He called his formula Sweet Peach, and sold it as a means of “personal empowerment”. But angry feminists turned on him, unready to have their private parts refreshed, and he ended by hanging himself in his lab. Rather than waiting around for the promised “transformation of the universe”, Storr comes home to England, where we are grubbily inured to imperfection.

Selfie is as much autobiography as cultural history. Storr was prompted to write it by a slew of personal problems, leftovers from a troubled adolescence combined with middle-aged revulsion at the “lardy bib” beneath his shirt, the result of “weekends sunk into the sofa, surrounded by pizza boxes”. He finds no remedy for his self-dislike and, instead, concludes that the self is a false divinity. Worshipping it, we ignore profounder truths. “We’re connected,” Storr reminds us, “we’re a highly social species”. Narcissus died because he forgot he belonged to the human family.

This all-seeing book has one blind spot. Caught off guard by Trump’s electoral success, Storr mentions him only briefly as “a sumptuously narcissistic self-publicist” with a liking for Ayn Rand’s neofascist fiction. The ogre with the gilded quiff, the petulantly pouting mouth and the aggressive elbows merits closer inspection: Trump personifies the psychological and moral malady that Selfie investigates.

One of the experts consulted by Storr refers to a “dark power… immensely powerful and concerned solely with pursuing its own interests at the expense of everyone else in the world”. That quote is a generalised account of the ego; scarily, it also serves as a description of Trump, a puffed-up primate with a nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Storr even indirectly explains Trump’s chronic mendacity: at our most crassly selfish, we act on irrational urges or fits of pique that we – or brown-nosed apologists such as Sean Sphincter – try to justify after the event by “confabulating”, inventing pretexts for our behaviour that are convenient but patently phoney.

A therapeutic industry caters to the self-esteem or self-delusion of such egomaniacs; it cossets them, Storr suggests, because their competitive frenzy masks an inner hollowness, a noisy “denial of their own weaknesses or incompetences”. The president’s current state of flailing mayhem could not be more pithily summed up. Trump is obsessed with winning: the worst he can say about jihadis is to insult them as “losers”, even when they have catastrophically succeeded in slaughtering the innocent.

Politics, for Trump, exemplifies what Storr rather awkwardly calls “the gamification of human life”. He viewed the presidential campaign as a game show and, after the wonky arithmetic of the electoral college awarded him the prize, assumed that he could look forward to eight years of victory laps and ego-boosting pep rallies, punctuated by recuperative spells watching alt-right rants on his panoramic TV screen. He didn’t expect to be exposed to scorn rather than acclaim. Still less did he reckon on having to do an arduous and uniquely complicated job. His former life, he now complains, was easier and more enjoyable: as a celebrity, his sole obligation was self-display.

It remains to be seen whether the superego, policing quaint old-fashioned concerns such as ethics and honesty, will manage to restrain this monster. Surely Trump’s permatan isn’t armour-plated? On the evidence of Selfie, the world is suffering from a bad case of the DTs and we urgently need detoxing.

• Selfie by Will Storr is published by Picador (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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