Self Made: When Title Transforms Identity

We go through life using all manners of informal titles to determine our various identities. In turn, they shape our relationships to the world. We are friends, lovers, and coworkers; Americans, Mexicans, and Resident Aliens; gay, non-gay, and straight. Sometimes our titles are crafted through exceptional hard work — a student becoming a resident becoming a doctor. Other times they’re thrust upon us without our consent — a teenager becoming a slut becoming a mother. Sometimes the assumption of one identity leads directly to another — a stoner becoming a felon.

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In each case, the title is a signifier and a part of one’s identity. They are both shorthand representation and raison d’etre. Most of us juggle numerous titles, roles, and identities as the things that make up the complex, multi-faceted individuals we are. In some circumstances, a person can progress beyond the title as a framework that defines them — leading to the person defining the title as much as the other way around. Like two celestial objects circling each other and exhibiting gravitational forces in proportion, so too certain individuals shape their titles as much as the title shapes them. But it is only in the rarest of circumstances that a person can completely define a title as their own. Even The Sun King (also known as Louis XIV, who defied the limitations of the traditional title of King by associating himself with the sun itself) is defined against the actions of other monarchs. His identity remains limited by the role, despite his best efforts to defy it. For some, the path to freedom from this constriction-by-title is to become one with the title itself — defining a new title out of their own identity. It is a truly fascinating occurrence when a person turns into a title (or it is at least fascinating to me, and hopefully will be for you at the end of the biographical journey that follows). What does it take for one’s very self to become a title?

Phoenix illustration from Hartmann Schedel’s "Nuremberg Chronicle" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Phoenix illustration from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle | Source: Wikimedia Commons

To reach this end, one must craft a pseudonymous title all their own. This title replaces someone’s identity rather than just accompanying it, infusing their very being with the power affiliated with the chosen title. In order to achieve this, one must wear this title like a disguise. It becomes the outward facing persona that someone presents, until it has infiltrated their identity so thoroughly that even they see it when they look in the mirror. The person must turn their own name into something larger than the self. This process entails shedding the name in exchange for a dual-purpose pseudonym — one that becomes both name and title. The title slowly evolves, overtaking the name to the point that it becomes the entire identity. The evolutionary process must naturally take place behind the curtain, and the expression “fake it ‘til you make it” probably applies to the phenomenon discussed here. A phoenix rising from its ashes and being reborn anew is the metaphor to keep in mind; out of the ashes of an authentic self is born a mask so convincing that not even the person themselves can see past it.

Like two celestial objects circling each other and exhibiting gravitational forces in proportion, so too certain individuals shape their titles as much as the title shapes them.

Cartoon from Punch magazine, captioned “The Newest Narcissus; or, The Hero of our days” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A cartoon from Punch magazine, captioned “The Newest Narcissus; or, The Hero of our days” | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here is the process:

One creates a newfound identity that is anchored by a unique and snazzy title. “Snazzy” because that title should be known by everyone and come to represent something larger than the individual ever could. “Unique” because the title should be be a new and improved version of the individual, or — if lacking in creativity — it can at least be a bastardized version of the original name. In any case, this title becomes the person’s outward identity, and it in turn begins to consume the person inwardly. Ironically, the search for freedom from the constriction of titles traps the person even more completely within their constructed designator. The pseudonym transforms from their identity to the point that the person can no longer exist outside of it. This process usually does not end well.

Now that we have the process defined, let’s see it in action with the help of our good friend J.K. Rowling’s most infamous creation — Lord Voldemort.

Lord Voldemort (Source: Harry Potter Wikia)

Lord Voldemort, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the Harry Potter movies | Source: © Harry Potter Wikia

Tom Riddle (Source: Harry Potter Wikia)

Tom Marvolo Riddle, as portrayed by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Source: © Harry Potter Wikia

Voldemort, of course, is a title for Tom Marvolo Riddle. At the zenith of his interest in poetic devices, young Riddle figured out that his name could be rearranged to “I am Lord,” with a bunch of letters remaining. So he shoehorned these letters into a title that would one day become so feared that the vast majority of the wizarding world refused to speak it. Thus we have a person who has created a pseudonym for himself from his own former identity. Voldemort goes to great lengths to make sure that the pseudonym becomes a unique title known to everyone. Indeed, Voldemort himself recoils, shouts, and shoots lethal curses when hearing his given name. The success of this establishment of the mythology around Voldemort demands the extermination of Tom Riddle. The human behind the title cannot be visible if the title is to hold its far reaching power, and so he must be hidden to the point of being forgotten — even by himself. In many ways, it is Dumbledore’s discovery of the creation process of Voldemort — and, ergo, attaining a deep understanding of the journey of Tom Riddle — that brings about Voldemort’s downfall. The devotion to the title is absolute. And since part of being “Lord Voldemort” involves targeted and indiscriminate murder, mixed with physically and psychologically torturing one’s “friends” and enemies alike, I think inward consumption is pretty well established. As for that last part in the process — it not ending well — I would say having your own attempted murder rebound and destroy the last remnant of your battered soul because said soul is too broken for you to comprehend love would qualify. I’d also argue the part before that — when he’s trying to kill babies and committing genocide against Muggles and Muggle-borns — is the sort of thing that the historical record condemns, Andrew Jackson notwithstanding.

2pac-Branded Merchandise (Source: 2pac/Facebook)

Source: 2pac/Facebook

Tupac Shakur (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tupac Amaru Shakur | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Entering the realm of reality, we have 2pac — another title derived from a given name that has also captivated the attention of society (albeit much more positively). His experience seems to represent the case in which the pseudonymous title, in all its identity-draining power, is thrust upon a person rather than selected for oneself. Tupac Amaru Shakur grew up surrounded by the familial influence of members of the Black Panthers. His background included an in-depth theatrical and literary education. He was a prolific writer, a theatrical actor, and he even learned ballet. His hip-hop career channelled all of this background into speaking to the experience of young black men in America. Over the course of this career, as he transformed from Shakur to Tupac to 2pac, his success transformed into a symbol for that very experience. The power and influence of his music illustrated the depth with which it spoke to the experience of African-American men in their nation. His name itself became a cultural symbol for that experience, and the course of his life simultaneously followed the exact path of the struggle he was describing.

In interviews, he describes receiving unwarranted and overblown attention from police forces and media sources as a black man first, prior to recognition for his success and talent as a musician. He stood for the experience of black men in America — and was therefore treated as such by the forces of oppression he was describing. This experience further fueled his capacity to speak to that experience and thereby the creation of his music. He knew that his music and its impact would provide him with an immortality —a title — that would outlive him. He expressed that while people revered him for speaking to the truths of their lives and talking about “exactly what was happening in the world,” people did not give the same focus to his music about his own life because “it would force them to recognize me as a human being.” He describes realizing that, at the peak of his success, he had no real friends in his life. His identity had become entirely encapsulated in his title and his role as a hero, whether he wanted it or not. By the time of his murder, he had transformed so completely into a symbol of this experience that his legacy would only be equally symbolic if his life were to end with equal symbolism. His perceived immortality — a common reaction of communities to losing such powerfully symbolic musicians — speaks to both the tragedy and the cultural significance of the arc of his life as a character whose individuality became absorbed within the symbolic role of their title in society.

[2pac] knew that his music and its impact would provide him with an immortality —a title — that would outlive him.

We have explored the power of the pseudonymous title in creating both a villain and a hero, albeit retrospectively. For the villain, it was self-generated in service of obtaining uniqueness, power, and infamy. For the hero, society thrust the power of the title upon him, transforming his very personhood into a symbol for what he stood for.

For a living specimen of the pseudonymous title process at work, we have today a topical example of a person attempting to craft a larger-than-self identity, about whom much is being said, written, and (presumably) documented — both by society at large and himself. The power of this title is one that was self-generated but continuously enforced by the response of others. That person is, of course, Mr. Donald J. Trump. Perhaps the “of course” seems out of place to you, and some combination of “Mr. Donald J. Trump” being a title for a person named “Donald J. Trump” might not be the most convincing start to an argument. But bear with me and you will be duly rewarded.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and his running mate Mike Pence at the 2016 Republican National Convention | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before diving into Trump, however, a small meta-discussion regarding the upcoming Trump-Voldemort comparison is necessary. Trump gets compared to a lot of pretty horrible people both real and imagined — from Berlusconi to Hitler to Satan (in my own view, George SaundersPhil from Outer Horner is the most apt). Rowling even made such a comparison herself, almost a year ago, and settled on Trump being worse than her fictional villain. I would come down on the other side (because genocide), but I’m really not interested in that argument. Rather I would like to dive into the ways in which these two use their larger-than-life titles to capture the attention of their societies at large. Unlike 2pac — whose title gained most of its power from its resonance with society — both of these characters created a title, demanded a particular social response, and seemed to be receiving exactly that very reinforcement.

Young Donald J. Trump (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Young Donald J. Trump at the New York Military Academy | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Donald John Trump was born into an extremely wealthy, if not necessarily well to do, family. His father was a Queens real estate tycoon, to whom the title “low rent” was applied both personally and professionally. I don’t want to dwell on Trump’s childhood in any more detail than that — with the exception of one comparison. In the same way that Voldemort will use any means necessary to shed the ghosts of his Muggle ancestry, Trump’s professional career can, in many ways, be seen as a man trying way too hard to be accepted by the Manhattan cognoscenti. In other words, he’s like a new moneyed character in an Edith Wharton novel, early 20th-century racial views included. It is through that quest for acceptance that Trump becomes “Trump,” his pseudonymous title.

The power of [Trump as] title is one that was self-generated but continuously enforced by the response of others.

Make no mistake: I am not making a John Oliver-influenced ‘Drumpf’ claim. Trump, as we know him today, is no less a pseudonym than Voldemort. “Trump” is a title for, depending on your perspective, some combination of grandiose, majestic extravagance, as well as gilded tackiness. When the Trump Tower or a Trump hotel is considered, one thinks of glitz and gold, not orange and blond. The argument that Trump buildings are essentially selling the “Trump” brand can be made even more explicitly — in many cases, Trump buildings are not in any way affiliated with the man Donald Trump. Instead, they seek to profit off of the pseudonym, and do so through an extra layer of deception. But the first layer of deception is in the Trump image itself, because it is naturally built upon a series of lies. I’ll trust the reader to fill in the blank here, and simply conclude that the title Trump actively belies the reality that is Donald J. Trump.

Out of the ashes of an authentic self is born a mask so convincing that not even the person him/herself can see past it.

Let us dig further though, mainly because we can, but also because I doubt I’ve been heretofore convincing. For Trump to achieve the highest level of pseudonymous title — the type that is always an influencer and never an influenced — Trump the person must be destroyed. I believe he has. In Donald Trump’s own words, he (like 2pac, ironically) doesn’t have real friends. Additionally, nobody calls him “Don[ald].” As we learned from the 2016 Republican National Convention, even his own children call him “Mr. Trump.” That’s just weird. It is also signifying: everybody — and I include Donald J. Trump himself in that category — only sees the gilded title. The man upon whom it was once based on has disappeared.

Trump holding a TIME magazine with him on the cover (Source: Matt AJ/Huffington Post)

Donald J. Trump holding a TIME magazine with him on the cover | Source: © Matt AJ/Huffington Post

Of course there are many people who see Trump for who and what he really is — a person with a tendency towards insecurity. But then, there are those few who knew of Tom Riddle as well. But Tom Riddle was not the Dark Lord who needed to be defeated, and Donald J. Trump is not the man on the cusp of the American presidency. A “tremendous businessman” stands before us, gold plated and successful, with every perceived fault an extra bonus. The ballot in November may read “Donald J. Trump,” but people will be voting for a pseudonym.

The human behind the title cannot be visible if the title is to hold its far reaching power.

The adoption of the pseudonymous title — the title which supplants identity itself — involves a process of hiding the self. The self becomes secondary to the mask selected by these individuals, such that they hide the individual behind the title that can achieve their goals for them. This leads, slowly but surely, to the gradual ongoing deception of self and others; to the erasure of the self beneath the titles. The titles themselves come to drive the choices, make the decisions, and hold the power in the society where they operate — but at the cost of the individual’s existence beneath them. These characters — and characters is all they can be once their personal depth has been drained by the titles — lose the capacity to operate as their former selves, and in the end seem to face the failures endemic to the tropes of their titles.


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