The Secret of the Individual

The Secret of the Individual
The Secret of the Individual
by Julie Lorenzen
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In the essay, The Secret of the Individual, Alain Corbin addressed Individual identity. The central idea was that a person’s sense of individuality became more distinct and widely spread during the nineteenth century. Throughout the lengthy work, Corbin supported the idea by naming and describing many ways nineteenth century people expressed their individuality. Grooming, diaries, personal collections provided ways to express oneself. Police kept track of individual criminal through the use of measurements before relying on fingerprints. The use of some these expressions separated one individual from another and reflected or appeared to reflect one’s social status and moral beliefs. Further, some individual expressions were used to leave a trace of one’s existence after death.

Corbin first focused on how the use of names, mirrors, pictures, and tombstones became means for self-definition.  In the nineteenth century, people started using names to give a person a clear identity. Traditional rules for naming children in France existed before the nineteenth century. Parents named their children after one of the youth’s godparents. These names came from a small list of names inspired by saints.  A desire for individuation and urbanization led to the diversification of names. Further, according to Corbin, advances in literacy increased the bond between a person and one’s name.

Mirrors could inform a person exactly what they looked like. The ability to see one’s face and body in mirrors was available. However, the ability was limited by one’s beliefs. For example, pheasants could buy mirrors, but were concerned that a child’s growth could be stunted if the child peered into a mirror. In the upper classes, it was improper for women to look at themselves naked in a mirror. However, in bordellos mirrors were everywhere. Eventually, mirrors appeared on the doors of armoires in elite bedrooms.

In earlier times, portraits reflected status. Aristocrats used to be the only people who had the ability to obtain self-portraits. In the late eighteenth century, it became possible for most people to obtain portraits of themselves. A device called a physionotrace popularized portrait art in Paris. With this device artists could trace a person’s place in one minute. The profile was then transferred to a metal plate, yielded a series of engraved images at a low cost. In the mid-nineteenth century the instantaneous snapshot was perfected. Demonstrating status was a priority when having a portrait done. Corbin wrote, “The ability to portray the self and the possession of self-images enhanced the individual’s sense of his own importance and democratized the need to stake out a social position.” (463) As a result, photographers began taking photographs of their clients in grand positions.

Photographs perpetuated one’s existence, as did tombstones. Epitaphs became more popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Sometimes photographs would be fixed on tombstones so that the physical identity would not be lost. 

 In conclusion, throughout the chapter, Corbin explained how individuality became more widely spread during the nineteenth century. The diversification of names, the availability of mirrors, the invention of photography and the use of epitaphs on tombstones made it possible for people to express their individuality in new ways. . The diversification of names separated people into individuals, the use of mirrors reflected social beliefs, and the use of photography was intended to reflect one’s social status. Further, epitaphs and photographs on tombstones were used to leave a trace of one’s existence after death.



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