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Authenticity and Despair

Rebecca Burkholder

In the introduction to his book, Meaning and Authenticity, Brian Braman recounts the question asked by radicals in the 1960s as they sought to overcome a sense of personal alienation—“What did it mean for them to be truly themselves, to be authentic?” He then observes, “This desire to be authentically one’s self has become commonplace. The concept of authenticity permeates the whole of culture.”1)1 Indeed, it would be hard to deny that “being authentic” is a concept employed often and with positive connotation in modern society. But notice in particular what Braman says next: “Whether in advertising, political life, or the moral life, to be authentic is to be true to some higher standard.”2)2Braman is pointing out that authenticity is more than just something we happen to value, like athletic ability or quick wit. As Charles Taylor in Ethics of Authenticity says, authenticity is actually a “moral ideal” of our time; that is, it is considered to be “a picture of what a better or higher mode of life would be.”3)3

This observation is acute: my generation, at least, characteristically idealizes originality and self­discovery, as illustrated by the popularity of the counter­culture ‘hipster’ movement. “Don’t let your culture tell you who you are,” seems to be their motto; but ironically, the hipster push to self­define does not succeed, because each self­defined hipster is practically identical to the next. This is perhaps an indication that something is wrong with, as Taylor has labeled it, our “culture of authenticity” (a phrase that I will continue to use to denote the current instantiation of authenticity as an ideal and all that it entails in modern society). In fact, what is troubling about our culture goes beyond a simple inconsistency: arguably, our pursuit of authenticity ends in the dissolution of real meaning and morals, culminating in a state of despair. The intent of this paper is to examine more closely the despair that characterizes modern existence and its connection to authenticity, drawing on Albert Camus’ depiction of modern man in The Fall. Although Camus’ picture of an authentic person in despair is striking and accurate, using the thought of Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor to interpret Camus’ story, I will argue that despair is not an inevitable result of authenticity; rather, being truly authentic is a way to fulfillment, and more importantly, “the possibility of benevolence and beneficence, of honest collaboration and of true love…of becoming a person in a human society.”4)4

I. The Groundwork of Authenticity

On some level, most people probably have a general idea of what authenticity means—Taylor defines it broadly as “being true to oneself.”5)5 However, the concept is actually more complex than this, and embracing it implies a certain set of beliefs about the human and his or her relationship to the world. The content, then, of what it means to be authentic in modern society needs to be fleshed out, which I will do by looking at the philosophical development that laid the groundwork for authenticity to come to be embraced as an ideal.

The roots of this ideal, says Charles Taylor, lie partly in the early forms of individualism advanced by thinkers like John Locke and Renee Descartes. Their philosophy is characterized by its reflexive turn to the subject, wherein, as Taylor puts it, “the demand is that each person think self­responsibly for him­ or herself.”6)6 Rather than accepting the worldview of his culture, the individual is called to construct his belief system critically and on his own. Following this, the Romantics deepened the turn inward by claiming that, “human beings are endowed with a moral sense, and intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong.”7)7 The implication of this idea is that the way to discover value—that is, the way to construct a set of moral beliefs—is to look within oneself. Although at first this does not exclude relating to an external source of value, like God, it is with the work of Jean­Jacques Rousseau that another important development happens. Rousseau’s argument is that dependence on external structures (like social laws and religion) confounds authentic internal connection. Therefore, we should seek “self­determining freedom” whereby “[we] break hold of all such external impositions and decide for [ourselves] alone.”8)8 The individual, in other words, is called to sever the influence of outside forces on his or her internal search for a set of beliefs.

All of this is taken still one step further by Herder’s idea that each person’s self­hood is significantly different from everyone else’s—that is: “each of us has an original way of being human”9 –culminating in the belief that, being true to myself means be true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own.9)10

In other words, the only way for me to fulfill my purpose—one specific to me—is by discovering who I really am inside and using that to shape the life that I construct for myself. From this perspective, the ideal of authenticity arises naturally, holding moral force in a culture that views the person as a unique individual, free to determine his or her own self and values, and called to do so by turning inward—that is, I can become what I ought to be only by being authentic. These, then, are the beliefs implicit in the culture of authenticity.

An illustration of an individual’s interaction with authenticity under this modern worldview is found in The Fall by Albert Camus. Strikingly, the story portrays an authentic existence that is beset with despair, suggesting that hopelessness is actually a byproduct of authenticity. In order to more fully understand this relationship, we will now turn to Camus’ tale.

II. The Despair in Authenticity

The narrator of The Fall, Jean­Baptiste Clamence, begins with an account of how he used to live a happy
and fulfilling life, saying boldly, “I took pleasure in life and in my own excellence…to tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself as something of a superman.”10)11 But, the reader suspects subterfuge from the beginning, and Clamence eventually relates that, in a moment when he is experiencing “a vast feeling of power and…completion,”11)12 he hears a laugh ring out behind him. That laugh continues to haunt him and eventually forces him through a process of introspection, whereby he realizes the depth of his dishonesty and hypocrisy. “That perpetual laugh and the laughers had to teach me to see clearly within me and to discover at last that I was not simple.”12)13 Indeed, he sees that he is vain, self­centered, and completely uncaring of others, expressing hesitantly a feeling of shame about his actions.13)14

It is here that the reader sees Clamence becoming more authentic, facing his true character with honesty for the first time. And in reaction to the discovery of who he is, Clamence decides for himself what kind of existence to lead: he embraces his vices and takes on the role of ‘judge penitent’ in order to rid himself of shame and attain power over others. He says to his listener at the end, “And why should I change, since I have found the happiness that suits me? I have accepted duplicity instead of being upset about it.”14)15 By all modern standards, Clamence is being authentic, being honest with himself and turning inward to determine his values and lifestyle.

Yet Clamence reveals quite shockingly how complicated and unfulfilling this type of existence can be. It is clear in the end that his life is not characterized by flourishing—he is ill and seemingly dissatisfied, confessing that he wishes for death to save him. He weeps, “At times one wanders, doubting the facts, even when one has discovered the secrets of the good life.”15)16 Furthermore, Clamence finds out that with freedom comes an inexorable feeling of guilt. He says, “At the end of all freedom is a court sentence,”16)17 as the individual is left facing the judges alone. Because of this, Clamence becomes a self­confessed advocate of slavery, because “the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself.”17)18 All of this—the freedom, the responsibility, the ever present judgment and guilt—Clamence calls, “the common condition” and he sees on the faces of his fellow modern humans, “the despair of not being able to escape it.”18)19

We are not done with Clamence yet, but the important thing to notice at this point is that, truly, an awareness of one’s real self in modern society can bring despair. Being authentic, in other words, is no guarantee of fulfillment; in fact, it may very well be the cause of unhappiness, revealing freedom at the same time as pronouncing responsibility and guilt. Why so?

In Braman’s recounting of Bernard Lonergan’s comments about the “common condition” of modern self­awareness, we see the beginning of an answer:

The subject truly becomes existential when he discovers that it is up to him to decide what kind of person he wishes to be, what he wants to make of himself. This discovery awakens the subject to one unavoidable fact; he is the one responsible for constituting himself through his various choices and decisions.19)20

In other words, modern self­understanding (including Clamence’s) involves the realization that one is ultimately responsible for who one is. Of course, this still does not explain the guilt and despair—being responsible for herself is only condemnable if the individual has done something wrong. Yet, look at what Clamence says at one point in the story:

Now my words have a purpose. They have the purpose, obviously, of silencing the laughter,of avoiding judgment personally, though there is apparently no escape. Is not the great thingthat stands in the way of our escaping it the fact that we are the first to condemn ourselves?20)21

In other words, inevitably we are not just responsible; we are guilty.

This is a startling articulation because, in becoming authentic and taking on the freedom to determine oneself, the modern individual sheds the burden of an external source of judgment, e.g. God. This would seem to be a means of alleviating guilt; yet the result, at least if we take Camus’ observations to be accurate, is that there is simply a new judge—ourselves—and we will inevitably still be found guilty. This idea is poignantly symbolized in the story when Clamence reveals how the painting, “The Just Judges,” is stolen from the church and now hangs in a bar, “above the drunks and the pimps.”21)22 There has been a shift in modern culture, from God and/or religion occupying the seat of judgment to the individual having judicial power.

Remember, we saw the beginnings of this shift in the development of authenticity as a moral ideal: the inward turn of the Romantic era to connect to values and the complimentary shutting out of external sources of moral authority. Along with this change seems to have come another unfortunate consequence: without something external to pronounce judgment, we also have nothing external to grant us mercy. Clamence notices that people, though they want absolution, “believe solely in sin, never in grace.”22)23 The reason for this is, as Clamence observes later, that “when you don’t like your own life, when you know that you must change lives, you don’t have any choice, do you? What can one do to become another? Impossible.”23)24 We cannot absolve ourselves, because we are the ones who are culpable in the first place.

So it seems that without someone else to free him, modern man is guilty and hopeless. “Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.”24)25

And so there it is: a picture of authentic modern existence at its harshest. Our culture of authenticity leads us to despair; and we cannot help but wonder, what can be done? The answer might seem to be to exhort our culture: “Call idealizing authentic existence the root of these evils and change thy ways!” But that would seem to be impossible or foolish, or both: authenticity consists in part of seeing and embracing the truth about our existence, and human beings apparently value truthful understanding, even at the cost of bliss. However, take heart: Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan, among others, offer an understanding of authenticity that entails hope and absolution, and even fulfillment and love.

III. The Hope for Authenticity

Here we turn first to Bernard Lonergan’s articulation of what it means to be authentic, beginning with the idea that “Man achieves authenticity in self­transcendence.”25)26 In part, this is similar to the modern definition of authenticity, since self­transcendence involves the achievement of “conscious intentionality,”26)27 i.e. the subject coming to be aware of herself. “Just as operations by their intentionality make objects present to the subject, so also by consciousness they make the operating subject present to himself.”27)28 But Lonergan’s understanding of authenticity goes beyond a simple self­awareness, as he argues that this sort of consciousness is only truly achieved through transcendental intending—that is, a mode of asking questions that go “beyond what we know to seek what we do not know yet,” aimed at discovering the true and the
real and the valuable and truly good.28)29 The idea is that, as human beings, we deeply desire to know and to know fully; thus, the authentic, truly self­transcendent person is he who seeks knowledge beyond himself—knowledge not just of facts, but also of value and goodness and beauty.

This is a very different articulation of value than the one out of which the modern understanding of values grew: rather than simply looking within to find value, one must look from within beyond oneself. And, the latter account actually makes a lot more sense of meaning and value than the former. Taylor points out the absurdity of trying to give meaning to things without, what he calls, “horizons of significance:”

Only if I exist in a world in which history, of the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.29)30

Notice what he says at the end: authenticity demands external horizons against which to judge value, “for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance.”30)31 To seek value or meaning or truth is to presuppose that there is value or meaning or truth, which necessitates external orientation. Thus, authenticity is not a matter of turning inward to locate meaning and discover who we are. Although conscious intentionality is integral—so, being aware of one’s own consciousness and subjective experience31)32—self­transcendence is more than this; it involves reflecting on the external horizons that structure your subjectivity as well.

Becoming authentic is not as simple as recognizing one’s horizons, however. Our horizons are boundaries set by our particular standpoint (that is, our context: tradition, culture, biological composition, experiences, etc.), and they impose constraints on us. “Horizons…are the structured resultant of past achievement and, as well, both the condition and the limitation of further development.”32)33 Remember that self­transcendence and authenticity aim at the true, the real, the truly valuable—our horizontal view is not all­-encompassing, and therefore these lie in part beyond our horizons. Thus, in order to actually achieve self­-transcendence and authenticity, it follows that one must go beyond their horizons, adjusting their perspective. In other words, authenticity “is a transformation of our stance towards the world and the self, rather than simply the registering of external reality.”33)34

But how is this possible? Let us pause for a moment and remember Clamence’s formulation of this question: “What can one do to become another?” What can one do to alter one’s horizons? Indeed, when we try to move beyond our horizons, we run into difficulty; Lonergan (as quoted by Braman) says that a change in horizons involve a “reorganization of the subject” and that,

…against such reorganization of the patterns of the subject, there come into play all the conservative forces that give our lives their continuity and their coherence. The subject’s fundamental anxiety, his deep distress, is over the collapse of himself and his world: tampering with the organization of himself gives rise to dread.34)35

In other words, being authentic is not easy; but also, it is not impossible.

The force behind self-­transcendence and authenticity is conversion—a “transformation of the subject and his world…a change of course and direction.”35)36 This change allows man to see beyond his horizons by repositioning him in the world. The result is a fuller, more deeply truthful and authentic existence: “[Conversion] directs [a man’s] gaze, pervades his imagination, releases the symbols that penetrate to the depths of his psyche. It enriches his understanding, guides his judgments, reinforces his decisions.”36)37 Furthermore, conversion does not happen in an instant, rendering a person from then on authentic; rather, it
is a process, “it is ever a withdrawal from unauthenticity, and every successful withdrawal only brings to light the need for still further withdrawals.”37)38 Thus, being authentic is an activity that involves constantly seekingout errors and misunderstandings in order to eliminate them, a struggle towards betterment, a recognition and repentance of sins. This is why, as Lonergan puts it, “it is the greatest saints that proclaim themselves the greatest sinners.”38)39

Conversion comes in three different stages: intellectual, moral, and religious. Intellectual conversion is achieved through the realization that knowing is mediated by meaning, and so involves “experiencing, understanding, judging, and believing”39)40; and moral conversion is achieved when one, recognizing his or her freedom in knowing and acting, chooses to find meaning in terms of what is truly good rather than personal satisfaction. That is, “Intellectual conversion is to truth attained by cognitional self-­transcendence. Moral conversion is to values apprehended, affirmed, and realized by a real self­transcendence.”40)41 But it is ultimately religious conversion that is the force of self­transcendence: religious conversion is “an other­worldly falling in love”41)42; and being in love in this way gives man the power to by truly authentic, to “accept the suffering involved in undoing the effects of decline.”42)43 Without this kind of transformation, an individual may very well feel despair; but with it, her life takes on a whole new dimension. Being in love is a fulfillment that,

brings a deep­set joy that can remain despite humiliation, failure, privation, pain, betrayal, desertion. That fulfillment brings a radical peace, the peace that the world cannot give. That fulfillment bears fruit in a love of one’s neighbor that strive mightily to bring about the kingdom of God on this earth.43)44

The religiously ­converted person has horizons that are much wider in scope than they could ever be otherwise.

If we turn finally back to Clamence, we can see more acutely why he is in despair. It is not because he is authentic: quite the opposite, in fact. It is his inability to transcend himself, his unconverted being, his utter lack of true authenticity, that leave him hopeless. His freedom brings guilt because it is freedom without an acknowledged external horizon, and his guilt is inexorable, because his perspective does allow for transformation. Whereas a truly authentic person, as we said earlier, is forever in the process of change and reformation of his or her standpoint, Clamence observes,

We confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default. We merely wish to be pitied and encouraged in the course we have chosen.44)45

Clamence may have come face to face with his real self, but he is unable to be self­transcendent and alter his standpoint in the world. For him, it is always a question of escaping judgment or embracing it, never repenting of his crimes and changing his ways. In short, Clamence is unconverted. There is deep irony when he wonders casually, “Maybe we don’t love life enough?”45)46—for the lack of true love is the very source of his inauthenticity.

IV. Conclusion

We’ve looked at our culture of authenticity as illustrated by Clamence in The Fall, and what we find is that authentic existence in modern society seems to have an element of hopelessness about it. But on closer examination, drawing on the arguments of Lonergan and Taylor, it appears that the problem is not our authenticity; rather, it is our lack of true authenticity. To be genuinely authentic—to transcend oneself—one must recognize the need to move beyond one’s horizons, and then go do so. Conversion is this recognition coupled with love, which mobilizes the process of reforming—and then re­reforming—one’s standpoint; and although the process is never completed in this life, it nonetheless empowers the individual to move gradually towards “a full and complete transformation of the whole of one’s living and feeling, one’s thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions.”46)47 This is no cause for despair!

Sending this message to our culture of authenticity, however, is not easy. It is our current horizons—the beliefs we have about values and the individual—that keep us from recognizing and accepting what true authenticity entails. Religious conversion, says Lonergan, is a gift of grace, and he uses the imagery of vertical motion to illustrate how conversion allows us to rise out of the horizontal and see further—we can imagine grace coming down upon us, vertically, from God, lifting us out of despair. In The Fall, however, Camus paints a picture that confounds this idea, a picture of a town where the sky is filled with doves—but there are “No human beings, above all, no human beings!” and so for the doves, “never a head on which to light.”47)48 Is that true about us? Is our culture so inhuman as to have severed the possibility of receiving grace? Charles Taylor does not think so—he writes The Ethics of Authenticity precisely because he believes that “these arguments can make a difference.”48)49


1 Braman, Brian J. Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Longergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.)
2 Braman, Meaning, 3 (emphasis added).
3 Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991), 16.

4 Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 104.

5 Taylor, Ethics, 15.
6 Ibid, 25.
7 Ibid, 26.

8 Ibid, 27.

9 Ibid, 28.

10 Ibid, 29.

11 Camus, Albert. The Fall (New York: Vintage International,1956), 25­28. 12 Camus, Fall, 39.
13 Ibid, 84.
14 Ibid, 68.

15 Ibid, 142.

16 Ibid, 144.
17 Ibid, 133.
18 Ibid 136.
19 Ibid, 143.
20 Braman, Meaning, 55.

21 Camus, Fall, 131. 22 Ibid, 129.
23 Ibid, 135.
24 Ibid, 144.

25 Ibid, 133.
26 Lonergan, Method, 104. 27 Ibid, 35.
28 Ibid, 8.
29 Ibid, 11­12.

30 Taylor, Ethics, 41
31 ibid, 66.
32 Lonergan, Method, 8­9.

33 Ibid, 237.

34 Braman, Meaning, 98.

35 Ibid, 53.
36 Lonergan, Method, 130.

37 Ibid, 131.

38 Ibid, 110.

39 Ibid.
40 ibid, 238. 41 Ibid. 241. 42 Ibid, 240. 43 Ibid, 242. 44 Ibid, 105.
45 Camus, Fall, 83. 46 Ibid, 32.

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