Okay, I’m going to quote from The Fountainhead here, but please don’t get up and leave just yet — I used to be an Objectivist, I’m not anymore, and I’m happy to get into it with you about how poorly most people (including Ayn Rand herself) execute on her philosophy, but none of that is really what I want to talk about today. So the rest of this has the following content warnings: extensive discussion of both suicide and an Ayn Rand book.
Today I want to talk about the absurdist conflict represented by Gail Wynand. This is the first scene in which we see him, three-quarters of the way through the book:
Gail Wynand raised a gun to his temple. He felt the pressure of a metal ring against his skin — and nothing else. He might have been holding a lead pipe or a piece of jewelry; it was just a small circle, without significance. “I am going to die,” he said aloud — and yawned.
He felt no relief, no despair, no fear. The moment of his end would not grant him even the dignity of seriousness. It was an anonymous moment; a few minutes ago, he had held a toothbrush in his hand; now he held a gun with the same casual indifference.
One does not die like this, he thought. One must feel a great joy or a healthy terror. One must salute one’s own end. Let me feel a spasm of dread and I’ll pull the trigger.
He felt nothing.
…Why hasn’t anyone ever said that this is the ultimate horror? Not screams, pleas or convulsions. Not the indifference of a clean emptiness, disinfected by the fire of some great disaster. But this — a mean, smutty little horror, impotent even to frighten. You can’t do it like that, he told himself, smiling coldly; it would be in such bad taste.
- “The Fountainhead,” Ayn Rand
I don’t think Rand set out to depict an absurdist arc with this character — I think she would argue that “to improve the world via the unfettered exercise of man’s reason” is the goal of Objectivism (however poorly it accomplishes this, and again I’m not having that argument right now). That right there is a need for the transcendent. That’s a need for meaning, which an absurdist fundamentally rejects.
What are you for?
But Gail Wynand is a very interesting absurdist failure case. He’s a principled man at heart, but one who makes his living in a way that contradicts his principles. I often use the metaphor of a race to refer to a hierarchical, competitive view of life, wherein the point of existence is to “win” when compared to others, and you try because you want to reach the trophy at the end. This is the view that is impressed upon us by capitalism — you and everything you do are worthy to the extent that they progress you toward that trophy. Success is measured in terms of only this one scale, and your life has meaning in only this one way. What do you “do?”, we ask each other when we meet. “Why hello, new friend! Tell me, how do you define your identity in terms of amassing capitalist gains?” Why do we think it’s okay to, in effect, greet all strangers with, “Hey, what are you for, exactly?”
In this metaphor, what I and a lot of Millennials have done is hop the fuck over the fence. The hell with the race. The hell with that definition of success. I’m not for anything. I’m alive just to be alive, here to be here, and nothing I do while I’m here can improve my value. The institutions that propped up that competitive model of living are crumbling, and will only crumble faster as the ground beneath them is swallowed by the rising sea. Not to sound prophetic or anything, but it’s hard to look out the window and not call the End Times what they kind of fucking are.
There is no win state.
A lot of us chose not to try to win on those terms. Not to go for the debt/house/baby/401k definition of security and success, but to rely on one another instead. Wynand, though… he still wants to win. Deep down, he wants to see Principle triumph over Power in a race Power judges. Do you see the contradiction here? There is no win state for this conflict. To win this race on their terms is to surrender to it, to accept their definition of success. Every winner joins the ranks of the Powerful and ensures the race continues.
Eventually, Wynand gives up. First he swings one way — toward Principle, trying to live his values in the real world for the first time. When this doesn’t result in monetary success — when he can’t win their race, on their terms, his way — he swings the other direction, and gives up, opts out, fades away. Hope, or suicide. Both are forms of surrender. Both are a need for the transcendent, an admission that he can no longer bear the conflict between the world he wants and the one he occupies.
That’s why I love this specific moment in the book, the first time we see Gail Wynand in person, when he sits on the edge of his bed, contemplating suicide. This feeling he describes, the reaching for significance, the desperate attempt to make this trivial little life mean something, an attempt that only gets more absurd the longer you try… I’ve spent my life in it.
It’s violent rage like a downed power line, whipping around inside you, and it feels like it’s destroying everything in there… and then in the next second it melts away into ridiculousness, banality, the inescapable stupidity of all of this. I feel pain and rage that make me want to tear at my skin to get it out, feelings so large I think this body can’t survive me trying to express them… and then I realize that I’m sitting there in silence and stillness, my face empty, no sign at all of this horrible, murderous storm inside me. That’s hilarious, and so fucking hurtful. I am nothing. All of my pain is nothing, no matter how big it feels. None of it matters, or ever can, and the fact that my experiences cause me pain when I know they’re meaningless… is hilarious.
Live for you.
It’s the thing that makes me want to kill myself a lot of the time, and it’s also the thing that has always stopped me from doing it, during years of blackout staring contests with razors and sleeping pills. I think the truth is that a lot of times, when the nasty little voice in your head starts suggesting that as a solution, and you’re all alone, with nothing between you and the means of exit… what stops you isn’t the hope of morning, the thought of life being worth living.
What stops you, a lot of the time, is that you can’t make your death meaningful enough to be more worth doing than slogging on. That cathartic apotheosis never comes. The moment when your suffering peaks, the soundtrack swells, and you swan dive off the ledge… nah, man, in real life it’s not like that. In real life it’s messy, there’s pigeon shit on your hand from the roof, or the bag you meant to put over your head has a logo on it, and do you really want “WAL*MART” to be the last thing you ever see? In real life these trivial little details crowd in, making every second of your last moments on earth so silly, goddamn it! You can’t kill yourself under these conditions!
That fucking moment. It’s so ugly, so vicious, isn’t it? And yet so petty, so funny. You are a person wondering whether to keep on living and nothing is so mockingly inescapable as the trivium. And being tormented by that simply underlines how trivial, how foolish and small your torment is.
That right there, that conflict… that’s absurdism. That’s where you live. That’s your motive power. All the rage and horror and contempt and self-loathing that fills you up when you look at how small and empty your life and your death both are… that’s an inexhaustible rocket fuel that gets replenished every time you’re confronted with bullshit. If your suffering inspires rather than enervates you, you become a perpetual motion machine.
Stop hoping to win. Stop giving up and accepting the loss. Their definition of success doesn’t have to be how you define yourself. Don’t live because you might one day win the race, fuck the race. Live for you, for nothing, for no reason at all. Wargames, guys. The only winning move is not to play.
I’ve been over this road a thousand times.
The troll under the bridge knows my first name.
Death has long since gotten bored of our game;
he just sits there, counting up my late fines.
Tried to tear the road up from the ground there —
you can see my blood caked on those pavers.
There’s where I swapped seven years for favors,
for the chance to keep on going nowhere.
Just keep on looking harder at my feet —
that’s the only scenery that changes,
the only way to know I haven’t stopped.
These days I ignore everyone I meet —
after all this time there are no strangers
and I know that this hill still has no top.