What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Fountainhead
by Ayn Rand

Field-Tested by Ben Karlin

in Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel

When I was twenty, I was a totally different kind of asshole.

I had no identifiable philosophy or governing belief system other than a vague western secular humanity rooted, ever-so-slightly, in W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of a “Talented Tenth”... though I may not have known what any of the preceding words and ideas meant. If you understand the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy, then you can understand the difference between potential asshole and kinetic asshole. I was pure potential.

A high school friend was studying abroad in Israel. I planned to visit him for 10 days, staying with him for a part of the time and traveling on my own for the remainder of the trip. I started reading The Fountainhead on the plane, thinking about pilgrims, spiritual journeys, and crusaders, but within hours, moving on to modern architecture and a complete repudiation of the past.

My days in Jerusalem were spent making forays into the old city, its whiteness blinding and thrilling me. I had never reached back that far into history. Salem, Massachusetts was as far back as I could fathom. Not even that. Maybe the House of the Seven Gables. But this, this Jerusalem, was old. And people were still living there — in stone buildings that, to me, might as well have been caves.

My nights were split into two. First, discovering how argumentative Israelis can be (the answer: very). And second, curled up in a sleeping bag on my friend’s floor, engrossed in a story of intellectual bravery that in no way struck me as fascist.

A few days into my trip, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial that makes you cry, extremely hard. Stripped bare, and emotionally drained, I found an inappropriate analog in Rand’s story. Wasn’t renegade architect Howard Roark’s persecution over building design essentially the same thing?

As I fell deeper and deeper into the book, I ventured further in the Israeli hinterlands, leaving the northern cities for the southern desert, a land of immigrants and sadness. (Everything there has a thick coat of sadness. And also olives.)

The final part of my trip took me out of the desert city of Beersheba and around the Dead Sea. On my way to Masada, I thought it would be funny to stop in Sodom and Gomorrah to see what all the fuss was about. There were signs indicating the towns still existed, which surprised me, since I seem to recall them going out with a bang. Hey-ooooooo! Sorry, even in writing I couldn’t resist.

I was traveling alone by bus, and after arguing with Israelis, finding a giant scorpion adjacent to my sandals, and the Holocaust memorial meltdown, I felt like I needed to visit someplace purely for irony’s sake. I was excited to get off the bus and experience these legendary cities. The story of Lot’s wife is one of the most resonant in the Bible — since all she had to do was not look back, and she wouldn’t have been turned to salt. But isn’t that just like a human, to not do what they are told? To look when they are supposed to turn away? Humans. What are you going to do about them? Turn them into salt, I guess.

As the bus drew closer to Sodom, the pages wound down in The Fountainhead. A climactic trial. A courtroom speech. These novel dramatic devices pulled me in — so much so that when the bus finally approached the marker for the town, I made a critical decision: I would not get off. I wanted to stay, right there, in my window seat, catching desert and sea and salt with my peripheral vision only. I would skip both Sodom and Gomorrah, push on through to Masada. The book had become more important.

And there, in the shadow of a mount, I read Ayn Rand’s final words. I hiked to the top, where an isolated, outnumbered band of doomed souls had held their ground, until murder by their own hands proved a better option than Roman ruin. I studied the details of the fortress, trying to launch myself backwards in time, to when all things were a matter of life and death.

But there was only the sea and the sky and well, nothing else.

Ben Karlin is the former executive producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” He also co-authored America: The Book (A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction). Prior to that, he was editor of The Onion. His latest book is a humor anthology called Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me. You can get it here.

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