The Existential Contradiction of the (Fictional) Aaron Burr

After watching Hamilton streaming a few weeks ago, I found myself focused, to the exclusion of all others, on Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr. I am serious when I say that I thought about him for weeks. I reflected on the legacy of the real Aaron Burr. I thought about the resounding strength of narratives which treat their villains with compassion. I looked up the performer Leslie Odom Jr. and found him to be as spectacular a person as he is a performer. But above all, I returned again and again to Burr’s featured song ‘Wait for It’, and the fascinating central conflict of this character.

First, ‘Wait for It‘ is an E A R W O R M. My Spotify Discover Weekly is completely messed up now. Thanks to ‘Wait for It’ and my running playlist, Spotify believes I exclusively enjoy musicals and high-octane pop. But I digress. Lyrically, ‘Wait for It’ is fascinating because it tries articulate the Weltanschauung of a man who is hopelessly at odds with himself.

Hamilton, both the musical and the character, frame Burr’s ultimate flaw as lacking a central belief system. He’s a politician, not a statesman. He stands for nothing except his own career. But Burr’s ideological paralysis goes beyond mere opportunism. He sings:

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway.
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes.
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died

I’m willing to wait for it.
I’m willing to wait for it.
Wait for it Wait for it
Wait for it Wait for it

So in the first verse (and all the others) we have the Aristotelian view that meaning is man’s creation. There is no record keeper in the sky, no hand keeping score of rights and wrongs. We live, love, die, win and lose regardless of our moral luminance. And on top of that, Burr expresses the weight of his parents’ legacy, where Hamilton, born to nothing, has no such earthly burden.

But at every chorus, he contradicts himself. “If,” he says. “There’s a reason I’m still alive, I’m willing to wait for it.” It is difficult to read this as anything other than the Platonic notion that meaning is outside of man. Like the elusive objective truth, Burr’s reason is (potentially) out there, just waiting for him to happen upon it. Burr just isn’t sure what he believes. He hasn’t felt his reason yet. He hasn’t completely given up on it, either. He does not have Hamilton’s supreme self-assurance. He is therefore stuck.

Rather than being a continuity error, I think this actually expresses a common human condition. Non-religious types such as myself are quite happy to make meaning alone, or as the lifelong process of engaging with the world. But we, (ahem, I), cannot quite shake the feeling that one day, at the end of a long road, the sun will rise over a city on a hill, and we will meet a truth larger than these mortal daydreams.

Milan Kundera riffed on this idea in one of my favourite paragraphs in ‘The Joke’:

Do stories, apart from happening, have something to say? For all my skepticism, some trace of irrational superstition did survive in me, the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me also has a sense, that it means something, that life speaks to us about itself through its story, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live comprise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. Is it an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t rid myself of the need continually to decipher my own life.

Voice of Ludvik, who was expelled from the Communist party after his joke landed the wrong way and became a travelling cynic ever since.

The irony is that a trigger pulled too quickly, a failure to wait, inscribed the real Aaron Burr in the collective memory, and this inscription is as close to transcendent meaning as any of us will ever get.