Jack describes how he and Babette often talk about which one of them will die first. He explains that they both want to be the first to go, so that they don’t have to endure the pain of living without the other.
This endearingly melodramatic conversation further illustrates how consumed Jack and Babette are by the notion of death; the fact that this is a frequent subject of discussion speaks to just how prominently mortality figures into their everyday thoughts.
All department heads at the College-on-the-Hill wear academic robes, a formality Jack loves because of the powerful elegance it lends his gestures. Because there is no building dedicated solely to Hitler studies, the department shares its offices with the popular culture department, which the college calls American Environments. This department is made up of New York émigrés who are all intensely erudite and liable to engage in long conversations about culture and trivia. This is how Jack meets Murray Jay Siskind, a new visiting lecturer who specializes in studying “living icons.” After asking Jack to lunch one day, Murray tells him that he hopes to achieve with Elvis what Jack has with Hitler—namely, he wants to corner the market such that any other Elvis scholar must first defer to him before embarking on an academic treatment of the icon.
Power and authority emerge as desirable traits in the academic context of the College-on-the-Hill. From Jack’s calculations of his physical gestures in his robes to Murray’s assertion that he wants others to have to go through him before they can study Elvis, it is clear that DeLillo is poking fun at the intellectual world’s hidden obsession with dominance. Intellectuals, he shows, are clearly not immune to craving authority. For both Jack and Murray, academia provides a context in which they can build powerful, respectable identities.
Several days after their lunch, Jack and Murray visit a barn outside of Blacksmith that is advertised as THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. Furiously scribbling notes, Murray tells Jack that nobody can truly see the barn since everyone is preoccupied by taking pictures of it. He then concludes that the tourists surrounding them are “taking pictures of taking pictures” and that this has created an “aura.” “‘What was the barn like before it was photographed?’” he asks Jack. “We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura.’”
DeLillo often uses Murray as a way of expressing highly abstract ideas that are thematically important to the book while also making fun of the absurd erudition of a self-obsessed academic. In this moment, Murray advances the idea of an “aura,” which can be interpreted in multiple ways, either as a religious glow, a general ambiance, or an ominous warning. That the tourists have created this aura by taking pictures of the barn indicates DeLillo’s idea that consumerist tendencies both draw people to something while simultaneously rendering them unable to fully see or understand what that thing actually is. The aura created by consumerism, then, is both alluring and blinding.