Popular phrase these days (especially in the ultra-serious world of pro-sports): “We are who we are”. We take this as a rugged given – a masculine badge of honor. Kurt Vonnegut (hereafter “KV”) disagrees. We are what we pretend to be. This is followed by a warning: so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Our political stage is crowded with people who pretend to be something which they may or may not actually be. Holden Caulfield would have a gag reflex watching our so-called political “debates”. Phonies he would have called them.**
In Mother Night KV is acting as the editor of a book, The Confessions of Howard Campbell, Jr. A book within a book. Campbell is a self-styled American Nazi, and is writing his ‘confession’ jailed in Jerusalem as a war criminal. Campbell spent the war as a radio propagandist, working for Reichsleiter Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels. But before that, he was a rather successful author in Germany. Escaping Germany after the war, he had spent 15 years in New York before his capture and rendition to Israel. Running from his past. But as Campbell/KV observes the hare of history will always overtake the tortoise of art.
Israel’s argument was that propaganda was as much murder as the edicts of Himmler, the culpability of Eichmann. Campbell explained it like this:
I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!
Toward the end of his New York period, one of the people he comes into contact with is the Reverend Doctor Lionel Jason David Jones, D.D.S., D.D. Jones turns out to be a scurrilous racist and anti-Semite. Being a dentist, he posited the belief that all Negroes and Jews were “degenerate” based on an examination of their teeth. He only actively pursued his “beliefs” when he was not partnered with the great love of his life, Hattie. Both before Hattie and after she died, he went off the deep end. Love appears to trump – or at least temporarily submerge – hatred.
When Jones’ wife died, Jones felt the need to be reborn. He was reborn a thing he had been latently all along. Jones became the sort of racial agitator who is spoken of as having crawled out from under a rock. Jones crawled out from under his rock in 1928.
Having lived most of those 15 years with an extremely low-profile, suddenly he is uncovered. He begins to get letters volunteering for his firing squad. Everyone has an opinion. Not only Israel, but Germany wants to get their hands on him. Campbell observes
I doubt if there has ever been a society that has been without strong and young people eager to experiment with homicide, provided no very awful penalties are attached to it.
The newspapers have opinions on what is to be done with him. The New York Daily News editorializes that the best thing for him to do would be to off himself “like a gentlemen”. Presumably Hitler was a gentleman. It turns out though, that Campbell was a spy for the Americans, though they will neither confirm nor deny this. In other words, he is pretending to be someone else – and the warning in the introduction is fleshed out in the person of Howard Campbell. When he was recruited by a man calling himself Major Wirtanen (whom he calls “My Blue Fairy Godmother”), Wirtanen gives him a code to identify himself to his handlers. The code? A ditty from the Brownies, typical of Vonnegut’s strange juxtapositions and asides.
KV remains an author that has you chuckling out loud – and frequently.
KV uses the character of Campbell to put forth what I would tend to believe is KV’s own ‘article of faith’. From Santorum to Khomeini, this applies:
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.
The other side of the faith coin, the ‘love’ of man for God, is irrationally, the hatred of man for his fellow human beings that do not share his faith, his beliefs, or values. When the man who had originally taken Campbell into custody and then lost him finds him again after fifteen years, hatred simmering all the while, Campbell observes:
“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reasons ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants t0 hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.”
The trial of Adolf Eichmann (“the bureaucratic Genghis Khan” as Campbell calls him) began on April 11, 1961. Mother Night was published in that same year. KV uses the character of Campbell, this misunderstood war criminal, this secret double-agent to speak his mind on a number of subjects. As a “friend of the court”, Campbell had this vivid comment about Eichmann (whom he is shown meeting in a Tel Aviv jail):
Eichmann cannot distinguish between right and wrong – that not only right and wrong, but truth and falsehood, hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, comedy and tragedy, are all processed by Eichmann’s mind indiscriminately, like birdshot through a bugle.
Eichmann had asked for advice about writing at this passing meeting in Tel Aviv. Eichmann is writing his auto-biography. Later, when Campbell has been removed to his Jerusalem jail, he gets a note from Eichmann, asking him if he believes he should get a literary agent? Is it really necessary?
My reply was this: “For book club and movie sales in the United States of America, absolutely.”
KV’s book was later made into a movie, incidentally.
**Campbell and Resi both at some point pretend to be someone they are not. As do many other characters in the novel.