Campbell’s Confessions | Shapshay on Mother Night

Sandy Shapshay


Vonnegut’s first novel takes us into an automated, dystopian future; his second carries us deep into outer space; but Mother Night (1961), his third novel, brings us back to Earth and to the not-so-distant past. From the introduction we learn that Mother Night deals to some extent with what must have been the author’s own traumatic involvement as an American soldier in WWII and his time as a P.O.W. during the fire-bombing of Dresden.

The novel does not deal with Vonnegut’s experience directly, however. Mother Night is not his memoir, but rather, the memoir of the fictional Howard W. Campbell, Jr., and a few metafictional layers intervene between Campbell and Vonnegut. The introduction is by Vonnegut himself, who describes how he worked as a prisoner, making a delicious malt syrup for pregnant women—presumably only for pregnant Aryan women—in the city of Dresden, and how he survived the Anglo-American attack by hiding out in an underground meat cooler. After the flames subsided, he then worked to excavate and bury the many German corpses. Then there is Vonnegut the fictional editor of the American edition of “The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell Jr.” This Vonnegut has changed a few things—he has “lied” at times—but only in the interests of style and to attain a higher artistic truth.

After these framing devices, we are presented with the fictional Campbell’s confessions.

I found myself puzzled by the nature, purpose and audience of Campbell’s confessions, and I want to explore this topic in what follows.

The straight answer to this question is given on page 1, where Campbell explains that he addresses this book to “Mr. Tuviah Friedman, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of Nazi War Crimes, and to whomever else this may concern.” From this, it seems that what we have here is a legal confession. He is standing trial in Israel, and these confessions are, presumably, his way of pleading guilty to the crime of propagandizing for the Nazi cause.

Yet, the title that Campbell himself suggests for these confessions, “Mother Night,” a phrase taken from a speech by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, suggests that this is not simply—or perhaps even primarily—a legal confession. It is far too literary to constitute just a legal confession. Moreover, the use of the plural “confessions” brings to mind St. Augustine’s Confessions, and thus a different genre from the forensic confession of guilt.

Perhaps the purpose of Campbell’s confessions then is to present a spiritual narrative, à la Saint Augustine, in which the author tells the story of his life, and especially his misdeeds—his complicity with evil, his lust, his lack of zeal for doing good—and his subsequent regret and eventual salvation, presumably for the enlightenment of others?

But Campbell’s confessions don’t really express deep regret for his actions in love and war. First of all, he is unapologetic about his lust for Helga—the account of which borders on the pornographic at times—for this is really a deep love, even if it is a selfish kind of love that he and Helga share. Second, he does not express deep regret in helping propagandize for the Nazi regime; he is even rather proud of the artistry and effectiveness of his radio addresses as well as of the anti-Semitic targets he designed. And he never tries to disabuse the American Fascists of their beliefs about Jews, Negroes, Catholics, and Unitarians (among other hated groups). Instead, he plays along as the beacon for their cause.

Of course, he needs their help to keep leading a clandestine existence, but it is striking that Campbell never tried to make any amends for what he did during the war until he turns himself in to the Israelis to stand trial. Perhaps this is because he feels that his complicity with the Nazis is excused by his role as an American spy? That is a possibility, but I think the real purpose of writing these confessions, and his true regret comes out only at the very end of his memoir.

He decides to hang himself, he writes, “for crimes against himself”—not for crimes against the six million innocent Jews who were killed, or for millions of others killed in the war he helped to foster—but to repeat, for “crimes against himself.”

What were these crimes against himself?

It seems to me that fundamentally, Campbell regrets that he sold out his artistic talents for social advancement. In becoming a propagandist, he squandered a talent that should have created great works of literature. After the war, he is unable to write, he is used up. Used up, that is, until he goes to an Israeli jail and writes his confessions. So the crime for which he believes he deserves punishment is not following his inner purpose and talent: to be a great writer. He had become a political hack. But the confessions he produces are his last oeuvre, an attempt to reclaim his purpose; however, they are not enough to redeem him.

Interspersed through the confessions are some reflections on the nature and source of evil. There is an exchange with Eichmann, in which he is portrayed as more crazy than Hannah Arendt’s “banal” label suggests. And the most extended discussion of evil comes in the showdown with O’Hare, when Campbell says “There are plenty of good reasons for fighting . . . but no good reason 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 to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive” (251). Campbell himself never hated in that way, but he certainly fed the fires of hate during the war, though they were also vehicles for encoded messages to the U.S. government. His complicity with evil is complicated, for sure.

But I don’t think that Mother Night is really a novel about evil per se. It is first and foremost a novel about the power of art, to create something beautiful and, paradoxically, to tell the truth via artifice, or to create something ugly and to lie via artifice. Campbell’s central crime, it seems, is that he prostituted his artistic talent, putting it in the service of evil. His confessions are his final attempt to rescue his talent by using it in the service of truth.