Facts I Can and Cannot Do Without: Vonnegut’s Mother Night and the American Totalitarian Mind | Comentale on Mother Night

Ed Comentale


Apparently, Kurt Vonnegut—beloved hippie hero of postmodern literature—almost became a Nazi. That’s what we learn, at least, in the first few surprising pages of Mother Night.

Vonnegut opens his 1961 novel by describing the wealthy German Hoosier clan into which he was born. He recalls “the vile and lively native American fascists” he grew up with in Indianapolis and remembers reading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a teenager. If he had been born in Germany, he casually drops, he would have probably been a Nazi, “bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around.” Vonnegut’s approach here is, as ever, darkly comic and deflating—at one point, he describes Nazi business as “monkey business”—but his humor masks a much more troubling personal past. In his early collegiate journalism, the author famously pushed for US isolationism during WWII, most likely because of his German background and family connections. Only after losing his scholarship and enlisting as a private, getting captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and enduring the Dresden firebombing did he come slowly to the pacifist stance that endeared him to the left. Arguably, all of Vonnegut’s trademark absurdity—its uneasy mix of black comedy and child-like sincerity—stems from these misadventures with Nazis both home and abroad. Most of his work before Slaughterhouse-Five frets anxiously around this past and often seems like a dry run for the direct confrontation that informs that most famous novel. The trauma of the age also seems to be the trauma of his style.

In all this, Vonnegut might be the best writer of the Trump era who just didn’t live long enough to experience it. In the media’s recent scramble to make sense of the current president and his supporters, many pundits have turned to literary examples from the past. They’ve been particularly eager to point out how the nightmare scenarios of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World anticipate the policies and fears that define the current political landscape. These mid-century dystopias no doubt provide grim parables for how the coordinated machinery of hate, censorship, and distraction could launch fascist movements in any time or place. We might, though, shed a brighter light on our home-grown fascism by turning to a home-grown writer. Vonnegut is the favorite literary son of Indiana, the Hoosier state, the very same state that birthed both the largest Ku Klux Klan branch of the twentieth century and our current vice president, Mike Pence. His often overlooked 1961 novel Mother Night most directly confronts the screwy logic of the American Nazi and defends the equally American values and institutions that might cut through it.

Accordingly, Mother Night is no easy read. The novel whips about madly in tone and style, and its central characters lack both charm and consistency. It contains some of Vonnegut’s most oft-quoted aphorisms—“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” for instance—but its moral compass seems to have gone haywire. A large part of this difficulty stems from the confusion of its protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., and his nearly inconceivable journey from propagandist to truth-teller. An American aesthete living in Germany at the start of the war, Campbell protects himself by crafting Nazi rhetoric for Goebbel’s ministry of alternative facts, but his obscene and virulent speeches also provide cover for his half-hearted work as an American spy, and he uses his radio broadcasts to send coded messages to the Allies. Campbell sees himself as largely apolitical, his poses merely expedients: “I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination,” he opines. His liberal commitment to abstract ideals—of love, art, freedom—renders him immune, so he believes, to the political ideologies and historical forces swirling around him. In this refusal, though, he becomes an all-too-modern villain, and Vonnegut criticizes him for serving “evil too openly and good too secretly.”

While Vonnegut’s books rarely provide easy answers, Mother Night pulls no punches when it comes to the warping of opinion and belief in times of political crises. In one of the first serious reviews of this work, author Doris Lessing observed that

He makes me remember—he rubs our noses in the results of our missed chances—that when Nazism was not stopped, but flowered (to succumb to the associations of the word) into the expected and forecast war, how soon our judgments became warped by the horribleness of what was going on. . . . What Vonnegut deals with, always, is responsibility: Whose fault was it all—the gas chambers, the camps, the degradations and the debasements of all our standards? Whose? Well, ours as much as theirs.

To Lessing’s point, Mother Night explores a decisively schizophrenic state of mind that should be familiar to anyone living through the current political crisis. Vonnegut’s characters have no problem both condemning and excusing the atrocities occurring around them. They can make love and spout hate in the same minute, honor and betray the very same friends, create and exterminate by turns. “All people are insane,” Campbell warily intones, “They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”

As for the decisively American Nazis in the novel, Vonnegut smartly strips their ideology of its familiar content. Sure, they seem to want to purify the race, but he effectively silences them, giving them no chance to spout any specific views or beliefs. At one point, he cuts off a race-baiting radio broadcast with a dismissive “And so on,” an early, but no less effective version of his most famous catch-phrase, “And so it goes.” By and large, these Nazis are a ragtag bunch of American losers, half-dead men of no love or imagination, living lives of “ghastly pointlessness,” feeding on their illusions of the past and unable to recognize the contradictions of their views. Most frightening, these Nazis have their own “truth”—a “sort of truth”—that would “probably be with mankind forever, as long as there were men and women around who listened to their hearts instead of their minds.” This truth, though, pertains solely to their own victimization, through which they interpret all facts and data.

Still, Vonnegut’s Nazis are primarily thinkers and theorists, screwball scholars of their own disenfranchisement. Vonnegut famously describes the totalitarian mind as a “snaggle-toothed thought machine”—a “cuckoo-clock in hell.” While it is still capable of higher reasoning, some of the teeth have been filed off its gears, so it can’t process certain essential facts or bits of information. Vonnegut’s Nazis are not simply dumb or delusional. They are deeply committed to facts and their minds function reasonably for most of the day, but they have willfully removed certain parts of their mental machinery, especially those parts that would allow them to recognize that they have done so. In the novel’s blackest scene, the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution dedicate their basement meeting to the theme of “His Truth Goes Marching On” and then precede to lecture their young recruits on Jews, hygiene, and the necessity of a good education. In turn, Campbell cries out, “never have I willfully destroyed a tooth on a gear of my thinking machine. Never have I said to myself, ‘This fact I can do without.’”

Vonnegut here anticipates every step of the current administration’s policies and their effect on public thought and discourse. One marvels at how so many well-functioning teeth are being filed off of our thought machinery via the spewing of alt-truth, the fissuring of news media along ideological lines, the banning of reporters from press conferences, the dismantling of public education via what will be a disastrous school voucher program, the manic tweetstorms of conspiracy theories and false allegation, the destruction of federal programs dedicated to research and the dissemination of knowledge in both the sciences and humanities. And so on. It’s not such a simple case of banning certain facts (Orwell) or distracting us from them (Huxley), but destroying the very machinery—both public and private—that allows them to function properly for us.

If Mother Night is a parable of modern US politics, though, it’s ultimately dedicated to showing exactly what it takes to wake yourself up. Campbell only recognizes his complicity in this irrational system once it coopts his most personal truths. His past, his memories, his loves and dreams: all he has thought and said has been taken up by the Nazi thought-machine and now returns to him as a nightmare. Believing himself free of history—of nation and politics and economics—he finds himself already caught up in its violent currents, used by them, over and over again. Ultimately, despite Vonnegut’s own claims, Mother Night suggests there is no such thing as a “man without a country,” no placeless self or artist. Nationhood sticks to us at every turn; anything one might think or say is already embedded in a system of meaning and power. Campbell comes to feel “like a pig that’s been taken apart, who’s had experts find a use for every part. By God—I think they even found a part for my squeal! The part of me that wanted to tell the truth got turned into an expert liar! The lover in me got turned into a pornographer! The artist in me got turned into ugliness such as the world has rarely seen before.”

But such piggishness is here the origin of moral conviction, and so Campbell, erstwhile propagandist, rededicates himself to facts and the historical record. He stalks the archives, writes down everything, fact-checks it all, commands a small army of research assistants, and labors over addenda and appendices. In the end, used up and emptied out by a system that once seemed to serve his own privilege, he becomes no more than his “curiosity and a pair of eyes” and willingly turns himself into the authorities—the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals, to be exact—and supplies all of the evidence needed to undergo a trial of his past crimes. He becomes, in a word, a researcher—of his own soul and its place in the world. And his lone battle in this regard can only take place in what remains of the formal educational and journalistic institutions of democracy.

It’s strange to see such a moral—a moral commitment to realism and history and public deliberation—come from the pen of Kurt Vonnegut, America’s favorite postmodern trickster. It’s stranger to see it come out of the Hoosier state, the heart of the American heartland—the “reddest state in the Midwest,” which went red again like a gun wound on November 8, 2016. But America is a large and bewildering country, and it’s designed to produce such beacons in the strangest of places. Vonnegut’s novel is a plea to protect novelists, journalists, scholars, and archivists everywhere as they continue to scope out and protect the truth within the current darkness. His conviction is perhaps best summarized by his late-career claim that the America he loves exists “not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House Representative, or the media, but the front desks of our public libraries.” We would do well to remember that the battle against “anti-democratic bullies” in America is just as heated there as any court house or street rally.