The Banality of Irony | Harriss on Mother Night

Cooper Harriss


Mother Night finds Vonnegut back on terra firma, inhabiting the near past and present tense for the first time as he works out the vagaries of postwar life, coming to terms with virtue’s erosion and the illusion of innocence. Still, something is amiss. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be,” claims the novel’s “moral,” offered in Vonnegut’s own introduction, which is all well enough. But where does pretense lie in Mother Night? Can we take Howard W. Campbell Jr.—himself a pretense, a fiction, neither real nor true in any objective sense—at face value, or is it secret agents and self-delusion all the way down? In a novel whose protagonist’s defense rests on a claim to have subverted the Nazi propaganda he broadcasts (and for which he now stands trial) through the performance of certain “mannerisms, pauses, emphases, seeming stumbles in certain key sentences,” how does a reader, giving internal voice to Campbell’s narrative, locate possible subversions in this text? Must readers stumble, cough, and so forth? Must we try? What constitutes the borders of complicity? Even the innocent will hang in the end.

Vonnegut’s project in Mother Night strikes me as nothing less than an argument that there can be irony after Auschwitz. Barbaric or not, it remains an argument I find compelling for selfish reasons (and I won’t pretend that they’re not). I teach a class titled “Irony in Religion and Literature” (Mother Night may find inclusion in future iterations) in which I encourage students to consider both “religion” and “literature” as meaning-making enterprises. Sometimes the meanings are stable, but more often they are not. Life is complicated and the significance that human beings give it through literature and/or religion seeks to do justice to this instability, not to dismiss it as incoherent. The concept of irony allows us to hold multiple meanings, even contradictory truths, in tension, equipping us to contend with the absurdity of reality in meaningful ways—even (and especially) when there may seem to be no stable meaning. This is not a simple contradiction, robust cheering for the kid who drops the tray in the lunchroom. Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan are both shot through with such ironic moments, reversals, or quips. In Mother Night, however, we find Vonnegut’s most sustained reflection to date on irony as a—or, probably more accurately, the—human condition.

Something in each of these early Vonnegut novels, as we careen ineluctably toward Slaughterhouse-Five, attempts to grapple with his experience in Dresden—its horror, to be sure, but especially its absurdity. As the prisoner of a monstrous regime (“Nazi” has become synonymous with evil), Vonnegut bore witness to an unimaginable act of violence committed against one of its cities by the “good guys.” Mother Night offers a considerable, and I think historically daring, deployment of irony to trouble the “clear” ethical conclusions drawn from World War II as the “good” war—especially in the midst of the Cold War and escalations in Vietnam that not only drew on myths of US virtue but also expended vast stores of interventionist capital generated by its role as self-proclaimed world savior. Irony becomes a check, destabilizing virtue yet never quite abandoning it to hopelessness or nihilism. Another German American writer from the Midwest—Reinhold Niebuhr—wrote roughly a decade before Mother Night, describing a Cold War situation in which the US, “confident of its virtue,” ironically “hold[s] atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a world conflagration.” This is a tight spot, Niebuhr implies, and even a patently absurd one, but someone has to mind the store. Is that the way it goes?


Getting back to Vonnegut’s moral, though, I wonder to what extent we ought to trust it. My first thought was Twain’s “ORDER OF THE AUTHOR” in Huck Finn, claiming that anyone “attempting to find a moral in it will be banished.” On the other hand, Vonnegut’s moral resounds. Indeed it calls to mind two points of reference that offer some preliminary insight into Vonnegut’s irony in Mother Night. The first is Bob Dylan in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back (1967), reading a newspaper report claiming that he smokes more than 80 cigarettes a day. Remarks the protean singer, not yet twenty-four years old: “I’m glad I’m not me!” Second, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be,” echoes the title of Wendy Doniger’s book The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was (2005). Here’s Doniger’s opening paragraph:

Many cultures tell stories about people who pretend to be other people pretending to be them, thus in effect masquerading as themselves, impersonating themselves, pretending to be precisely who they are. This great theme, in literature and in life, tells us that many people must put on masks to discover who they are under the covert masks they usually wear, so that the overt mask reveals rather than conceals the truth, reveals the self beneath the self; and it tells us that, although such masquerades cannot change people into other people, they may change them into others among their many selves.

In the first instance, we find in Dylan a near-contemporary account to Mother Night that offers a sense of bewildered freedom through the disjuncture between the self that Dylan offers for consumption and the one that he performs for himself—never mind that this own, “real” self-performance takes place in front of another camera, and, as viewers, we the audience consume this self and deploy it for further mythologization. Another iteration—exhausted from touring demands, strung out from chemical and emotional exertion, depleted by the demands of fame and his status as generational spokesman—might register regret that he is not another self, not “me,” at that moment. A later film on Dylan, I’m Not There (2007), goes after this point by having some nine actors of different races, genders, and ages depict Bob Dylan—one who comprises many.

Through Doniger we affirm this notion that there is no one “true” self, first among the fray, just as through irony we may understand that there is no single, true virtue—even as it remains impossible to deny the possibility (or even the reality) of virtue. Such multiplicity and recalcitrant masking rules Mother Night: Campbell the traitor/hero, the German/American; his wife Helga, resurrected in love by Resi’s bed trick (Doniger has also written extensively on the trope of the bed trick)—even though she’s “actually” a Soviet spy (and no doubt many other things). Bernard B. O’Hare oscillates between magazine heroism and pathos. Adolph Eichmann, haloed in a prison photograph, writes his memoirs like some common asshole and encourages Campbell to “relax,” to engage in self-care: “Life is divided up into phases,” he says, “and you have to be able to recognize what is expected of you in each one.” One must follow orders; one must be, as Dylan would have it, “not me.” The catalog of such examples in Mother Night continues to the point of absurdity. Ironic existence remains meaningful because it characterizes human existence, but in practice such meanings, as they attend to plurality, become cliché—even absurd.

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) bears the subtitle A Report on the Banality of Evil. Describing Eichmann’s execution, she notes the many roles the condemned man plays in his final moments: epicure with a bottle of wine, important man too busy for pastoral care, a dignified presence until the very end. Yet, she writes:

He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while gentlemen we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany long live Argentina long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.

It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long lesson in human wickedness had taught is—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

Eichmann at his worst, for Arendt, doesn’t merely mastermind the murder of six million people but masquerades in the end as something unworthy of the scope of his deeds. He can only “be himself” by pretending to be another self.

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be. This moral is nothing short of the meaning of life and, yet—or rather consequently—it is a cliché. Arendt’s banality of evil is stupid and unimaginative, unconcerned with the magnitude that evil ought to require—and Vonnegut’s depiction of Eichmann certainly agrees. The banality of irony, on the other hand, of the quotidian disjuncture between pretended selves that marks human being, offers a manageable pretense for negotiating the vagaries of human life. If humankind cannot handle too much reality, irony’s vague contingency helps hold things together on the surface while we—our many selves—work things out below.