Wherein Kurt Vonnegut Meets Alex Jones | Sheldon on Mother Night

Rebekah Sheldon


Kurt Vonnegut opens Mother Night, his third novel, by explaining that he is not and never has been a Nazi. The closest he came was a youthful encounter with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion when he was a kid in the ’30s in Indianapolis.

The Protocols is one of the most infamous examples of what currently travels under the moniker of fake news. Ostensibly the minutes from a series of secret meetings outlining a Jewish plot for world dominance, The Protocols has been shown repeatedly to be a fabrication plagiarized in large part from Maurice Joly’s Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. Published in Russian in 1903, it got a boost in the American scene through a series of articles that appeared in Henry Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.

It reminds me of an anecdote I read recently in Mattias Gardell’s compelling monograph Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Supremacy about one of the first Holocaust deniers, the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell. Gardell relates that in 1959 Rockwell wrote and published “a bogus story by a fabricated SS corporal relating how Jewish concentration camp inmates were used for vivisection experiments” (48). Rockwell then cited the falseness of this story (a story he concocted) to demonstrate the falseness of all claims for the authenticity of the Holocaust. In other words, he hoaxed a hoax to show that the Holocaust is a hoax.

When I first read Mother Night a year or so ago, I wasn’t thinking much at all about Nazis or about fakes and forgeries. But suddenly all of this feels unavoidably contemporary, and it has got me thinking about postmodernism. Vonnegut is a postmodern writer, after all, whose novels have striking new currency in the contemporary period. Are we still postmodern, then, contrary to literary critical claims to the contrary? What is the relation of the contemporary to the postmodern?

There are plenty of ways to teach postmodernism, but I tend to take it from the atom bomb outward. If the modernist thing is centripetal, tending toward increasingly tight circles around a missing middle of meaning, then postmodernism is the explosive detonation of its spiraling intensity in a centrifugal splatter of contexts and contents: pink plastic disposable tampon applicators landing next to masterworks reprinted on shower curtains all against a background of total warfare, police violence, and political torture. But it’s more serpentine than this suggests. It’s also a dislocation of scale, of the foundational assumptions of space and time. New materials like plastic distort our sense of the temporal as the most ephemeral of things become the most long-lasting, like the plastic water bottle lasting generations beyond the minutes it takes to use. Yet things that once took weeks or months now happen in hours or days, the shipment guaranteed to arrive within two days of order. The same is true of space. Things that are far away come close, as in the fallout from nuclear weapons testing, whereas close things have impacts halfway around the world, as in unmanned drone strikes.

How to represent this plosive, speedy, cartoonish, and deadly world? This, I tell my students, is the problem of postmodernism, and it’s why postmodernists turn to metafiction, satire, pop conspiracy, allusion, and genre fiction. It’s why so much postmodernism trades in the zany and the arch, especially at its most serious. For a good part of the problem is not just about a failure of representation but also about an overabundance of mediation. Media and communications technologies are a crucial part of the weird relations of time and space in postmodernism. They connect otherwise unconnected places, preserve the past in the present, and mirror our ideal selves in the sitcom and the family photograph. Images from all over the world enter the home through the television set, advertisements tell us how to act, dress, eat, shop, and love. The real experience becomes a sign or reflection of its mediation. The picture loses its status as a trace or residue and becomes instead its most authentic reality—“picture or it didn’t happen.” In a world like this, in which everything is already multiply mediated and the self merely a polite fiction, the only thing to do is to perform performance.

Mother Night’s several beginnings provide us with an excellent example of the postmodern play with mediation. Consider: The novel opens with a little author’s introduction in which a first person speaker, presumptively Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., tells us the moral of the story we are about to read—the only one of his stories, the speaker claims, that has a clear moral. “We are what we pretend to be,” he says, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (v). Here already we have some tricky switchbacks. Vonnegut tells us that we become what we pretend to be, so we should be careful about pretending. From a certain vantage, we might conclude that the lesson is to be authentically ourselves, but this would be to neglect the vagaries of pretending. What does it mean to pretend? If pretending becomes us, then how do we know when we have already begun to pretend? How can we discriminate between the selves we already are and the pretending we may or may not have been doing before putting the question? These are as much questions about how the self works (or the performative effects of speech acts) as they are about how we know (or critical hermeneutics).

Let’s ignore this nest of questions for a moment for the richer paradoxes of the next chapter. Vonnegut signs his introduction with a place and a date, the two bits of information acting like a signature, the trace of his real person in a real place and time. Those words say, I am the author. I wrote a story. It has a lesson. Here it is. Jarringly, then, the next chapter is an Editor’s Note, presumably also a part of the book’s framing apparatus and not a chapter at all. It’s a straightforward discussion of the various choices the editor has made in preparing the autobiographical manuscript The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. The “Introduction” had already told us that Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the writer, had almost no relationship with Nazis outside of the German-American community he grew up in. Still, that doubled Jr. rings just a bit too true, especially when the opening discussion of the editor’s note concerns lying, and more specifically a discussion of how one might distinguish a liar from an artist. Campbell Jr., the Editor tells us, was the sort of person for whom “the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie” (ix). Of course, this artistry, the Editor amends, could very well produce “the most beguiling forms of truth” (x) but they are nonetheless morally corrupting. The Editor’s own contributions were mostly undertaken in the interest of protecting the innocent or of assuring full accuracy, except for one bit he recovers from a rejected chapter. It is a dedication, in the course of which Campbell Jr. writes that he “would prefer to dedicate [the book] to one familiar person, male or female, widely known to have done evil while saying to himself, ‘A very good me, the real me, a me made in heaven, is hidden deep inside’” (xiii). It is with this insight that Campbell decides to rededicate the book to himself, “Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times” (xiii). The whole is then signed by the Editor himself, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and after a new title page and epigraph the book opens on its first chapter with the words, “My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.”

So you see: the arch and the zany, the mediated and the performative. If we took them at face value, the Introduction and the Editor’s Note should have moved us progressively closer to the authentic and authoritative voice of the Confessions. Instead, the appearance of depth generated by this nesting box structure collapses in on itself, pulled flat by the three Jrs. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (KVJr) the Author of the Introduction cannot be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr the Editor because KVJr the Author claims authorial privilege over the contents and meanings of the book as a work of fiction. KVJr the Editor, who relates to the manuscript as an independently composed autobiography, must then necessarily be a fictional mask of KVJr the Author. Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (HWCJr) never had much more than a wink-and-a-nod sort of independent reality, since the novel only ever performs the conventions of the prison confessions. Yet that Jr. at the end of his name (and the structure of repeated KVJrs) in fact gives HWCJr more substance than he might otherwise have had. The repetition of slant-Is warrants interpreting HWCJr as perhaps the most real KVJr., at least if we remember that “we are what we pretend to be” (v).

So who, then, is Vonnegut? And exactly what sort of confession is he making here? Remember that Campbell dedicates the book to the “very good me . . . hidden deep inside” (xiii). KVJr the Author tells us that he was not a Nazi and had nothing much to do with Nazis. HWCJr was a Nazi, at least for pretend, as a spy for the Americans. If HWCJr hides goodness behind the mask of evil, what does HWCJrs mask for KVJr? For there is something quite sincere under all of these ironic reversals and metafictional contrivances. Perhaps it is what KVJr the Author says of himself: “If I’d been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides” (viii). Postmodernity leaves so much room for complicity even in its arch self-awareness, but there is actually something quite sincere in the idea of the Nazi’s own “secretly virtuous insides.” KVJr isn’t talking about the American spy here, but of who he himself might have been if he had been born in Germany: an everyday Nazi. To nonetheless name his inside virtuous is to argue, at least by implication, that Nazi actions, no matter how ugly, express sincerely held beliefs, ones they might call virtuous even if I would not. That same George Lincoln Rockwell picketed the Israeli consulate in LA with a sign reading “What’s Wrong With Gas Chambers for Traitors?” (48).

What, after all, does it mean to “bop” a Jew? Is that the sound Betty Boop makes after she giggles? Cartoon boots sticking out from snowbanks like a Charlie Brown Christmas special have no reverse image. That one stays zany, ridiculous, tragic, and neutered of the banal, methodical, and tireless violence of genocide.

But I promised to say something about the contemporary and its fulfillment of the postmodern. Here it is: Here we are, good postmodern readers trained in the sinuous movements of irony and the self-canceling gymnastics of all texts and so of course we know what’s real and what’s not. Of course we would never mistake a work of fiction for a real memoir. But The Protocols of the Elders of Zion reminds us that such readings miss the very thing Mother Night points out: It’s always possible that such fine interpretive architecture of code words and secret identities might collapse. That we might be taken at our word.

So which is it? Postmodern irony or contemporary sincerity? Or is the lesson here that the contemporary is just as much of a contortionist as the postmodern?

Let’s take a final example in the divorce and custody case against Alex Jones of Infowars. Jones’s own lawyers attested that “Alex Jones” was a fabricated identity created purely for entertainment, much as Donald Trump’s people have claimed that “Donald Trump” the candidate can’t be taken as identical to “Donald Trump” the President of the United States of America. Yet these interpretive niceties operate within rhetorical contexts that wholly account for their “truth.” Jones immediately distanced himself from his distancing of himself from his television personality by arguing that his lawyers were “fake news.”1 He believes in his conspiracy theories. They had to say that he didn’t believe in them for the court to side with him in the custody battle, much as President Trump didn’t really want to change the travel ban but was forced to do so for the politically correct judges. Is Jones sincere and the situation merely ironic? Or is he a masterful ironist? Perhaps the only answer I can give is the unsatisfying one that these terms themselves no longer work. Jones is both sincere and ironic, both real and fake. He wants us to sincerely believe that he believes the things he knows are untrue, and untruthfully declares himself sincere about the truth.

Perhaps the best word for these strange and sinuous sincerities would be derived from foma, a term that Vonnegut coins in his next novel, Cat’s Cradle, for the harmless lies that make life better. These, of course, would have to be named by a term a bit less lighthearted. Perhaps we could call them dooma, virulent untruths offered with sincere insincerity.


1. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/conspiracy-theorist-alex-jones-trial-10-wtf-moments-w479317