Kurt Vonnegut and the totalitarian mind

Until last week, I had never read a word of Kurt Vonnegut. But given my growing interest in American fiction, I felt pulled toward his work. This raised a crucial question for me. Where to begin? Of course, Slaughterhouse 5 is his most famous, so I couldn’t go there. Too simple, it doesn’t scratch my persistent itch to be a contrarian. Instead, I picked at random, and ended up with Mother Night, a 170-page novel that is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

Mother Night is the fictitious diary of a Nazi war criminal, but not the kind of war criminal you’d immediately think of. He wasn’t a guard at Auschwitz, or a member of the Gestapo. Howard W Campbell Jr was a copywriter. He came up with ads – what we might, in some circles, now call ‘content’ – for the Nazi state, circulated anti-Semitic zingers, and designed memes that would soften up the world to Nazi ideas. In the process, he was used by the Americans to smuggle secrets out of Germany, and so helped bring down the regime he was part of. Oh, what this story would look like if it were written today.

The book is fantastic. On the back of my copy, it calls it ‘black satire’, but as I tore through it in a single morning at a coffee shop, I found myself underwhelmed by such a description. Mother Night is not just for those in for a grim laugh or classic Vonnegut quips about men who ‘died with an erection’ – though you will get that – it is a serious piece of art.

By focusing on an ordinary man who struggles every day with whether what he has done was excused, Vonnegut is able to makes a rather uncomical argument about the nature of good and evil in the world.

As I’ve reflected in my past review of The Brothers Karamazov, I think it is very important not to see people, but actions, as good and evil. And, more importantly, that evil actions are usually undertaken not out of malice, but cowardice. Mother Night makes a similar point, but it twists it a new direction.

The book’s main character, Howard W Campbell Jr, is not strictly speaking a coward. He is not even really a Nazi. Instead, he is a collaborator.

This term is one I first encountered studying the history of Korea, though I’m sure it is older and more widely used than that. Early Korean nationalist writers and thinkers, under imperialist Japanese rule, made a habit of conceptualising everyone in society as either a resister, actively standing in the way of fascist expansion, or a collaborator, whose participation allowed fascism to continue holding power. A person looking out for themselves, either by working for the Japanese, or the Nazis, in the case of Vonnegut’s protagonist, must be condemned. To some, even not actively taking part in the resistance was collaboration.

Kurt Vonnegut

Even more extremely, those who collaborated for the sake of ‘change from within’, the way Howard Campbell does, were traitors to these thinkers, as their participation was considered a tacit approval of a fascist system.

When I was younger, I was taught that everything we do either brings us a step closer to or takes us a step away from God. These Koreans argued that in the same way, everything we do in a society brings us a step closer to or takes us a step away from fascism. Perhaps, on reflection, there is a reason Korea has taken so warmly to Christianity.

Howard Campbell played no violent part in any of the Nazi’s terrible deeds, in fact, his sins, it could be argued, are neutralised, forgiven, by the role he played as a spy in the allied war effort. Yet his guilt is clear, both to himself and others, in the novel.

While Vonnegut paints his collaborators in the book as guilty, he is sure to give credit where it’s due, and in doing so, presents them as sufficiently complicated people. On each occasion of terrible sin, he acknowledges they had to make very difficult choices, even if, in his view, they made the wrong ones.

My favourite example of how Mother Night shows Vonnegut’s understanding the nature and temptation of collaboration is actually not Campbell. It is a Jew he meets in Israel, Arpad, who worked as an undercover member of the SS for the Nazis.

His conversation with Campbell goes like this:

‘Nobody ever suspected you?’ I said.

‘How would they dare?’ he said. ‘I was such a pure and terrifying Aryan that they put me in a special detachment. Its mission was to find out how the Jews always knew what the SS was going to do next. There was a leak somewhere, and we were out to stop it.’ He looked bitter and affronted, remembering it, even though he had been the leak.

“Was the detachment successful in that mission?’ I said.

‘I’m happy to say,’ said Arpad, ‘that fourteen SS men were shot on our recommendation. Adolf Eichmann himself congratulated us.’

‘You met him, didn’t you?’ I said.

‘Yes –’ said Arpad, ‘and I’m sorry I didn’t know at the time how important he was’

‘Why?’ I said.

‘I would have killed him’ said Arpad.

While Vonnegut shies from a harsh judgment in the story, leaving it up to readers to decide whether what Arpad did was wrong, it is clear that he missed his opportunity to really change the system. The truth is, Arpad did nothing serious about fascism ‘from within’. Despite his years of double agency, all he achieved was the killing of 14men, almost certainly some of whom were Jews.

This is Mother Night’s central question: is contributing to a fascist system ever ethical, no matter what you can ‘change from within’? Without spoiling the ending of such a great reading experience, I don’t think Vonnegut thinks it is.

Good, evil, and everything in between are beautifully explored in such a short piece of work in Mother Night, and my first exposure to Vonnegut’s work frankly blew apart my expectations, in a good way. If you’re interested in poignant, clever, readable, and thought-provoking fiction, and if like me, you are watching the world with cautious worry and feel the sands of fascism may be moving again, Mother Night is perfect for you.

The poster for a theatrical adpatation of Mother Night

To end, a favourite quote, as always. Vonnegut is rather quotable after all, and I had to stop reading in the coffee shop and walk home just to think this one over, it hit me so hard. It is longer than a quote on this occasion, really a whole excerpt, but I have been absolutely itching to share it.

As part of a long section where Campbell is considering the American fascists who offer to take care of him for his ‘service to the cause’, he has this analogy to make:

“I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even by a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.

The dismaying thing about the totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth which are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.

Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell. Keeping perfect time for eight minutes and twenty-three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.

The missing teeth of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year olds, in most cases.

The wilful filing off of gear teeth, the wilful doing without obvious certain pieces of information is how (fascism) happens.

That is the closes I can come to examining the legions, the nations of lunatics I have seen in my time.”

Then, he reflects on himself.

“There are teeth missing, God knows – some I was born without, teeth that will never grow. And other teeth have been stripped by the clutchless shifts of history.

But never have I wilfully destroyed a tooth on a gear of my thinking machine. Never have I said to myself ‘that is a fact I could do without.’”

A beautiful reflection, and especially poignant today. But does it excuse Vonnegut’s man of his crimes? Surely, each person can only answer that one for themselves.

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