Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 novel, Mother Night, dealt with the questions he tackled later in his more widely read novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Questions of war, morality, and the 20th century stand front and center in both works.  Vonnegut's like the mad professor enticing you into his office and then proceeds to rip apart the fabrics of your belief system.  

Mother Night's protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, is an American native who has spent most of his adult life in Germany.  He's well known in the German theater as a crowd pleasing, apolitical playwright. While Campbell feels some antipathy towards the Nazis, he also acknowledges they are just "people after all."  Before the war, he is approached by an American spy who recruits him to provide information to the Allies. In time, Campbell rises to the top in Goebbels' propaganda ministry by way of his radio broadcasts endorsing the Nazi philosophies of racism and paranoia.

Throughout the book, Vonnegut often vears into meta-fictional asides.  In one instance he summarizes Campbell's play, A Nation of Two, which imagined a couple in wartime Germany who put all their politics aside and pledge loyalty to nobody (or idea) but their love towards each other.  If only things were that simple.  For the world Vonnegut paints, there's no middle ground between embracing a cause and standing completely outside of it.  During the Second World War any thinking person faced the temptation to stand back and scoff at fascism, communism, and democracy with equal amounts of cynical resignation.  But only if one had the luxury of distance.  No matter what we do or don't do; history's footsteps have a way of catching up.  

When intellectuals try to rationalize war you know some bad stuff is about to go down. Ezra Pound invented modernism and championed the careers of many great writers, but also evangelized for Mussolini.  Ivy League educated WASPS masterminded the Vietnam War.  Or think of all the tracts written to justify the "War on Terror" with titles likes "The End of Evil."  Even Albert Einstein, one of the greatest spokesman for peace, had a part in creating the A-bomb. Modern history thrives on moral relativity and that's an issue, possibly the most worthwhile, for 21st century literature to take up.  

Mother Night begs many questions: What is the use of art?  Does being "cultured" make you a moral person?  A better person?  Not really, I believe Vonnegut would say.  There's something Fascistic about making grand all embracing statements about anything whether one be critic, historian, or philosopher. 

Campbell's belief in art fails him at every turn as the Nazis use him to espouse an aesthetic of purity and hatred.  Art did not prevent the holocaust nor did love prove enough to save Campbell's loved ones.  As Vonnegut wrote, "The hare of history once more overtakes the tortoise of art" (261).  Nazi propaganda helped Germans rationalize their crimes against humanity. As part of the "spin" machine, Campbell can never distance himself from the moral ambiguities of his world.  In the end, Who are we anyway? The identity by which the world knows us? Or what we believe to be the truth in our minds?  Haunting, Haunting, questions. .