Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads about Trauma
Kurt Vonnegut begins this book with an autobiographical story, one that he told in more detail in the novel Slaughterhouse 5. It is the story of his imprisonment as a captured US private in Dresden during the allied firebombing of this formerly untouched city during WWII - an act of retribution and atrocity that he, who had to help clean up the aftermath, found incomprehensible, reprehensible, and that created, in many ways, I think, the mindset that became the voice of his novels. And the voice of his novels is a cynical one.
Colum McCann, a contemporary writer who has written about such things as the 9/11 bombings, is cited in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article (6/2/13) as predicting about the kids and teachers who survived the Sandy Hook shootings that their struggle against cynicism would be a struggle they would carry on for the rest of their lives.
Vonnegut enters into this struggle armed with two things - things that he names in another book, Cat's Cradle, a Grand Falloon and a dupras. He said something like "To understand the nature of a Grand Falloon (and here I am quoting from 40 something year old memory so please forgive errors) take the skin off a toy balloon." That is, that all groupings of people - he used the example of Hoosiers in Cat's Cradle though here and elsewhere he is talking about Nazis and Allies - are essentially arbitrary. We are not different - but alike - including in our being fallible and even evil, especially when we create arbitrary distinctions and act on them to harm others. The antidote that he proposes, somewhat feebly, is the dupras - a romantic love that is so intense that the two people become fused - the lines between them fall away and they function as one person.
So the novel Mother Night is about a writer - a kind of hack, sappy romantic writer - certainly someone who could be a cynical version of the author - who has American citizenship but is born and raised in Germany, writes some plays, and chooses to stay there during the war. Recruited to be a spy, he sends messages that he does not understand by coughing at prescribed times during hate filled vindictive racist rants that he concocts and transmits on short wave radio in English as part of the German attempt to indoctrinate the English and Americans to join the Nazi world view. The premise of the novel is that he has been captured as a war criminal (for the second time - his functioning as a spy led him to be able to escape the first capture and move to New York), and he is writing his memoirs in Israel immediately before his trial.
What intrigues me about the novel is Vonnegut's simultaneous acknowledgement and disavowal of the power of the writer. He, in the voice of the playwright/spy/propagandist dismisses his rants as lies - and disavows the pain they may have caused others because he, the author, creator and deliverer, did not believe them. And yet he also castigates himself and believes that he should be punished for what he has done. He makes fun of those who would trade in hatred - lampooning them as internally inconsistent laughable dimwits who come to the aid of the writer because he is their hero. This masterful and very funny playing, however, does not ring true. What Vonnegut would have us join him in cynically laughing at is someone - or something - that is much more powerful than he is comfortable with - the power of words to destroy lives - even entire cities of people - because they are different, or because they held responsible for our ills, even if they, in fact, have nothing to do with them.
Vonnegut sees - I think painfully - how he is not different than Hitler - or the Allied high command who ordered the Dresden bombings, bombings of a city untouched by war because it had no tactical value and bombed purely as retribution - in that he offers ideas - and these ideas may have consequences that he cannot foresee. So he emasculates his ideas, blunts them, making them laughable, and his characters laughable, because to appreciate their evilness - his own evilness - directly would be unbearable.
To make matters worse, the hero's dupras turns out to have unforeseen complications that undermine the premise of romantic love as a safe haven. The hero is left with no haven, and really feels no compelling reason to live. He, like the existentialists, does not apparently see meaning in living. I think, however, it is the cynicism that gives the author away. I think that he is, in fact, deeply and terribly in love with living. He is as sensually gratified by life as by the beautiful woman who is his enthusiastic duprastic partner. And he turns away from it because he is angry at how disappointing it has turned out to be. Instead of discovering Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, Vonnegut found thousands of charred bodies that need to be disposed of. The terrible destruction - the very real consequence of wielding power, has left him to turn out a series of books that capture the imaginations of teenage boys - or at least the teenage boy that this man used to be.
My own disappointments with authority, writ much smaller on a stage much less traumatic, found a sympathetic ear in Vonnegut's stories. Somehow I never read Night Mother until now. And at this stage in my life I find myself resonating with Colum McCann, acknowledging that it is a hard struggle to avoid cynicism, and, while I do not fault Vonnegut - he faced more horror than I can imagine - I am saddened that he lost the fight against cynicism. I think his powerful voice - one that is filled with wit, precision, and that can be poignant, was blunted by his fear of identifying with those who had wreaked havoc in so many ways with their power. He cautions us not to believe in anything - neither the power of the herd, nor the power of intimacy - to protect us from disappointment and despair.
While his position helped me build a useful teenage armor against the vagaries of the world (OK, truth be told, I did not get the cautions against the dupras and continued to imagine that romantic love could, if not conquering all, at least save my soul), it did not lead me forward towards an engagement that would have to be complex because it was with a complex, but also deeply interesting, enriching and rewarding world. I suppose I end up being as disappointed in Vonnegut as he was in Hitler, Eisenhower, and the rest of the powers that be because he, like they, did not use his powers for as much good as he might have. He cautions us against living because it is futile to try to escape an existence that harms others - in this book he notes that all the insight in the world does not prevent the hero from tragically wreaking havoc - but he does not leave much room for hope that even in our necessarily blinded state we might, through plumbing and harnessing our power and directing it as best we are able, do good. Instead he urges us to turn away from the world; to join him in his distancing disdain, something that will doom us to live in a world that we will not make better.
Post Script: After thinking about this post for a few days, I am aware of my own cynicism towards Mr. Vonnegut - something that surprises me given my earlier reverence for him. I read the on line commencement address attributed to him, and found an actual address that he had given. It was not as concise or witty or even in his style as the one that had, through urban legend, become his. Instead, he seemed a little uptight, overly tied to his script and even clumsy in his delivery (he did reference the "wear sunscreen" address at the beginning of his own address). That said, the message he was delivering was a very positive, supportive one and he was encouraging the graduates to make use of what they had learned while they went forth and engaged with the world. I think the tone I took in the blog above is related to at least two factors - I think that my cynicism towards the author mirrored his cynicism towards the world. I think I also wanted to distance myself from the disappointment I felt as I discovered some of the mud on the shoes on one of my early heroes - and channelled his means of managing such a disappointment, using his own weapon aganst him.
So it goes...
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