In the recently released docufilm, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, filmmaker Robert B. Weide captures the extraordinary life of the celebrated author. Its release brought to mind Vonnegut’s ideological inclination toward moral relativism, which altered my outlook on life as a young adult enthralled by what is possibly his second most popular novel, Mother Night.
The author introduces his novel by stating, “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Mother Night, Vonnegut delves into real, historical events, illustrating the brutality of the Second World War in which he participated as a soldier. A protagonist of his experiences, his life is reflected in that of his characters.
Shortly after Vonnegut enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 20, he shipped off to Europe and was almost immediately captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. As a prisoner of war, he was a witness and accidental survivor of the Bombing of Dresden, which took the lives of an estimated 60,000 people.
To better understand the traumatic experience that marked Vonnegut, triggering his post-traumatic stress and depression, a brief description is entailed in the following paragraph; reader discretion is advised.
As accounted by William Rodney Allen in A Brief Biography of Kurt Vonnegut:
“On February 13, 1945, British and American bombers destroyed the city by dropping high explosives followed by incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorm turned the non-militarized city into an inferno that killed up to 60,000 civilians. Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived by accident only because they were housed some 60 feet underground in a former meat locker and slaughterhouse… For several weeks after the bombing, Vonnegut was obligated to gather and burn the remains of those perished. It was this experience that scarred him for life and eventually resulted in his literary masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Vonnegut’s familiarity with death indisputably tainted his perspective on life, which manifests itself in the conclusive revelation that moral boundaries are irrelevant, having stated “I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will” (Vonnegut, Mother Night). To Vonnegut, the moral struggle isn’t between the undeniably evil and the absolute good; rather, the possibility that good people are capable of bad things, and vice versa.
Mother Night follows the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American man whom, after moving to Germany at age 11 with his parents, casts roots and decides to stay despite his parents’ return when Hitler rises to power. Leaving behind his national identity, Campbell marries a German woman and thrives as a popular playwright in the Nazi nation. The plot takes a turn just before the Second World War breaks out, when Campbell is contacted by an American agent who knew of his reputation and proposed he be a secret agent for the American forces. Throughout the story this agent communicates with Campbell through a series of codes that entail how he is to behave, acting as a sort of moral compass. However, Campbell’s primary occupation and true passion is playwriting. In fact, it was his way with words that promoted him in rising ranks and positioned him both as a powerful speaker for the Third Reich, and consequently, an undercover, American spy. The point being, it was all based on words, furthering the relativity of each individual’s morality and its role in identity.
To Campbell, being a Nazi propagandist, or an American spy, is merely a function – what one might do for a living – not a vocation, not a purpose. The very ambiguity of his purpose entails that his role is to continue doing what he’s doing, passing off as a Nazi of unquestionable conviction. Throughout the novel, he seems to effectively balance his duality — the charismatic fascist, and the American lover who couldn’t care less about politics: the facade, and the reality. Yet, by effectively carrying out his function as a propaganda spokesman on German national radio, Campbell is inherently responsible for indoctrinating Nazism, therefore guilty of indirectly slaughtering millions of innocent lives.
Addressing once more the moral of Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” at what point is a façade reflective of an individual’s true self? Can an individual be condemned for their pretense if it was carried out under the impression that the cause was for the greater good? How accountable is an individual by moral standards if morality is, indeed, relative?
These questions are reflective of Vonnegut’s ideology on identity. A great satirist, a great prosaist, a great playwright, subject of the cruelty of life and the unfortunate events that marked him, Vonnegut’s carried on and his legacy teaches us that we are no more subject to the world around us as the experiences are subject to our perspective and our commitment to our truest self.