Today, I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night from the Book Exchange at UVU. I did it because I had a ways to walk and I didn’t like the idea of just idly thinking about whatever while I did it. Vonnegut seemed like a good way to spend time whilst walking and the novel is fairly slim. I remember hearing about it vaguely, “something about a Nazi propagandist,” but that’s all. My only other familiarity with Vonnegut is from skimming Slaughterhouse Five as a teenager, looking at the pictures.
Inside the front cover, I found the following dedication, written in blue ball-point:
This book is a must for anyone who has
a) been subjected to the BYU experience
b) been subjected to the church
c) not read the best of Vonnegut’s work.
May you distill from this many quotes to hurl at our opponents – I’ve marked some of the best for you.
Luff[?] & Alohas,
The dedication is dated 12/25/75, a Christmas present from, apparently, one disaffected Hawaiian to another.
Some of the marked sections of the book are two long to quote verbatim, but I thought it would interest you to note them generally. After a passage noting that Purgatory is worse than Hell, the marker added “So there!”
The following passage is marked, followed by a written “Amen!”
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. (pg. 120)
There are three more marked passages, one describing the intermittent rationality of crazy people and totalitarians by comparing it to mechanical clocks that run perfectly for a time and then skip haphazardly to another time, at which they once again run perfectly for some unspecified random period. Another is a letter from the protagonist of the book, a Nazi propagandist/secret American agent, to a maker of educational toys, explaining that he believes the best education for children is to cause them to watch humanity at its worst so as to give them some idea of what to expect in their life.
The last references the protagonist’s upcoming trial for war crimes in Israel, crimes committed while he was an American secret agent:
If there must be a trial of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., by the forces of self-righteous nationalism, let it be one hell of a contest! (p. 192)
These are nearly the last words in the book.
One wonders why this particular book caught our Polynesian friend’s eye as something that explains the “BYU experience” and the “Church” roughly 30 years ago. Was it the generally sympathetic view of the elderly fascists and nazis with whom Campbell becomes acquainted in America, who seem like the nicest people ever devoted to the eradication of the Jews? Was it the themes of hypocrisy, the creation of a little piece of good guy in one’s soul that allows one to commit atrocities without guilt? Was it the false intellectuals and false loves (who are also true intellectuals and true loves) that lead, indirectly, to Campbell’s capture and demise? Was it that a paragon of American patriotism leaves the story sloppy drunk and with an arm broken by fire tongs, while a lying spymaster and a genteel bigot turn out to be the only people Campbell can trust to act with his well being in mind? The mind boggles.
I have to say that my experiences at BYU were all benign. No one ever accused me of apostasy, mean-spiritedness, homosexuality, or any other presumably damnable offense. In teaching and learning at BYU, I was always treated with dignity. However, some people have other experiences. A friend just told me how a relative, who works at BYU, was told that publishing his life’s work, devoted to Mormon theology, would result in his dismissal from the school. Another friend told me of teaching his students to consider the ethics of Nephi’s killing Laban and that on discussing the lesson with a colleague at BYU, the colleague said, “That would be a great lesson, but we could never do it at BYU.”
I don’t know what to say in the face of this. At best, I shrug and think that is too bad. I don’t think that this is an indictment of BYU or of its academic freedom policies; it’s just too bad to see good people censor themselves out of fear of losing their jobs or their standing.
I don’t dare guess what about the BYU experience made Jal come to hate it so or what led him to find solace and inspiration in Mother Night. Certainly, there is little in there (even in the marked quotes) that could not be thrown back in the face of the angry, young Ex-Mo. Vonnegut, who was, I believe, an atheist, doesn’t strike me as an angry, young man so much as a tired, old one, even in 1961. He’s not as interested in the righteousness of his own cause as he is in the humanity of his opponents. He offers three morals for this story:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be…
When you’re dead, you’re dead…
[and] Make love when you can. It’s good for you (pp. v, vii)
I suppose those ought to be the moral for this post, too.