Gitlin: Art is More Humble Than Propaganda

The other afternoon, Fine Line screened the impressive new movie Mother Night, and during the Q. and A. afterward, a woman stood up, declared that she had been in Auschwitz, and demanded of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who wrote the novel from which the movie derives, Robert B. Weide, the screenwriter, and Keith Gordon, the director: "Is this supposed to help me?" A man in the audience proposed that an actual and virulent Goebbels speech placed in the mouth of the protagonist, played by Nick Nolte, would surely serve to recruit anti-Semites. Mother Night hews closely to Vonnegut's 1961 novel about an American playwright living in Germany during the Nazi years. In 1938, an American spymaster persuades him to stay in place and work his way into Nazi graces., the better to transmit coded information to the home country. Howard W. Campbell, Jr., had been a firmly apolitical man, firmly devoted to the "Nation of Two" shared by his actress wife and himself. Having fancied that he could exempt himself from the degraded doings of nations, he (rather inexplicably, it must be said) responds to the call of his country, and transforms himself into a radio propagandist. Billing himself as "one of the free remaining free Americans," Campbell is Lord Haw-Haw and Ezra Pound rolled into one, a Jew-baiter and Hitler-booster--all the while transmitting coded information out of the inferno. "I did fool everybody," writes Vonnegut. "I began to strut like Hitler's right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest man I hid so deep inside." [p. 41.] Campbell survives the war and, after many a plot turn, the Israelis seize him and put him on trial. The story told in flashbacks is his plea--or something flatter, grimmer, and more better than a plea--for understanding.Vonnegut's Campbell is in the tradition of Borges' and Kazantzakis' Judas, the disciple who so utterly loved Jesus that he agreed to betray him and thereby play his indispensable part in the great ritual of sacrifice and redemptioneven if the unending price he will pay is to be known, forever, as the man who betrayed his Lord. The measure of Judas' love, in this conceit, is the magnitude of what he is willing to sacrifice. But Campbell is more of a sleepwalker than Judas. He doesn't know the worth of what he is transmitting, and he has to face his victims. The gravelly Nick Nolte, superb as the dumfounded Campbell, is a big man adept at playing a little man.In the course of a grotesque century that slouches its way toward the millennium to die, the heavens are deafening with the question: "Is this supposed to help me?" Always the same question arises about works of fiction that take as material the stuff of history, its crimes and miseries in particular. The answer is ever and always the far from ringing, "No," or at least "Not necessarily." Art is more humble than propaganda--which itself may not help either. Art is, in this way, like food, drink, lovemaking, a breath of autumn air or a walk in the park. Poetry, Auden famously wrote, "makes nothing happen." Art may coax a thought or a feeling out of the darkness, or it may not, and nothing at all betrays the responsibility that befalls citizens. Mother Night might help in some other way than the obvious, though. It wants to shred the cant of authenticity, and in this it is as much a critique of the sunny-side-up you-can-get-anything-you-want '60s as I know.. No cheap idealism here, no choirs of angels. The moral is, you can feel as pure or authentic as all get-out--tell yourself that you're true to your ideals in your fashion--but the meaning of your acts is not just what you please. You are not what you eat, you are what you do. It is consequences that count, and history, out of control, can bend or betray your most brightly shining hopes. a kindred point is made by Sartre in his great story, "The Wall," and his play, "Dirty Hands." This is not the flatulent irony that suffuses the culture with corrosion and cuteness. This could be taken as a useful reminder that none of us live just as we please, registering our actions in some celestial file drawer as if they were trademarks. Not that Vonnegut, or the movie makers, want their morals simple. They keep turning the screw. Especially in the movie, there is the suggestion that Campbell first decided to stay in Germany for love, that most private of motives, only to learn that, as Marshall Berman has said, "You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you." The spymaster tells him he won't be able to stand clear; and he doesn't try very hard. So the strictly private man resorts to a publicly consequential choice partly to preserve his purely private happiness. And then he makes a career out of self-betrayal. The ostensible motive won't wash when the consequences are ugly enough. Eventually, Campbell comes, in fear, trembling, and whimsy, to understand that he is responsible for his actions. Vonnegut, evidently feeling the need to spell out a moral in an introduction to the 1966 reissue of his novel, puts it pithily: "We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." (The line ends up, slightly changed, in the movie.) In the original 1961 edition, he had written that Campbell "served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."There's a big market for desperate humor today, vastly more desperate and grisly, in fact, than in 1961, which had less excuse, standing much closer to 1945 than to the present. Today, the bleak Vonnegut looks like a sad-sack innocent. He knows how rotten history is and still, for all that, sweetly wants us to do right by it. He thinks that's still possible. He doesn't smirk at his audience that he and we know better than the rubes; he knows we're all rubes and still responsible. For that among other reasons--and I mean this as a high compliment--the movie, like the book, is deeply unnerving.

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