Vonnegut in Jerusalem: A Report on the Absurdity of Language and Media

by Matthew Gannon

“No matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you.”

- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963

“This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night, 1961

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt presented her collected reports on Adolf Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Eichmann, a former member of the Nazi SS largely responsible instituting the logistics of the mass incarceration and extermination of millions of Jews, was captured in Argentina by Israeli foreign intelligence agents and brought to Israel to answer for his crimes. Just two years before Arendt’s book, Vonnegut published, Mother Night, which dealt with remarkably similar themes as Arendt’s. Mother Nightfollows the exploits of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a high profile Nazi propagandist who is brought back to Jerusalem years after World War II in order to be tried for his crimes against the Jewish people, against humanity, and, as Campbell puts it, against his own conscience.

Mother Night’s Howard W. Campbell, Jr. bears a remarkable similarity to Adolf Eichmann, at least superficially. Both were former SS members, both fled Nazi Germany to escape from judgment (particularly the Nuremberg Trials) after the victory of Allied forces, and both were brought back to Israel for trial. Vonnegut was clearly inspired by Eichmann, and even possibly Arendt. Though Arendt’s book appeared years after Vonnegut’s, she wrote about the Eichmann trial, which occurred in 1961, the same year Mother Night was released, serially for The New Yorker. Hannah Arendt famously attracted as much attention as much for her coverage of a sensational figure – the notorious Eichmann – as for her seemingly sympathetic consideration of him. Arendt considered Eichmann to be clownish rather than malevolent and found his actions understandable within the context of ideological bureaucracy. She famously described Eichmann’s form of evil as banal, rather than truly willful. This is not to say she easily forgave Eichmann his sins. In fact, readers of the book will find that as sympathetic as she is, her indictment of this banal evil and her accusation of Eichmann’s clownishness are more poignant than those accusing him of active evil.

Vonnegut too is deeply concerned with the latent evils of bureaucracy in an industrialized and militarized world and indifference to human suffering. Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the protagonist of Mother Night, can even be read as a fictionalization of Eichmann for Vonnegut’s distinct literary purposes. Besides their biographical similarities, both characters make the claim that their role in what Vonnegut calls “the machines of history” was due to sheer chance, not intent.

The similarities between Eichmann and Campbell stop there. Campbell, as a literary figure, is much more lucid and cannot help but posses Vonnegut’s unique moral and political acuity. Vonnegut cannot write a major character that fully evades their evil of their actions as thoroughly as Eichmann did. Campbell even admits as such after having an (fictional) encounter with Eichmann in their Jerusalem prison. Eichmann, Vonnegut (via Campbell) writes, had no ability to distinguish between good and evil and between sanity and insanity. Such was the spirit of history in the twentieth century. Campbell, on the other hand, admitted his own moral awareness and guilt, making his meditations on his life all the more tragic.

The concept of guilt lies at the heart of both Arendt and Vonnegut’s writings. Though Campbell did not directly order Jews to their deaths as Eichmann did, his moral awareness makes him even more susceptible to guilt. If he is guilty though, it is necessary to ask of what. Campbell must be found guilty for the misuse of his words, as he served as a major propagandist in his capacities as a Nazi radio show host. He states that Israel sought to show that “a propagandist of my sort was as much a murderer as Heydrich, Eichmann, Himmler, or any of the gruesome rest.”


Language, then, is at the crux of Campbell’s guilt and it is the focus of Vonnegut’s moral and political interrogations. Language can be used for good or ill. Language can be warped – through mediation and editing – and made to effect different results than the speaker/writer intended. It is the paradoxes and absurdities of language that Vonnegut seeks to explore in Mother Night.

Mother Night is primarily a meditation on media – on mediating writing and rhetoric – and its relation to existential ethics. Vonnegut’s principal methodology in this endeavor is to acknowledge his own mediation, which he accomplished through via meta-fiction, a technique that abounds in Mother Night. The text begins with an introduction that appears to be purely non-fiction (though what non-fiction means is certainly blurred in this and other Vonnegut novels). The introduction is followed by an editor’s note, which is fictional, which gives the illusion of being non-fiction with Vonnegut serving merely as its editor. After this editor’s note comes the bulk of the novel, which has the title “The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.”

The purpose of the meta-fictional song and dance is straightforward: Vonnegut seeks to undermine the reader’s trust in his authority as an author in order to provoke the reader into drawing his or her own conclusions. Vonnegut employs various devices to achieve this effect in many of his other novels – perhaps most notably in Breakfast of Champions. Of his early novels, Mother Night may be boldest in its use of meta-fiction and subversive writing to this effect. Vonnegut’s meta-fiction creates an ironic distance, giving readers the space to formulate their own opinions and not be bullied by the author. Vonnegut seeks to problematize his authorial voice for the reader by toying with the narrative point of view. He thus disorients readers, creating ironies and paradoxes. For example: at the beginning of the novel Vonnegut lays out a few morals of the story. These include such platitudes as “When you’re dead you’re dead,” and “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.” What do these stock phrases have to do with the story at hand? Nothing really, making the reader immediately mistrustful of a narrator that seems inclined to spout out odd bits of folk wisdom at random. Furthermore, by partitioning his own identity as a writer and he prompts readers into more imaginative and, ultimately, more empathetic modes of being. Kafka famously stated that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Vonnegut’s narrative devices, alter egos, double-identities, and unreliable narration chip away at that frozen sea.

Vonnegut underhandedly explains his intent in the editor’s note at the beginning of the text. He – in his role as Campbell’s editor and, in some ways apologist – insists that Campbell’s writings are “more than mere information or deceiving.” That is, his writings are somewhat beyond truth and lies – perhaps even beyond good and evil – in that they contain lies that “can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.” Vonnegut generalizes this wisdom, as he says it not only applies to Campbell’s (fictional) confessions but also to all instances of “lies told for the sake of artistic effect.” Thus the lies of fiction are, in a sense, a higher form of truth. And since all fiction is, in a sense, a lie, all fiction aims at higher truths. Thus the distinction between non-fiction (truth) and fiction (higher truth) is muddled, providing more ironic distance and authorial subversion.

Though Vonnegut praises lies and fiction at the beginning of the novel (at least those that aim at higher truths), the rest of the novel spells out his skepticism towards writing – and other forms of rhetoric – and its potential to elicit unambiguous truth. Vonnegut is deeply ambivalent on this matter. Lies may elicit higher truths, but that does not negate their mendacity. In the case of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., as well as other characters – such as George Kraft, aka Iona Potapov, and Resi Noth, operating under her sister Helga’s name – he is able to concentrate truth and lies, good and evil, into a singular character.


Media serves as an apt metaphor in Mother Night because it reflects the moral and political ambiguity of humanity itself. Media can be used for myriad purposes and has the capacity to transmit both good and evil. Humans, as thoroughly mediated beings, are always subject to this ambiguity and can thus never attain a purity of communication or understanding. Vonnegut has no suggestions as to how to overcome this ambiguity. He instead beseeches readers to embrace the ambiguity of the mediated world and the alienated self. Howard Campbell evades ambiguity and flees from the absurd by suppressing his authentic self and playing out a fictional role of a Nazi propagandist. It’s not so much the Nazi aspect of Campbell that Vonnegut vilifies – although that certainly plays its own part in Campbell’s character – but more that Campbell is so thoroughly inauthentic and unwilling to confront the absurd. Campbell chooses to not choose, denying his own human freedom and willingly subjecting himself to deterministic forces. Campbell thus dehumanizes himself and is worthy of scorn and, as always in Vonnegut’s novels, pity. The world is both peaceful and violent, both good and evil, both moral and not, both just and unjust, and every other paradox imaginable all at the same time, and often within the same contradictory human beings.

Media crops up all over the place in Mother Night, from loudspeakers to radios to record players to newspapers. Campbell’s broadcasts carried information out of Germany. He, like his microphone and radio, contained coded information to listeners abroad. He was as much a medium as his microphone and radio. The editor of the White Christian Minutemen, praises Campbell for being “a beacon,” illuminating his role as a medium for dubious purposes. Campbell describes himself as an “idol of the international airwaves” in his duty as a Nazi propagandist.

As a tonic against this unremitting mediation, Campbell constantly desired unmediated contact, even if it could be with just one other person: his wife Helga. When describing his late wife he says, “We didn’t listen to each other’s words. We heard only the melodies in our voices.” Vonnegut postulates that sex is perhaps the only unmediated interaction possible between humans. Campbell remarks that during sex, his lover (and his late wife’s sister) Resi North was “not even able to speak a word of my language.” And yet, “how eloquent she was.” Bodily experience is at least the least mediated, and provides honest, albeit all too brief, encounters between selves. Even in New York, where Campbell has managed to make a home in a ratty SoHo apartment in hiding from the authorities, he eschews language, with its uncomfortable ambivalence, its schizophrenic character. He listens to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” endlessly, a vapid escapism if there ever was one. Tellingly, he refuses to write during this period. In this little respite he feels no pain, narcotized against emotion via escaping the complexity of humanity and the self. His friend is a painter, another escapee – a Soviet spy lamenting his solitude – working in a wordless medium: painting. His neighbor, alias George Kraft, claims art as his only relative in the world. Even another human relation would make life too complex. And when Campbell makes the curious mistake of wandering over to Kraft’s apartment the walls of Cambell’s nation of one crumble, as does his tenuous New York life.

What, readers might wonder, is the inherent problem with media? Firstly, all human contact is mediated, even that relation of the self to the self. At a basic level, media dominates much of society’s communication: radios, television, books, and writing. Language itself is a medium, the most primordial of media. Any direct human contact must be mediated through language either in spoken word or in writing. True, music, painting, pictures, and wordless expressions are mostly devoid of language and are thus less mediated in a sense, but to fully comprehend anything as a human is to filter experience through language in an attempt to achieve clarity. These attempts at clarity are foiled by the unpredictability and ambiguity of language. Language and words are slippery – they can represent good just as easily as evil (and banality). Furthermore, because all comprehension is linguistic, comprehension of the self must too be linguistic, which serves to reveal the complexity and ambiguity inherent in the self. The self is thus mediated from the self by language. In response to this alienation from the self and others, the self can choose to embrace this ambiguity or reject it. Vonnegut describes this ambiguity as “schizophrenia” – the capacity for both good and evil contained within humanity as well as all language and media.

Plato mediated on the problematic nature of media as well, particularly that of writing, which was not common in the Hellenic world at that time. In his Phaedrus, Socrates remarks that writing “will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves.” Wisdom will vanish in favor of simple reminders that are based in these external marks. They will create “the delusion” that readers “have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment.” Socrates warns: “Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid. And when it is ill-treated or abused as illegitimate, it always needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself.”

Vonnegut, like Plato/Socrates, is suspicious of mediated knowledge. Vonnegut’s concerns are not just for wisdom, but for morality and political knowledge. Media deceive by giving illusions of truth while containing deeper lies. Just as lies in fiction may contain beguiling truths, some truths expressed through media contain deeper lies. As William Blake once said, “A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent.” Contemporary viewers of the 24-hour news cycle and talking heads news programs may be acutely aware of this without having to resort to Plato, Blake, or Vonnegut. Nevertheless, Vonnegut, aware of the pitfalls of media and its dubious relation to truth, seeks to circumvent this inherent untrustworthiness with the aforementioned meta-fiction. Reader’s shouldn’t rely simply on the “external marks” that are “alien to themselves.” They ought to rely on their own mental acuity and moral workings. By eschewing traditional authorial authority Vonnegut coerces readers into taking responsibility for their own consciousness on matters of politics and ethics. It is not for Vonnegut to layout truth unequivocally but to be suggestive, to play with meta-fiction and postmodern authorial tactics to liberate the reader from oppression by the writer. Don’t blindly trust words, media, or even Vonnegut himself. Place more trust in your own critical examination. This is a deconstructive strategy to be sure, but one that initiates the rebuilding of human consciousness and empathy on stronger, more sustainable ground.

While in prison, an Israeli guard tells Campbell the conditions of the concentration camp he was once prisoner of: “There were loudspeakers all over the [concentration] camp.” They played music all day long and occasionally barked instructions to the prisoners or their guards. “Very modern,” replies Campbell. The affect of these speakers somehow convinced many prisoners that it was desirable to become a “corpse-carrier,” a particularly vile activity in which prisoners would carry away corpses for incineration before they would themselves face the same fate. These figures were what one character described as “briquets.” That is, they were inhuman molded blocks of coal dust, designed specifically for combustion. Media turns words around on themselves and can make even the inhuman seem humane. On the other hand, it can serve the opposite function of making the human seem inhuman. Vonnegut takes particular exception to Nazis being dehumanized. Vonnegut was himself a prisoner of war of the Nazis during World War II. His experiences –later illustrated in more depth by Slaughterhouse-Five – revealed the humanity of Nazis. Because of this, Campbell’s defense of Nazis’ humanity is even more poignant. He knows of the atrocities they committed, but he “knew them too well as people” to think of them as anything but humans, albeit deeply flawed ones. “Only in retrospect can I think of them as trailing slime behind,” he admits – revealing that narrative and language conceals their humanity even as it reveals their inhuman actions.


Media – particularly language – is so important in Mother Night because Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is himself a medium, an instrument to be used by the Nazis and the Allies. Vonnegut’s severest criticism of Campbell isn’t that he was affiliated with the Nazis but that he allowed himself to be used as a mere tool rather than acknowledging his humanity and his human imperative to be a conscious actor in life. Campbell essentially denies his own humanity by denying the self that is at the core of his being. This is why Campbell ultimately admits to committing “crimes against my own conscience,” which are, in many ways, the ultimate crime. In bad faith, Campbell does not embrace his relation to the absurdity of existence and the ambiguities of language and chooses to not choose. When Frank Wirtanen, the American intelligence officer that assigns him his spy duties, first presents Campbell with the option of being a spy, he insists that Campbell’s choice won’t come through a yes or no answer, but in how he ultimately chooses to act. Despite that Campbell does end up serving as a spy, he does so in a existentially inauthentic way. Wirtanen, after the war is over, marvels with an unmistakable horror at how well Campbell infiltrated the Nazis. When Campbell asks why Wirtanen cannot trust him even after he has been such an excellent spy, Wirtanen responds, “How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?”

In order to fully convert himself into an instrument to be used rather than a human that can choose Campbell must suppress his conscience and even his true consciousness. He abdicates the self in an order to allow his encoded messages to pass right through him. When, after the war, someone suggests he should work in public relations he says, “I certainly don’t have any powerful convictions to get in the way of a client’s message.” As a communicative tool, Campbell is an empty out as the wiring of a radio, waiting for the proper impulses to automatically produce whatever message he is designed to broadcast. At one point he admits: “I confess to a ghastly lack in myself.” Campbell’s greatest sin is a sin against conscience, the sin of allowing himself to be used as an inhuman instrument for inhuman ends.

In order to hollow himself out to become an unconscionable medium, Campbell destroys his conscience and, ultimately, his own self. He is a tool, not a human, and a tool has no use for a self. He serves the purposes of means-ends rationality, and he does not exist in himself and for himself as a human being. He buried his authentic self deep inside and fractured it beyond repair. When he is told that he unwittingly broadcasted the information that his wife had died he becomes despondent with the thought that there was a “wider separation” of his “several selves” than he had previously imagined. By retreating into himself and allowing himself to be turned over for use as an instrument of mediation, he fractured himself. “One part of me told the world of the tragedy in code. The rest of me did not even know that the announcement was being made.”

After the war is over and he finally returns to America, where he had only ever lived as a child, he begins to long for a self again, though his is irrevocably damaged. He has regretfully inured himself against all possible pain and narcotized himself against any sense of justice or morality. Campbell desires the sanctuary of the self, but his own self is damaged. Campbell longs to hear the cry of “Olly-olly-oxen-free” that can beckon him back to “that little Eden,” that sanctuary of the self. He admits that while “hiding from many people who might want to hurt or kill” him, he “often longed for someone to give that cry” for him, to end his “endless game of hide-and-seek.” But the true hide-and-seek has been with himself and his conscience. Unfortunately, Campbell’s prelapsarian sanctuary has been demolished and there is no Eden to which he can return, though there may be an Elysium for him yet. When Campbell finally turns himself over to Israeli authorities and is trapped within his actual Jerusalem prison, Campbell has the chance to confront the prison of the self and reckon with his crimes against his conscience.

Howard W. Campbell, Jr. was a man who embodied the schizophrenia of modern industrial society and the absurdity of the world, but he was not a man who could confront this schizophrenia. He coped by rejecting the self, rather than grasping it. He could, as Vonnegut writes of Campbell’s friend Kraft, “be many things at once – all sincerely.” This falsity, which Vonnegut likens to a sort of plagiarism, is the easy way out. He writes of plagiarism as “the silliest of misdemeanors.” What is really criminal is “real originality,” because in this schizophrenic and ambiguous world, to forge your own identity as faithfully to the self as possible is the truly difficult task. Campbell, a playwright, poet, and propagandist, could only summon his creative power to construct an identity with the utmost disingenuousness and one-dimensionality.

Jean-Paul Sartre once said that humans “decide our being” and “there is a plurality of possibilities” from which can shape ourselves. He insisted that we are free to choose, “that is to say, invent” our being and are not subject to vulgar determinism because “man is free, man is freedom.” In the introduction to Mother Night, Vonnegut reformulates this Sartrean philosophy on choice and being: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." How can such a solipsistic attitude impact society at large though? Why does it matter who we pretend to be on a social level? “What can one any one person do?” one character inquires of Howard Campbell. “Each person does a little something,” he replies, and eventually, “it all adds up.”

Campbell is fully aware of his failure in this regard, which is why he distinguishes himself from Eichmann, whom he encounters in Jerusalem. When he meets Eichmann he decides to try out some “intramural satire.” He asks Eichmann if he will use as his excuse for the murder of six million Jews, “You were simply a soldier…taking orders from higher-ups.” Eichmann responds with astonishment, because Campbell had precisely guessed what Eichmann was using as his defense. Campbell knows better than to make such a claim, because he, unlike Eichmann can actually understand the sins of his actions. And even more than that, he can see that claiming to be simply an instrument of the great machine of history – that is, obviating your own human will – is an even great crime to admit to. As Hannah Arendt insisted in her conclusion to Eichmann in Jerusalem:
“Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefor actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.”
Later in her conclusion, Arendt writes that Eichmann had determined he could not share the earth with the Jews and thus nobody should be expected to want to share the earth with such a man with those opinions. It is for this reason he had to die. Campbell could not bear to live in a world with his human self, with all its complexity, absurdity, and self-determinative capability, and this is why he had to die.