“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Kurt Vonnegut said it best. Perceptions of the self are precarious enough without adding in the idea of perspective. To us, we are who we are. Our being inhabits a crystalline sort of compound, something definitive, rough, hard, unyielding and unbreakable. Sometimes this rigidity to form proves too much and drastic measures are taken to break the mold (as it were). Crippling as this system may seem, however, it does allow a degree of consistency to what can otherwise be likened to a supremely, wildly unkempt array of characteristics floating in the miasma of consciousness.
Mother Night takes readers on a journey of self discovery through the use of lies. Almost everyone in the book pretends to be someone else in one form or another, and those who aren’t kidding themselves usually turn out to be terrible. Howard W. Campbell, Jr., for example, produces propaganda for the Nazi party in 1930’s Germany, but maintains his views do not and have never ascribed to the blatant racism and horror of legitimate Nazi practices. He desperately tries to convey this to the reader by any means necessary in the book-within-a-book, outlining his confessions to the various war crimes he committed while pretending his alliance stuck firmly with Germany while still maintaining his innocence in the eyes of the US government.
Campbell’s status as a spy cuts a definitive line between his personhood in practice and who he perceives himself to be, but it’s hardly the only example. Resi Noth disguising herself as her sister to grasp at the life she envisioned as perfect illustrates the effectiveness of lying for personal gain. George Kraft similarly lies on a near consistent basis simply to avoid his wife.
Even in less extreme cases where espionage is taken out of the picture entirely, people generally want to stay away from the truth about themselves and the world around them. Campbell’s young neighbor was born in a concentration camp but wants nothing more than to forget those memories and move on. The younger generation cares little for the past, whereas many adults want nothing more than to wallow in it. Bernard B. O’Hare looks at the war as a time when he had something to fight for, having only lived for his depressing job and overbearing family since the war’s end. Once Campbell’s whereabouts are made public, O’Hare makes it his mission to corner his supposed nemesis for reasons that long ago shifted from heroism to selfish delusions of grandeur. Campbell represents ultimate evil to O’Hare, and O’Hare has to believe this oversimplification by mere virtue of the fact that without Campbell, his life would lose all semblance of meaning. O’Hare eventually confronts Campbell (who rarely mentions his foe as anything other than ancillary) and gets blindsided upon losing a fight to his enemy. Good triumphs over evil in only the minds of those hopelessly lost. For everyone else, there are merely shades of grey crashing against each other meaninglessly.
Though Campbell expresses abhorrence at these lies and the lengths to which they are taken, he criticizes himself most of all for having the wherewithal to make better decisions but still fall back on bad habits and inappropriate actions regardless. Rev. Dr. Lionel Jones fabricates a reality wherein white Protestants are better than everyone else, and yet he keeps a black man and a Catholic priest as his company. The good Rev. Dr. makes excuses upon excuses, letting the delusions cascade over him like so much water, leaving someone like Campbell to drown in the implications and severity of such egregious thinking yet still peddle it anyway.
Lies are what we use to define the world around us when the people we would like to be becomes a plan too complicated to configure. We build systems and institutions founded on nonsense to maintain civility, and some dare scratch their heads at the idiocy of it all. To borrow a definition from another of Vonnegut’s works, Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night is a book about granfalloons and the negative consequences that arise when nations let their lies dictate the ways in which they live. Shunted of its meaning, anything can become irrelevant, and when a person loses grasp of their identity through the immersion into unceasing untruths, like many in Mother Night, the results can be Earth-shattering.