Dealin’ with the Devil
My summer reading list editor has wisely chosen books for me that address the great themes in world literature. After the first two tomes, I thought the theme was: dogs and cats. But, as a good reader, I am prepared to alter my expectations and assumptions along the way, as I confront new material. Current theme: the Faustian bargain. Even better than cats and dogs, as far as I am concerned.
“I am a part of that part that at first was all, part of the darkness that gave birth to the light, that supercilious light which now disputes with Mother Night her ancient rank and space, and yet can not succeed; no matter how it struggles, it sticks to matter and can’t get free. Light flows from substance, makes it beautiful; solids can check its path, so I hope it won’t be long till light and the world’s stuff are destroyed together.”
Thus spake Mephistopheles, the antagonist in Goethe’s Faust. Kurt Vonnegut provides this passage as a epigraph and veiled explanation for the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. the anti-hero of his 1961 novel Mother Night.
There are, of course, myriad treatments of Germany and WWII that use Faust as a metaphor to illustrate the fateful/fatal bargain with Satan German citizenry made when it elected Hitler and the NSDAP to power in the early 1930s. (Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus being the most deservedly famous of the bunch.) Vonnegut was an astute reader of both German and American culture, and Mother Night performs deftly the task of illuminating for American readers an essential, overlooked fact of WWII, or any war: there are few innocents.
Campbell, the American, works as a mediocre writer in Nazi Germany and serves the fascist government as a propagandist. The novel, presented by Vonnegut as Campbell’s memoirs, is written in an Israeli jail cell, as Campbell awaits trial for his crimes against humanity. In true postmodern literary fashion, Campbell’s guilt or innocence is hardly at issue. He states that, though he wrote and aired some of the vilest antisemitic claptrap imaginable and served his Nazi bosses well, he functioned simultaneously as an American spy, revealing through coughs, stutters, gaps, and ahems in his broadcasts essential information to the war machine in the country of his birth. By making this bargain, Campbell will, his recruiter informs him “be volunteering right at the start of a war to be a dead man. Even if you live through the war without being caught, you’ll find your reputation gone–and probably very little to live for.”
So, here we have the Faustian bargain in its essential elements. Campbell agrees to take on a challenge that will mean, or should mean, the end of him–both morally and literally. He makes this deal, again in the words of his recruiter, because he “admire(s) pure hearts and heroes,” he “love(s) good and hate(s) evil.” And thus embarks Campbell on a trajectory that will see him exchange pleasantries and attend balls with the highest echelons of the Nazi party, while at the same time funneling information (frequently things of which he himself is unaware) back to the Americans. So. . . . his Faustian bargain is with the good guys, the Americans, who promise to reward his innermost yearnings (goodness and romance), in exchange for his life.
Now there’s a twist. Of course, Campbell works primarily for the Nazis. It is on their behalf that he caricatures the Jews in hateful drawings, spreads false rumors about the alleged power and influence of “international Jewry” and “international communism,” and generally inflames racial hatred. These deeds are what return to haunt him years after the end of the war, when he is alone and directionless in New York. These deeds prompt him, eventually, to turn himself in to Israeli authorities for trial. This is the Faustian bargain writ large: turn your soul and your intellect over to the powers of evil and, in return, enjoy an undisturbed life at your beloved wife’s side.
The evil he has done can be easily proved and it could easily cost him his neck. The good he has done, in whatever small measure, is much more difficult to prove or quantify.
Campbell’s dual Faustian bargain appears to play out well for him in the end. His recruiter comes out of hiding in the 11th hour to bear witness to the Israelis that Campbell was one of the most valuable American spies during the war. This miniscule dose of good, however, does not rescue Campbell morally. As Vonnegut remarks in his introduction to the novel: “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.” Campbell, in the end, realizes that his moral error of working for the Nazis cannot be erased by any good he did for the other side. “I think tonight is the night I will hang Howard W. Campbell, Jr., for crimes against himself.” Pretending to be in league with Satan, Campbell found himself forever aligned with the dark side.