For some reason -- maybe because it's summer in Arizona; maybe because I'm having a mini-midlife crisis -- I'm re-reading a lot of books I liked in high school and freshman college. This includes the novels of Ayn Rand and Kurt Vonnegut, an odd couple by any yardstick.
Whatever the reason, it led me to George Roy Hill's wonderful film of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I hadn't seen since it was released in 1972. And it led me to the relatively little-known 1996 film of Mother Night, directed by Keith Gordon.
Mother Night is about an American spy in Nazi Germany who does such a good job of building his cover that a Nazi officer tells him, as the Reich is crumbling:
"And do you know why I don't care now if you were a spy or not?...Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us," he said. (p. 99 of the trade paperback)
The film features great performances by Nick Nolte and Alan Arkin, perfect as Vonnegut's antihero and foil. Sheryl Lee is good, too, and a very young Kirsten Dunst makes what seems to be her debut. David Strathairn's best scenes were cut -- thank God for DVD extras, so we can see what he did even if it's not in the movie. (The conversation on the DVD with Vonnegut and Nolte is also worth a look.)
After viewing this movie twice, once on IFC and again on DVD, I had to re-read Vonnegut's 1961 novel immediately. The following passage, about an American Nazi, jumped out at me (p. 223-4):
I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell....
The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.
Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell -- keeping perfect time for eight minutes and thirty-three seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.
The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases.
The willful filing off of gear teeth the willful doing without without certain obvious pieces of information --
Two minutes of Fox TV will show what Vonnegut was talking about. Or getting to about the third paragraph of a random column by the likes of David Brooks or William Kristol.
The cuckoo clock in Hell is an appropriate and telling metaphor for today's American right wing. No, I wouldn't go so far as to call them Nazis (though they are pretty far right). But the thought process is highly recognizable, despite the obvious intelligence of many right-wing cheerleaders.
(George Orwell's "duckspeak" also works, as does Orwell's description of a Bolskevik commissar -- "half gangster, half gramophone", which immediately brought Bill O'Reilly to mind -- but that's another diary.)
Truthiness: the problem that won't go away. I don't have an immediate solution, but the metaphor of a cuckoo clock in Hell seems insightful and serviceable, and I wanted to share it with anyone who might be able to put it to good use.