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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.

Originally posted to TomAqMar on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 01:49 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Mother Night (11+ / 0-)

    When I read this novel, I thought, "this is what Kurt Vonnegut's trying to say."

  •  KV is my non-hero (6+ / 0-)

    He would be my hero, but since he didn't really believe in them I suppose I shouldn't either.  

    Call me crazy, but I also thought the movie of Breakfast of Champions wasn't too terrible.  It definitely scores beolw SH5 and Mother Night as films, but given the difficulty of putting a book like that to screen I think its not awful.

    Fox News--As fair as a Florida Election, as balanced as Ann Coulter when she forgets to take her medicine.

    by Dizzy on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 01:58:15 PM PDT

  •  Used to serve him coffee (8+ / 0-)

    He was at the Iowa Writer's workshop, University of Iowa. I worked at Hamburg Inn #1, an absurd little greasy spoon.  Tom Robbins frequented it, and Greg Brown wrote a song about it when it closed.

    Remember trying to pour Vonnegut a coffee refill while a barfight was breaking out in the next booth.

    "I can't be part of a famous hippie commune. I have a career to think about" - Candy Crowley, 1973

    by MadCityRag on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 02:07:15 PM PDT

  •  Read about Ayn Rand's life (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cdreid, Avila, Ice Blue, dalfireplug, pixxer

    and what a  miserable person she was. I know the novels are somewhat magnetic, but in the easy way that fascism often is.

    "You can't negotiate with reality" - James Kunstler

    by Bob Love on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 02:22:18 PM PDT

    •  and contrary to popular belief (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cdreid, Bob Love, palantir, pixxer

      she was a lousy writer with tedious prose

      Cause we find ourselves in the same old mess singin' drunken lullabies--Flogging Molly

      by dalfireplug on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 04:53:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Hallelujah (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Like most right wing nut writers.

        The mechanistic constructions of Heinlein niven and Pournelle come to mind.

        I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever TJ

        by cdreid on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 03:32:52 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Heinlein et al. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          A good case for a writer keeping his politics out of it if he also wants to be an entertainer.  I loved Heinlein's stories up to and including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which was the last one that kept me turning pages.

          I for one seem to be able to put up with a lot of B.S. if the story is gripping.  

          But then when Larry Niven makes idiotic comments in public, he kind of ruins his work for me.  I loved the books in the Ringworld universe, and The Mote In God's Eye was criticized as an episode of Star Trek that got out of hand... like there's something wrong with that?

          •  Yes (0+ / 0-)

            Try rereading them though. The characters are shallow and unrealistic and the universes are ivory tower mechanisms. The only niven/pournelle i could stomach on rereading was smoke ring.

            I think pounelles writing explains his irrational faux intellectual military theories

            I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever TJ

            by cdreid on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 02:24:27 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I find I have to make adjustments... (0+ / 0-)

              ...when I read older sf.  Not just for the technology -- I expect that to be outdated -- but also for the style and for the social assumptions.  

              I think a lot of women would probably find KV just a bit sexist, and a lot of gays would probably find him homophobic.  

              Nobody's perfect.

              •  You've noticed it too (0+ / 0-)

                I reread things i read as a child and considered absolute masterpieces and am shocked and disgusted at the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia. More sexism than anything.

                Especially by the "masters" as it were.. Campbells little insider club. To be honest though ive never been overly impressed by niven, pournelle, heinlein, clarke. Their writing just wasnt that good to the point i can  write much better and thats saying a notgood lot. Ive read amateurs on writing sites who made my jaw drop with their writing ability and character development. Literal masterpieces that will disappear while hacks like Clarke and heinlein are revered as gods.

                On the other hand you do have a point. We evolve with our society and while some of us may have more enlightened souls we are all flawed and discover in time that we practiced sins we never new to be.

                Honestly my biggest disappointment was that i had not seen how shallow these particular writers work generally was. Ringworld is simply clever intellectual exercise (imho smoke ring was better). And Heinleins stuff is so deeply infused with his rather disgusting fascism fantasies as to be repulsive when you put the required analysis into them.

                I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever TJ

                by cdreid on Fri Jul 18, 2008 at 09:20:07 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  Oh, I know... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cdreid, Bob Love, pixxer

      I posted a whole ("interminable," one commenter said) diary about Rand.  

      For whatever reason, I'm not one of those people who slows down to look at auto accidents.  I just think about things like Ayn Rand's life instead.  

      THE PASSION OF AYN RAND by Barbara Branden is a gripping read.  I need to see the movie one of these days.

    •  Have you played Bioshock? (0+ / 0-)

      There is no other video game ever that basically is a deconstruction of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged/Fountainhead etc. Bioshock references a lot of that philosophy and takes it to it's logical self destructive extreme.

      That said it's interesting to compare the extreme yet riveting cartoon of Bioshock with it's opposite extreme in "Anthem" a short novel by Ayn Rand of an extreme dystopian leveller-ultra-communal future. (I really liked it when I first read it as a teenager)

      Comparing both leads to an understanding that an extreme reaction to either extreme Left or Right situations or possibilities can result in a blindness to the potential and real evils of the polar opposite.

      The middle makes the best of both extremes...a compromise but one that is more like reality...

      The Middle Way, the Golden Mean, The Goldilocks equation, Too much, too little and just right...only we never agree on "Just right"

      Dynamic tension of balance....hard to maintain especially when some things are demonized as some sort of poison that will lead inexorably to one extreme or the other unless Saviors of one stripe or another are followed which starts the whole wobbly farce all over again.

      Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie

      by IreGyre on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 03:52:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Never played Bioshock... (0+ / 0-)

        ...not much of a gamer.  

        I'd read that it had a lot of pro-Rand content, but maybe I'm misremembering or misunderstanding what I read.  

        I should give it a whirl.  

        Obviously (?) I agree with you about the dangers of going too far to the right, or the left, for that matter.  It's been some time since I worried about America drifting too far to the left, though.  

        Anybody who offers one giant-sized one-size-fits-all prescription for how to run a society is probably wrong.

  •  Mother Night is my fav Vonnegut novel n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, bekosiluvu, pixxer

    Results count for more than intentions do.

    by VA Classical Liberal on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 02:39:17 PM PDT

    •  I'd have to go with 'Slaughterhouse,' but... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      VA Classical Liberal, pixxer

      ...I think every book he published up to and including that book was brilliant and essential.  

      Afterwards, it's a mixed bag, IMO.

      My favorite latter-day KV would be Galapagos.  I don't agree with the premise, but for a guy who insisted he wasn't a science-fiction writer, it was a rigorously developed working-out of that premise, & I can't help but admire it.

      •  To me, Mother Night was more human. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        gogol, Matilda, pixxer

        Slaughterhouse Five was brillent in big, broad strokes.

        But Mother Night was an intensely personal exploration of what it means to do right in a complicated and sometimes evil world and the cost of holding yourself to that standard.

        It's been years since I read it, but I still remember the last page

        I think tonight is the night I will hang Howard W. Campbell Jr. for crimes against himself.

        Results count for more than intentions do.

        by VA Classical Liberal on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 05:54:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I have always wanted to write a book (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, dalfireplug, pixxer

    that was the opposite of the Ayn Rand philosophy under the same setting. I can't write well and don't have the time, but it would be interesting.

    •  If you want to write... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      gogol, pixxer

      ...practice makes better.  (You never get to perfect.)

      And you really have to steal the time.  

      To me KV is almost the anti-Rand.

      It would be fascinating to write a novel about the creative people of the world going on strike, and portray it the way it would really happen.  I'd pay money to read that.

      (I am a published writer, albeit a globally obscure one.)

  •  Mother Night is a great novel (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, ybruti, pixxer

    I know you are writing your diary about that book and that movie, but I have seen a few other Vonnegut novels into movies that have been seen by precious few people.  

    Harrison Bergeron

    Welcome to the Monkey House

    Breakfast of Champions

    Sirens of Titan and Cats Cradle appear to be in the works.

    Slapstick which I hated, because I saw it before reading the book and all I could think about was Madeline Kahn and Jerry Lewis.  It was torture.

    "A problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans." Obama

    by otto on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 03:26:17 PM PDT

    •  On another note (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Avila, pixxer

      I was actually at the Breakfast of Champions world premiere.  Nolte and Willis were late to arrive, so we were held up.  Nolte was wearing a red silk robe.

      "A problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans." Obama

      by otto on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 03:28:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I did avoid the movie of 'Slapstick'... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      gogol, ybruti, pixxer

      ...not the best of his novels, IMO.

      Breakfast is pretty interesting & really funny in parts.

      "Harrison Bergeron" is a perfect short story. I thought the movie was OK but it went on a bit long.

      I doubt if I ever enjoyed a novel as much in my life as The Sirens of Titan when I first read it.  When I finished it, I immediately turned back to page one and started again.  

      I can't imagine it as a movie, but I'd be happy to be wrong about that.  Same for Cat's Cradle.  I can only imagine what kind of happy ending H'wood would tack onto it.

      Oh ... there's also a short-lived TV series, Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories a la The Twilight Zone or Ray Bradbury Theater) and there was a TV movie called Between Time and Timbuktu which was basically a showcase for short stories and scenes.  

      I think there was a movie of Happy Birthday, Wanda June, too.

      "Do you know what a blood gutter is...?"

  •  Hey, Tom, where's your tip jar? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, dalfireplug

    I really enjoyed this diary and found it an interesting contribution.

    I've never read Ayn Rand, and therefore my aversion to everything I hear about her is a bit unjustified, but I still can't imagine reading The Fountainhead unless forced.

    Love Vonnegut. I worked at Student Book Service in A2 during college, and got to see all the book lists, which led me to Cat's Cradle, as a starter book. The Cuckoo clock in hell is a nifty analogy, though it might prove more useful internally than externally. It's one of those metaphors that requires a lot of explanation, so possibly not so useful as a 'talking point' with the republican aunt :)

    And remember... if you don't like the news, go out and make some own.
    - Scoop Nisker

    by pixxer on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 03:31:41 PM PDT

  •  very good diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueness, bekosiluvu, Ann T Bush, pixxer

    thank you. I've just started reading KV everything I can get my hands on.

  •  I never heard of KV, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    but now plan to watch his movies, then read his books.

    •  Glad to make the introduction (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cdreid, gogol, Matilda

      He may not be to everybody's taste, but I hope you enjoy him.  Probably his best novels are Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle.

    •  Watch Slaughterhouse five (0+ / 0-)

      then read it. Radically different experiences imho. The movie is a work of art.

      All of Voneguts work is very political ala Orwelle only much more enjoyable to read. Most really great science fiction is and if you want to treat yourself to the Real radicals and geniuses of scifi find copies of Dangerous Visions and Dangerous Visions two. I have no mouth but i must scream DEFINES horror. And theres a story in there that would literally short circuit any religious right nuts brain and i do mean literally.

      I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever TJ

      by cdreid on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 03:44:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sure, movies and books are different... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        ...and Slaughterhouse is a great case study in similarities and contrasts.  

        The book makes it pretty clear that Billy's alien abduction is an illusion, but the movie is a bit more ambiguous on that.  

        Also, I don't recall a dog from the book.  

        Curious:  That movie had such a great cast, but the only person in it I'd ever heard of is Valerie Perinne

        Ellison is IMO an uneven but brilliant writer, and I certainly agree with you about "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."  Technically it's science fiction, but the feeling is total horror.

  •  Rescued!!!! (0+ / 0-)

    A well-deserved acknowledgement!  Congrads!

    And remember... if you don't like the news, go out and make some own.
    - Scoop Nisker

    by pixxer on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 08:44:03 PM PDT

  •  Love , love, love (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cdreid, zett

    Kurt Vonnequt.  So true, so tell it like it is.  But also made you ask if maybe you were a little crazy.  Wish he were still with us.

  •  What a perfect description for a (0+ / 0-)

    pampered. clueless corporate media that insists on getting certain 'facts' down, using those highly polished teeth on those gears to shove their narrative down our collective throats.

    Excellent points, and I must have missed that in Mother Night; that blew right past me on that first read so many long years ago.

    Diary has a well deserved Rescue.

    "You know what the real fight is? The real fight is the definition of what is reality." Bernie Sanders

    by shpilk on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 09:09:53 PM PDT

  •  For Whom the Gears Turn... (0+ / 0-)

    Wow good diary...all those gears/wheels...the imagery....

    ...Ask not for Whom the Gears Turn, They turn on YOU.
    (thanx to Earnest Hemingway)

    Big gears keep on turning,
    Proud, scary keeps on churning,
    Rolling, Rolling on your gravestone...etc.
    (apologies to Creedence...)

    The wheels are turning And we are being broken on the wheel
    (Ref. Medieval torture/execution method.)

    Are we all just involuntary cogs in the mechanism of Neo-Con run America? And who is chipping off the teeth of our minds?  Even more effective is the Newspeakiness of America...make sure more and more people start with incomplete gears...the result of stunted education, deference to authority and control of information and messages. 1984+20= affirmation of the Big Brother lite regime in 2004 with the Fuhrer knows best ethos.

    And when the clock goes "Coo Koo" once in a while it's self referential irony goes unnoticed.

    Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie

    by IreGyre on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 03:14:01 AM PDT

    •  Not a bad couple of pastiches (0+ / 0-)

      Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times also comes to mind.

      And the 1950s dystopia Limbo by Bernard (not Gene) Wolfe, with its central image of "Dodging the Steamroller."  

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