Revisiting Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

by Ralph Dumain

All the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I read I must have read some time between the ages of 16 and 22. Vonnegut suited my existentialist sensibility of the time, but as I veered in other directions, I lost touch with him except for some films of his work and the occasional essay or interview. The last novel I read was Breakfast of Champions (1973), which for some reason I thought would be his last. I read his essay collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1974). Before these I read most of his novels and one collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). Certain key phrases and ideas have stuck in my mind for decades. "So it goes."

With a not entirely reliable memory I recall a short poem scoffing at history, also the harmoniums on Mercury (which I misremembered until this moment as Venus) in The Sirens of Titan (1959), the ideas behind a couple of short stories, the basic ideas behind Mother Night (1961), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970), all of which were made into films. I think he also had some things to say about Hoosiers, in more than one book, but I can't remember where else, perhaps God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)?

I am now reading Cat's Cradle (1963; my edition is the New Dell Edition, published 1970) again after 35 years. I am surprised to discover that almost all of the key ideas I retained from Vonnegut are to be found in this one novel, though most of them I eventually forgot. The one I remember best is the karass, and the substance Ice-9 and the catch phrase busy busy busy. But I totally forgot the religion of Bokononism. (See also The Books of Bokonon and Bokononism.)

In the old days, Vonnegut's toying with notions of the meaning(lessness) of life and other existential concerns appealed to my skeptical and existentialist mindset. My orientation changed in the mid-'70s, but back in high school I had played with mythologies, founded the Church of Universal Cynicism, read Camus, utopian and dystopian novels, including the Esperanto (and Hungarian) dystopian novel Vojaĝo al Kazohinio (translated into English: Kazohinia). Now I'm re-reading Vonnegut with a whole lot more personal history behind me and am freshly taken by his inventiveness and his ideas, though I don't take them in the same way this time around.

Bokononism—the word vaguely resonates. I think first of the founder of anarchism—Bakunin. No idea whether this was working in Vonnegut's mind. I doubt very much he was thinking of Ethiopian general Ras Makonnen. As we will learn later, Bokononism is the outlawed underground religion of the impoverished Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo, whose dictator is nicknamed "Papa". This bears resemblance to Haiti. Another possible association is Boukman, the houngan (voudun priest) who inspired the Haïtian Revolution.

Anyway, Bokononism is ironic about its own truths. The Books of Bokonon begin thus:

All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.

A karass is a group of people linked by destiny irrespective of commonly recognized, conventional affinities (family, locale, race, nationality, etc.) This is one of Vonnegut's most appealing ideas, which is why I never forgot it. It accords with our experience of establishing the connections between people that matter, which cannot be predicted by upbringing or propinquity. My guess is it's also another device Vonnegut uses to illustrate the principle that the order of things, whatever it is, does not follow our preordained, readily discernible, socially determined conceptions.

There is some essay I read by Vonnegut thirty years ago or more; the idea was somewhat different. Instead of turning to your established family, you could just look up everyone with your last name in any phone book in the country, and consider them family. If you needed money, you could ask one of these people, and if that person were agreeable, he'd loan you the money, if not he'd blow you off and you could go elsewhere. I take it this was Vonnegut's imaginative way of establishing a sense of solidarity in a novel fashion in an anonymous society ordered by illusory principles.

Researching the life of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a father of the atomic bomb, the narrator's life first gets entangled with one of his sons. The tendrils of one's life are called sinookas (14). Hoenikker pretty much ignored the world except for the scientific puzzles that engrossed him. The one time he was interested in playing a game was the day the first atomic bomb went off, when Hoenikker played cat's cradle (17).When a fellow scientist remarked on this occasion that science now knows sin, Hoenikker replied, "What is sin?" (21).

Vonnegut sustains a clever, ironic attack on a certain orientation toward science. Hoenikker is completely disengaged from others and from relationship with the outside world except for his original approach to asking questions and solving scientific puzzles. His contention was that if people were scientific instead of superstitious, the world would be a better place (25). The bartender who relays this story reports that according to the newspapers the secret of life has been found—protein (26).

The narrator visits the city of Ilium, where Hoenikker's colleagues live and do their research. Ilium has a colorful history: a man was hanged in 1872 for murdering 26 people. Dr. Asa Breed, an atomic scientist, is amazed by this: "Twenty-six people he had on his conscience!" The narrator replies: "The mind reels" (28).

Dr. Breed, whom others suspected was the real father of Hoenikker's children, is quite amiable, and feels that science is within the reach of everyone, including his secretary Miss Francine Pefko, who denies being able to understand a thing, and furthermore ventures, "You scientists think too much". Another woman accompanying the group "hated people who thought too much. At that moment she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind." (31) Dr. Breed insists that all science must be comprehensible to everyone. But as far as Miss Pefko concerned, science is magic. Dr. Breed disagrees, but Miss Pefko doesn't buy it. Dr. Breed, taken aback, insists: "we don't want to mystify. At least give us credit for that." (33)

Dr. Breed is sensitive to stereotypes and prejudices about scientists, insisting on their normality, but also insisting that his team doesn't just churn out trivial practical applications but is actually paid to do pure research, to generate new knowledge, and is not told what to work on, though suggestions are always forthcoming. Just pure scientific curiosity . . . Dr. Breed nonetheless asserts "New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become." (35-36) This is a Bokononist moment.

The narrator learns of Ice-9, a substance intended for military application conceived by Hoenikker, which Dr. Breed insists is merely hypothetical. He doesn't know that Hoenikker actually succeeded in creating Ice-9.

At this point we are introduced to the Bokononist concept of a wampeter, the pivot or hub of a karass.

Vonnegut's incidental characters are of interest. Miss Faust can't accept the notion proffered by Breed that Hoenikker's main concern was truth. "I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person." (43-44) She could be a Bokononist in the making.

In addition to the secretaries, the narrator meets an elderly, crazy black elevator operator, Lyman Enders Knowles, who makes some eccentric pronouncements (46-47).

After we witness the narrator's encounter with the Hoenikker family's bizarre tombstones, we learn another catch phrase of Bokononism:

Busy busy busy is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is. (51)

And so we come to the end of chapter 32. An overall pattern of connection and disconnection can be detected. Commonly perceptible social arrangements involve real disconnections: scientists' ideas from their lives and the social institutions that support them, ordinary people from scientists, the objective knowledge of science from people's understanding of their ultimate purpose and place in the scheme of things. Yet there is a covert connecting principle, the karass. And there is the religion Bokononism, a useful metaphysical fiction to make sense of it all, but to distance us from our own conceit of knowing the order of things.

The postwar scene was grim. I am reminded of William Carlos Williams' Paterson:

— anything but this featureless tribe that has the money now — staring into the atom, completely blind — without grace or pity, like so many shellfish.

The counterculture loved Vonnegut, but he must remember that he was a rebel of an earlier generation.

Marvin Breed, Asa's brother, did not buy into Hoenikker's saintly image. He detested Hoenikker, not only for bringing the abomination of the atomic bomb into being, but for neglecting his wife Emily, whom Marvin adored.

"Sometimes I wonder if he wasn't born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that's the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead." (53)

The narrator learns more about the Hoenikker family and experiences his first vin-dit, or sudden push towards Bokononism. Upon returning to a home messed up by a poor poet he let stay there, the narrator concludes that the poet was a wrang-wrang in his karass, i.e. someone who steers people away from following a certain line by reducing it to absurdity, in this case, nihilism (59).

The narrator learns from a news article that Franklin Hoenikker, missing son of Felix, is still alive and is Minister of Science and Progress of the Republic of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean. He also becomes immediately infatuated with Mona Aamons Monzano, the beautiful adopted daughter of dictator Miguel "Papa" Monzano (60).

En route to San Lorenzo, the narrator encounters his first duprass—an impenetrable karass of two—in bland Ambassador Minton and his wife (64).He also meets Hoosier bicycle salesman H. Lowe Crosby, who loves pro-American dictatorships, and his wife Hazel. Hazel's obsession with her fellow Hoosiers illustrates the granfalloon, a false karass based on a meaningless commonality. This is not "the way God gets things done."

Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere. (67)

I wonder if this indicates something essentially anarchistic about Vonnegut's perspective.

We learn that Minton was fired from the State Department during the McCarthy era because of a published letter by Hazel stating ". . . I was very upset about how Americans couldn't imagine what it was like to be something else, to be something else and proud of it." Minton adds:

The highest form of treason is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love. (68-69)

In Philip Castle's book San Lorenzo: The Land, the History, the People the narrator discovers a quotation from the outlawed Books of Bokonon:

Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn't have the slightest idea of what's really going on. (73)

Bokonon was also a believer in "dynamic tension".

It was the belief of Bokonon that good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at all times. (74)

The salience of this principle will be seen later on.

Bokonon was originally Lionel Boyd Johnson, a black man born in Tobago in 1891. He came from a wealthy family and sailed to London to get an education. This was followed by a series of amazing adventures. He met Earl McCabe in Haiti in 1922, and shipwrecked, both ended up on San Lorenzo. The name Bokonon was derived from Johnson via the island's peculiar English dialect (78).

The narrator encounters Hoenikker's other two children on the plane, Angela and Newt. He gets Mona's bio from the book on San Lorenzo, but Claire Minton, who was a professional indexer, advises, never index your own book (85-86).

San Lorenzo could not be more poor or miserable, so McCabe and Johnson, had no trouble taking it over from Castle Sugar, the previous in a long line of conquerors. They wanted to set up a utopian society, but failed completely. Johnson invented a new religion, but Bokononism was now illegal, punishable by the Hook.

The entourage from the plane is formally received, but Papa collapses while speaking. The narrator gets to meet Philip Castle, who openly declares himself a Bokononist, but is protected by his American citizenship (107). In his hotel, owned by Castle, the narrator finds two painters clandestinely practicing the Bokononist ritual of boko-maru—pressing the soles of their bare feet together (108).

Newt paints what he calls a cat's cradle. Castle agrees with Newt that everything is meaningless. Castle throws the painting off the terrace and it lands in a waterfall (116).

The narrator learns that everyone on San Lorenzo is a Bokononist (118).

When Bokonon and McCabe took over the island, they expelled the priests. When it proved impossible to improve the people's living conditions, Bokonon's "religion became the one real instrument of hope." The truth was too terrible to bear, so Bokonon took it upon himself to invent better lies. Bokonon requested McCabe to outlaw him and his religion to give it greater zeal. Bokonon invented the idea of the hook as a method of execution, but at first its use of make-believe. McCabe pretended to hunt Bokonon down, but Bokonon always miraculously escaped. (118-119) The people were happier acting out the pretense of the tyrant in the city and the holy man holed up in the country. But McCabe and Bokonon, who started out much alike, lost their minds acting out the extreme roles of tyrant and saint (120). People started dying on the hook, but Monzano never seriously attempted to capture Bokonon, knowing he needed him. "Busy, busy, busy."

Angela turns out to be a first-rate musician (inter alia accompanying a Meade Lux Lewis recording). Demonstrating her talent, she goes into a trance playing music (123-124).

The narrator seeks a copy of the Books of Bokonon so he can learn to understand zah-mah-ki-bo, his fate. He learns some of Bokonon's cosmology, which Bokonon himself calls foma, a pack of lies. (129-130)

Frank Hoenikker urgently meets with the narrator to propose that he become the next president of San Lorenzo, because Frank likes the cut of his jib. Nobody wants to be president, certainly not Frank, who is as challenged in people skills as was his father. Frank is an illustration of duffle, or the fate of masses of people placed in the hands of a clueless person, a stuppa (135). The narrator balks, but eventually saroons, gives in to his vin-dit (137). The only "catch" is that he has to marry Mona.

The narrator practices his first boko-maru, with Mona. But the narrator, insecure and selfish, almost loses Mona by demanding that she no longer practice boko-maru with anyone else. A man who attempts to monopolize someone's love is a sin-wat (141).

He learns that the only thing sacred to Bokononism is man (143). Though this seems noble, I wonder if this is believable, given the cynicism expressed by Bokonon elsewhere.

Papa is on his deathbed, but as the last bizarre rites (which seem to resemble voudun) of what is called Christianity on the island are prepared for him by Dr. Vox Humana, Papa rejects Humana and declares himself a Bokononist (147). Dr. von Koenigswald prepares to administer the last Bokononist rites. The doctor agrees with the Bokononist idea that all religions including Bokononism are lies. He performs the last rite with Papa . . . boko-maru, reciting the Bokononist story of the creation of man (148-150).

As the narrator prepares to assume the presidency, he considers joining forces with Bokonon, but he realizes he must continue to outlaw Bokonon, as he cannot offer the people any other solutions.

So good and evil had to remain separate; good in the jungle, and evil in the palace. Whatever entertainment there was in that was about all we had to give the people. (152)

The inaugural ceremony for the new president includes a bizarre buffet and an even more bizarre ceremony. San Lorenzo had advertised itself as staunchly pro-American and anti-Communist. In this ceremony the six-plane San Lorenzan air force bombs target cut-outs of Stalin, Castro, Hitler, Mussolini, Marx, the Kaiser, Mao, and some Japanese guy, taking out "practically every enemy that freedom ever had" (154-155).

The younger Castle asks the President-Select if he would support a general writer's strike "until mankind finally comes to its senses", but this idea is shot down as the effects would be too devastating (155-156).

The new president contemplates the meaning of Mona, pro and con. He asks Philip Castle if San Lorenzans would welcome the prospect of industrialization. He is informed that the people are interested only in fishing, fornication, and Bokononism. There's only one aspect of progress that really excites them—the electric guitar (157).

In another discussion, Bokonon is said to be against science. Everybody thinks this is nuts.

Papa Monzano ends it all by taking some substance in a cylinder around his neck, His corpse is frozen in an extreme position. He is the first man to die of ice-nine (159). Von Koenigswald touches his tongue to a basin of water become ice-nine, and dies instantly, frozen.

As we learned much earlier, Felix Hoenikker bequeathed his secret cache of ice-nine to his three children. Frank had obviously given some to Papa Monzano. Frank devises a plan to clean up the mess. This is a real pool-pah—a shit storm (163). The new president asks himself what hope there can be when such playthings are given to irresponsible children such as the whole human race. The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon supplies the answer as to what can be hoped for from mankind—nothing (164).

As they all clean up, the new president finally hears the story of how the Hoenikker children came by their stash of ice-nine.

Ambassador Minton delivers a speech in honor of the "Hundred Martyrs to Democracy", not his prepared speech, but an impromptu, surprisingly Bokononist, speech from the heart, on the murder of children called soldiers due to the stupidity and viciousness of men (170). Minton pities the martyrs "for being dead on this fine day." (171)

The six planes proceed with their ceremony. One plane malfunctions, bursts into flames, and crashes into the cliff beneath Papa's castle. The castle crashes into the sea. (172) This precipitates a catastrophe.

Papa's corpse is thrown clear, and as it makes contact, the sea turns to ice-nine. The sky is suddenly filled with tornadoes.

Mona guides the new president down a manhole to a secret bomb shelter. There they wait out the end of the world.

In the shelter, the new president reads the creation foma of the First Book of Bokonon (177). Then he has uninspiring sex with Mona. Such is fate, we do what we muddily must, as goes one of Bokonon's songs on life (178).

Eventually, the new president and Mona emerge from the manhole to survey the devastation. They come across a mass suicide, many in the position of boko-maru. They find a note "to whom it may concern", explaining the rationale for suicide, signed by Bokonon (182). This Jonestown-like incident seems like the height of cynicism to the new president. Mona thinks it's a simple solution to the problem, touches the finger to the contaminated ground and then to her lips, and dies.

The new president finds other survivors, and spends six months writing this book.

Frank shows off his ant farm and explains how ants avoid getting killed by ice-nine. The Books of Bokonon advise:

Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way. (187)

The new president learns more of Bokonon's cynicism (189-190). He wonders what the last gesture of the last man on earth should be. Then he discovers Bokonon himself sitting by the side of the road. Bokonon is working on the final sentence for the Books of Bokonon (191). This is what he has written:

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

A baby-boomer such as myself can reconstruct the dissident mindset of the progeny of a previous generation only with the greatest difficulty. From other books we know that Vonnegut was already disillusioned—hardly the only one—by his experience as a prisoner of war in World War II. Before I was born and while I was only an infant, Vonnegut as a grown man experienced the postwar military-industrial complex, the Cold War, jingoism, the ugly American, Madison Avenue, the mechanical deadness, conformity, and alienation of American life in the '50s. Vonnegut mocks religion, family, patriotism, Americanism, militarism, imperialism, the Cold War, the arms race, progress, research and development, scientists, technocrats, and businessmen—in other words, the social order solidified in the 1950s.

Could Vonnegut have predicted that his sensibility would be picked up on by a young, skeptical generation? Even the baby-boomers were naive, or grew up naive, and had to fight their way through to criticize and open up American culture. The present generation of young adults inherits a cynical frame of mind without having to make the slightest effort. Think, then, what it must have been like for Vonnegut to develop the kind of mind he had.

While much is clear, Bokononism remains somewhat of an enigma. Bokonon is partly a trickster figure—sincere in his insincerity, cynically honest or honestly cynical. What moved Vonnegut to make his hero Bokonon a black man—perhaps not a casual gesture for the early '60s? Was it simply because the Caribbean was a convenient scenario for Vonnegut? Or because a signifying black prophet represented the outsider, the skeptic in contemporary society?

Bakononism seems to imply an anarchist perspective (note the examples of granfaloons given), though it is also a means of social control, albeit voluntarily accepted by the populace to gratify its need for self-deception. Bokononism candidly confesses itself a useful lie, yet its followers do not by-and-large seem to share Bokonon's cynical irony. Bokononism is both benign and manipulative, idealistic and nihilistic—only man is sacred, yet its followers succumb to the suggestion of mass suicide (which may have been the only rational way out?). Bokononism is intellectually understood by its founder and by the narrator, but it functions in society only because it is outlawed. In other words, Bakononism seems to be both ironic and non-ironic. It almost adds up in its self-undermining, but not entirely. We see this sort of cynical irony in New Age ideas that come later in the '60s and '70s (Mr. Natural, EST, etc.). Bakononism is benign by comparison; boko-maru is an innocent touchy-feely prefiguration. Perhaps this contradiction, or dynamic tension as Bokonon calls it, is deemed ineluctable in a world in which needs cannot be met, problems cannot be solved, and people have no idea what they're doing.

There's something curious about the angle on science and religion in this novel. Clearly, Vonnegut is skeptical about religious beliefs, but he's just the same obsessed with the meaning—or meaninglessness of life—in trans-scientific terms. The type of scientific curiosity and detachment expressed by Felix Hoenikker (who doesn't know the meaning of the word "sin") is seen as a stunted view of existence. Yet the universe seems either purposeless or mocking of our sense of purpose, even as Bokonon posits self-confessed lies and metaphysical concepts such as vin-dit, karass, etc. We are left with something akin to Camus' notion of the absurd, but with a richer stock of fictional metaphysical posits.

While I haven't thought thoughts such as these for many a year, I am in a position to appreciate Vonnegut once again, from a different vantage point. Most important is his imaginative way of addressing these issues and stimulating the imagination of others. I was thinking this through while walking towards the subway to take me homewards on the night of Memorial Day, concentrating on what a godlike perspective could reasonably be in human terms. Suddenly, my unconscious coined this aphorism:

Humor is man's divinity.

. . . In memory of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (11 November 1922 – 11 April 2007)

Humor & Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Cat's Cradle


The Books of Bokonon


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Uploaded 31 May 2007

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