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The Good vs. Evil Narrative: Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

By Emily Burns Morgan

Cat's Cradlet gets hard to watch the news. Here’s the president of Israel, saying that Iran is about to get nukes and that we have to draw a red line in the sand, telling them they can’t cross. But these are people who are themselves developing nuclear weapons. To use. What difference does a line make when you have a nuclear weapon?

The question reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview in The Nation in 1980: “As for nuclear weapons, I can’t imagine why anyone wants them. I don’t want my country to have them. I don’t want anybody to have them. And there’s no point in going country by country by country because if they exist anywhere, they threaten the entire planet.”

I found this interview while searching for articles on Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s novel that has to do with world-ending technology. As it was meant to happen, Bokonon, Vonnegut’s fictitious religious leader would say, the novel came my way free of charge when someone I know was consolidating her things for a move. I was the beneficiary of this downsizing, and I’m glad, because not only is Cat’s Cradle fun to read, but it also seems particularly pertinent to what is happening in the world now.

The novel follows a writer, John, who at book’s open is conducting research on Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the (fictional) father of the atom bomb, for a book called The Day the World Ended. When John is assigned by a magazine to cover a story about the small island nation of San Lorenzo, he becomes involved in the affairs of Dr. Hoenikker’s three grown children, and the drama taking place on the island.

What John finds on San Lorenzo is most unusual. The island is run by a dictator called “Papa” Monzano, who took over after its previous ruler, Corporal McCabe, killed himself. John quickly discovers that all of the inhabitants of San Lorenzo follow a religion called “Bokonism,” despite the fact that this faith has been outlawed on the island and adherents practice under threat of severe punishment. By reading a history of San Lorenzo, and by speaking to its inhabitants, John comes to find out that the holy man, Bokonon, and his friend, the previously mentioned Corporal McCabe, had been in something of a shipwreck, and washed ashore on San Lorenzo several years earlier. The two friends took control of the nation and, upon realizing that they could not bestow health, wealth, and happiness to their new subjects due to a lack of natural resources, decided instead to provide a drama between good and evil, so that the people might have, if nothing else, at least a framework for understanding their existence. Therefore, McCabe becomes the evil dictator and Bokonon the exiled holy man. When John arrives on the island the state of affairs is the same, only with “Papa” at the helm. Most San Lorenzans seem to be in on the joke, but it makes little difference: whether fact or fiction, the story is working.

The narrator of Cat’s Cradle continually disrupts the plot to explain the teachings of Bokonism, Vonnegut’s made-up religion, and as I read I couldn’t shake the feeling that “Bokonon” must be a reference to the Russian anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin. Though then again that idea could be nothing more than a granfaloon, that is, a false karass—“a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done.” Interestingly, though, the Wikipedia page on Bakunin mentions in the first paragraph the philosopher’s affinity for Hegel’s notion that “Everything that exists is rational.” That idea is so perfectly opposed to Bokonon’s that I am convinced Vonnegut must have intended the confluence. Especially since questions of pronunciation, misinterpretation, and miscommunication come up again and again throughout the text. Still, does the connection mean anything? Or is it all foma (lies), and does it matter?

The Bokonists’ most sacred religious experience, boko-maru, is said to mingle souls by rubbing the soles of one’s feet against another’s. Surely this is another example of the confusion of words. And yet, according to John and others, boko-maru works, and that’s what matters. Such verbal disorder appears again and again. The title of the book, for example, refers to misnaming: As Felix Hoenikker’s son, Newt, points out, the game “cat’s cradle” has nothing to do with either cats or cradles. But Vonnegut suggests that such lack of rationality is not a problem. Instead, it is our expectation and need for one-to-one correspondence that is foolish. If only we could reject our irrational need for rationality, and instead believe simply that souls=soles, and so find  harmony by rubbing the bottoms of our feet together (“provided they are clean and well tended”), then we would love one another, and be at peace. If only we just did what worked, tried not to kill each other, and stopped caring about whether or not our religions are based on lies (like Bokonism proclaims itself to be), then maybe we wouldn’t even need writers to create false order out of chaos for us anymore.  

Part of Vonnegut’s message seems to be that meaning comes from writing. Only imagination can make rules out of the world’s natural state of anarchy. That is why a writer’s strike would be “like the police or the firemen walking out.” When another writer in the book advocates for such a strike to protest human senselessness, John refuses to join in: “When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.” For John—and I think we can say for Vonnegut—the best we can do is to keep writing, as though the line in the sand were to be crossed tomorrow, in an attempt to come up with ideas that work. The story that argues for us stockpiling nuclear weapons is as true as the one that claims we must destroy them. It’s just that one results in the death of millions and the other one doesn’t. So, to me, the peaceful story works, and the violent one does not. The question is not which story you are going to believe but, if texts are drugs, which one doesn’t leave you with a hangover?

Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications.