Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cat's Cradle

Do not be dismayed by the title! I realize that cats are smelly, underhanded creatures that meet when humans are asleep to deviously plot our demise. Fortunately, the cat in Cat’s Cradle* is not a literal one; the phrase refers to a string game involving two or more players. The first player initiates the game by creating a figure with their fingers and string that simultaneously depicts either a cat or a cradle, depending on the view. Players then go back and forth, creating subsequent figures from a pre-determined list. The game ends when a player chooses a dead-end figure. This sounds like a mind-numbingly boring game. I would rather Yo-Yo for 24 hours straight, performing the only trick I mildly know how to do—“Walk the Dog”—over and over. Regardless, it serves Kurt Vonnegut’s purposes.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He attended Cornell University where he majored in Chemistry and edited an independent, student-run newspaper. He was also a member of Delta Upsilon, so all you frat boys out there—you have a pretty intelligent brother in your midst. Later in life, he endured some horrific WWII combat experiences, one of which inspired his renowned novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Post-war, he attended the University of Chicago, where Cat’s Cradle served as his thesis. The novel was not only embraced by his professors and the public, Vonnegut himself rated it an A+ in comparison to his other novels.  

I whole-heartedly agree that this story is incredibly inventive; while the novel has a vague historical context, it is entirely fictional. It is narrated by John-- an ordinary man who intends to write a book about the day Hiroshima was bombed. Through this pursuit, he meets the three children of a deceased Felix Hoenikker, the fictitious creator of the atomic bomb. These children possess a secret which leads the entire crew to an island called San Lorenzo. On the surface, San Lorenzo is a Christian country that condemns followers of Bokononism to death. In reality, everyone—even the dictator—is a Bokononist. Political defiance, I like it already!

Bokononism is a faith unabashedly based on lies. The Book of Bokonon is full of foma – “harmless untruths” and Bokonon himself explicitly warns readers to take his religion with a grain of salt. Basically:

He claims that it is utterly foolish to think that you will ever be able to understand the ways of the world or speak knowingly about cosmic significance. What the hell do you know, you’re a stupid human?! I can only imagine how enjoyable it was for Vonnegut to create and define a bunch of kooky words within a kooky, fabricated religion. Implicit in this novel is the idea that all religion is fabricated; no belief system points to an absolute truth and no divine creed accurately explains the existence of humanity. Below is a brief list of some tenets of Bokononism:
  • Karass—a group of people that unknowingly help each other perform God’s will. Membership can supersede imposed boundaries like race, class, nationality, etc. Sometimes a karass consists of only two people who are particularly in-tune with each other—this is a duprass.
  • Granfalloon—a phony karass. You might think that a shared connection such as similar political stance, fellow college alumni status, or parallel career path could be indicative of a karass type bond, but this is not necessarily the case. This is comforting to me-- after homecoming at UVA last weekend, I realized that while I really enjoy the company of most of you, there are some of you who I think are total asshats and I’d prefer never to see you again, much less share a karass with you.
  • Vin-dit—an abrupt, hard shove towards believing in Bokononism. A calling, if you will. 
  • Wampeter- the pivot around which the souls of karass members revolve. A wampeter could be anything: a painting, a speech, a plot, a sleeping bag, etc. Additionally, wampeters are impermanent; they come and go, and there is always “one waxing in importance and one waning” (Vonnegut, 52).
Now that that list is over, hopefully I’ll be less bombarded by those little, annoying red squiggly lines coming at me from spell-check. In sum, Bokononism seeks to embody the notion that a useful religion can be founded on lies. San Lorenzo is an underdeveloped, unproductive country overpopulated with poor people. For its inhabitants--who lead miserable, stinking existences-- truth is the enemy. They want to escape the cold, brutal reality of their living standards. In order to distract them from their plight, Bokonon—the island’s ruler at one point, outlawed himself. He wanted to jazz up the people’s lives, noting that, “a really good religion is a form of treason” (Vonnegut, 173).

Though Bokononism seeks to make life more tolerable and peaceful, it does not shy away from cynicism related to the fate of mankind. It balances a wry, irreverent acceptance of the way life ultimately is with the desire to make things as enjoyable and entertaining as possible (absurdism, anyone?). As such, the only thing sacred in the religion is mankind. One story within The Book of Bokonon describes a man questioning his purpose in life. God retorts by inquiring why everything must have a purpose. When the man persists with his original query, God simply says, “‘Then I leave it to you to think of [a purpose] for all this,’” before he drops the mic and walks away (Vonnegut, 265). I did not realize that God had so much swag.

I have some ideas about the deeper meanings of this book; I could be completely pulling them out of my ass or I could (hopefully) be onto something. Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed humanist, i.e. he favors science over religion as a tool to make sense of the world. Because of his philosophical stance, I can do a little deducting. It is not difficult to observe—and personally feel for that matter—that humans are plagued by a throbbing need to have something to live for. In response, we often turn to religion to give our lives meaning and render our existence less mundane and inconsequential. Vonnegut feels that religions and the rituals that accompany them attempt to meet this human need but are sometimes destructive in the process.

Man is sacred in Bokononism which indicates that this particular religion is potentially on to something. According to Vonnegut, religion in general is pretty ridiculous; instead, let’s focus on human agency so that we can actually get some shit done. Towards the end of the book, John acknowledges “the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought…the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it” (Vonnegut, 284). Newt, one of the Hoenikker children, is a midget. Ruthlessly ridiculed, he would probably love to lie to himself about his height to get through the day, but he obviously cannot. Walking beside another person or stopping to look in the mirror would shatter that lie. So, reality is not always that great and we might not effectively squash our desire for purposeful lives on a wider scale. BUT…let’s do the best we can with what we have and try and adopt a human-centered philosophy that encourages active participation in life and love for all our fellow creatures.

Now, what’s the deal with the title? “Cat’s Cradle” as a game begins with a figure that can be seen as a cat or a cradle, depending on one’s perspective. In my opinion, Vonnegut is making a parallel between the number of different shapes you can make with the string and the various religions we desperately cling to in our attempts at self-assurance. All religions: Bokononism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., are the same in that they’re made of lies. (Of note: this is my interpretation of Vonnegut and not necessarily reflective of my own beliefs). I am not entirely sure if that is what he meant by the title, but I love that the novel still has me ruminating on the subject and I’m open to suggestions. That being said, there are multiple additional controversial topics underlying the text (arms race, technology, science) that I did not have time to discuss here but might be of interest to another reader.

Overall, I found the novel brilliant and captivating; the story was queer and the philosophy behind it was stimulating. Furthermore, it was a very easy read, with short, digestible chapters. I am a total sucker for gallow’s humor and I absolutely recommend this book to anyone who shares that predilection. Even if you’re not into religion, philosophy, science, being entertained, expanding your knowledge base, etc., the Bokonon aphorisms are both comical and wise enough to draw you in. Lastly, there is a group of people who form the “Camp of Bokonon” and attend Burning Man every year. Considering Burning Man looks like one of the most incredible events that mankind could possibly participate in, I’d say that that confirms this novel is deserving of the 5 out of 5 camel hump realm.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: The Dial Press, 1963. Print.

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