Dubious Truths: An Examination of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle
By David Michael Wharton
24 March 2003
Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma, and Granfaloons
Listen: Kurt Vonnegut gets the joke. Even if some of his characters don't. Even if most of the rest of us don't. If there is one unifying thread that runs throughout all of his works, it is the knowledge that the universe is a Big Damn Mess, and that's a terrible thing. The flip side of that, and the bit that Vonnegut is so skilled at pointing out, is that the universe is a Big Damn Mess, and that's pretty funny when you stop to think about it. In the words of Vonnegut's Theodore Sturgeon-esque pulp science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, "being alive is a crock of shit." Vonnegut comes from a background uniquely suited to appreciating this Great Cosmic Punchline: he grew up during the Depression. He watched his father waste away and his mother commit suicide. He witnessed the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the firebombing of Dresden and spent the aftermath as a captive of the Germans, dredging corpses out of charred basements. Vonnegut is all-too-familiar with the fact that we can be a fairly nasty species when we choose to be . . . and we choose to be quite a lot of the time. In spite of all of this, or perhaps because of it, Vonnegut can't help but take it all in . . . and laugh. Like most of his works, Cat's Cradle is a satirical look at the structures and mores that underlie our society and our species, with particular attention paid to politics, science, religion, and all the other lies that make up our lives. By deconstructing these institutions, Vonnegut invites us to appreciate the fact that most of the truths to which we hold fast are really rather silly when examined closely, so we might as well join him in the heckler's gallery.
In the first line of Cat's Cradle, the narrator invites us to "Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John." Anyone with a semester of freshman lit or a subscription to Classics Illustrated will immediately recognize the reference to Melville's Moby Dick, which opens with "Call me Ishmael." But what does Vonnegut hope to accomplish with this? In Moby (the novel, not the bald techno artist), Ishmael serves as witness to the increasingly insane pursuit of Moby Dick by Captain Ahab, a quest that can be seen as representative of man's immortal -- and some would say, just as futile -- quest for truth. "Jonah" also alludes to the Biblical Jonah, who was swallowed whole by a whale (literally a "great fish") as punishment for disobeying God. Once released from the belly of the beast, Jonah has learned his lesson and is more than willing to go about God's Good Work. John spends Cat's Cradle in an Ahab-esque quest to find the whole story of Dr. Felix Hoenikker and kin. As the novel progresses, that quest becomes more and more a quest for truth or meaning. Once he learns of the existence of Ice-9 -- the isotope of water that is solid at room temperature and contaminates any other water it touches -- and that each of Dr. Hoenikker's children is in possession of some, John makes it his quest to find them. It is never clear what he intends to do if his search succeeds. Ishmael watched as his captain foolishly pursued the whale that had taken his leg, a pursuit that in the end destroyed him. For Jonah, the whale came to him. The message seems to be that whether we choose to chase the truth or run from it, it will inevitably turn around and swallow us whole. Damned if you do, damned if you don't is a philosophy Vonnegut seems to particularly enjoy.
John's name may also be intended to echo that of two Biblical prophets, John the Baptist and John of Patmos. John the Baptist foretold the coming of Christ and ended up with his head on a platter for his troubles. God gave John of Patmos an elaborate vision of the end of the world, much of which he could not easily understand. The John of Cat's Cradle is also a prophet of sorts. His gradual conversion from Christianity to Bokononism, the fictional religion created by Vonnegut, is at the heart of the novel. As he pursues the Hoenikkers across the globe, each time he comes to a realization that pushes him one step closer to a Bokononist outlook, he comments on it, quoting the appropriate Bokononist tenet. John is narrating the events of Cat's Cradle from the future, more specifically from the "end of the world" described in the last few chapters of the novel. His story is the Gospel of the Final Stupidity of Mankind, a doctrine of supreme futility. Furthermore, his conversion to Bokononism foreshadows the eventual coming of Bokonon himself, who does not actually appear until the very end of the book. Unlike traditional messiahs, however, Bokonon's appearance does not bring redemption, salvation, or answers to all of life's questions. Rather, he leaves a note, the gist of which is, "life is silly and unpleasant," and vanishes.
Vonnegut uses the fictional religion of Bokononism as his primary weapon in skewering the many targets he wishes to satirize in Cat's Cradle. Bokonon serves the same purpose as the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five or Kilgore Trout in nearly every Vonnegut tale: he voices whatever off-the-wall observations the author chooses to toss out concerning the general state of things. Bokononism, unlike most religions, is quite openly founded on outright lies, a pack of foma as Bokonon himself might say. As John explains, "Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies won't understand this book either." While this could be simply written off as a symbolic attack on religion in general, with Vonnegut it is rarely that simple.
Consider that although Bokononism is, in the words of its own founder, "shameful lies," the lives of the characters in the novel nonetheless demonstrate that it has many useful things to say. Virtually every character in the novel is a Bokononist, or becomes one by the end. While this particular faith does not necessarily give them any exclusive window onto the inner workings of the universe, it does give them a mindset more appreciative of the overall irony and humor of the situation. John converts from Christianity to Bokononism precisely because he comes to the conclusion that the universe does not make any sense at all. At the end of the novel, he finds himself confronted with the effective end of humanity. Were he still Christian, his worldview would be hard pressed to survive the cruel reality he sees around him. However, as a Bokononist, the disaster makes perfect sense, because it is completely senseless. As critic Paul Reed explains:
Bokononists always say "as it was meant to happen," instead of "as it happened." Bokonon develops this concept when so many coincidences shape his travels that he decides something is trying to get him somewhere for some purpose. In Bokononist terms, however, it translates roughly as saying there is no decipherable meaning in the workings of the world, but we can play as if there were some.
The apparent conclusion that Vonnegut has come to is that, while religion may or may not provide us with a dosage of real "truth," even if it ultimately serves no more purpose than to give us hope and to help us to enjoy life a bit more by working under the assumption that Something is Going On, isn't that a noble enough purpose? The survivors of the Ice-9 disaster, including John, are faced with an undeniably bleak future, yet none of them appears to be gripped by depression or fatalism. In fact, several of them remain cheerful and upbeat. They truly see the glass as half-full, pointing out the plentiful food and water available to them, and the fact that at least they have company. Sure, most life on the planet has been obliterated, but really, is that any more ridiculous and unpleasant a situation than the way things were before? Vonnegut may firmly believe that the only thing beyond the grave is a big flashing neon sign reading "No Vacancy," but if religion can stand in between us and the Abyss long enough to distract us and keep our lives happy, then more power to those of faith.
Vonnegut's problems with religion and his beliefs about truth are symbolized by one of the prevailing images in the novel, from which the book takes its name: the cat's cradle. Early in the novel, Newton Hoenikker, the younger son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, relates a childhood memory of his father. Felix has been playing absent-mindedly with a bit of string he received in a letter. Newt says:
Anyways, Father looked at that loop of string for a while, and then his fingers started playing with it. His fingers made the string figure called a 'cat's cradle' . . . but he went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he showed me his teeth, and he waved that tangle of string in my face. "See? See? See?" he asked. "Cat's cradle. See the cat's cradle? See where the nice pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow."
Up until this point, Dr. Hoenniker has had almost no close interaction with his children. His life has been so focused on his scientific research, that he often seems to forget that he has children, or sees them simply as small roommates who can take care of themselves. Young Newt, never having seen his father this close up, or in such an unusual and playful mood, is terrified and runs away crying. He is frightened both by his father's appearance and by the foreign concept of his father attempting to connect on an emotional level with him. He explains to John that it was because up close, his father "was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. I dream about it all the time." As a child, Newt and his siblings idolized their father, even though he focused almost exclusively on his work, at their expense. While Newt may have craved attention from his father, the one time such attention was offered, Newt was frightened by the harsh truth of his father as a flawed, imperfect human being. That close to his father, Newt can no longer mentally airbrush out his father's faults. What he describes as terrifying him are all purely physical characteristics: his pockmarked face, his breath reeking of cigar smoke. However, these are merely a screen for the emotional truth that Newt cannot face: that their father has been a bad parent and does indeed care more for his work than for his own offspring. His father's one attempt to make an emotional connection is a bizarre and frightening failure because Dr. Hoenniker honestly has no concept of how to relate to his children. It is important that a cat's cradle is at the center of this scene, that it is the symbol of Felix Hoenikker's half-hearted attempt to bond with his children. Later in the novel, Newton sums up the problem with the cat's cradle, and more poignantly, with what it represents:
No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's . . . No damn cat, no damn cradle.
Those six words sum up Vonnegut's message about religion, politics, science, and just about everything else. Sure, the mysteries of the universe can look astounding, and mankind can be fairly interesting and entertaining at times, but what happens when you really start digging into things? When it's not enough for you just to exist and be happy, but when you decide to start hunting down truth? In Vonnegut's opinion, this is a quest that can only end in one conclusion: No damn cat, no damn cradle.
Kurt Vonnegut appears to be a man very much in touch with what he sees as the basic ridiculousness and meaninglessness of life, the universe, and everything. Cat's Cradle dissects many of the institutions that we hold sacred, that give our lives structure and meaning and stability. In many ways, this novel is an exercise in pulling aside the curtain and revealing the Great and Powerful Oz as nothing more than a con man with some gadgets, a man who ultimately has no more useful knowledge about the Meaning Of It All than do any of the rest of us. So where does that leave us? On the surface, these conclusions would seem to dead-end in a fairly depressing alley. If everything we trust in is empty and false when viewed beneath the microscope, then where do we go from here? What does Vonnegut hope to teach us? The answer can be found in the book's dedication, tucked quietly and unobtrusively at the front of the novel: "Nothing in this book is true. 'Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy'." In the end, that's all any of us can do. Whether Vonnegut is right, whether there is a god or not, whether that god cares one whit about us or not, many still choose faith. They must believe that the universe makes sense in some fashion, even if deep down they suspect it doesn't. Why? Simply because those things in which we have faith make us better than we are otherwise and hold the possibility of maybe -- just maybe -- elevating us above our otherwise dark natures. Vonnegut wouldn't have it any other way.
Copyright © 2003 David Michael Wharton
David Michael Wharton is a freelance writer from Texas. He spends his days picking grammatical nits as a copyeditor for a publishing company in Fort Worth, and fills his free time writing short stories, essays, scripts and the like. His work has appeared in Dark Moon Rising and The Circle, and he also writes audio scripts for the Texas Radio Theatre Company. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Cat's Cradle. New York, 1963.
Reed, Paul. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Writers of the '70s). New York, 1972.