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In Kurt Vonnegut’s apocalyptic novel, Cat’s Cradle, the end of the world has been realized. Plant life crunches underfoot, as though it has undergone a deep freeze. The tropical seas surrounding the fictional island of San Lorenzo have solidified, assuming a dull, frosted appearance. Grand waterfalls flowing from the majestic peak of Mount McCabe become lifeless. The once-scenic island horizon is transformed into a pale, sickly yellow. The introduction of ice-nine into the environment leads to radical weather patterns and global chaos.
Ice-nine is a crystal form of water, much like standard ice, but with a melting point of 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. When the compound makes contact with water, the liquid instantly freezes solid, turning a frosted blue. The novel begins with a brief but telling preface: “Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and happy and healthy” (Vonnegut VII). “Foma” are defined as “harmless untruths” (Vonnegut VII). While this brisk preface may merely seem to be a comical play on the standard disclaimer found within most fictional novels and therefore hold little significance, it sheds considerable light on the murky relationships between truth and meaning, as well as science and religion.
Each train of thought has its own way of understanding and explaining the jumbled universe humans inhabit, and each claims to possess a high degree of truth. It is in this vivid and terrifying landscape that Vonnegut conveys to the reader through humor and symbolism that pursuing truth, whether through religion, science, or other pathways, is not an inherently positive or beneficial and does not aid one in the search for meaning in life.
For hundreds of years, science and religion have been at odds. From the execution of the Greek philosopher Socrates to the Renaissance in Europe to modern times, the two opposing forces have always had an abrasive relationship. The beginning of the Enlightenment movement in Europe in the early 17th century marked a turn toward science, knowledge, and reasoning. It is from this era that modern society derives the notion that truth, along with the quest for it, is intrinsically constructive for humanity, along with the belief that lies are detrimental to the cause. In Cat’s Cradle, this is shown not to be the case. At the General Forge and Foundry, scientists and researchers work tirelessly “‘…to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that’” (Vonnegut 41). It is here that Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atom bomb and of ice-nine and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (a prime example of Vonnegut’s trademark humor), spends the final twenty-eight years of his life toiling away in the confines of his lab. Felix is a very childlike character, incapable of caring for himself and struggling with interpersonal interactions. Following the death of his wife Emily while in labor with Newt, his daughter Angela assumes the maternal position of the disjointed household due to Felix’s childlike nature. She forgoes any social interaction with peers in order to hold the family together. Frank Hoenikker, the middle child, follows suit, becoming an antisocial figure in the book. He becomes known as “secret agent X-9” on account of his perpetual business-like demeanor. Felix neglects his parental duties, opting instead to spend time on research and scientific pursuits. John Tomedi views the scientist symbolically: “Hoenikker serves as a symbol of scientific irresponsibility, a man so withdrawn from humanity and so focused on childish play with nature that he has no perspective on the effects of his creations and a total apathy for theirs uses” (Tomedi 41).
As a direct result of Felix’s actions, his children suffer from the lack of true parental figures. The Hoenikker children can be considered casualties of science and truth. It is at the General Forge and Foundry that two major scientific advancements are made: the nuclear bomb and ice-nine. While both represent cutting-edge scientific knowledge, the culmination of countless hours of research and development, neither invention represents the progression of humanity. As Vonnegut himself says, “It’s a law of life that if you turn up something that can be used violently, it will be used violently” (Allen 97). The atom bomb leads to the death of tens of thousands in the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while ice-nine leads to the destruction of the entire world. The destructive nature of ice-nine and the atom bomb, inventions that were fostered by science, is in direct contradiction to the concept that science and knowledge benefit humankind due purely to their foundation in truth.
Following the ice-nine catastrophe, John, the narrator and protagonist, finds himself in an underground fallout shelter with another resident of the island. John offers to share with her “‘One of the secrets of life man was a long time understanding: Animals breathe in what animals breathe out, and vice versa’” (Vonnegut 268). One with basic knowledge of science would immediately notice an error in the writing. The text should read something to the effect of “animals breathe in what plants breathe out.” This inconsequential error proves Vonnegut’s point: the truth is irrelevant. The misinformation changes nothing. This “factoid” proves useless, not due to its false nature, but rather to its real world application, or lack thereof. One Another parallel experience occurs at the bar in the town of Ilium. While John is enjoying a drink, he poses a question: “‘What is the secret of life?’ I asked. ‘I forget,’ said Sandra. ‘Protein,’ the bartender declared. ‘They found out something about protein’” (Vonnegut 25). Again, this piece of information has little relevance in the real world. It is not going to improve humanity or save one’s life. It is merely a fact to satisfy one’s curiosity. Vonnegut also uses humor to prove his point: “How can anybody in his right mind be against science?’ asked Crosby. ‘I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for penicillin,’ said Hazel. ‘And so would my mother.’ ‘How old is your mother?’ I inquired. ‘A hundred and six. Isn’t that wonderful?’ (Vonnegut 234). The use of the word “wonderful” is questionable. A long life does not equate to a quality one. Science, being founded on truth and knowledge, does not benefit humanity. On the tropical island of San Lorenzo, the denizens of the country would be faced with the depressing truth if it were not for the deliberate lies of Bokononism. In 1922, two friends, Lionel Boyd Johnson and Earl McCabe, shipwreck on the island shortly after setting sail.
The state of the nation is so poor, no one attempts to prevent the foreigners from taking power. Initially, the duo resorts to a form of communism. They amass the entire wealth of the nation and divide it equally among its many residents. Each islander’s share amounts to approximately six dollars. Realizing the futility of their efforts to advance the island economically, they turn to another solution: religion. Johnson devises his own religion, which becomes known as Bokononism. To add some zest to the monotonous life on the island, the partners develop roles to fulfill in a sort of play. Johnson becomes known as Bokonon, while McCabe becomes a violent dictator whose sole mission is to capture and kill Bokonon. This drama contributes greatly to the popularity of the religion, thus benefitting the island population. The islanders are subject to substandard living conditions: poverty, pestilence, and famine are prevalent. The island lacks the necessary resources to develop. They face a bleak and hopeless future. Rather than facing the reality of day-to-day life, they adopt the fabricated religion of Bokononism: …when it became evident that no government or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies. (Vonnegut 172)
Following a similar form to the beginning of the actual novel, the Books of Bokonon, the religion’s equivalence to the Bible, warns the reader: “‘Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!’” (Vonnegut 265). This line establishes the illegitimate nature of the Books of Bokonon, and, subsequently, the religion of Bokononism in its entirety. The lack of truth is beneficial because “When people believe that they have the ‘Truth,’ they seek to impose their beliefs on others, and religious wars are the inevitable result. The highest truth in Bokonon’s religion is that all spiritual truths are actually useful fictions, creations of the imagination that do not exist outside of the human mind. The meaning of life is not something we can discover in the outside world. We must create it for ourselves” (Marvin 89). The religion is openly founded on falsehoods. In spite of this, the residents of San Lorenzo experience a real, tangible benefit. The stark reality of life on the barren island is too much to bear; therefore, Bokonon feeds the residents compounding lies. Bokononism proves more beneficial to the residents of San Lorenzo than the alternative: science. Though at its foundation Bokononism is series of untruths, that fact does not limit the religion in its ability to aid those in need.
Vonnegut portrays all religions as unreliable texts despite claims to the contrary. The island’s dictatorial president, Papa Monzano, is dying a miserable death from cancer. As his death nears, Papa undergoes his last rites with the aid of a …Christian minister, who was ready to take care of “Papa’s” spiritual needs as they arose. He had a brass dinner bell and a hatbox with holes drilled in it, and a Bible, and a butcher knife- all laid out on the bench beside him. He told me there was a live chicken in the hatbox. The chicken was quiet, he said, because he had fed it tranquilizers… He turned out to be an intelligent man. His doctorate, which he invited me to examine, was awarded by the Western Hemisphere University of the Bible of Little Rock, Arkansas… He had said that he had had to feel his way along with Christianity, since Catholicism and Protestantism had been outlawed along with Bokononism. “So, if I am to be a Christian under those conditions, I have to make up a lot of new stuff.” (Vonnegut 214) Much like Bokonon, the Christian minister fabricates new aspects of the religion to suit his needs. Daniel Minguez offers a thorough inspection: “This examination implies that one may rely upon an iteration of Christianity with the same confidence of its truth as one may rely upon their own guesswork at the workings of the universe… It shows that Christianity is just as effective without the accepted dogma of the Catholic or Protestant church and renders the text as inconsequential to the enactment of Christianity itself…” (Minguez 9) The Christian minister offers a distorted and absurd version of the religion. He makes additions to the religion with little regard for its supposed sanctity despite having been well educated. By doing so, he strips Christianity, in addition to all religion, of its credibility.
Religion and science are used as vehicles to pursue a deeper question regarding humanity: what is the purpose of life? The world inhabited by humans is mysterious, unpredictable, and ultimately meaningless. The characters in Cat’s Cradle are in search of purpose and meaning. In an attempt to find such, they supplement religion and science for true understanding. Bokononism and science strive to create meaning and purpose for the lives their followers. Bokononists believe “…that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass…” (Vonnegut 2). This is the stated purpose of Bokononism: to carry out God’s will. Though Bokononism does not explicitly condemn the attempt to understand God, it merely states that “such investigations are bound to be incomplete” (Vonnegut 4). One cannot understand or comprehend God: I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be. And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, “I’m sorry, but I never could read one of those things.” “Give it to your husband or your minister to pass it on to God,” I said, “and, when God finds a minute, I’m sure he’ll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you could understand.” She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed. She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing. (Vonnegut 4) This does little to satisfy man’s natural desire to know and understand his environment because “…any invented sense-making system is continually disproved by man’s immediate experience of the world, and the arbitrariness of events perpetually defeats any system of alleged causalities” (Bloom 91). Man must learn to accept such a situation: Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand. (Vonnegut 182)
In man’s attempt to create meaning, he may weave fiction to appease his desire for purpose, though such systems are deemed invalid. It is man’s responsibility to forge purpose and meaning for one’s existence. Vonnegut’s writings in Cat’s Cradle show that truth is not innately positive, and that lies are the opposite. Science, sharing an intimate relation to truth and knowledge, is the source of significant regression and damage to humanity in the form of the nuclear bomb and ice-nine. The atom bomb produces suffering, death, and environmental damage on an unprecedented scale, while ice-nine utterly annihilates all life on the planet. On the other hand, the fabricated religion of Bokononism, while founded on falsehoods, brings hope to the otherwise hopeless. It creates a veil to mask the otherwise unavoidable reality of life on the barren island of San Lorenzo. Bokononism and science are used by their followers to create meaning and purpose in their lives. This leads to the final conclusion that it is ultimately up to man to create meaning for an otherwise meaningless existence.
Allen, William R., ed. Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2001. Print. Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Broomall: Haights Cross Communications, 2002. Print. Marvin, Thomas F. Kurt Vonnegut: A Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood, 2002. Print. Minguez, Daniel. “Cat’s Cradle: The Apocalypse of Human Thought.” OxyScholar. Occidental College, 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. Tomedi, John. Great Writers: Kurt Vonnegut. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Print.
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