“No Damn Cat, No Damn Cradle”

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel, Cat’s Cradle, revolves around Jonah. Or is it John? or Sam? I’ll go with Jonah (because he said to). Jonah is writing a book on Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atomic bomb. Jonah hunts down and gets in contact with the deceased Hoenikker’s children; Frank, Newt, and Angela. Through correspondence, he learns the story of the Hoenikkers and all about their peculiar father. Besides inventing the atomic bomb, Hoenikker also invented Ice-nine. Ice-nine is a compound that changes the molecular build of water and turns it into ice. It was designed for the Marines because they were tired of walking through mud (only Vonnegut could conceive such a situation). The problem is that once Ice-nine comes into contact with moisture, it freezes everything it touches. And there it is. Yet another weapon of mass destruction, courtesy of Felix Hoenikker.

However, this is all just the framework for Vonnegut to get his real message across — the emptiness of man’s state in modern society. To illustrate, I present you with an anecdote:

When I was in high school I had a friend whose parents were devoutly religious. Stalin would cower in fear of their Authoritarian-Baptist rule over their house. Naturally, under these circumstances and at that age, my friend rebelled. The details of this rebellion are unnecessary. Suffice it to say the attack on ‘Fortress Parental Guidance’ sparked an all-out war. She had to move out of her own house because the struggle was too burdensome. She stayed at her boyfriend’s house. His parents forced him to stay with a family friend. While unconventional, the situation eventually cooled off, and a truce was drawn up.

That Christmas her parents accepted her back into the house. For the week. On Christmas morning she sat with her family around the tree just like any other Christmas morning. She saw she only had one present. She was alright with that, it had been a rough year. While the Santa of that year (her sister) passed out presents, she waited quietly. Eventually, the time came for her to open her lonely present. She tried to hide her excitement. Her parents couldn’t know how happy she was to be back home, if only for that week. She nervously undid the ribbon that kept the box looking tidy and proper. She carefully tore the wrapping, the box’s last line of defense. She opened up the box, shaking.

The box was empty except for a note. “We wish we could give you a present, but you’re not the daughter we raised”.

This same feeling comprises the essence of Cat’s Cradle, albeit without the dazzling humor, and unfortunately, the fictional aspect. A great lie can make anyone happy until they realize its contents, or lack there-of. Bokononism is Vonnegut’s empty present for his outlandish characters. A make-believe religion, Bokononism is set on a foundation of lies. It’s creator, Bokonon, is a drifter. He lives in the mountains, continually adding lies and autobiographical notes, which both take their form in “Calypsos” (short poems; proverbs, if you will), to The Book of Bokononism. These “Calypsos” border on the absurd and call attention to their real value — nothing. Jonah informs the reader that the first verse in The Book of Bokononism is “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” (Vonnegut 5). However, Bokononists accept this contradiction. Bokononists have not opened the Christmas present. Maybe it is out of fear, or maybe they don’t know they have the ability. More likely, they just don’t want to, preferring to spend their time enjoying it’s unknown contents

Vonnegut uses Bokononism to mercilessly satirize modern day religion. Vonnegut recognizes religion’s power to pacify. Yet, at the same time, the people of San Lorenzo (the “utopia” that is home to the only followers of Bokononism) are all living in soul-crushing poverty. Vonnegut describes the islanders as thin, bowlegged, gap-toothed. More vividly, “the women’s breasts were bare and paltry” and “the men wore loose loincloths that did little to conceal penes like pendulums on grandfather clocks” (Vonnegut 136). While Vonnegut does admit that, despite their horrid living conditions, the San Lorenzan’s are not rebellious due to Bokononism’s influence, he never once describes the people as happy. One has to see the clear influence of Marx’s famous statement, “Religion is the opium of the people”.

Kurt Vonnegut

Aside from the religious satire present in Cat’s Cradle, a great deal of the black humor in the book deals with man’s relationship to technology. In modern society, technology is synonymous with progress and benefit. The more powerful our smartphone is, the more we know; the more efficient our engines are, the further we travel; the more radioactive our microwaves are, the quicker we eat. Yet, Vonnegut looks at the other side of things. That is, the more dangerous side of technology. To him, the arms race is indeed a technological race, but rather than forging a path to a better society, it is catapulting man to his own downfall.

Vonnegut viewed the atomic bomb as the pinnacle of technological evil. It was the costly dead end to Rousseau’s concerns with the morality of scientific advancement — “What dangers there are! What false paths when investigating the sciences!” (Rousseau 49). Indeed, there is a clear link to Rousseau through Vonnegut: the desire to return to simpler times, the love, tempered with a careful cynicism, towards mankind (A blogger with more time on his hands might make a winning article with that comparison). In order to warn the reader of the direction modern science has taken us, he invents Ice-nine and lets the events fold out as he see fit.

Critique aside, the book is an absolute scream. While alone, I found myself laughing to the point of tears. In public, I did my best to play off the laughs as coughs, hiccups, or spasms. It’s a fun read with some powerful ideas. As the second Kurt Vonnegut novel I’ve read (Slaughterhouse-Five being the first) Cat’s Cradle solidified Vonnegut as one of my favorite authors.


Sources

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Roger D. Masters, and Judith R. Masters.The First and Second Discourses. New York: St. Martin’s, 1964. 49. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dial, 2010. 5, 136. Print.


Originally published at www.thesyndromeirregularly.com on August 1, 2013.

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