The novel's main character, Jonah, sets out to write a book about what "important Americans did on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan." His research for the novel makes a huge change in his life. He gets to know the three children of Felix Hoenikker, the father of the first atomic bomb. The heritage of their father takes these children on an unforgettable journey. Jonah goes through some personal and worldview conversions. These three children show him, and of course to us, what life with their Nobel prize-winning father looked like. We find out something about their beliefs, which tell us something about our beliefs; their decisions push us to get our values in order, and inspire a long-lasting reflection about what critical thinking is. The ever-present, underlying theme of this book is that humans have an innate urge to lie to themselves. This motif follows you till the end in various forms: Is the reality we perceive real or is it what we want to see - do we just see a string, or do we see a cat?
Let me start with the beginning of the Vonnegut writing era, the 1960s. Somewhere in the middle of the Cold War, in the year of Kennedy’s assassination, we find ourselves amidst the country’s transformation from a traditionally catholic society into… well, the modern American society. This transformation is similar or equal to John’s transformation from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The reason for this transformation may be that there are so many options for who you want to be and how you want to live. During this era, people questioned many of the established views of the world, asking questions that then radically affected the direction of their lives. Questions such as - is the truth a real thing? Are humans still humans after they do such awful things? Does God exist? After many tragic events, like the holocaust, or dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, many philosophical theories on how to deal with life emerged. Cat’s Cradle is written concerning one of these tragic events – the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack. The main character John realize that he wanted to write a book about this day. He named this book: “The Day the World Ended”. For Vonnegut, as a post-realist author, it is typical to accept Nietzsche's concept that there is no God. God was the omniscient author, but now he is dead, so no one knows what is going on. (Nietzsche). In addition to this, it is also widely known that there is a poststructuralist creed that states the human being only exists in fiction. Both philosophies have been used to explain historical situations such as World War II and Hiroshima's atomic bombing.
The phenomenon of the crisis of identity has its roots in a crisis of truth. All characters in Cat’s Cradle have been through some kind of crisis. The people of San Lorenzo didn't know what to do in their desperate situation because of the severe poverty there. John is broken from the inside because of his loss of faith in humanity after World War II, especially after Nagasaki was ruined by an atomic bomb. Both cases have something in common; they are unsure whether life has a purpose. Bokonism represents the point where both overlap. It was the point from which their lives gained meaning and purpose. This religion is fulfilling the desires of those who follow it. One of the problems with this religion is how it provides a sense of meaning in life to its followers. The first line of The Book of Bokonon could describe the whole complexity of it: “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”
Lies, lies, lies. They can easily blind your eyes. Nevertheless, these lies save some people's lives. Or sometimes not. Bokonism is a comic response to a tragic world. In its artful dualistic approach, conveying both the tragic and comic sides of human nature at the same time. People in San Lorenzo are as poor as Yob. The future does not look bright for them, and they are looking for some reason to keep going. For this reason, the religion of Bokonon is created. Not only does it provide them with a purpose for living, but it also disrupts the routine of their boring everyday lives. In a sense, bokonism was a powerful tool for governing the people. This religion offers citizens what neither the government nor the rest of the world can guarantee for them – (seemingly) the purpose of life. At some point, when bokonism is established as the dominant religion, and has a large number of members, the Bokonon begins taking them near the edge of a cliff. There, the Bokonon persuades them that God wants them to die, so they should do him a favour and do it themselves. Every bokonist commits suicide by poisoning himself with ice-nine2 and then jumping off the cliff. Here, it becomes clear to us how deadly Bokonism is for San Lorenzians. John knows gods wish for the death of the people is a lie because of the first line in The Book of Bokonon, but the people from San Lorenzo are willing to believe whoever and whatever, as long as it provides them with a purpose in life. They are willing to do anything to keep this purpose - even to commit suicide.
At the end of the day, Vonnegut felt that life was meaningless. This view came from Nietzsche's idea of the death of God3 (let’s not forget that God is interpreted as meaning in its entirety). He expresses that nothing has a power to make from -less, something with the suffix -full. At this point we can see the nihilistic concept which denies that meaning needs to be guaranteed by some higher power; nihilist does not believe that power like this exists. This is something I perceive as illusive values, which are typical for a nihilist. Illusive values are made-up values the meaning of which is to somehow bring the people to happiness. The nihilistic need for illusive values stems from the desire to gain some semblance of happiness in life. It is human nature to try and somehow deal with difficult situations. It is normal, but not acceptable, that a lie replaced the truth due to lower human suffering. Within the novel, Bokonism rids its followers of all their earthly responsibilities and replaces all their accountability with something higher - Bokonon. Of course, Bokonon is actually not something higher, but it is easier for them to listen to somebody around them. Vonnegut expresses himself as a nihilist, through his satirical view of religion. He expresses through this the idea that the human identity crisis, coincided by human evilness, had its beginning in the devaluation of the truth, which is often replaced with something more comfortable, but made up.
Religion is useful even if it is false. The red thread in Cat's Cradle is the matter of faith. The main character, John, introduced himself to us as a converted bokonist. Two intriguing questions arise. First, is it even necessary to have faith based on a lie? Second, is it necessary to have faith at all?
I will start with the second one. To have faith is one of the most advanced abilities human beings possess. People are not just physical or intellectual beings: they are spiritual as well. Psychological studies from recent years suggest that a happy human being needs to be equal in these three aspects – body, mind, and soul. So yes, people need to have faith.
The first question will follow the statement above: Is it needed for a religion to be based on the truth? Cat’s Cradle solves this problem by answering it straight up: “No - For what?”. Bokonism gives people’s lives meaning but does so through shameless lies. Vonnegut tries to excuse the false base of religion because of the creation of some kind of meaning in a meaningless world, which gives hope to people. This religion serves as relief from the hopeless reality in San Lorenzo. It becomes clear that hope is one of the highest values in Vonnegut’s life.
You must believe something, regardless of whether it is true. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas would definitely object to such a thesis. To Vonnegut, religion is useful and good when considered pragmatically, at the very least - providing hope, and relieving people of some of their responsibility. Alternatively, they can point the finger at some "higher power".
Every person who has ever walked the earth has experienced a situation where a lie played an inevitable part in their life. Sometimes it was deliberate, sometimes it was not. In his book Cat’s Cradle, Curt Vonnegut focuses the attention of the reader to the core of an issue which has plagued humanity since the end of the second world war; the problem of the crisis of truth. The subject is presented through the experiences of a promising writer, who has lived through the second world war. He believes that, with the end of the war, the world has ended as well, and because of its terrible events, including the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he has completely lost faith in humanity. The bombings themselves play a crucial part in the issue of the crisis of truth. Cat’s cradle presents the crisis of truth as stemming from a crisis of identity. After World War II, people feel the identity crisis become more intense, which leads to the boom of philosophy streams e.g., existentialism, nihilism, etc. Vonnegut’s novel is a peek into the souls of the people in the post-war period. An embodiment of this idea is Bokonism, the religion of San Lorenzo’s people. Bokonon, the central figure of the religion, consistently manipulates people, utilizing their inner brokenness. People had become so damaged that they just need something that keeps them alive, no matter if it’s true or not. Is it good? It is bad? I think that everybody needs to answer that for themselves. And this book offers the reader the opportunity to question themself. So, I begin... Imagine the cat’s cradle. Do you see a cat, or would you rather not?
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. 1963.
Abadi-Nagy, Zoltan. “Bokononism as a Structure of Ironies.” The Vonnegut Chronicles. Eds. Peter Reed and Marc Leeds. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 85-90. Print.
Blukacz, Bóżek, Nowak. “The Relationship Between Spirituality, Health-Related Behavior, and Psychological Well-Being”, 2020, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01997/full
Bradbury, Malcom. “The Modern American Novel” Oxford University Press, 1992
Reverie Marie. (2018, February 8) “Bokononism's Truth and Lies in Cat's Cradle“in: https://discover.hubpages.com/literature/Bokonisms-Truth-and-Lies-in-Cats-Cradle
Simons, John. “Tangled Up in You: A Playful Reading of Cat’s Cradle.” Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. Robert Merrill, 1990. Rpt. in Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
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