If humans strive to fulfill their void, of a lack of meaning in their lives, their folly will blind them from the truth. Kurt Vonnegut portrays his inner emotions and feelings of the insignificance of religion through the characters of his novel, Cat’s Cradle. His satiric approach to a subject that many people base their daily existence upon, challenges the readers’ faith. As people search for a deeper meaning in their lives, the more confused they become.
Only to become entwined in the Cat ’s Cradle of life.
In the beginning, the reader is warned: “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either” (5-6). The theme throughout the entire novel is set as, religion is based on lies to give people something to believe, and find meaning in.
Vonnegut created a religion in his novel, Bokonism, founded by a man named Bokonon. Through lies, and short poems, Bokonon spreads his religion to the people of San Lorenzo, a small desolate island with no future.
“All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”(5) Vonnegut, through the ideals of Bokonism, gives the reader
Insight into the notion that all religions are based on lies, and un-truths. When Bokonon, christened Lionel Boyd Johnson, arrived at the Island of San Lorenzo, he saw the place as a disaster, which would yield no economic wealth or prosperity. The only way that he saw possible for of this place to become a utopia was to invent lies in which the people could base their existence. These lies would convince the people that they had a much better life then they actually did, keeping the structure of the island alive. An example of one of Bokonon’s short poems:
“I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise” (127).
Bokonon explains his reasons for creating the lies on which his religion is founded; he makes the peoples lives more wholesome. People have always searched for meaning,
Meaning that science has not been able to provide them with. So the people therefore turn to higher forms of meaning, i.e. religion; despite the fact that it’s constructed to give meaning when no such meaning exists. Bokonon’s reason why man searched for meaning in life is as follows:
“And God created every living creature that now
Moved, and one was man. Mud as man alone could
Speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up,
Looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the
Purpose of all this?” He asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” Asked God.
“Certainly,” said man. “Then I leave you to think
Of one for all this,” said God, and he went away”
The oblivious correlation between this story, of how humans were created, and the story of Adam and Eve, from the bible, is a religious satire. Vonnegut uses this to prove
His point that religion is based on un-truths that explain the un-explainable.
Throughout Cat’s Cradle, religious references are subtly portrayed through the situations that take place as the book progresses. Felix Hoenikker was “the father of the
Atomic bomb” (131), more than he was the father of his own children. His scientific work caused him to neglect them; however his lack of morals allowed him to continue his work
Uninterrupted. He was a scientist who had no quest for meaning, but a quest for truth. “What is sin?” (17). Felix was oblivious to the destruction that his creation of the
Atomic bomb had caused, having no moral obligation to the lives of the people that he destroyed. “…He was practically a Jesus, except for the son of God part” (67)
Jesus created a religion, while Felix created the atomic bomb, which killed hundreds of thousands. Vonnegut uses his satiric play of words to denounce Jesus of the crimes that his religion has caused. The holy wars and religious battles around the world since the dawn of time have claimed many casualties, thus relating Jesus to Felix Hoenikker. This relation also provides the reader with the notion that people feel that they do not hold responsibility to their creations.
Newt Hoenikker’s, Felix’s sons, birth killed Emily, Felix’s wife. Just as In Genesis Chapter 35, Line 16, of The Bible, Rachel dies giving birth to Israel’s baby. The lines
Between Bokonon’s and Christianity are fine, and the lies begin to overlap each other, proving each other wrong. “The words were a paraphrase of the suggestion by Jesus:” Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” Bokonon’s paraphrase was this: “Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea of what’s really
Going on” (101)”. Bokonon contradicts the thoughts of Christianity, proving the lack of true meaning in religion. The similarities and contradictions between Bokonism and
Christianity are so prevalent that the mere fact that they coincide with one another proves them to be bitter lies (Price). The only interaction that Newt had with his father
was one day that Felix tried to show him a game of Cat’s Cradle, in which hetried to get Newt to see the cat and the cradle, which were both non-existent. All of the people who
turn to religion are looking for a meaning that will never be found. “Religion!”…”See the cat?” asked Newt. “See the cradle” (183).
Newt’s constant reference to the game of Cat’s Cradle is a symbol of the search for meaning that people get caught up in. Cat’s Cradle is a game that has a complete absence of
fact, no cat or cradle exists, only the mere illusion. Newt implies that the people who search for a meaning in religion are searching for something that is not there at all. Bokonon finds it comical that the people who study his religion find more meaning in their lives when it is all crafted lies.
The nihilistic views of Vonnegut begin to become clear as Cat’s Cradle, comes to a close. It is human nature to search for meaning in life, meaning that science alone
cannot provide. Science discovered that the basic need of human existence is “protein” (24). This fact of science intensifies the conclusion that human existence is futile
without meaning, such a meaning that religion provides. However, that is just the statement that Vonnegut expects the people of the world to make. The void that humans feel a need to fill, with thoughts such as religion, will never be filled; the search for meaning is never-ending. Just like an endless, pointless game of Cat’s Cradle. Bokonon, in his
infinite wisdom knew not to take his own advice and the validity of it was null. There is no truth, there is no meaning, “No damn cat, and no damn cradle” (66).
Cat’s Cradle is laced with irony and parody, but it is necessary to recognize the underlying implications of Vonnegut’s humor. Although Vonnegut clearly intends for his readers to laugh while reading his book, Cat’s Cradle is not merely a playful frolic through human foibles. Vonnegut employs humor as a means to make his reader assume a critical stance toward the “sacred cows” of their culture, of which science, religion, nation, and family are only a few. Underlying Vonnegut’s playful humor is a sobering exploration of the dangers inherent in the combination of human stupidity and indifference with mankind’s technological capacity for mass destruction.
The twentieth century added an ever-increasing pace of scientific advancement and industrialization to a pre-existing cauldron of religious, class, and international conflict. Although industrialization and scientific advancement offered millions of people a better standard of living, they also produced or exacerbated human suffering on many levels. The same scientific community that discovered antibiotics also produced the atomic bomb, nerve gas, automatic firearms, and a host of other efficient means to kill and maim human beings. The same process of industrialization that produced cheaper, standardized material goods came hand in hand with abusive labor practices and unsafe working conditions.
Vonnegut offers his readers a puzzling, disturbing portrait of “innocence” in Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel-prize-winning physicist, who approaches all of his research as a child would an amusing game. Felix lacks the malicious intent we associate with people we term “evil.” He is as interested in researching the atomic bomb as he is in researching the behavior of turtles. He cares little for money, fame, or prestige, but he also cares little for other people, even his family; nor does he care for the implications his research could have for humanity. This seemingly harmless man helps build the atomic bomb and later produces ice-nine, an isotope of water that is solid at room temperature. By the end of Cat’s Cradle, this second invention is responsible for the death of almost every living thing on earth.
Felix’s neglected children also seem fairly harmless at first. At heart, Newt, Angela, and Frank simply want to be happy. However, their seemingly innocuous attempts to gain an impossible happiness leads to the destruction of life on earth. In this way, the Hoenikker children come to represent the people of the world; the search for happiness is perhaps the most universal of human endeavors and a noble goal. But, Vonnegut portrays this very human effort as being neither as simple, nor as simplistically moral, as it is generally perceived to be. Like their father, the Hoenikker’s lack the malicious intent usually associated with people termed as “evil.” Instead, they are careless, sometimes indifferent, often stupid, and ultimately caught up in their own lives. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut demonstrates that these traits–none of them evil–combined with man’s technological power are enough to destroy the world.
Art and Science Compared
To sum up the above stated analysis of art in the form of “Bokonism” religion and science in the form of technical progress, we encounter Felix Hoenikker, “…practically a Jesus, except for the son of God part” and Bokonon, the one and the only creator of the ultimate religion to cultivate.
Which of the two is better? Which of them is more beneficial to humanity, which of them leads us to heaven and which – to the abyss?
For Vonnegut, both of them are heartless and frigid to the utmost, though the driving force for such conduct differs. Hoenikker, technology with the bloody axe of nuclear menace in the flesh, behaves like a kid. He knows his work is to develop deathly “gimmicks”, the tragic outcome and aftermath of its implementation is of no interest to him. Technology is nothing if we do not know the person at the red button. In the hands of those dark geniuses we get the Trial Day where everybody is equal in front of the artificial death source. Solemn is the truth that few people behind-the-scenes working in the labs do want us to get the better of their works. Even if those are, there is another factor: those who will actually take use of it could be not, thus proving the road paved with good intentions leads to hell.
On the other hand, we see author’s hypocritical religion, which tries to lull the society, provide it with sedative pills to make them believe in something, which is initially false.
People catch the bait though, for it is very often the easiest way of escaping reality. Such escapology “providing with answers” is expressed in various ways, from indulging in alcohol, drugs, which is self-destruction; suicide – whereas you believe afterlife will bring coveted relief and rewards, and ultimately, art – religion, which enables you to believe in whatever you want, depending on the gods you fancy for yourself.
“If I were a younger man, I would write a history
of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of
Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my
history for a pillow; and I would take from the
ground some of the blue-white poison that makes
statues of men; and I would make a statue of
myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and
thumbing my nose at You Know Who” (Vonnegut 191)
Such is the way the prophet is, that is how he estimates his disciples and trustworthy followers. Such is the way Vonnegut sees art and science, according to Woody Allen “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
The gloomy choice remains for the reader of thought-provoking Vonnegut. Let us pray we know how to make our own choice by saying it is one of the most insightful books on science and art of the twentieth century.
Kurt Vonnegut “Cat’s Cradle”
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