Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
December 3rd, 2010
I hadn't actually read any Vonnegut prior to Cat's Cradle, and in a conversation with someone a while ago when I realized this, I thought it was odd (and shameful!) that I wouldn't have tried reading something of his by now.
After reading the book completely, I remember why I hadn't read him: I was turned off by what I had hear of Vonnegut's opinions on two somewhat sensitive topics of mine, war and religion.
I don't like the idea of having my political/religious views permanently etched on the interwebs, so I'll try to trot carefully here. I strive to be an open-minded individual. It really bothers me, then, when I hear things like "Everyone who is religious is an idiot" or "War is horrible and everyone in favor of it is an idiot". I especially don't like reading books or watching movies that have these sort of staunch anti-war/anti-religion themes, because they are often give such shallow treatment to complex and delicate topics. "War is killing, killing is bad, therefore if you support war you are morally deficient." "Religion has flaws, a lot of bigoted a-holes go to church, therefore you have to be a mindless sheep to be religious." So when I heard others talking saying Vonnegut was staunchly anti-war and anti-religious, I figured his writing probably wasn't for me.
I am SO glad that I completely forgot about my reasons for avoiding Vonnegut and decided to read Cat's Cradle! It was fantastically well-done, and I absolutely loved his treatment of both religion and war in the novel.
The main character and narrator of Cat's Cradle willing believes in a religion called Bokononism, a fake religion that he knows with certainty was completely made up by some random guy. Bokonon, the creator of Bokononism, openly states he isn't some divinity. He creates the religion part out of (his and Earl McCabe's) perceived societal necessity for their co-rule of San Lorenzo, and part, I think, just for kicks.
In Bokonon's "scriptures", before and during and after his stories he reminds the reader quite bluntly that he's making this all up, and that everything's a lie, and that the reader should stop reading because none of it is true. Putting all that aside, though, the religion that he invents is actually fairly plausible and many times deeply insightful.
What Bokononism gives you the most insight into is the character and psyche of Bokonon himself. Imagine if you're in a position to create a religion that you know a small country of people will follow and believe, no matter how ludicrous the things you say may be. I think there are two common paths: one path is to make an obviously nonsense religion with foolish, contradictory laws, just to test how far a religion can be taken before it loses following. Another path might be to make a sensible religion and to really play the role of a religious leader, while sort of secretly admitting to friends and relevant others that yes, this is a hoax to placate the masses.
It's telling that Bokonon essentially makes a fairly "realistic" religion, but decides to embed numerous unabashed denouncements of the very religion within its scriptures. Why does bother to write a thoughtful explanation of afterlife and the purpose of human existence, then make such a whole-hearted effort to inform his people that his religion is fake? Part of it I think is, Bokonon is laughing at the sheeplike nature of the religious and enjoys playing the game of their leader. You sense Bokonon's sort of mischievous joy in yanking around his followers, from the first sentence of his scriptures, "All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies" to the very end when he convinces the world's (almost) last remaining survivors to mass commit suicide, as it's "clearly" God's will.
But I think the other part of it is, Bokononism is what Bokonon actually believes. He's saying basically that look, I know that I am just making stuff up and that this is non-scientific fluff. I have no pretense of having some "divine" powers that would give me any more insight than any other person into God or life or whatever. But nonetheless, here's what I think.
Bokonon's scriptures reflect Bokonon's own inner struggle: he looks at the world and concludes that, if there is a God, he isn't very holy or even smart. He's powerful, he's created everything, but there's too much stupidity in the world for God to have some grand master plan he's working toward, and thus the idea of some "God-given" purpose of life must be a human invention (see chapter 118).
I've heard intellectuals talk so many times about the human necessity for purpose, that every society invents an explanation of the purpose of human existence because there is a need to be meaningful. What I hate is that so many times, these intellectuals talk as if they are somehow "above" this need, that by recognizing that the "meaning of life" is desire and not a guarantee, the recognition alone means that they themselves do not have a need or desire to have a purpose in life. Which I've always found incredibly arrogant.
That's why I LOVE LOVE LOVE that Vonnegut makes a simple but logical conclusion: if it is a quality of the human condition to want a purpose in life, then, being human, Bokonon too will want to believe there is some meaning to all this. Even though Bokonon's very skeptical, and even though he is well-aware there is absolutely 0 proof that humanity is more than the coincidental biproduct of some higher power (be it science or God playing with mud) — and that if anything, there is far more evidence of the purposeless of life than not — still, Bokonon writes about kan-kans and karasses, and that at the end of it all, we're going to find out what part of God's Will we were set out to accomplish.
Humans are humans, even the self-aware and the cynical. LOGICAL CONSISTENCY. I love it.
It would have been so easy for Vonnegut to make Bokononism a vessel through which he was pointing and laughing and saying, "Look, they believe such stupid stuff just because some random guy said so! Aren't they idiots?" Instead, he gives almost a defense of religion while upholding that it's all baseless unfounded wishful thinking. It's seriously fantastic.
Oh, I said that I also liked his treatment of war in the novel. I've already talked enough, so I'll just leave it to this: read Horlick Minton's speech in chapter 114. War is not the fault of any one X or Y person or country, and certainly not the fault of the soldiers, but instead is indicative of the massive failing and incompetence of all mankind as a whole. Yes.