Religion, Responsibility, and Writing in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

Cat's Cradle

I finished Cat’s Cradle last night in my journey through 1960s literature.  I don’t know if it brought me closer to my destination, but it was certainly provided me a wild and thrilling ride.  Before I move on to other works, I want to reflect briefly on three more passages of the book that demonstrate its depth.

First, when “Papa” – San Lorenzo’s fiercely anti-Bokonist dictator is dying an agonizing death, he demands Bokonist last rites.  Only his former Nazi doctor is willing to risk administering them (since the penalty for doing so would be “the hook”).  The narrator asks the doctor –

“Are you a Bokonist?”

“I agree with one Bokonist idea.  I agree that all religions, including Bokonism, are nothing but lies.”

“Will this bother you as a scientist?”  I inquired, “to go through a ritual like this?”

“I am a very bad scientist.  I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific.  No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.”

Earlier, the narrator had asked someone if anything was sacred in Bokonism and the answer was “only human beings.”  Though Bokonist teachings are based on self-proclaimed lies, the principal Bokonist value (honoring individual human life) is one that the heroic characters of the novel portray.

Next, Frank Hoenikker (son of Felix – one of the fathers of the atomic bomb), after being selected to become the next President of San Lorenzo, manages to pawn off the job on the narrator.  Reflecting on this, the narrator writes –

And I realized with chagrin that my agreeing to be boss had freed Frank to do what he wanted to do more than anything else, to do what his father had done: to receive honors and creature comforts while escaping human responsibilities.  He was accomplishing this by going down a spiritual oubliette.

An oubliette is literally a dungeon from which there is no escape.  The Latin root for the word is the same root for the word “oblivion”.  The narrator recognizes here, only too late, that to have power without accountability is a deadly recipe for any individual and for the society around him.

Finally, Vonnegut plugs the value of literature through a conversation between the narrator, Dr. Julian Castle (a humanitarian who founded and operated the San Lorenzo hospital) and his son Philip who wrote a history of the island before opening a hotel.  Philip ponders if writers should go on a general strike “until mankind comes to its senses”.  The narrator responds passionately –

“When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.”

I turned to Castle the elder.  “Sir, how does as man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”

“In one of two ways,” he said, “putrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”

When we lack good literature, either our hearts become stone or our minds turn to mush.

So the message to those of you who write is… keep making beautiful sense as fast as you can, for the sake of humanity.

(image “Cat’s Cradle” from Megan Van Horn in To Read)

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