A few thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (study notes)


‘Seeing the Cat’s Cradle in Life’s Meaningless Strings:
Embracing Foma in the Face of MADness’

Cat’s Cradle (1963) was published the year after the Cuban missile crisis had brought humanity closer to annihilation than ever before[1]. Writers like Vonnegut, in the looming shadow of the early Cold War, faced the challenge of conveying the comic absurdity of humankind’s ‘condition’ – an existentialist concept which, in Sartre’s words, ‘describes all the limitations that a priori define man’s fundamental situation in the Universe’ [2]. Tellingly, those narratives acknowledging the hopelessness of our position have proved to be the most enduring. Vonnegut’s text and Beckett’s Endgame is amongst the most prominent examples. Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is another particularly influential example.

In the nuclear age, the truths of humankind’s fragility and the futility of their position are painfully unavoidable. Its collective existence is constantly threatened by unfathomable power, which it cannot defend itself against. That power lies is possessed by a small number of individuals whose actions are not limited by the chance of retribution, or intervention, from God. The last remaining deterrent to aggressive action is ‘mutually assured destruction’ (an absurd notion in itself) – the fact that the enemy would retaliate to an attack with full force, without moral restraint, ensuring the elimination of both nations. More absurdly this is not an idea taken from fiction – during the Cold War, though neither nation wanted to strike the first blow, Khrushchev famously warned Kennedy that ‘if the US insists on war, then we’ll all meet together in Hell’ [3].

The issues of living in the nuclear age resonate highly with the atheist branch of existentialist philosophy which stresses that, in God’s absence, the responsibility for humankind sits entirely in the hands of men (please note: this is not meant to be gender specific – I only mean to stress that it is the action of our species that determine the human ‘condition’, not the decisions of an omniscient third party). Philosophers like Sartre believe that humankind has been ‘‘abandoned’ by God [and is therefore] ‘responsible’ for [its own] existence’, though ‘the whole [thing is] meaningless’ without a pre-ordained plan or purpose. There are numerous existentialist philosophers, but Sartre is among the most influential of the French atheists. He incorporates the terms of his contemporaries and places them in context with his own work, and so reference to his work allows for clarity in this essay. In this passage, he paraphrases Heidegger to explain the consequences of our ‘abandonment’.

However, existentialists also believe that human self-awareness leads each individual to a sustainable, unavoidable sense of morality and responsibility to others. Vonnegut clearly disagrees, and challenges the reliability of individual morality in the context of nuclear issues. Using Dr Hoenikker – his crude caricature of the archetypal nuclear scientist – Vonnegut demonstrates how morality is easily forgotten in the pursuit of scientific truth. Though not specifically involved in the Manhattan Project, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir became the model for Dr Hoenikker’s character. Vonnegut seethed, in an interview with The Nation, that the scientist was reckless and ‘indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he… handed out to whoever was around… he didn’t give a damn… [because] any truth he found was beautiful in its own right’[4]. His creation of ‘icenine’, for example, was solely for the purpose of solidifying mud; the fact that the substance, if misused, would contaminate the world’s water supply is considered irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. Even after the destructive power of the atomic bomb is confirmed, Hoenikker refuses to acknowledge the ‘sin[s]… science [has committed]’[5].

Vonnegut’s narrator muses that, when scientists distribute nuclear technology like ‘playthings’ they inevitably fall into the hands of ‘short-sighted children’ who misuse them, because that category contains the majority of the human race[6]. This progresses his argument towards a generalised scepticism of human morality. He uses Dr Hoenikker’s three offspring – Frank, Angela and Newt – to demonstrate how easily an individual’s morality can fail. All three characters barter away their portion of ‘ice-nine’ for a governmental position, attractive husband and ‘a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget’ respectively, then reassure themselves that the decision has made them happier[7].

Whilst exhibiting the selfishness of modern humankind, Vonnegut also highlights its reluctance to accept the reality of its hopeless ‘condition’. He recognises that the existentialist insistence upon untainted authenticity of the subjective experience (i.e. the constant pursuit of truth) provides miserable individuals no opportunity for escapism – an outlet which was very much required during the Cold War. All of the characters in Cat’s Cradle reject the truth of their circumstances in some way, signalling the inadequacy of reality to pacify the human need for meaning. The most prominent example, though, is the Bokononist faith. Followers of this religion perceive ‘truth [to be] the enemy’, and escape the hopelessness of reality by embracing blatant lies, including the shameless invention of a God[8].

This is not a phenomena exclusive to the nuclear age, by any means. The evocation of God acts to many people as an installation of purpose and order in the Universe. Human beings are thus able to surrender to the concepts of ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ (referred to in the text as ‘zah-mah-ki-bo’) and pass over the crushing burdens of responsibility, isolation, guilt and paralysing fear they feel in the face of meaninglessness (where ‘zah-mah-ki-bo’ is defined simply as ‘fate – inevitable destiny’). However, the concept of a pre-ordained plan and purpose for human existence is made even more desirable in the face of nuclear threat. The more futile the situation, the more tempted individuals are to affix false meanings to it.

Bokonon’s offering of lies that reorganise an individual’s perception of his existence – that make ‘[life] all fit nice’ – are thus shown to be infinitely preferable to the truth for the people of San Lorenzo, for whom reality has little to offer[9]. The Books of Bokonon, then, demonstrate how religion can become ‘the one real instrument of hope… [when] the truth [is too] terrible to face’[10]. The existence of their God is a fantasy, of course – the Books of Bokonon acknowledge this but, paradoxically, this information is largely irrelevant. It is what the existence of these Books signals which is important: that the human desire for meaning overwhelms the human desire for truth.

This is explained via the metaphor of the cat’s cradle. It is a simple construct, made between the fingers with a length of string. Its creator knows that the finished product will contain neither cat nor cradle. However, if he invokes the power of his imagination, he can affix a purpose and a meaning to an otherwise meaningless series of X’s. Each string is thus given a purpose (e.g. an arm of the cradle), much like the agents in a Bokononist ‘karass’, but that purpose is purely imagined (note: a ‘karass’ is defined in the Books of Bokonon as a ‘team [of people] that do[es] God’s will without ever discovering [for sure] what they are doing’ [11]). However, without affixing a false meaning to the outcome, the action itself becomes pointless. If, then, the cat’s cradle acts as a metaphor for the human state of being, Vonnegut is arguing that humankind’s choices are limited to pretending to live for a reason, or having little point to live at all. Man is left to stare ‘at all those X’s… [and see] no damn cat, and no damn cradle’ unless he engages his imagination[12].

In Bokononism, then, life’s events happen as they were meant to, regardless of an individual’s intentions. To put it bluntly, free will no longer poses a conscious risk if one pretends it is as relevant as ‘the free will of a piggywig arriving at the Chicago stockyards’[13]. Existentialists would, rather disparagingly, call this deliberate affixation of false meaning, and its subsequent avoidance of ‘anguish’, an act of ‘bad faith’ – ‘bad faith’ is one of translations provided by Mairet for the Sartrean term ‘mauvaise-foi’. Another is ‘self-deception’[14]. Bokonon refers instead to the choice to live by ‘foma’ – the harmless untruths that enable humankind to be ‘brave… kind… healthy and happy’[15]. As Vonnegut knows only too well, when given a choice between truth and happiness – an unbearable reality, or a bearable unreality – many individuals would choose the latter.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008)

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, trans. by C. Macomber (London: Yale University Press, 2007), p.42)

[3] Jeremy Issacs & P. Downing, ‘Back Yard: Guatemala & Cuba 1954-1962’, in Cold War: For Forty-Five Years the World Held Its Breath (London: Abacus, 2008), p.220

[4] Robert K. Musil, ‘There Must Be More To Love Than Death: A Conversation with Kurt Vonnegut’, in The Nation, 1980-08-02 (http://www.worldcat.org/issn/00278378))

[5] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.13

[6] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.75

[7] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.174

[8] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.123

[9] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.91

[10] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.123

[11] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.1

[12] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.118

[13] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.135

[14] Philip Mairet, ‘Introduction’, in Existentialism & Humanism by JP. Sartre, trans. by P. Mairet (London: Methuen, 2007), pp.1-20)

[15] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, prologue


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