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Book Analysis/Reviews

The Drama and Struggle of the Search for Truth

Analysis on Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle
A Reflection of Reality. A Vision of the Future.

cat'scradle

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One of the gruesome realities of the post-modern world is that the everlasting struggle in search of truth has proven to provide no progress for the better of humanity. In fact, this long term battle for the search of scientific or spiritual enlightenment have done the exact opposite. With our desires of modernization, technological advances and further, when you factor in the self-entitlement of modern societies that deem it necessary to impose on lesser advanced cultures, the possibility of improving the human condition has been put at grave risk.

Kurt Vonnegut’s apocalyptic novel, “Cat’s Cradle,” places a heavy emphasis on the differences between the modern society in the city of Illium and the more indigenous and impoverished society in the island of San Lorenzo. Illium is highly technologically advanced and the people in this city govern their lives according to truths based on science and experiments while the islanders govern their lives based on their faith in a fictitious religion of Bokonon. Truth and knowledge has been sought throughout humanity since the beginning of times without proof that this search for truth, either through science or religion, has been helpful. Science and religion are both heavily influential to humankind yet both are often pitted as sworn enemies of each other. According to British philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North, “the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between science and religion” (North, 632).

Kurt Vonnegut’s apocalyptic novel, “Cat’s Cradle,” places a heavy emphasis on the differences between the modern society in the city of Illium and the more indigenous and impoverished society in the island of San Lorenzo. Illium is highly technologically advanced and the people in this city govern their lives according to truths based on science and experiments while the islanders govern their lives based on their faith in a fictitious religion of Bokonon. Truth and knowledge has been sought throughout humanity since the beginning of times without proof that this search for truth, either through science or religion, has been helpful. Science and religion are both heavily influential to humankind yet both are often pitted as sworn enemies of each other. According to British philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North, “the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between science and religion” (North, 632).

The narrator, Jonah is trying to write a book about a scientist, Felix Hoenikker, who created an invention called ice-nine. Ice-nine functions as an emergency means of freezing water, which was created initially to help soldiers get through muddy terrain. The ice-nine, however, has the dangerous potential of freezing an entire ocean and even all of Earth’s water if it ever fell into the wrong hands. Hoenikker was asked to create something to make mud easier to cross and he exaggeratedly creates an invention that ceaselessly freezes. Ice-nine is representative of Hoenikkers frigidly deadly and relentless pursuit without boundaries as he solves problems without considering the ramifications of his solutions.

While trying to obtain information about the infamous scientist, Jonah speaks to a colleague of Felix, Dr. Breed. The scientific side of truth-seeking is emphasized through Dr. Breed’s recollections of Felix as he shines light to the dark side of unethical scientists. Dr. Breed expresses to Jonah how there is nothing generous about the work that scientists do because “new knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with the richer we become.” He admits that science is just a means of getting wealthier. There is no global, not even national, humane end to justify the means; “men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.” These statements analyzed as a reflection of reality depict how non-fictional modern societies research and continue to technologically advance themselves with the sole purpose of finding cheaper ways of creating products in order to make a higher profit from it, even if the means of creating these products inexpensively are unfair or destructive to the rest of the world (Vonnegut, 41).

According to Karl Jaspers, “truth is the satisfaction of existence resulting from its creative interaction with its environment.” If this definition is correct, then modern society will accept truth as whatever satisfies the modern individual with little to no regard to the rest of humanity, even if these collectively accepted truths are false. A similar case occurs when accepting religious beliefs as an absolute truth as do the Bokononist people in San Lorenzo whose lives are governed by the theological hogwash of a local hideaway madman, Bokonon who has the intentions of giving people hope through a grisly collaboration with the island’s president (Jasper, 270).

Because truth is a conditional element, it can never be used for social development on a global scale because truth is manifested from what is suitable for the individual’s preservation and enhancement of his/her individual existence. What is true for one may not be true for another. This concept of truth is pragmatic because it is functional on an individually conscious level, but not on a universally conscious level, making truth a product of perception that is a “means and ends without a final end.” If spiritual and scientific research is not done outside of a selfish manner, and with the needs of all of humankind in mind, then “truth is not universally valid for the evidence of understanding.” Although even when doing so, it is nearly impossible to please everyone. “Truth is what produces wholeness” in an individual so truth is rarely a cogent correctness. While one, such as a Christian, may feel whole by validating his/her existence with the use of faith in God, another unreligious individual may validate his/her existence in relating their emotions or experiences to the words of poets. It is because of these peculiarities between different truths that one has a natural “awareness of the limits of every meaning of truth” (Jasper, 270-271).

Felix Hoenikker, the renowned inventor of ice-nine, has a reputed strong moral emphasis on his life when it came to truth. He was also regarded as harmless, “humble, gentle and dreamy” due to his many eccentricities. These are considerably false attributes, as Hoenikker never considered the consequences on the population and ecology of Earth before inventing an atomic bomb or ice-nine. Marvin Breed, however, who witnessed Dr. Hoenikker at more intimate moments in his life said about Felix’s wife, “the best-hearted, most beautiful woman in the world, his own wife, was dying for lack of love and understanding.” Felix is responsible for two of the world’s most dangerous inventions. His colleague depicts the scientist as unethical and inhumane. Breed shuddered to Jonah, “sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that’s the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead” (Vonnegut, 68).

Dr. Marvin Breed’s statement about “people in high places” is a reflection of reality because it is true that people in power are creating a burden to those not from first-world countries because of the modern need for immensity. We find the technology to fill these necessities at an inexpensive manufacturing cost, allowing us to build more, faster and cheaper yet essentially destroying the entire world. An example of the carelessness of human life that has come from a result of post-modernization is the immense pollution in China due to the many factories built there. There are areas in China where one cannot even walk around without a mask to protect one’s lungs from the smog. We monetarily support these other countries but are ecologically destroying them with our needs

Another reflection of reality that depicts post-modern injustices of today is the introduction of Felix’s presumably murdered son, Franklin Hoenikker. As Jonah interviewed people for his book about Dr. Felix Hoenikker, he interviewed Jack. Jack had worked with Franklin as storekeepers in a hobby shop and were long time business partners. Jack showed Jonah a remarkably realistic miniature town that Franklin built and would consistently work at it every day to perfection until the day of his disappearance. Jack described Franklin as being able to “see things you and I wouldn’t see… And he’d be right, too.” Jack saw so much hope in a mind like Franklin’s that he would advise him to “go to college and study some engineering so he could go to work for American Flyer or somebody like that– somebody big, somebody who’d really back all the ideas he had.” Jack wished he could have helped Franklin achieve this but he “didn’t have the capital.” Jack is able to consider the potential of regular people with no economic or political power having better, ethical ideas but not having the proper resources to make something out of it. Franklin was not resourceful or wealthy enough to turn his talents into anything globally significant (Vonnegut, 76).

Although Franklin was not resourceful enough to make something out of his scientific talents in Illium, he was something powerful in a third-world country. Franklin was not murdered but disappeared to the island of San Lorenzo, where he was appointed the Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo. To an emerging nation like San Lorenzo, the blood son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker was the perfect asset, promising potential progress. In a sense, Frank inherited his power because Papa” Monzano “plainly felt that Frank was a piece of the old man’s magic meat.” It was his relation to Felix that caught “Papa’s” attention (Vonnegut, 80-82).

Naturally, Jonah took his inquisition to San Lorenzo in search of more information on the esteemed Dr. Felix Hoenikker and he knew that Frank had ice-nine in his possession. On the plane he meets Angela and Newt Hoenikker, siblings of Frank. Newt is a midget. Becoming acquainted with the other children of Felix Hoenikker helped provide information for Jonah’s book as well as being helpful for eventually becoming acquainted with Frank Hoenikker in San Lorenzo, too.

The island of San Lorenzo has been colonized several times, over and over again, each time obliterating the previous cultures of the island. Their latest leader, “Papa” Monzano, is a Christian who secretly practices Bokononism. The creator of this religion, Bokonon, is in cahoots with “Papa” as they originally arrived on the island, saw how diseased and impoverished it actually was and decided to do something about it. Because the truth is so grim, they decide to create a system that is held together through comforting lies. The islanders are secretly Bokononists as well because “Papa” has outlawed the religion in the island per Bokonon’s request in an attempt to make the ideology more exciting and meaningful to people. In the Books of Bokonon there is a calypso expressive of the cruel paradox about “the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it: midget, midget, midget, how he struts and winks, /for he knows a man’s as big as what he hopes and thinks!” (Vonnegut, 284).

This lie did not just make Bokononism more exciting for the islanders, but it was also necessary because, according to The Books of Bokonon, “it was the belief of Bokonon that good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and keeping the tension between the two high at all times” (Vonnegut, 102). If anyone were to openly practice Bokononism, they were to get “the hook.” In fact, any crime, from petty to extreme, would automatically get the hook. There were no jails or anything in San Lorenzo. Even for stealing a candy bar, one would get hung up on a giant hook to suffer a bloody death. That is how they scared the citizens of San Lorenzo to so easily abandon their liberty and be submissive to laws. One time, an innocent father was accused of murdering his son and got the hook. They later found out he was not guilty. The religious need to punish a sinner proves that religion has also been no more humane or helpful to humankind than science in this story.

The hook, clearly analogous to the noose, guillotine, electric chair and other forms of public capital punishment, is a form of discipline that has become a religious justification for sadism. The hook served a purpose for conditioning the people in the island to voluntarily give up their freedoms. They had to oppress themselves and their Bokononist values to avoid being hung to a bloody death on the hook. Bertrand Russell notes in his essay, “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization,” about the impossibilities of “doctrines leading to this fiendish cruelty can be considered to have any good effects upon morals” (Russell, 660).

The search for truth through science has led to destructive inventions that could possibly end the world as we know it, while the search of truth through religion has led to a metaphysical destruction of humankind. For example, many Christians might be existing with a constant sense of morbid sin and immorality because many natural thoughts or urges have been presented to them as deplorable. There is also the existential destruction in how religion calls to try and figure out one’s assigned purpose in life but Russell advises that we “ask ourselves whether we have any evidence of purpose in the universe apart from the purposes of living beings on the surface of this planet” (Russell, 661).

Likewise, The Books of Bokonon that Jonah comes across warns people about lies and the inability to find concrete truth through religion. One of the passages depict a man asking God, “what is the purpose of all this?” In which God responds, “everything must have a purpose?” The man immediately assumes, “certainly.” God responds by leaving this responsibility up to humans; “then I leave it to you to think of one for all this” (Vonnegut, 265).

The people of San Lorenzo would have listened to anything that Bokonon said besides the lack of evidence that the religion has any truth behind it. If Bokonon told them to follow him off a cliff, they surely would have. In a place like San Lorenzo, all they could hold on to was their faith. The citizens of the island were impoverished, extremely thin and unhealthy as opposed to their plumper president, “Papa” Monzano.
When Dr. Felix Hoenikker died, the ice-nine was split in three amongst his three children. The ice-nine in all of their possessions ended up in someone else’s hand. An attractive man tricked the unattractive Angela into falling in love with him in order to get his hands on some. A Russian midget spy, disguised as a stripper, crushed Newt’s heart for some ice-nine. Most importantly and worst of all, however, Frank got his position as Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo by giving “Papa” some of the infamous commodity, ice-nine, which he kept in a vial around his neck.

“Papa” was becoming sick and old and knew he was going to die soon. Not long after arriving at the island, Jonah’s mission to complete the book about Felix Hoenikker had dwindled from his goals. He was now going to be appointed the next president of San Lorenzo. “Papa,” who did not want to wait for death to take him decided, to swallow the ice-nine and he became the first in history to ever die of ice-nine.

When Jonah and the Hoenikker siblings discovered what had happened to “Papa” they try to clean everything up and hide how he died from everyone on the island. Their plan fails when an earthquake takes Monzano’s castle and his ice-nine ridden body into the sea, turning everything into frozen white frost and causing storms of tornadoes and freezing cold winds. When Jonah arises from his underground bunk that protected him, he found that everyone was dead. They had survived the natural disaster caused by science, however, they all took a piece of ice-nine and ate it as instructed by their religious leader, Bokonon. Jonah learns this in a note signed by Bokonon that he found amongst all the neatly assembled petrified bodies: “To Whom It May Concern: these people around you are almost all of the survivors on San Lorenzo of the winds that followed the freezing of the sea. These people are made a captive of the spurious holy man named Bokonon. They brought him here, placed him at their center, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God Almighty was up to and what they should do. The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because He was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die. This, as you can see, they did” (Vonnegut, 273).

Kurt Vonnegut skillfully uses a cat’s cradle as a metaphor about postmodern manners of accepting truths given by considerably authoritative individuals. Many unsuspectingly trust what our political leaders and scientists have to tell us. In a dialogue with Jonah, little Newt wisely declares, “no wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s… No damn cat, and no damn cradle” (Vonnegut, 165-166). There is no cat’s cradle. It is just yarn. Vonnegut uses a cat’s cradle the same way George Orwell uses “2+2=5” in his novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” as an example of something, although being plainly false, if collectively believed, it is eventually considered truth even if it is based on a lie or traditional narrative or myth.

Although many people did not die from the natural disasters caused by science through the creation of ice-nine, those who did not, died by religion through listening to the theologies of Bokonon. In Cat’s Cradle, putting one’s faith in neither science nor religion turned out to be useful in the improvement of the human condition because they are not absolute truths as far as humanity is concerned. The most constructive outlet would be to avoid imposing truths based on lies unto others, which is a bad habit of post-modern cultures, since these truths are only one’s personal ideals to help cope with the reality of truth and no ideals are a concrete truth. During a discussion about nature’s wonder after their underground survival, Frank asked Jonah “you know why ants are so successful? …they cooperate” (Vonnegut, 280). Rather than imposing false truths, whether discovered through science or religion, one of the only true ways of improving the human condition is by simply cooperating peacefully.

Works Cited:
Jaspers, Karl. “Truth and Existence” Traversing Philosophical Boundaries. 3rd
Edition. Hallman, Max O. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.
North, Alfred. “Religion and Science.” Traversing Philosophical Boundaries. 3rd
Edition. Hallman, Max O. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.
Russell, Bertrand. “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” Traversing
Philosophical Boundaries. 3rd Edition. Hallman, Max O. Belmont, CA: Thomson
Wadsworth, 2007.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. 2006, The Dial Press, New York.

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About analizjee

Analiz Jee, conscientious humanist and avid lover of words. I am a reader, writer, and educator (among other things) with a passion for creativity, progression and innovation. I adore compelling stories, worthy causes, and believe in the significance of truth and beauty.

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