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“See the cat? See the cradle?” retorts the midget Newt in an attempt to explain the inspiration for a grotesque and confounding painting of his. This singular quote is the namesake for Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and embodies the leitmotif of this tongue-in-cheek canon on religion, sex, politics, and everything in between. In the years following its publication, Vonnegut’s novel became fodder for the counterculture movement of the 1960’s because it countered the restrictive societal norms of mainstream culture. Among the institutions he attacks throughout the novel, religion is the most conspicuous. Vonnegut dissects the very human inclination to have something to believe in, questioning not only the nature of organized religion, but its validity and role in society. Vonnegut creates a picturesque island named San Lorenzo, whose national religion is the work of a nihilistic poet. Vonnegut uses this religion, called “Bokononism”, as a vehicle for the revelation (no pun intended) that religion is as substantial as a “cat’s cradle.”
Vonnegut introduces the “cat’s cradle” as a metaphor for different interpretations of life. “A cat’s cradle is nothing more than a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands” (165) says Newt, who had been traumatized as a child by the sight of his father dangling such “tangles of string” (165) in his face. And though there is “no damn cat, and no damn cradle”(166) the “little kids look and look and look at all those X’s (166). According to Newt’s cradle metaphor, one sees what one wants to. “See the cat? See the cradle?” (179) Newt says in response to inquiries about his sister’s seemingly perfect marriage and Jesus Christ, both of whom are not what they people may think they are. Here is the philosophy Vonnegut espouses throughout the novel. People tend to see what they want to, and read into what is there in reality. Religion is no exception to this.
Vonnegut creates a religion in order to question the role of faith in society and the validity of traditional religioous assumptions. He first questions absolutes during a dialogue between the scientist Felix Hoenikker and a secretary, Miss Faust. “God is love” (55) claims the latter. “What is God? What is love?” (55) replies the former. According to the Books of Bokonon (the founder of Vonnegut’s fictitious religion), one should “believe in the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy” (i). To understand this assertion, one must take into account the Bokononist premise that “all religions are nothing but lies” (219). Thus, a “useful religion can be founded on lies”(6) so long as it inspires its followers to be “kind and healthy and happy.” Miss Faust is content to believe in the Christian presumption that God is love without any physical proof “no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said” (55). Yet, if this belief makes Miss Faust all those things aforementioned, her religion can be said to be “useful.” This is her “cat’s cradle.” She takes into account the nature of the world and interprets it in light of Christianity.
Vonnegut later uses his fictitious religion to model how religion takes into account the nature of things, and interprets them based on assumptions. His vehicle for this point is the cosmogony found in the Books of Bokonon. In it, Bokonon observes the planetary orbits. The assumptions that a follower of Bokononism must make is that the sun is a living entity and has a name, “Borasisi”, and that he somehow produced children with another living entity, the moon, whose name is “Pabu.” Bokonon then relates a story of how Pabu bore unsatisfactory children (who became the planets who orbit “at safe distance” (191)) and Pabu’s exile to live with her “favorite child” who was earth. Bokonon claims that earth was her favorite because it harbored people who “looked up at her and loved her and sympathized” (191). Don’t all religions make claims such as the ones that Vonnegut presents in this cosmogony? This is where the principle if faith comes from. We cannot prove the claims that many religions make, yet people still have faith that they are true. The main difference between Bokononist cosmogony and that of more mainstream religion is that Bokonon is quick to admit that all of it is “foma” or “harmless lies.” Vonnegut intentionally does this in order for us to see how strange our religion would seem if we were approaching it for the first time. What proof is there that all religions do not consist of “foma,” carefully constructed to make people more orderly and happy? This is Vonnegut’s ultimate point, and one that attracts many to the book.
Vonnegut also parallels religion’s attempts to explain the origin of the earth with his Creation story. “In the beginning,” he writes (referencing the book of Genesis) “God created the earth and looked upon it with his cosmic loneliness” (265). God then “created every living creature that now moveth” (265) out of mud. One of these creatures was Man. Man then inquired what the purpose of this creation was. God’s answer is “I leave it to you to think of one for all this” (265). Vonnegut is playing with the human belief that there must be a purpose for everything. This is what leads people to espouse religious beliefs in the first place. Religious people have tried for centuries to determine “the reason for all this” and have developed elaborate answers. Yet, if we are to believe Bokonon, all of it is “foma” and life doesn’t require a purpose.
Religion, as Vonnegut would have it, has probably exceeded its authority in a world where so many people are hindered by their creed. If we are to assume that all religions are “foma”, religion serves its most useful purpose so long as it does not overstep its boundaries. Vonnegut is, in essence saying that religion is not to be taken too seriously. For all the faith people invest in their beliefs, religion can never be proven. Vonnegut wants the reader to ask, what if religion is nothing but lies? With Vonnegut, one must anticipate the next question. Does it really matter if religions are made up of lies so long as they make people “brave and kind and healthy and happy”? So long as we force ourselves to see what isn’t there, and attempt to explain what is, the world will always be tangled up in a “cat’s cradle.”
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