Bokononism's Truth and Lies in Cat's Cradle
A sarcastic and ironic novel, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is an interesting work that involves a fictional religion, an impoverished island nation, and a deadly invention created by the father of the atomic bomb, which all ultimately contribute to the destruction of the modern world. The religion, called Bokononism, may seem absurd at first glance with its silly rhymes and the recognition of lies. Nevertheless, the citizens of San Lorenzo depend on this religion for relief from their hopeless reality. By escaping the ugly truth of reality through the comforting lies of Bokononism, their undying faith allows the reader to arrive at a greater realization – that truth and lies can become one, and that asserting only one view as a permanent “truth” is dangerous. In the book Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, foma, or shameless lies, are the core of the Bokononist religion and become the evolving truths by which the people of San Lorenzo live.
Bokononism is an interesting religion that originates in San Lorenzo. It begins when two friends, Eugene McCabe and Lionel Boyd Johnson, come to the dilapidated island of San Lorenzo. The weak nation is in desperate need of help, so McCabe and Johnson declare themselves the new leaders. McCabe becomes the dictator, and Johnson decides to create a new religion. The two “[dream] of making San Lorenzo a utopia” and becoming heroes of the island (Vonnegut 127). While McCabe is busy dealing with economic and political issues, Johnson becomes a prophet to the people of the island, and they call him Bokonon. He begins to write The Books of Bokonon, the basis for the religion of Bokononism. Soon, both men realize that San Lorenzo is a lost cause and will never amount to anything, so they turn their attention to giving the citizens hope and distraction from their miserable lives: “[Bokonon] ask[s] McCabe to outlaw him and his religion, too, in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, more tang” (Vonnegut 173). Since most people are drawn toward the things they know they cannot have, outlawing Bokononism makes the religion even more attractive. As a result, everyone on the island converts to Bokononism.
Followers of Bokonon conform to some very unique beliefs. Foma, or harmless untruths, are the center of the religion: “The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: ‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’” (Vonnegut 5). The leader accepts that the religion is built upon lies, and even embraces the idea. The narrator of the book, John, is a converted Bokononist; he warns that only a reader who can comprehend how a religion can be created entirely by lies will be able to understand the story (Vonnegut 5). Another important Bokononist term that is tied with a central belief is karass, a group with an important, but unknown, purpose. Everyone belongs to a karass, but no one knows to which one they belong or what they are supposed to be doing. This relieves Bokononists from earthly responsibilities and places all accountability with a higher power. Such fundamental principles lead to several key theories. One important teaching is that only man is sacred, not even God; such an idea accounts for and justifies human selfishness (Vonnegut 211). Bokononists also believe that “transcendental forces are disinterested in man” (Abadi-Nagy 88). Heavenly powers control everything and allow for no human intervention, since they are not concerned with the fates of mortals. To reinforce these theories, The Books of Bokonon provides many ironic rhymes and silly aphorisms. Most of these mock man’s need to understand the complex and philosophical workings of the world, while others reinforce the claim that the whole religion is made up of lies. One especially childlike rhyme is particularly striking: “Tiger got to hunt, / Bird got to fly; / Man got to sit and wonder ‘Why, why, why?’ / Tiger got to sleep, / Bird got to land; / Man got to tell himself he understand” (Vonnegut 182). Bokonon is highlighting the fact that humans continually ponder the meaning of everything, even though they may never find an answer. Similarly, in the last chapter of The Books of Bokonon, Bokonon writes, “If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity” (Vonnegut 287). He is essentially ridiculing the fruitless attempts of man’s drive for superiority and order in a chaotic, meaningless world. Through such outlandish, although eye-opening beliefs, this atypical religion presents interesting views.
Although Bokononism seems absurd, it actually serves a profound purpose. Throughout history, men have turned to religion as a guiding force, a source of comfort, and a higher power on which to depend. When the people of San Lorenzo convert to Bokononism, they look to Bokonon for strength and leadership, since their dictator, McCabe, fails to salvage the island and bring it out of misery. Bokonon knows he cannot provide anything concrete for the people, so he decides to give them hope. However, since their situation is so hopeless, lies are better than the truth, so he makes up lies to tell his followers. Unlike most traditional religions, though, which “dogmatically [assert] an essential and totalizing truth, complete with a religious text that depicts the beginning and the end of time,” Bokononism is “incomplete, fragmented, and without a clear beginning or end” (Davis 157). Bokonon forms it in this way to acknowledge that he has no idea what he is doing, and that he is just making up the religion. Since life is always changing, he allows alteration of the religion. This is exemplified by the fact that there is only one complete copy of The Books of Bokonon, and that he is always revising and adding to it in order to correspond with the fluctuating state of reality. Another compensation for the lack of economic and political justice on the island is staged conflict between Bokonon and McCabe, which is initiated by outlawing Bokononism. By pitting good, religion, and lies against evil, dictatorship, and truth, the followers are distracted from their impoverished lives: “Good and evil had to remain separate; good in the jungle, and evil in the palace. Whatever entertainment there was in that was about all we had to give the people” (Vonnegut 226). It is through allowing the people to be a part of something greater than themselves, even if it is only a dramatized façade of tension, that they can forget about their miserable state of affairs. This involves Bokononists in a real-life tragicomedy: “Bokononism is at bottom a comic response to a tragic world, yet a response that simultaneously contains, in its artful dualism (really a delicate balancing), both the tragic and the comic aspects of human nature” (Simons 47). The pretense of discord between government and religion seems ridiculous, but the reason behind it is far from laughable. The fact that they must put on such an act in order to make life bearable is appalling. However, desperate situations call for desperate measures, and Bokononism is indeed a desperate attempt to salvage the people in San Lorenzo.
Furthermore, Bokononism proves to be important because it not only distracts people from their lives, but it also creates a purpose for life. According to Zoltan Abadi-Nagy, this is the main principle behind religions: “A predominant feature of religions is that they use fantasy to minister to the needs unappeasable in the world of reality” (88). Founded on lies, Bokononism gives the citizens what the world cannot – meaning to a seemingly meaningless life. Bokononism is a “very different, undogmatic religion, built out of the creative, playful, childlike aspects of human nature, out of our own enduring ability to invent meanings in an essentially meaningless world” (Simons 47). Bokonon recognizes that there are no real answers to “why, why, why?” so he makes them up in order to placate the insatiable human thirst for reason (Vonnegut 182). At the same time, however, Bokononism simplifies life. Near the end of the novel, the majority of the modern world is destroyed. Bokonon leads his disciples to the side of a mountain, where they all stand in a circle and he convinces them to commit suicide. When a surviving Bokononist finds her dead comrades, she comments, “It’s all so simple, that’s all. It solves so much for so many, so simply. . . . Would you wish any of these alive again, if you could?” (Vonnegut 274). Rather than allow the people to continue to struggle against their hard realities, Bokonon realizes that they would be just as happy dead, which would “solve” all of their problems. He has run out of purpose for their lives, so there is no sense in keeping them alive without reason. This ridiculous, yet undeniable, desire for meaning drives Bokononists to believe lies and ultimately kill themselves.
Bokonon and his followers know that the teachings of the religion are self-proclaimed lies. Such an idea completely contradicts the belief that “religion… poses as the center for truth” (Davis 156). Rather, Bokononists believe that, although religion is important, placing all faith into a single truth is unrealistic and even destructive. Parallel to this belief is the Bokononist term, sin-wat. A sin-wat, or “a man who wants all of somebody’s love,” is considered very bad (Vonnegut 208). This concept of spreading love to everyone, rather than loving only one person, is similar to the idea that no one truth is completely right. People can get caught up and lose sight of reality when they “mistake their religion or nation as the only truth, when in fact there are many truths, or perhaps no truths” (Allen 62). Bokonon strives to keep this in mind by recognizing the absurdity of blindly believing one person or organization without using common sense to make a rational decision. The reason Bokonon survived even after he convinced all of his followers to commit suicide is simple: “He always said he would never take his own advice, because he knew it was worthless” (Vonnegut 273). He unabashedly accepts that none of his claims, nor anyone else’s, are completely and unerringly correct. In one of his teachings, Bokonon asserts, “All religions, including Bokononism, are nothing but lies” (Vonnegut 219). However, by declaring his religion to be a lie, he arrives at an even greater truth: “If Bokononism offers a higher truth than other religions, it is simply the open acknowledgement that it is all made up anyway” (Allen 63). Bokononism is substantiated as being better than traditional religions, since it views truth as adaptable rather than fixed. By adhering to this belief, Bokonon encourages his followers, as well as the reader, to be cautious when accepting the truth.
Through emphasizing the fabrication in religion and all other similar institutions, Bokonon allows the reader to realize that foma, or lies,can actually be beneficial. By prefacing his opinions with the pronouncement that he is lying and by “disguising truths as untruths,” Bokonon is able to assert anything he wants (Abadi-Nagy 87). This allows him to criticize the humorous, yet pitiful, faults of humanity. Commonly ridiculed topics, such as the idea of a fixed truth or the need to give life meaning, could be offensive. However, by declaring that he is only lying, Bokonon can make comments that would normally be considered inappropriate: “Some of those lies are too good to be lies. Some of them are harmful if not subversive social truths ironically masked as harmless untruths” (Abadi-Nagy 87). Bokonon claims that his statements are only foma, but in reality some are valid points worth analyzing. He covertly brings to light many social, political, and justice issues for valuable assessment by simply pretending that they are lies.
Foma, sometimes referred to as harmless untruths, serve as the central idea of Bokononism and become the lies around which the followers’ lives revolve. Bokononism is formed when two men see the desperation on the island of San Lorenzo. In an effort to help the impoverished people, the men create a religion that can distract disciples from such a harsh reality through lies and childlike poems. Through Bokononism, followers gain meaning and purpose to life, fulfilling their desire for reason. The lies that satisfy them also serve as a reminder that truth is dependent upon the circumstance, and therefore there is no single definite truth. In a world where truth is seen as the highest form of goodness, one must take care not to become fixated on one view of the truth, for there are some advantages to the idea of foma.
Abadi-Nagy, Zoltan. “Bokononism as a Structure of Ironies.” The Vonnegut Chronicles. Eds. Peter Reed and Marc Leeds. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 85-90. Print.
Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1991. Print.
Davis, Todd. “Apocalyptic Grumbling: Postmodern Humanism in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut.” At Millennium’s End. Ed. Kevin Alexander Boon. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 149-165. Print.
Freese, Peter. “Vonnegut’s Invented Religions as Sense-Making Systems.” The Vonnegut Chronicles. Eds. Peter Reed and Marc Leeds. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 145-164. Print.
Morse, Donald. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Westport: Praeger, 2003. Print.
Simons, John. “Tangled Up in You: A Playful Reading of Cat’s Cradle.” Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. Robert Merrill, 1990. Rpt. in Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000. 33-48. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. 1963. New York: The Dial Press, 2006. Print.
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