San Lorenzo Mon Amour

by Wilson Taylor

"By painful experience we have learnt that rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of our social life. Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind, producing, on the one hand, inventions which liberated man from exhausting physical labor, making his life easier and richer; but on the other hand, introducing a grave restlessness into his life, making him a slave to his technological environments, and — most catastrophic of all — creating the means for his own mass destruction.”

- Albert Einstein, “A Message to Intellectuals,” 1948

“We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

You Saw Nothing in Hiroshima

Into the ceaseless catastrophe of the twentieth century steps Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle is a narrative of disaster. Hiroshima is an absence that infects the entirety of the novel, the threat of annihilation that invades the modern consciousness. Jonah, in the liminal space between apocalypse and death, narrates Cat’s Cradle as a Bokononist meditation on living through the end of time. The omnipresence of cataclysm pervades the narrative, which is woven together through the parallel and competing discursive threads of science and religion. Vonnegut’s primary concern in his fourth novel is the unstable relationship between discourse, disaster, and the human. In Cat’s Cradle, the author interrogates the existential and imminent threats against the human, and, as in The Sirens of Titan, imagines an alternate mode of being outside of history. The deep narrative tension of Cat’s Cradle  — the uncertain relationship between truth and fiction, life and death, love and disaster, creation and destruction — results from the tragic absurdity of the human condition. After apocalypse, Vonnegut subversively re-imagines and re-enchants the human through the creation of a counter-hegemonic mode of being via a discourse of sacrality, while de-mystifying and de-legitimizing rationalism as a discourse of meaning and mode of being.  
The narrative thrust of Cat’s Cradle careens towards apocalypse. While the novel concludes with the destruction of the world, it begins there as well. Jonah’s original goal is to write a “factual” and “Christian” account of the atomic bomb. In The Day the World Ended, Jonah hopes to “emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb.” This oppositional relationship between human ontology and machine epistemology courses through Cat’s Cradle. All of Vonnegut’s novels interrogate the absurd — Cat’s Cradle attempts to formulate this interrogation in the specific context of apocalypse, and seeks to posit a meaningful mode of existence in the wasteland. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” laments T.S. Eliot. Vonnegut dares to sow redemption therein.

In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut directly interrogates the devastating paradox of progress and apocalypse. In her Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir attempts to resolve what she identifies as the fundamental uncertainty of the existential individual, who sees the self as both subject and object in the world. “The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them.” Such is the schizophrenia of the twentieth century. In response to this irony, so piquantly felt by Vonnegut, de Beauvoir suggests that the human must create one’s own system of values. Where scientific truth destroy the world, Vonnegut supplies literary fiction to re-create it. 

Vonnegut constructs a narrative as a response to this ambiguity. He creates Bokononism as a thread of redemption after the fall, of love amidst the ruins. As a counter-narrative to the discourse of modernity, Vonnegut constructs Bokononism as an alternate mode of being. Vonnegut seeks to re-enchant the world by placing the human in conversation with the sublime. In a Kantian schema, the realm of the sublime transcends reason and the individual. Similarly, Vonnegut strives for something eternal and timeless in his alternative community of Bokononism. Vonnegut asserts the centrality of the human in the age of the atom bomb. His deftly woven narrative is a testament to the necessary power of fiction and imagination in forging meaning through absurdity. Vonnegut seeks to absolve the sexual, environmental, geo-political, and, above all, apocalyptic anxieties of postwar America through a religious-aesthetic discourse. Vonnegut, in short, is Bokonon. 

Après Nous, le Déluge

Dr. Felix Hoenikker is the absent and omnipresent patriarch in Cat’s Cradle. “Father” of both the atomic bomb and the weaponized particle ice-nine, Hoenikker engineers apocalypse. In Hoenikker is embodied the tragic paradox of the twentieth century, the utopian dream and apocalyptic nightmare of technology. He embodies the impulse to subject the earth to human dominion, but Hoenikker’s final creation, ice-nine, freezes the planet and ushers in nuclear winter. Cat’s Cradle’s dialectic of disaster reveals the damning teleology of enlightenment and technology. Vonnegut does not dismiss science, but he does warn gravely against the mystical faith that Hoenikker attributes to science. Vonnegut’s existential critique of scientism — the belief that scientific discourse reserves exclusive right to meaning — lies in a lack of self-awareness and the blind faith in “progress” and “truth” evinced by figures such as Hoenikker and his associate, Dr. Breed. 

Hoenikker understands science as a new religious discourse, exhibiting a dogmatic faith in his own rationality and to quote Adorno and Horkheimer, placing “too much trust in contemporary consciousness.” Too many, he claims, “were still superstitious instead of scientific,” blind to the superstitious faith he himself places in science. Hoenikker believed that “science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday.” Science and technology, according to Hoenikker, leads to a superior state of being and to a re-created world. Dr. Breed even describes Hoenikker as a “modern holy man.” The irony is clear — the technology that Hoenikker creates directly leads to the destruction of the world. And the “basic secret of life” that Hoenikker hoped to discover turns out to be, absurdly, “something to do with protein.”

Hoenikker’s religious zeal for scientism echoes Adorno and Horkheimer’s powerful postwar critique of rationalism contained in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Their foundational question anticipates Vonnegut’s ironic portrayal of the enlightened scientist. “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of though, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and establishing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” They speculate that rationalism has itself “reverted to myth,” marching through the human consciousness with a “false clarity” that resembles dogmatic religion. This apotheosis of rationalism — which claims precedent over alternate discourses or modes of being — constructs a teleology of progress and power. And, for Vonnegut, like Adorno and Horkheimer (and Walter Benjamin), apocalypse is the logical end of this faith in progress. To the credit of the Bokononists of San Lorenzo, the only “aspect of progress that really excites them” is the electric guitar. 

Dr. Breed claims, in a statement that would make a Bokononist “howl,” that “new knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” Adorno and Horkheimer critique this instrumental attitude, where intellect “is solidified into a cultural asset and handed out for consumption” and “thought is being turned inescapably into a commodity.” The rationalist discourse of enlightenment, instead of providing meaning and purpose to human life, constructs a teleology of cataclysm that negates the human and destroys the world. Among the myriad problems with this discourse, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, is its lack of “self-awareness,” leading to the “self-destruction of enlightenment.” Rationalism cannibalizes itself. Humanity births the bomb, destroys the planet, and “sinks into a new state of barbarism.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project, famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita after testing the atomic bomb — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

This lack of self-awareness of enlightenment extends to Felix Hoenikker. He attributes his technical success to his continuous “wonder” at the world — “I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year old on a spring morning. Anything can make me stop and look and wonder.” Because of this detached perspective, Hoenikker’s son, Newt, describes his father as “innocent,” as a scientist in pursuit of pure knowledge. He recounts to Jonah a story of Hoenikker’s pre-lapsarian innocence in a story that deliberately echoes Oppenheimer. After testing the atomic bomb at Alamogordo, “a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’” This remarkably indifferent attitude of Hoenikker demonstrates the dangers of an epistemology that neglects the human. “People weren’t his specialty,” suggest Newt Hoenikker of his father. For Vonnegut, the human must always center and sustain any discourse or mode of being, and any ontological or epistemic framework that ignores or neglects the human is dangerous. Newt Hoenikker recounts his father’s startling lack of self-awareness in his memory of his father on August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. Felix Hoenikker was playing games, manipulating the eponymous “cat’s cradle” with a loop of string. Newt, despite his apologetics for his “innocent” father, remembers a monster. “Cigar smoke made him smell like the mouth of Hell.”

As Newt later describes, his rage against his father, partially lies in this bizarre game of the cat’s cradle. “No damn cat, and no damn cradle,” Newt would later decry. Therein lies the damning paradox of Hoenikker’s scientism. In his technical creation, he lost sight of the human. He weaves a system without any role for the “cat,” for the lived experience of the human and the world. Oppenheimer, reflecting on the creation of the bomb, would suggest that the process was in pursuit of “technical sweetness,” that the bomb was created as a result of an unreflective and uncritical process of disconnected rationality. Bokononist Jonah adroitly penetrates this uncritical posture — “the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul,” he implies. Or, as Vonnegut suggests in his 1970 “Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College,” “Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened...was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima. We killed everybody there.”

In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut attempts to dramatize the absurdity of this disconnected scientific worldview, an epistemology that disenchants and negates the human. The destruction of the earth functions in the novel as a Bokononist “wrang-wrang,” an event that “reduces...a line of an absurdity.” At one point in the novel, Jonah offers Sherman Krebbs his New York City apartment for a brief stay. Krebbs is a nihilist poet and “National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War.” When Jonah returns, his cat had been killed and his apartment “wrecked by a nihilistic debauch.” This experience functions for Jonah as a “wrang-wrang,” teaching that “nihilism was not for me.” Vonnegut imagines his apocalypse similarly. He distills the catastrophic teleology of technology to its most absurd, and terrifyingly imaginable, conclusion.

After reducing the dialectic of enlightenment to an absurdity, Vonnegut constructs the elaborate humanistic theology of Bokononism in order to reinforce his true novelistic aims. Whereas Hoenikker represented a “modern holy man” of apocalypse, Vonnegut’s Bokonon is a prophet of the human. Whereas “enlightenment” disenchants, Bokonon offers to re-sacralize the human and the world. He dismisses machine epistemology and weaves a human ontology. Dangerous scientific truths beget the redemptive lies of Bokonon. Bokonon reinforces Vonnegut’s Epicurean humanism, embodying the impulse to exit the dialectic of history and cultivate a transgressive love. 

La Petite Mort

Apocalypse carries sexual implications. Again, Felix Hoenikker is the absent and omnipresent Father in Cat’s Cradle — as both the embodiment of the patriarchal discourse of enlightenment and the literal creator of both the atomic bomb and ice-nine. His apocalyptic technology partially results from his sexual anxiety. Vonnegut reveals that Hoenikker was cuckolded; his alleged offspring are the product of an adulterous liaison between Hoenikker’s wife and Dr. Breed. The atomic bomb and ice-nine, therefore, are twin products of his resultant insecurity. Vonnegut expands Hoenikker’s sexual and reproductive anxiety to encompass the schizophrenia and paranoia of the contemporary world. In the creation of the counter-hegemonic community of Bokononism, Vonnegut creates a new form of sexual relation. It is not coincidental that Vonnegut’s new religion, Bokononism, is grounded in the new sexual communion of boko-maru. The creation of a new world, suggests Vonnegut, depends on rejecting the Freudian anxieties of modernity and finding new modes of unmediated human communion.

As Thomas Pynchon played with elaborately in Gravity’s Rainbow, the phallic symbolism of the atomic bomb reinforces the Oedipal anxieties of modernity. Ice-nine is further described as a “seed” particle, one which will reproduces its likeness by freezing all particles on earth. Vonnegut reinforces the orgasmic implications of apocalypse through a fictional narrative of destruction, 2000 A.D. “It told how mad scientists made a terrific bomb that wiped out the whole world. There was a big sex orgy when everybody knew that the world was going to end.” Hoenikker’s patriarchal violence against the world resonates with Derrida’s conception of the “phallogocentrism” of modernity. Phallogocentrism refers to the twin centrality of reason and the phallus in the Western consciousness. Hoenikker’s monomaniacal pursuit of detached scientism is explicitly gendered, and reinforces patterns of patriarchy and domination. This phallogocentrist hegemony is explicitly elided in the image of the atomic bomb. Vonnegut desires to transcend the Oedipal constraints of modernity. In order to do so, he must, in a Freudian vein, kill the phallogocentric Father of Apocalypse, Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker actually kills himself, in keeping with the self-destructive impulse of enlightenment. In an urge to move beyond a phallic and patriarchal binary of domination, Vonnegut creates a non-phallic form of sexual and human communion. He urges what Deleuze and Guatarri refer to as the “deterritorialization” of the human consciousness in order to create new modes of being. 

The Bokononist act of boko-maru comprises the ritualistic contact of the soles of the feet between two humans. Jonah’s love for the “sublime” Mona reinforces Vonnegut’s desire to transcend and to find a new mode of human being. Jonah and Mona engage in both boko-maru and penetrative sex, the latter discounted by Jonah as “sordid” and “repulsive” and by Mona as “sad.” Boko-maru offers instead an unmediated communion of souls. Vonnegut imagines this subversive sex to be revolutionary, capable of transforming human consciousness and ushering in a new world. Boko-maru carries an added environmental component, meant to unite love of human with love of “Mother Earth” in a constellation of desire, and in direct opposition to the patriarchal domination of Hoenikker’s phallic rationalism. Vonnegut reinforces the revolutionary love of boko-maru and Bokononism as a rejection of the “sex orgy” of2000 A.D. After apocalypse, Jonah finds a valley filled with the frozen corpses of Bokononists engaged in boko-maru, searching for love amidst the ruins. Whereas apocalypse is the teleological end of patriarchy, Vonnegut desires to create a new world of fluid love and communion through humanistic and environmental love. 

Vonnegut’s urge to transcend the Oedipal restraints of modernity and situate the human in the sublime echoes  Jacques Lacan’s conception of the Symbolic and the Real. In Lacan’s post-Freudian psychoanalysis, the individual is mediated, through the Oedipus complex, into the Symbolic order of language, desire, and thought. This alienated individual seeks recourse to the Real, the sublime realm of unmediated human being. Vonnegut’s community of Bokononism attempts to situate the human into the Real by positing a holistic realm of imagination that leads to human flourishing. The individual can dissolve into a higher realm of being. Whereas the Symbolic is fragmented — by, for instance, the infectious negation of apocalypse — the Real offers true transcendence.

The Work of Art in the Age of Apocalypse

Vonnegut weaves Bokononism as a holistic humanist theology in order to oppose enlightenment’s patriarchal negation of the human and the world. Cat’s Cradle sings with the dynamic tension between Hoenikker’s scientism and Bokonon’s humanism. Whereas the truths of Hoenikker’s scientism lead to apocalypse, Vonnegut hopes to sow foma, or harmless untruths, in order to reap redemption. To return to his 1970 “Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College,” Vonnegut claims, “The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage... Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still — I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.” Vonnegut's valuation of aesthetics overlaps Bokonon's religious discourse. 

All that is sacred to Bokonon is the human. “Not even God” is sacred. “Just man.” Vonnegut’s highest ethic is to cultivate a subversive humanism, which, in Cat’s Cradle, adopts the form of the counter-hegemonic community of San Lorenzo. Bokononism is counter-hegemonic (a term coined by Gramsci) in its rejection of the apocalyptic anti-human discourses of the catastrophic twentieth century. Bokononism further seeks a place of existence outside of the dialectic of history. “History,” laments Bokonon: “read it and weep!” Like Epicurus, Bokonon preaches an anti-eschatological cosmology, denying the importance of the gods or the presence of an afterlife. Within this radically dis-enchanted world, Bokonon seeks to re-sacralize the human. 

As a rejection to the suffering absurdity of humankind, Bokonon’s religion hopes to offer transcendence through the creation of what Martin Luther King refers to as a “beloved community.” The people of San Lorenzo, despite their poverty, find happiness and meaning through Bokonon’s sacralizing discourse. In The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut proposes aesthetic engagement with the world as a salve against absurdity. He re-invokes this impulse toward transcendence through Bokononism, which aims to alleviate the Hobbesian despair and Sisyphean absurdity of the human condition. “The truth was that life was as short and brutish and mean as ever,” says Julian Castle, a follower of Bokonon. Nevertheless, through the utopian imagination of Bokonon, “people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth... The happiness of the people grew.” The satisfaction offered through Bokononism, in addition to the unmediated communion of souls through boko-maru, lies in the aestheticization of life. Believers perform the rituals of Bokononism in order to surpass the absurd. The vast impenetrability and incomprehensibility of the world — alluded to in the Bokononist mantra, “busy, busy, busy” — is made human through the Bokononist imagination. “They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood.” Through recourse with the sublime, being is re-imagined and imbued with meaning. Through Bokononism, “life became a work of art,” marvels Jonah. 

Bokonon’s transformation of life through aestheticizing the absurd directly echoes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, in which he theorizes the necessity of aesthetics in imbuing an absurd life with meaning. “Man,” he writes, “has become a work of art; man himself now moves with the same ecstasy and sublimity with which, in dream, he once saw the gods walk.” Transcendence, suggests Nietzsche, is possible only through the transformation of consciousness through art. “Only as aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” The allure of Bokononism, then, lies in this sublimation of absurdity into something far more profound. Vonnegut suggest that Hobbes is correct in that life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” or, like Macbeth, that life “[signifies] nothing.” To quote Adorno and Horkheimer’s discussion of Schelling in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “art begins where knowledge leaves humans in the lurch.” Vonnegut’s religious discourse helps re-sacralize the human in the wake of apocalypse. Whereas the false discursive cradle of modernity kills the “cat,” Vonnegut weaves a counter-narrative of the sacred centered on the human. Art must resurrect and redeem the devastated world. 

Bokonon, the strict antipode to the “modern holy man” of Hoenikker, weaves his religious discourse as a self-conscious fabrication. The first sentence of The Books of Bokonon reads, “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Vonnegut reveals the dichotomy between the apocalyptic “truths” offered by scientism and the humanistic “lies” of Bokonon. Jonah warns the reader early in Cat’s Cradle, “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book.” Vonnegut weaves elaborate tales to approach the simple yet elusive dream of becoming fully human, to achieve what Marx refers to as the “species-being” of un-alienated fulfillment. Throughout Cat’s Cradle, the prophet Bokonon weaves his diverse cradle of humanism out of fictions and dreams in order to emphasize the human sacrality that must provide a bulwark against absurdity and apocalypse. Bokonon rejects the determinism of history and fate, and attempts both to turn inward and outward, the commune directly with himself and with others. 

Bokononism emphasizes the human, attempting to construct a narrative of meaning amidst absurdity. Vonnegut’s humanist fictions attempt the same. The epigraph of Cat’s Cradle claims that “Nothing in this book is true.” Nonetheless, his self-aware fictions aim to grasp at a far deeper and more human truth than can be otherwise reached. Literature and art has an essential role in mitigating the Sisyphean absurdity of human life. Castle suggests that without art and literature, people would “die like mad dogs...snarling and snapping at each other,” or of “putrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.” 

Through Bokononism, Vonnegut seeks to negate the negation of enlightenment — to make sacred the human and humanize the sacred. As Marx writes in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, a true “society is the consummated oneness in substance of man and nature — the true resurrection of nature — the naturalism of man and the humanism of nature both brought to fulfillment.” Vonnegut posits the Bokononist Republic of San Lorenzo as such a humanistic and environmental consummation. Only through this cultivation of a counter-hegemonic consciousness can apocalypse be thwarted. Bokonon’s hopes to transform the human and inspire transcendence — what Nabokov refers to as “aesthetic bliss — resonate with Vonnegut’s goals as a novelist. Vonnegut attempts to emphasize the absurdity of the world in order to mystify it anew. Vonnegut is Bokonon. He insists, by virtue of the absurd, that life is beautiful and sacred and divine, that life is transcendent. 

"God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!"
Last Rites of Bokononism, Cat's Cradle, 1963