POG

In
Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut uses Felix
Hoenikker’s lack of humanity to portray the self’s capacity to create evil and
the religion of Bokononism ability to bring comfort in a world filled with
tribulations. In this paper I will relate the outlooks of the physical world
between Hoenikker and Francis and compare the two religions of Bokononism and
Earthseed.

Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer and
veteran. He fought in World War II, where he was captured by the Germans and
held as a prisoner of war. In February 1945, still captive, Vonnegut survived
the firebombing of Dresden. The war ended after the United States dropped two atomic
bombs on the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Vonnegut’s writing
throughout his career was severely impacted by his experiences in the war and
many of his themes surround the atrocities of war and the morality of the human
person. 

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            The novel starts with the narrator, John,
wanting to write a book called The Day
the World Ended. The book would be centered on “the father of the atomic
bomb,” Felix Hoenikker.  In his book, John
wanted to “emphasize the human rather
than technical side of the bomb.”[1]
 Hoenikker had died long before John
started writing his book, but John was able to find out everything about
Hoenikker before, during, and after the bomb dropped by interviewing
Hoenikker’s three children: Angela, Franklin, and Newt. 

On August 6, 1945 approximately 80,000
people are killed upon impact of the atomic bomb and another 60,000 people died
at the end of the year from radiation for a total of 130,000 fatalities.[2]
All of the lives lost were the effect of Felix Hoenikker’s research; one might
think that this would have a devastating affect on the person responsible. However,
John discovers quite the opposite. On that fateful day, Newt recalls seeing his
dad in his study playing with a loop of string making a “cat’s cradle.” The
only thing Hoenikker did out of the ordinary that day was that he talked to
Newt for the first time, saying, “See the cat! See the cradle!”[3]
This narration shows a lot about who Felix Hoenikker was, and how he was able
to create a weapon of such destruction. He was not interested in the lives of
his kids or wife. Additionally he lived simply as he was complacent over issues
regarding “money and power and fancy clothes and automobiles and things.”[4]
His only desire was the attainment of new knowledge, which he did by divulging
in the truth he knew, science. 

            Hoenikker viewed the field of
knowledge and discovery as a playground, as it did not matter the field in
which he found this new information, be it turtles or atomic bombs. Like a
child, he was in a constant state of curiosity. In one instance, Hoenikker
became so fascinated with turtles that he briefly suspended his interest in the
atom bomb. Instead, he stayed home to figure the intricacies regarding the
turtle’s spinal system. His fascination became so profound that people from the
Manhattan Project came in and removed the turtles from his aquarium. The
following day, Hoenikker returned to his traditional work without questions and
continued his play with the idea of an atom bomb. 

            Similar to his relationship with research,
Hoenikker also had juvenile tendencies when it came to social interactions,
forcing his wife to assume responsibility over both his life and those of his
children. In this way, Hoenikker never made an effort to be a father of his
children or husband to his wife. In fact, one morning, after his wife made him
breakfast, Hoenikker left her a tip underneath his coffee mug. Hoenikker viewed
his wife, the person he was supposed cherish above all, as a tool to cater his
needs, so he could dedicate all his energy to his valued work.  Following the death of his wife, Hoenikker
did not assume any of the responsibilities she had once filled. Instead, Angela,
his oldest daughter, was forced to step in, and took on the burden of housework
her mother had once assumed, now taking care of her two younger siblings and
father.  Newt recalls a dispute between
his siblings in which Angela got punched and cried to her father. Dismissively,
Hoenikker merely glanced out the window of his study to observe the
conflict.  He then pulled his head back
in, never asking about the incident. 

Much like Hoenikker, Francis, in St. Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis, was also
disinterested in human relations and material items, as he believed they were distractions
that clouded the true meaning in life. Francis merely associated with Clara for
her beauty, as he knew that if he succumbed feelings of love, he would be further
removed from God. Francis induced his own suffering by ignoring the notions of feelings
he felt for Clara, and those of the physical world.  Through his suffering he hoped he would
become closer to God and attribute further meaning in life.  However, dissimilarly to Francis, Hoenikker did
not believe in the notion of a God.  The
day his bomb was first tested and successfully went off, a scientist relented
to Hoenikker, “Science has now known sin.” Confused, Hoenikker responded, “What
is sin?” as it was something he had never considered before.[5]

            In actuality, it is likely that
Hoenikker did not know what sin was.  He
had spent his whole life concerning himself with science and answers that could
be answered through information and process. Religion and God have certain
aspects of faith involved; they cannot always be boiled down to a science. This
deterred Hoenikker from ever attempting to understand and learn about religion
because to him, if it cannot be calculated or measured, it is a waste of time. Personally,
I disagree with Hoenikker as there are many phenomena in life that cannot be
explained. I am not totally sure that a God exists, but I have a belief that
there is a higher being or force that created the universe and the world we
live in. As to why He did so, I don’t know. 
I believe that we, as humans, were created to respect and love each
other and the earth. Hoenikker’s approach of pure science is not a way to
approach life. Yes, he will be satisfied because everything he looks for in
life has an answer, but as we see with his personal life there is no happiness.
He has no true human relationships and that allows him to accept the
consequences of his research with the atom and to continue making weapons in
the name of science.

            The discovery of new sciences and
technology is not always a bad thing as Cat’s
Cradle may portray. There have been many breakthroughs in science and
technology that has saved millions of lives. Like Hoenikker, Alexander Fleming
applied his research during WWII. 
However, Fleming did not blindly pursue science by means of discovery he
used his knowledge to research and produce the anti-biotic penicillin.[6]
This discovery alone resulted in millions of lives saved from infections and is
continuing to do so today. After the atom bomb, Hoenikker still ignored his
conscience and he continued use science as a means to kill.

            The day that Hoenikker died he was
still playing around with science. He was working on a substance called ice-nine; the substance would solve the
issue of soldiers walking on mud. Ice-nine
would change the chemical structure of water to have a melting point of 114.4
degree Fahrenheit. This seems like a harmless solution to a nearly
insignificant problem, but what Hoenikker failed to realize was that his final
toy to the world could kill all humanity in seconds by freezing all the earth’s
water. Hoenikker’s failure to be fully human and moral has now endangered the
entire human race. When he dies he gives each one of his children ice-nine as a parting gift. The
destruction that the atom bomb produced would be miniscule compared to the capabilities
of ice-nine. The novel then follows
the three children and their journey with ice-nine.

            Each of the children lived their
life with a void for love and acceptance because their dad had ignored them to
such an extent that, “all three children suffer psychologically from their
father’s indifference, and all three end up buying love or a place of belonging
with ice-nine.”[7]  Newt used his ice-nine, for a night with a Ukrainian dancer, who ended up giving
it to the Soviet Union. Angela exchanged her ice-nine for a husband who worked for the United States. Franklin
traded his piece of ice-nine for a
job as Major General on the island republic of San Lorenzo.  Ice-nine
was now in the hands of two of the most powerful countries and a small
island ruled by a dictator. “That, of course, has much to do with the final
disaster. One could almost say that the world ends because a father could not
show his children love.”[8]
Vonnegut uses the Hoenikker family and the carelessness that is past down from
generation to generation to depict the pattern that our society has followed
for thousands of years. Each generation finds more efficient ways of killing
other humans and at some point, as Vonnegut points out this drive for discovery
without morality is not sustainable and soon the evil created will be the end
to humanity.

            The novel continues as John takes a
trip to San Lorenzo to visit Franklin Hoenikker, while on the island John
learns about a religion that was created by one of the founder’s of San
Lorenzo, Bokonon. San Lorenzo is an island in the Caribbean and for years many
different countries conquered and colonized the island, but gave it up without
a fight because the island and its people were worthless. “Truth was the enemy
of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his
business to provide the people with better and better lies.”[9]
The religion of Bokononism was built upon harmless untruths or as Bokonon
called them, “foma.” Everyone on San Lorenzo was a devout Bokononist and they
converted because they lived on an island of complete misery. It was not until
the false religion of Bokononism that the people of San Lorenzo gained hope and
happiness with themselves and their island. 

            The
Books of Bokonon contains all the beliefs of Bokononism and in the first
sentence of the books is “All of the true things I am about to tell you are
shameless lies.”[10]
I find this approach interesting because there is no religion that has a large
following that comes forward and tells its congregation that everything about
the religion is a lie. There are hundreds of religions in the world today and
every one of them believes that their teachings are the truth.  However, Bokonon convinces thousands of
people including John to follow Bokononism. The people were so willing to
follow Bokonon’s teachings because any promise of hope and meaning was better
than their current situation.

            Through lies, Bokonon can give a
good definition of who God is and why he created humans. In Bokononism God
created every living creature out of mud and one of these creatures was man. The
God of Bokononism did not give any purpose to man when he created the
world.  He created man out of loneliness
and it was up to man to add purpose in life. 
Religion in many ways gives people a sense of security and purpose. Without
religion, the world would be much more chaotic then it is today. Vonnegut
brings up this creation story to show that in many cases religion is man-made.  At the beginning of the book John says,
“Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will
not understand this book either.”[11]Vonnegut
wrote this book to show that most religions are rooted in lies like Bokononism,
but people, regardless of how ridiculous the faith may be, are followers
because it gives them happiness.

            What Bokononism did for the people
of San Lorenzo is comparable to what Lauren Olamina’s religion of Earthseed
provided her group of followers in Parable
of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. In both instances a new religion was
created because people were unhappy with their current situation. Lauren lived
in a community vanquished with crime and nobody around her was willing to make
any changes to improve their life. Out of necessity to survive, Lauren fled her
community and started to follow her “God of Change.” Her religion calls for her
to constantly change and better herself until she, “takes root among the stars.”[12]
The religion of Earthseed, like Bokononism, could be founded on lies that were
concocted by Lauren, but to her it did not matter if her religion was truthful or
not. Earthseed was the escape Lauren needed from her world of evils. As she
continually changed the evils of this world subsided and she gained a deeper
meaning to life.

            I grew up in a Catholic household
and I still share many of the same values and morals that the Catholic Church
teaches. I was always taught that if I followed the Ten Commandments that I
would reach Heaven.  Growing up, the Ten
Commandments to me provided comfort, all I have to do is follow ten rules and I
would live a fulfilling life and be with God in Heaven.  However, no one really knows or can prove
what criteria God uses to determine if a person makes it to Heaven. To me it
does not matter what religion or practice a person follows, we are created to
be good people.  Whether a person practices
Bokononism, Earthseed, or Catholicism, if they are a good person that is caring
and compassionate to other people, God will be accepting of them. Vonnegut
shared similar views as myself when it comes to our meaning in life.

            Vonnegut was a humanist, which is a nontheistic
religion that views the world through reason and science. However, humanists do
not deny the existence of God, but they do believe that there is no proof that
a God exist. Kurt Vonnegut understood, “…being a Humanist means trying to
behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are
dead.”[13]  To Vonnegut human decency or lack thereof has
been a topic that has pushed him to write many of his anti-war novels. Men like
Felix Hoenikker who thoughtlessly create weapons without any regard to the
repercussions of their actions baffle Vonnegut.

            Through Vonnegut’s experiences in life
he was able to see first-hand the evils of human-creation. Through Felix
Hoenikker, Vonnegut makes sense of
the self and its capability to be the cause of so much destruction in the
world. Hoenikker is able to live with himself because of his lack of human interactions
and relationships. Vonnegut contrasted Hoenikker’s actions, with the religion
of Bokononism. Through the religion Vonnegut demonstrates religion’s ability
provide meaning and happiness by hiding the subsequent truths.

[1] Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle: A
Novel. (New York: Dial Press, 2010),7.

 

[2] History.com Staff. “Atomic Bomb Is Dropped on Hiroshima.”
History.com. 2009. Accessed December 18, 2017. 

 

[3] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 8.

[4] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 67.

[5] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 17.

[6] Brown, Kevin. “Sir Alexander Fleming.” Encyclopædia
Britannica. November 16, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017.

 

[7] Zins, Daniel L. “Rescuing Science from Technocracy: Cat’s Cradle
and the Play of Apocalypse.” In The
Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut, 67-74. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
1994.

 

 

[8] Zins, The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut, 67-74.

[9] Vonnegut,
Cat’s Cradle, 172.

[10] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 5.

[11] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 6.

[12] Butler, Octavia E. Parable of
the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007, 84.

[13] Wakefield, Dan. “Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist.”
Image Journal. Accessed December 18, 2017.

 

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