“No damn cat, and no damn cradle!” | Sandweiss on Cat’s Cradle

Eric Sandweiss


In Cat’s Cradle, his first novelistic foray out of the postwar gloom of Mother Night, Vonnegut awakens to find the shell-shocked, the disillusioned, the displaced—here a Soviet dancer, there a Nazi doctor, an American defense contractor, a dissipated playboy-turned-humanitarian, and so on—still bouncing about a world turned upside down by generations of global war.

We know little about the narrator who encounters this odd but ultimately intertwined string of characters. He appears to be a writer for hire; he confesses to having smoked at least 250,000 cigarettes, drunk at least 3,000 quarts of alcohol, and married at least two women; he hopes we will call him “Jonah” (signaling, I suppose, his wish that we understand that he has swum in the belly of the beast, not just sailed around, Ishmael-like, in witness of its pursuit); he has a “screwy” German surname (78); and, for what it’s worth, he is a Hoosier.

And he once tried to write a book—not the one we are reading—called “The Day the World Ended.”

It didn’t—at least not on August 6, 1945, as the narrator had supposed when he commenced that earlier project about the day the bomb fell upon Hiroshima. And there’s abundant silliness at play in Cat’s Cradle’s post-atomic world. (“‘See where the nice pussycat sleeps?’” says the world’s most formidable scientist, crawling on the floor with a string wrapped about his fingers. “‘Meow. Meow’” [12].) But silly scenes can’t keep Mother Night’s millennial darkness from creeping out of the edges of the frame, until the book’s closing pages, when world’s end approaches once more, not by fire this time but by ice. Through the rapid-fire chapters that build toward this bleak conclusion, a darkening shade of doom fills in the cartoonish outlines of this cast of trickster Calypso singers, Babbitt-like businessmen, luscious island princesses, and demented emperors, previewing their shared fate before we can come to trust their individual motivations or feel drawn to their personalities. One begins to wonder if this Jonah—who will literally preside over the apocalypse—wasn’t born inside the whale, never to know light.

“History” is, the reader supposes, somehow to blame for this surfeit of darkness, as is Science. Both are the province of unbelievers in Bokononism, the cargo cult initiated, on Vonnegut’s fictitious island nation of San Lorenzo, by an elusive castaway (Bokonon, born Lionel Johnson), whose religion of “bittersweet lies” (2) provides San Lorenzans with their “one real instrument of hope” (172) in the face of generations of corrupt rulers who have failed to supply them with happiness or wealth. Science and History are alike, the enemies of Bokonon’s cheerful, shrugging resignation to a world of untruths and unexplained connections. “Write it all down,” Jonah quotes Bokonon saying. The narrator continues: “‘Without accurate records of the past, how can men and women be expected to avoid making serious mistakes in the future?’ he asks ironically” (237).

With that sentence’s final cutting words, Jonah invites us to mock Santayana’s maxim and share Bokonon’s conviction that History is, to borrow from Henry Ford, “more or less bunk.” Science suffers a similarly dismissive fate. “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies,” cries the scientist Asa Breed in (uncontested) response to Jonah’s questions about Breed’s late colleague Felix Hoenikker, whose work led to the development of the atom bomb. “Anything a scientist worked on was sure to wind up as a weapon,” confirms Breed’s son (26), dismissing the old man’s defense of “pure” research of the sort pursued at General Forge and Foundry—a send-up of Vonnegut’s own former employer, the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady.

So what’s left? Jonah invites us readers to join him in his knowledge of “how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is” (66). We will nod approvingly, he expects, at his discovery of Bokonon’s “karass”—the network of strangers drawn inexplicably together in fulfillment of a common purpose—and its contrast to the more-recognized but ultimately meaningless affinities of citizenship, college ties, even sacred Hoosier roots (in a word, life’s countless “granfalloons,” or false karasses) by which logical-minded Westerners seek to construct and direct their destiny. “Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on,” (101) writes Bokonon, in a critical echo of Jesus’s advice to “render unto Caesar.” Today’s Caesars—men of industry, politics, war, research (the latter, after all, being simply the act of “re”-searching for what’s already been found, according to the loopy elevator operator whom Jonah encounters at General Forge)—will never perceive the way in which “All fit together/In the same machine,” as Bokonon’s Fifty-Third Calypso would have it (3).

Are historians—to cite just my own granfalloon—really unaware of “how complicated and unpredictable” is life? Do they truly imagine that they have devised a set of rules by which to erect, like neatly stacked cannonballs, cause and effect, event and consequence into stable pyramids of historical truth? That standing atop those structures they can see trouble coming from a distance and send down word to those who will head it off at the pass before History Repeats Itself? Maybe in the world of Cat’s Cradle; perhaps even in the minds of most undergraduate survey students. But I’m challenged to imagine Vonnegut’s own teachers at Cornell and the University of Chicago—or, for that matter, at Indianapolis’s storied Shortridge High School—asking their students to accept such positivist, instrumental assertions about the study of the past. Contrary to our students’ suspicions, historians do not, as a rule, set out to sap human behavior of its mystery. Most of us are storytellers ourselves, hoping in some way to reproduce the alchemy of love and hate, pride and fear of everyday life from the terse written records that are all that remain of most people’s time on earth. Busy, busy, busy we are.

Like Felix Hoenikker, trying unsuccessfully to entertain his son Newt with the intricacies of a cat’s cradle, historians (and novelists) don’t always manage to spark delight with our imaginative constructions. But neither do we pretend that such structures offer our audiences more than a fresh framework in which to think for themselves. It’s true, as Newt bitterly recalls, there was “No damn cat, and no damn cradle!” It was a piece of string. Something to brighten a child’s day, not darken his life. And how terrible is that, really? It’s not the end of the world.