Vonnegut’s Pessimism | Sheldon on Cat’s Cradle

Rebekah Sheldon

“We do, doodley do, doodley do, doodley do,
What we must, muddily must, muddily must, muddily must;
Muddily do, muddily do, muddily do, muddily do
Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust, bodily bust”
—The Books of Bokonon

Mud recurs throughout Cat’s Cradle. Most prominently, it is the scourge of marching armies that inspires Dr. Felix Hoenikker to make ice-nine. In the America of Cat’s Cradle, Dr. Hoenikker is an Oppenheimer-like research scientist who created the atom bomb. In the years following the successful deployment of his weapon, Dr. Hoenikker is employed by the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry in upstate New York, where he is left alone to pursue pure research. As Hoenikker’s former supervisor Dr. Breed describes to our narrator, Jonah, Hoenikker was a true scientist. To demonstrate this pure scientific heart, Dr. Breed relates a story. “I remember,” he tells Jonah, “shortly before Felix died, there was a Marine general who was hounding him to do something about mud” (42).

“The Marines, after almost two-hundred years of wallowing in mud, were sick of it,” said Dr. Breed. “The general, as their spokesman, felt that one of the aspects of progress should be that Marines no longer had to fight in mud.”
“What did the general have in mind?”
“The absence of mud. No more mud.” (43)

As the erstwhile biographer of the Hoenikker legacy, Jonah is encouraged to admire this story as an example of Dr. Hoenikker’s guileless approach to scientific problems. For Hoenikker, even apparently impossible or absurd premises could be interesting for the questions they pose about the fundamental nature of reality. Unconcerned with intended applications and their social, political, or ecological premises, Hoenikker “always approached old puzzles as though they were brand new” (44). In this instance, the old puzzle is the nature of water. In its light, the goal of eradicating mud for the convenience of marching armies loses its association with military strategy, sheds its potential ecological ramifications, and becomes a question about the molecular structure of water as it freezes. To come up with an answer, Hoenikker conducted a thought experiment. What if our familiar ice is just one kind of ice, one way that ice might freeze? What if there are other forms of ice, each with progressively lower melting temperatures and more unbreakable molecular structures? And what if it is possible for one crystal of this higher-dimensional ice to teach the water around it how to shape itself to new forms? This is the line of thinking that engenders ice-nine, the substance meant to eradicate mud that will very rapidly lead to the near-total eradication of life on the planet.

Compellingly, mud also features in the creation stories told by The Books of Bokonon. In the world of Cat’s Cradle, Bokononism is a religion practiced by (and outlawed on) the island nation of San Lorenzo. As in many of the religious systems Vonnegut creates for his novels, Bokononism barely qualifies as a religion at all. It has nothing much to say about divinity or the afterlife, and it is resolutely anti-doctrinal. At most it might be said to recommend an ethical or philosophical viewpoint. This viewpoint is expressed in the central Bokononist insight that you should live by the lies that “make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” These harmless untruths, which Bokonon calls foma, are themselves subsumed under the Bokononist belief in the real existence of fate. It is this belief that makes “as it was supposed to happen” the typical Bokononist rejoinder to the expression “as it happened.”

Positioned together, these two Bokononist principles reveal something of the shape of the religion’s pessimism, a pessimism that I think is shared by the novel and its author. Here’s how it looks to me: Bokononism condones lies that lead to virtuous behaviors in part because the religion is deeply skeptical of the idea that the truth has inherent moral value or that devotion to the truth makes the world a better place for humans or anything else. In relating the creation story of ice-nine, Dr. Breed tells Jonah that “new knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” “Had I been a Bokononist then,” Jonah reflects to himself, “that statement would have made me howl” (41).

By the same token, however, the centrality of fate in Bokononism suggests that the grandest foma of all is the idea that things might have happened otherwise. Most conceptions of justice rely on the idea that moral and ethical deliberation should precede actions. Having the ability to foresee consequences is a big part of why we can be held responsible for those choices. Fate relieves this responsibility by making consequences inevitable. No matter what choice someone makes, the consequences have already been determined. More potently, the choice to make that choice had been determined before the choice was ever made. Not only don’t we have the ability to affect the outcome of our actions, but we don’t even have the ability to not do the thing we have been fated to do. Everything can proceed as if we had a choice about choice.

This may be a book about an icy apocalypse, but its architect of destruction is still the father of the atom bomb. It’s no surprise, then, that the novel finds its most potent expression of this pessimism about human agency in the fervent mid-century American conviction that science is progress. Dr. Breed comes in for particular opprobrium for his willingness to defend the alleged purity of research even after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Vonnegut is thinking more historically than that. In placing Hoenikker’s children on the fictional island of San Lorenzo, Vonnegut ties the military destruction of the two world wars to the many ways in which colonial exploitation sought justification in scientific accounts of racial difference. History and science go together; the science need not be true in order to have real material consequences, just as the science alone doesn’t determine the shape of the violence it enacts. How can anyone say “as it was supposed to happen” about the bloody and ongoing violence enacted in the name of scientific progress and white supremacy? If Vonnegut’s pessimism isn’t on the order of the sort of divine will explanations that Abrahamic religions might offer, neither is it the doubtful pessimism of Descartes’s demon of uncertainty whose hypothetical existence (“What if the world we see is an illusion cast by an evil demon?”) throws into question the accuracy of our senses. Rather, Vonnegut’s pessimism results from the real plasticity of the natural world, the objective accuracy of scientific knowledge, and the efficacy of technoscientific manipulation combined with the fixity and fatedness of human nature.

The novel explains this pessimistic determinism through Bokonon’s cosmogony of mud. In The Books of Bokonon, mud takes the role played by dust in the King James Bible. The story goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.”
And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly,” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God. And He went away. (265)

Mud is the essence of life, its truest form, and searching for purpose is the essence of the mud, which is Man. In Bokonon’s version of Genesis, no fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is necessary to make mankind the questioning and loquacious species, nor is there need of a Fall for mankind to surprise its creator. The search after knowledge and meaning is the unique contribution of mankind, our species determiner, the mud of our mud. It is as Mud-Man (Adam from adamah or ground in Hebrew) the Purpose Seeker that we accept the cat in the game of cat’s cradle. We see things in potential and in seeing that potential create the conditions for their emergence. There is a cat in the cradle just as much as there is ice-nine in water.

Thus the overlapping patterns generated by following the novel’s use of mud helps us see what the novel as a whole contends about the fate of mankind, though it is certainly not hidden. Here, for example, is the total contents of The Fourteenth Book of The Books of Bokonon, which is unsubtly titled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” (245). Before quoting the revelation offered by The Fourteenth Book, let me just point out the use of “thoughtful” here. The thoughtful man [sic] will ask what he can hope for the future of mankind [sic] on earth, but it is also quite precisely “the thoughtful man” [no sic] whose future the chapter predicts. Since all of “mankind” may be characterized by the purpose seeking of the first Mud-Man, then all men are thoughtful men. So what can Man the Thinker of Ultimate Purpose expect according to The Books of Bokonon?


In other words, we do what we must as the mud that we are (or as The Books of Bokonon puts it, what we “muddily must, muddily must, muddily must”) because we are mud, because it is man’s nature. For The Books of Bokonon, and I would argue for Vonnegut too, it is man’s nature to inquire, to seek out purpose, to seek to repurpose. It is just, as it happens (“as it was supposed to happen”), that our nature as mud leads to war technologies aimed at the eradication of mud.

The military desire to eradicate mud is (in the context of Bokononist cosmogony in particular) an ominous disdain of the material conditions necessary for all life. But the weave of the novel’s several invocations of mud intimates that this ominous desire to overcome material embodiment is part and parcel of the essence of Mud-Man the Purpose Seeker. In short, Adamah is stuck in a contradictory tension between his material reliance on a supportive ecosystem and his essential nature as a seeker after transcendence from the givenness of the material world. This contradiction, the novel contends, is essential but it has also been having a particularly good run in the 20th century. After all, Dr. Breed praises Hoenikker for his inquisitiveness, one that approached the world free of received ideas. Like the Mud-Man of The Books of Bokonon who wished to know the purpose of things, Dr. Hoenikker wishes to know how things might be (re)-purposed: how uranium might be made into fire, say, or how water molecules might be taught to chain together like stacked cannonballs. He leaves it to others to worry about consequences.

Can it be any surprise that those others are women? The novel frequently dramatizes the contradiction between material dependency and desire for transcendence through its female characters, Eves to Adamah Mud-Man. The Girl Pool typing up the new findings, the death of Mrs. Hoenikker valiantly attempting to drive home the car Dr. Hoenikker abandoned because of traffic delays, Hazel the all-Mother, even the indigenous people of San Lorenzo whose “colorful” practices feminize them in the colonialist Orientializing gazes—all play the role of mud supporting the effort at transcendence. When Mona, the exoticized native beauty of San Lorenzo and Jonah’s betrothed, kills herself rather than live life with Jonah in the new world of ice-nine, she is also refusing the play mud to Jonah’s fantasies of civilizational rebirth.

Mona is most often depicted engaging in the Bokononist spiritual practice of boko-maru, in which two people attain spiritual union through touching soles. The feet are, of course, closest to the Earth, and the soles/souls pun generates a three-way communion between the Earth, the human, and the divine. The circuit of sentiment produced by boko-maru offers another way to imagine knowledge production, one centered on intimacy and care rather than disdain and overcoming. For as nice as that alternative might look, however, it is really just an idealization of the carework performed by all the women in the novel and not at all a genuine escape from the gendered binarization of matter and mind.

There is, though, a little detail in the novel that seems to unthread some of the weave of Vonnegut’s pessimistic worldview. For it is not just humans who doodley do what we muddily must until we bodily bust. In a real sense, ice-nine has the most agency in the novel and also the least. It teaches water how to be hyperresilient ice—that is what it doodley does because it muddily must, just as the water around it turns to ice-nine. That is what it must do if it is to be itself. Yet the origin story of ice-nine includes an easily overlooked accident—a surprising trickster inventiveness that seems to come from nowhere. Dr. Breed tells us that ice-nine was perfected by Felix Hoenikker, but that it wasn’t exactly invented by him.

He told me about a factory that had been growing big crystals of ethylene diamine tartrate. The crystals were useful in certain manufacturing operations, he said. But one day the factory discovered that the crystals it was growing no longer had the properties desired. The atoms had begun to stack and lock—to freeze—in a different fashion. The liquid that was crystallizing hadn’t changed, but the crystals it was forming were, as far as industrial applications went, pure junk.

How this had come about was a mystery. (45)

Mud, it seems, is not just the matter out of which creators create; it is not just the passive support for acts of will; it is itself an inventive, creative, knowing force.