“Vonnegut’s Struggle with Nihilism in Cat’s Cradle” | Shapshay on Cat’s Cradle

Sandy Shapshay


Of all of his novels up to this point, Vonnegut’s 1963 Cat’s Cradle strikes me as the most Nietzschean. It’s in this novel that our Hoosier author—through the formerly Christian (p. 1), now Bokononist narrator Jonah (a.k.a. John)—struggles to overcome a nihilistic pessimism, the same –ism that exorcised Nietzsche throughout his writings.

In Nietzsche’s first philosophical book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he grapples with the thought that it would have been better never to have been. Given that existence is full of pointless suffering and striving, and there is no God to redeem it all in an afterlife, it seems it would have been better for all of us never to have been. Rather than embrace this pessimistic outlook, however, an outlook that Nietzsche thinks ancient Greek culture acutely recognized in the form of tragic drama, he aims to find a way to affirm life along the lines of the tragic Greeks. Nietzsche seeks to affirm existence, with all of its suffering and ultimate pointlessness, as a work of art.

In the course of hitting on this recipe for justifying and affirming life, Nietzsche considers rationalistic philosophy and science, two disciplines that give us truth. As an antidote to pessimism, scientific truth is no good, for it will eventually lead us to nihilism—the view that there are really no objective values in the world. The way out of pessimism, and the way to be able to affirm life, is as an aesthetic phenomenon, that is, by transfiguring life into art, understood broadly as artifice, mythology, performance, or in the words of the novel, foma, “harmless untruths” or “bittersweet lies” (p. 2).

The first epigraph of the book itself is reminiscent of the ancient Greek liar’s paradox: “Nothing in this book is true.” Since this statement too is in the book, it is self-referential. Thus the statement applies to itself, which means that “Nothing in this book is true” is actually false, which means that something in this book is actually true.

So where is the truth in this book?

Is it to be found in science? Dr. Breed—the voice of science—certainly thinks so. As reported by Sandra, Dr. Breed offered this nugget of wisdom at her high school commencement speech: “The trouble with the world was . . . that people were still superstitious instead of scientific . . . [and] if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was” (p. 24). Dr. Breed himself adds, in an interview with our narrator, that “new knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become” (p. 41).

Another voice for the truth of science is Dr. Hoenikker. Although he had the other things that people need in order to live tolerable lives, such as “family things, love things,” his “main thing” we are told “was truth,” scientific, factual truth. And certainly, Dr. Hoenikker’s “main thing” gives us factual, descriptive truths. But what do these truths do for us? They enable life-saving discoveries such as penicillin but also the mass murder of millions in minutes with the creation of the atomic bomb and eventually (spoiler alert) the destruction of all life on the planet with the creation of the dreadful ice-nine! In short, science gives us the truths we will eventually die by, it does not afford us truths we can actually continue to live by, namely, values.

Miss Faust, Dr. Breed’s secretary at the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company, gets it. She has “trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person.” Once Dr. Hoenikker bet her that she “couldn’t tell him anything that was absolutely true,” to which she replied, “God is love.” In response, Dr. Hoenikker was puzzled: “What is God? What is love?” (pp. 54–55)

The novel suggests we have two warring conceptions of truth in our culture: descriptive truth—truth about what is (Hoenikker’s truth)—and prescriptive truth—truth about what ought to be (Miss Faust’s truth).

We know where descriptive truths come from more or less (the scientific method, Hoenikker’s genius, the careful journalism of our narrator, etc.), but where do we derive prescriptive truths? And how are they to be justified?

The novel suggests that the prescriptive truths, the right values, are the foma, the “harmless untruths” that, according to The Books of Bokonon, “make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Thus, the real truth to be found in Cat’s Cradle—notwithstanding the liar’s paradox of the first epigraph—are the lies that enable you to live well. And these are the lies about your purpose in God’s plan, your karass, the wampeter or pivot of your karass, etc. These are true insofar as they enable people to act virtuously and to receive a life-sustaining sense of purpose.

So the justification of the prescriptive truth of these lies inheres in their prosocial, life-affirming use, and the novel suggests that in evaluating a mythology—whether it be Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, free-market capitalism, American patriotism, or Bokononism—we should ask ourselves, what do these lies lead people to do? That is the question.

By the lights of this question, nihilism is prescriptively bankrupt. The notion that there are no objective values in the world, and consequently there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to individual events or the course of events as a whole, leads people to do some pretty terrible things. For instance, take Sherman Krebbs, the National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War, whose sojourn at our narrator’s New York City apartment culminates in it being “wrecked by a nihilistic debauch.” Krebbs kills the narrator’s cat, hanging a sign around the dead cat’s neck that read “Meow.” For the narrator, “after [he] saw what Krebbs had done,” specifically what he had done to his “sweet cat,” nihilism was not for him. Instead, he persisted in mythologizing his life and finding some kind of divine meaning or purpose to his existence.

The character who lives entirely by the truths of science, Dr. Hoenikker, mistreats his wife, traumatizes his children, is the father of the dreadful atomic bomb, and carelessly plants the seeds for the destruction of all life on the planet.

Yet, we also see the grim side of the apparently beneficial, new mythology of Bokononism. While it is life affirming to many, and particularly for the otherwise hopeless, impoverished, suffering masses on the island of San Lorenzo, we learn that it is actually part of an elaborate and somewhat sinister game. The religion and the state were engineered by two canny partners, Johnson (Bokonon) and McCabe respectively, in order to try to bring about a utopia. But the utopia was not to be, for the material conditions on the island were too inhospitable, and so to make the religion the chief source of happiness, it is “outlawed,” punishable by the “hook” to add some spice, and the state becomes a tyranny. We come to see the theological-political structure on San Lorenzo as an elaborate performance that gives the masses some sense of purpose and happiness but keeps them in a malnourished and deprived state.

Given the human, all-too-human, origin of Bokononism and the often trite, clichéd texts quoted from The Books of Bokonon, why on earth should we think there is any prescriptive truth to it?

I think Vonnegut’s suggestion, at the end of the novel, is that people will do more noble, heroic, and—narratively speaking—interesting things if they are in the grip of a mythology. The mythology enables Bokonon to live the life of a saint and to finish his holy scriptures before heroically martyring himself. The mythology of purpose enables the narrator, possibly as the last living man on earth, to hike to the top of the tallest peak around in order to place those holy scriptures under his head, lay down, and embrace his end as well. In sum, a mythology of purpose can motivate an aesthetically satisfying end to a narrative because it affords a narrative where otherwise there is none.